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 of curiosity, partly out of sheer boredom, takes particular interest in a local prince, the Nawab, and his circle of friends, who are more entertaining and amusing than her husband’s British friends.
A turning point occurs when Olivia declines to accompany two of the colonial wives, Mrs. Crawford and Mrs. Minnies, to Simla on an extended vacation to escape the summer heat of Satipur. This chaperoned vacation would have kept Olivia occupied and out of mischief, but she prefers to stay at home, ostensibly to be with her husband. She dearly wants to have a child but finds her overworked husband preoccupied with his official duties. First out of boredom, later out of fascination, Olivia turns to the Nawab for company and attention. A sensual relationship eventually develops with the Nawab, who seduces and impregnates Olivia, partly, one suspects, out of spite for the English. Knowing that the child’s color will betray its parentage, Olivia decides to have an abortion. Indian midwives induce a miscarriage, but when Olivia is taken to the colonial hospital, Dr. Saunders recognizes the work of the Indian midwives. The now disgraced Olivia escapes from the hospital and goes to the Nawab’s palace, never to return to Douglas, her husband. Concurrently, the Nawab is usurped by the British because of his complicity with local robber bands, and Olivia elopes with him to a mountainside village in the Himalayas, where she continues to live in isolation until her death, never returning to England.
A secondary story, used as a narrative framing device, links the main characters of the two time frames. Like Olivia, the narrator, Anne, becomes involved with an Indian lover, her young landlord in Satipur, Inder Lal, who is married and who also, like the Nawab, lives with his mother. Like Olivia, the narrator gets pregnant, but unlike Olivoa, she does not have the child aborted. Like Olivia, she goes to live in the Himalayas after leaving Satipur.
Olivia and the female narrator are clearly intended to be parallel characters, as the narrator follows Olivia’s geographical progress across India, from Satipur and Khatm to “the small town of X” in the Himalayas, where Olivia chose to live out her days with the Nawab after deserting her husband. The narrator does not have a husband to abandon, however, and leaves Inder Lal behind in Satipur. She is not dominated by the...
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