The Characters

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The characters of Heat and Dust are carefully designed and arranged to counterpoint and reflect one another, and this artful arrangement of characters is one of the novel’s most impressive achievements. Douglas Rivers, for example, is the very model of a “proper Englishman” in India: ambitious, absolutely dedicated to Indian service, but absolutely aloof from the Indian population he serves and the native culture of the country to which he has been assigned. His opposite is the “weak” Harry, the Nawab’s three-year houseguest, infirm of body and spirit, contaminated by Indian indulgence, and either unwilling or unable to extricate himself from the Nawab’s influence, even though he apparently wants to return to England. Olivia is Harry’s female counterpart, caught between two worlds and two cultures and strongly influenced by the Nawab’s charm and charisma. Since Douglas clearly “did not like Harry,” he could only be horrified by full knowledge of his wife’s behavior and attachment to the Nawab.

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Mrs. Crawford and Mrs. Minnies are strong and “proper” official wives, determined to be “bright and cheerful,” and, like their husbands, aloof from Indian life and culture. Their counterpart is the sick Mrs. Saunders, who lives in fear of being molested by her Indian servants. Like Harry, she is “weak” and sickly, but her weakness draws her to European rather than Indian standards. She lacks the strength and the willpower to be “cheerful” about her lot. She despises India.

In the framing story, Chid is the equivalent of Harry, caught between two cultures, but ultimately bound to return to England. Just as Harry lives off of the Nawab and his family, so Chid is taken care of by Inder Lal’s family, since the Nawab, representing India under imperial rule, is clearly counterpointed by Inder Lal, representing India after imperial rule. Inder Lal holds an official position that carries prestige, even if he lacks the power and assurance of the Nawab, and even if he is intimidated, as the Nawab was not, in the presence of Europeans. Inder Lal is the new man of the new India and shares the Nawab’s sexual charm. Grouped together, Inder Lal’s mother and her friend Maji, the “holy woman,” constitute the latter-day equivalent of the Begum, the Nawab’s mother, and her retinue.

The most striking chronological counterpoint is between Olivia and the narrator. Jhabvala was able to retell the story in the motion-picture version which she scripted from her novel in 1983 for director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant. In the motion-picture version, Anne, the narrator, is drawn even closer to Olivia, who becomes the narrator’s great-aunt, rather than the first wife of her grandfather. In the novel, Beth Crawford is the narrator’s great-aunt. Beth’s sister Tessie comes to Bombay in September of 1923, after Mrs. Crawford returns to Satipur from Simla, and after Olivia has eloped with the Nawab. Tessie meets Douglas and later marries him after his divorce from Olivia.

The narrator of the novel, a relative of Beth Crawford, then, is able to assimilate the experience of India much more fully than her great-aunt could have done under colonial rule. She is open and sensitive to Indian ways, like Olivia before her, but she is also more liberated than Olivia, following the same progression of events, but determined to have her child while also pursuing spiritual perfection in the Himalayas. The film version suggests that the narrator is the very reincarnation of Olivia, which would be possible if the framing story were set during the 1980’s, as in the film, instead of ten years earlier. This later revision, which carries authorial force since Jhabvala herself reinvented the story for the screen, is suggested when, at the end, Anne looks into the window of Olivia’s mountain bungalow and sees Olivia with the...

(The entire section contains 1559 words.)

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Critical Essays