Heat and Dust Analysis
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s central intention is to provide a voice for women, especially in the story of Olivia, which is chronologically earlier in time. A character such as Olivia is historically accurate, but very little is known about the thoughts of such people because they were never given a hearing. She is representative of the many English women who accompanied their husbands to India during the rule of the British Empire there and spent years in the country without ever recording or letting others know of their experiences or impressions; their lives were controlled by their husbands and the rest of the British community in India.
In fact, in Heat and Dust, Jhabvala is seen as rewriting the stories of such women in many colonial novels of the early twentieth century in which their opinions were not adequately voiced, the most well known of them being the English writer E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India (1924). Even though Olivia’s story, too, is regarded as a scandal by her own generation and is hushed up, the reappearance of her detailed letters to her sister makes it possible for the narrator to track down her life in India two generations later and to offer the reader her side of the tale. By cleverly juxtaposing her own experiences in India with those of Olivia, the narrator is also able to provide a sense of how women’s lives changed all over the world in the course of the twentieth century.
Jhabvala, in both Olivia’s and the narrator’s stories, presents a range of strong women characters, against whom the men appear weak and ineffectual. Olivia must deal with the Begum, the Nawab’s mother, who is a powerful matriarch in the palace. The narrator is befriended by Inder Lal’s mother, who runs his household, as well as by Maji, an old woman of the town who is said to have supernatural powers. In contrast, all the men—Douglas, the Nawab, Harry, Inder Lal, and Chid—despite being the main political and social players, seem to lack strength, an indication perhaps that had women always been accorded the positions they deserved, all stories in history would have been different.
While the concept of a novel in the form of letters or journals is not original, Jhabvala’s chosen form, excerpts from the narrator’s journal interspersed with recollections from Olivia’s letters, provides a new and interesting way of reading about two parallel lives lived many decades apart in the same Indian town.