[Published by Abacus, 1991. First published 1975]
Doesn’t the name say it all? Heat and Dust.
A good work of ‘colonial fiction’ takes us back in time to a place where Europeans try and naturalise themselves into a foreign land. It captures the magic, the divide, the thrill of a new land; a sense of ownership and entitlement that always feels misplaced from our happy vantage point in the future. And many of these books show how the divide is breached, whether it is through the struggle for independence or the shock of scandal.
‘Heat and Dust’ is a very clever book for a number of reasons. Although the initial pace of the story may seem slow to many, I relished the alternation between India in the 1920s and its latter day counterpart. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala creates context superbly and I often felt like a hidden bystander silently observing Olivia and her step granddaughter from the corner of a room or the side of a dusty road.
Olivia is the wife of a civil servant in India, where British society finds refuge within its small confines, indulging in the Englishness of things in a land that couldn’t be further from the Isles in every sense. Although she loves her husband, she soon becomes bored within the confines of their apartment – away from the heat and the dust. It doesn’t take long for her to become enamored with an Indian prince – a character far from anyone she could ever have known. Through his courtship of her, he shows her the passion she yearns for and a scandal ensues as she finds herself pregnant.
Her step granddaughter, interested in the tale, makes the journey to India to research more about this controversial woman and in order to better understand her choices. In doing so, she has her own Indian adventures, many of which mirror those of Olivia, minus the restrictions of convention and duty.
This is a story of the pursuit of love and the love of a place – one that transcends time. It is tragic and beautiful and gives us a glimpse of the power of a destination to win us over, often with people as its representatives within our hearts. It is a story of being trapped within circumstance and how drastic our actions can be in the need to escape.
‘Heat and Dust’ is beautifully, wretchedly human and, in her genius, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala leaves a void in the storyline, forcing us to imagine, urging us to try. The happiness of the characters is bestowed on us and the lives we create for them beyond the pages; in a land beyond our reaches; in a place that repels and seduces.