The imagined experience of two European women in India has biographical significance for the novelist. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was born in 1927 in Cologne, Germany, where her grandfather was a cantor in the city’s largest synagogue. In 1939, her family emigrated to England. After earning a degree in English literature from London University (Queen Mary College), she met and married an Indian architect, Cyrus S. H. Jhabvala. In 1951, they moved to New Delhi, where they reared three daughters. Since 1955, she has written eight novels set in India, including Heat and Dust, which won the prestigious Booker Prize in England. She has also written screenplays for ten theatrical films, most of them for James Ivory and Ismail Merchant. Her filmscript for Heat and Dust won the British Academy Award for Best Screenplay.
Ruth Jhabvala’s work has been compared to that of E. M. Forster (there are obvious situational affinities between Heat and Dust and A Passage to India, 1924), Anton Chekhov, and Jane Austen. Her portrait of British society transplanted to India of the 1920’s often reads like a comedy of manners, though Jhabvala’s focus is upon women after marriage, rather than upon the manipulations leading up to the married state, and her sensibility is far removed in time and spirit from Austen’s.
“I never had to deal with India,” the novelist told Bernard Weinraub, who interviewed her for The New York Times Magazine and who described “heat and dust” as “her metaphor for the disease and squalor” she found surrounding her in India. “Heat and dust” is also surely a metaphor for passion and mutability in the novel. Olivia is sexually frustrated during the “hot” summer and wonders why, for all of his strength and manliness, Douglas has not got her pregnant. She says, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” Douglas answers “it’s the heat. No Englishwoman is meant to stand it.”
At the same time, the title obviously connotes disease, squalor, and poverty in India. “Once you start seeing the poverty, you don’t see anything else,” the novelist told The New York Times, adding that the “terribly hot summer” of 1974 when she wrote Heat and Dust “was the last summer I spent in India.” She has since settled in New York and divides her time between New York and Delhi.