In Heat and Dust, we have Olivia, the beautiful society wife of Douglas, the “upright and just” civil servant who “worked like a Trojan” in pre-independence India. Left to her own devices in a house full of servants all day long, Olivia is bored out her mind, but one fine day they get invited to a dinner party the Nawab’s palace at Khatm.
His eyes often rested on her, and she let him study her while pretending not to notice. She liked it – as she had liked the way he had looked at her when she had first come in. His eyes had lit up – he checked himself immediately, but she had seen it and realised that here at last was one person in India to be interested in her the way she was used to.
After the first few pages, it is clear to us Olivia’s story will be intertwined with Nawab’s.
Fast forward fifty years, we have Olivia’s step-granddaughter, the narrator of the story whose name we never learn, visiting post-independence India to find out more about her ‘scandalous’ ancestor.
I don’t believe the story of Heat and Dust will stay with me for long. After all the plot is not much to rave of. However, I found Ruth Jhabvala’s writing to be dazzling. Her depictions of India read like a love letter, and through the eyes of two foreign women belonging to two generations who come to fall in love with India, despite their reservations, she paints us, her India.
‘Yes it [Himalayas] is climbing up into heaven. There is cool air and breezes, clouds, birds, and trees. Then there is only snow, everything is white and sun also is shining white.
She reminds us there is more to India than people living in small huts squatting by the side of roads, that there’s something serene and simple amidst its bustling cities. But not even Elizabeth Gilbert who went to India on a spiritual journey to find herself in Eat, Pray, Love captures its incredible dimensions the way Ruth Jhabvala does.
I have not yet traveled on a bus in India that has not been packed to bursting-point, with people inside and luggage on top; and they are always so old that they shake up every bone in the human body and every screw in their own. If the buses are always the same, so is the landscape through which they travel. Once a town is left behind, there is nothing till the next one expect flat land, broiling sky, distances and dust.
Ruth Jhabvala, the only person ever to have won both the Man Booker and Academy awards, was married to an Indian architect and lived in Delhi for over a twenty years. Event though as we read the novel we feel a hint of nostalgia, in her writing Ruth Jhabvala is not pretentious. She doesn’t shy away from ancient customs such as Suttee that got outlawed in 1829, where faithful widows jump into the fires that burn their dead husbands’ bodies, which most people would call barbaric, or claim Indian curries a gastronomical experience no one should miss!
He accompanied them to the place of execution and joined them in their last prayers. He watched the noose being placed around their necks and stayed till the very last moment. At that last moment, one of them – Tikku Ram, a man of very high caste – suddenly turned to the hangman and began to ask ‘Are you a—?’ but could not finish because the hangman had slipped the hood over his face. The missing word was probably ‘chamar‘ – he was worried about the caste of the hangman who was performing this last intimate function for him. It was apparently his only worry at that moment of departure.
Instead, her observations delivered in humorous prose grow in us, making us see past the imperfections of India and fall for everything – from its vibrant hues and cacophony of sounds to the overwhelming chaos – it has to offer.
In 1983 Heat and Dust was made into a movie. Before I go watch it, I will wrap up this post by sharing the trailer with you.