Heat and Dust
Heat and Dust, along with an earlier novel by Ruth Jhabvala, are touted in dust-jacket blurbs as being worthy successors to E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India; such pretension on behalf of this pleasant but light-weight novel is unjustified, unless Successor-to-Forster has become the generic name for all novels written about India by Europeans. Jhabvala is a Polish-born Englishwoman married to an Indian; she has spent a large part of her life in India and the novel benefits from her sharp observation, as it does from her transparent prose and from the interesting construction of the story; but this novel is neither an exhaustive study of the relations between Europeans, Moslems, and Hindus, nor an epic of love and enlightenment.
Heat and Dust is really two stories, or one story told twice. The action takes place the first time in 1923 between February, when the dry season starts, and the beginning of the monsoon in September; it recurs, with minor changes, at the same season in the present. In 1923, an Englishwoman named Olivia Rivers comes to the British administrative station at Satiput with her new husband Douglas, the Deputy Collector. In the course of a season, she meets and becomes mistress of the Nawab, ruler of the neighboring state of Khatm. She becomes pregnant; unsure whether her husband or the Nawab is the father of the child, she undergoes an abortion, which is discovered by the station doctor. Olivia leaves her husband and flees to the Nawab, whose dependent she remains for the rest of her life. Douglas remarries and has a son, who marries and produces a daughter, who is the narrator of the novel and the protagonist of the second chapter of the story. She comes to Satipur armed with Olivia’s letters to her sister as well as numerous family anecdotes. After settling in there, she seduces and becomes pregnant by a young clerk, Inder Lal. Offered an abortion by Maji, a holywoman, she agrees, but then changes her mind and decides to bear the child. She makes a pilgrimage to Olivia’s old house in the Himalayas, and later decides to go “higher up” to an ashram in the mists, and to remain there indefinitely. The parallel extends beyond the main characters to the secondary and even tertiary figures. Clearly the narrator corresponds to Olivia, and Inder Lal and Maji, together a nexus of sexual and psychic power, to the Nawab and the Begum. Olivia’s husband Douglas does not figure in the second part of the cycle, but Harry, the Nawab’s dyspeptic houseguest, reappears as Chid, the boy from the Midlands turned sadhu. Mr. Crawford the Collector and his sturdy wife Beth pop up in the second version in the person of the ghostly lady-missionary in Bombay, and the disagreeable English tourist couple are clearly avatars of Dr. and Mrs. Saunders. The attitudes of Major Minnies, the British liaison officer in Khatm, are echoed in the second version, surprisingly, by Dr. Gopal of the municipal hospital. The parallel structure helps give the work a feeling of completion; at the same time it produces a sense of cycle, pointing out that the fascination of India for the European mind is continuous, and that it follows a predictable pattern. The point might have been made more subtly, though; to insist on it by such rigid reduplication suggests that some supernatural agency is at work in the affairs of the Rivers family, an effect which does not further the main theme.
If India continues to fascinate, according to this work, Europeans continue to fail to take her on her own terms. The set of the European consciousness, as personified in the “old India hands,” the Crawfords, Saunderses, and Minnieses, and by the young English couple whom the narrator meets at the rest house, demands a kind of linearity, absoluteness; either a thing is, or it is not. To most Europeans, the opposite of order is not just disorder but chaos, a threat. Thus the young English pilgrims, unable to reconcile the crime and squalor of ordinary existence in India with the life of elevated consciousness they have come to seek, simply assume that the latter does not exist. In the same way, the members of the British establishment in Olivia’s time, unable to “make sense of” the complexities of the life of the subcontinent, tended to write off its more staring anomalies and inconsistencies as childish nonsense, or equally childish savagery. The English girl-traveler says that she came to India to find peace, and instead found dysentery, as if peace and dysentery were mutually exclusive. The assembled English people of the station smile tolerantly over the suttees and massacres of the past as on the endearing mischief of favored children. English people assume in themselves and expect in others consistency,...
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