What are the symbols in Heat and Dust?
Symbols are used throughout the story, mainly for the purpose of conveying the marked differences between the respective worlds of the Indians and their British colonial overlords. For instance, the kindly peasant women Maji symbolizes divine grace. During moments of distress, both Anne and Inder Lal's mother seek her spiritual wisdom and advice. Maji's character serves to remind us of the fundamental unity of humankind, irrespective of the manifest cultural and racial differences that superficially divide us. In seeking Maji's spiritual counsel, Anne is entering into a whole new dimension, one traditionally closed off from British colonialists. Indeed, religion as a whole is used in the book as an integrating force, one that symbolizes the transcendence of social boundaries.
Symbols are also used to add force to the novel's anti-colonial message. There is the marble angel which is described as a "headless, wingless torso." Arguably, this is used to represent the decline of British rule in India, as, indeed, is the reference to the "weed-choked" British graves in the cemetery. And in one notable scene, Olivia and the Nawab play a game of musical chairs. When they finally reach the last chair left between them, the Nawab shakes off his usually gentlemanlike demeanor and grabs the chair for himself. The chair can be read as symbolizing India, which will never completely belong to the British, however much they want it.
I think that two symbols of the novel can come from the title, itself. The "heat" that is present can be symbolic of the oppressive heat in India or the heat that exists between people in passionate love with one another. Certainly, this is the case for the narrator and Inder Lal and for Olivia with the Nawab. The "dust" there might also be representative of the actual dust from which one can never escape while in India. This dust strikes a foreigner in their travels in India, as it is everywhere and exists in a realm where one is constantly immersed in it. At the same time, the "dust" that surrounds Olivia and the narrator are the elements that help to create challenging situations in their lives, obscuring the exact and reductively clear nature of what needs to be done. One can only sift through the dust, pushing it aside in trying to do what is seen as right and Olivia and the narrator are both a part of this. The letters that Olivia writes are symbolic of her voice being heard. At a time when her voice was effectively silenced by social malignment, the letters operate a way for her voice to be validated and acknowledged, ensuring that the narrator's predicament is also, to an extent, Olivia's, as well.