Summary (Masterplots II: British and Commonwealth Fiction Series)
Heat and Dust tells two stories in two time frames: 1923, before the end of British colonial rule in India, and 1975, as a relative of the earlier colonial rulers returns to India to investigate a mysterious family indiscretion. The main narrative line tells the story of Olivia Rivers, a woman who “had gone in too far” probing the exotic “mysteries” of the Orient, seduced by the “oriental privacies” of India and, in the opinion of the ruling British community, corrupted by them. Years after his retirement, one of the colonial characters, Major Minnies, publishes his memoirs, described as “a monograph on the influence of India on the European consciousness and character”; this description neatly summarizes the intent of Heat and Dust.
The frame story is narrated by Anne, the granddaughter of Douglas Rivers by his second wife, who goes to Satipur to unravel the mystery of her grandfather’s first wife, Olivia. Like Olivia, the narrator is seduced, reliving in a later cultural and political context Olivia’s experiences in “the other dimension,” forbidden territory for British colonials.
Olivia Rivers travels from England to Satipur early in 1923 to join her husband Douglas, a dedicated colonial officer. The story primarily concerns Olivia’s difficult adjustment to life in India, particularly the provincial and isolated attitudes of those who live in the colonial enclave of “the Civil Lines,” as the...
(The entire section is 664 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
The stepgranddaughter of Olivia Rivers has long been fascinated by the letters of her late stepgrandmother. The young woman travels to India in the 1970’s to discover the reason why Olivia had deserted her husband, the narrator’s grandfather, for the Nawab, a Muslim Indian prince.
The narrator is initially overwhelmed by the heat, poverty, and exoticism of India. She travels to Satipur, where Olivia once lived, and sublets a room from an Indian government official named Inder Lal. She finds Olivia’s former residence, where she had lived with her husband, Douglas Rivers, and which now houses several local government offices. The narrator quickly acclimatizes herself to India, studies Hindi, starts wearing Indian clothing, and develops a friendship with Inder Lal, who takes her to Khatm to see the Nawab’s palace, which has fallen into neglect.
Olivia’s story goes back to the early 1920’s, when she first meets the Nawab, in 1923, at a dinner party at his palace. She has been in Satipur for several months and is becoming progressively more and more bored by her life in India. Her husband is absorbed with his onerous duties as an assistant collector, so her days are very long and uneventful. The only people she is in contact with are the medical superintendent Dr. Saunders and his wife, the Crawfords (Douglas’s supervisor and his wife), and Major Minnes (a political officer attached to the Nawab) and his wife. Consequently, Olivia is...
(The entire section is 1170 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Heat and Dust is the story of two Englishwomen who travel to India, about fifty years apart in time, and record their experiences there in letters and journals. The stylistic arrangement of two parallel stories is creatively handled by means of excerpts from the narrator’s journal interspersed with the details she provides from her predecessor Olivia’s letters that she has in her possession. The reader needs to be alert to the constant shifts between the two tales as they trace similar developments in the lives of the two women. The major historical difference that they encounter is that while Olivia came to India during a time when it was still a part of the British empire, the narrator finds herself in a free country. The passage of time also means that there has been some progress in the way women are able to conduct their lives. Through these differences, Jhabvala is able to convey the changes that have come about in women’s lives in half a century.
In the earlier story, Olivia Rivers is bored and unhappy as the wife of a British colonial administrator in India, and though she loves her handsome husband Douglas, she welcomes the company of the Nawab, a minor Indian prince of a neighboring state, and his English houseguest Harry. Though the British community disapproves of her friendship with the untrustworthy Nawab, she is unable to curb her growing fascination about him until their closeness is sexually consummated. When she finds...
(The entire section is 482 words.)