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 British residential area was called. The British administrative class maintains itself in cultural isolation from the Indian population, but Olivia, partly out...
(The entire section is 664 words.)