(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

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.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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 excited by the Nawab’s dinner invitation. The occasion is grand, and she feels, for the first time, that she has come to the right place in the country. While she is quickly bored by the conversation of the old Indian hands, Olivia immediately likes Harry, the Nawab’s English house guest, and the mysterious Nawab. Soon after the party, Harry and the Nawab start visiting Olivia.

It is now the 1970’s, and on one of her walks, the narrator encounters three young English backpackers who are trying to get an Indian watchman to open an old British bungalow that is used as a travelers’ rest house. Two of the tourists are thoroughly disgusted with the country because of their numerous experiences with dishonest Indians; the third tourist, Chid, is dressed like an Indian ascetic and is on a pilgrimage. The three eventually convince the watchman to open the bungalow, which is dark and musty. The narrator suddenly realizes that the house once belonged to Dr. Saunders and has a view of the old British cemetery.

From her letters, it becomes clear that Olivia had always been greatly moved by graveyards. She loved wandering through them, reading the inscriptions, and soaking up the atmosphere. Most of the graves in the British cemetery in Satipur are of children who had died of different diseases. Olivia had discovered the newest grave was that of the Saunders baby. Olivia is...

(The entire section is 1170 words.)