In 1923 the beautiful, spoiled, and bored Olivia, married to Douglas and his career in the Indian Civil Service, outrages the English and Indian communities by eloping with an Indian prince. Fifty years later, Douglas’s granddaughter, armed with Olivia’s letters, goes back to the heat and dust and squalor of the bazaars to find out for herself how Olivia could have been so affected by India that she turned her back on her own country.
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Shortly after Olivia went away with the Nawab, Beth Crawford returned from Simla. This was in September, 1923. Beth had to go down to Bombay to meet the boat on which her sister Tessie was arriving. Tessie was coming out to spend the cold season with the Crawfords. They had arranged all sorts of visits and expeditions for her, but she stayed mostly in Satipur because of Douglas. They went riding together and played croquet and tennis and she did her best to be good company for him. Not that he had much free time, for he kept himself as busy as ever in the district. He worked like a Trojan and never ceased to be calm and controlled, so that he was very much esteemed both by his colleagues and by the Indians. He was upright and just. Tessie stayed through that cold season, and through the next one as well, and then she sailed for home. A year later Douglas had his home leave and they met again in England. By the time his divorce came through, they were ready to get married. She went out to join him in India and, like her sister Beth, she led a full and happy life there. In course of time she became my grandmother – but of course by then everyone was back in England.
I don't remember Douglas at all – he died when I was three – but I remember Grandmother Tessie and Great-Aunt Beth very well. They were cheerful women with a sensible and modern outlook on life: but nevertheless, so my parents told me, for years they could not be induced to talk about Olivia. They shied away from her memory as from something dark and terrible. My parents' generation did not share these feelings – on the contrary, they were eager to learn all they could about Grandfather's first wife, who had eloped with an Indian prince. But it was not until they were old and widowed that the two ladies began at last to speak about the forbidden topic.
By that time they had also met Harry again. They had kept up with him by means of Xmas cards, and it was only after Douglas' death that Harry came to call on them. They spoke about Olivia. Harry also told them about Olivia's sister, Marcia, whom he had met shortly after his return from India. He had continued to see her over the years till she had died (drunk herself to death, he said). She left him all Olivia's letters and he showed them to the old ladies. That was how I first came to see these letters which I have now brought with me to India.
Fortunately, during my first few months here, I kept a journal so I have some record of my early impressions. If I were to try and recollect them now, I might not be able to do so. They are no longer the same because I myself am no longer the same. India always changes people, and I have been no exception. But this is not my story, it is Olivia's as far as I can follow it.
These are the first entries in my journal:
2 February. Arrival in Bombay today. Not what I had imagined at all. Of course I had always thought of arrival by ship, had forgotten how different it would be by plane. All those memoirs and letters I've read, all those prints I've seen. I really must forget about them. Everything is different now. I must get some sleep.
Woke up in the middle of the night. Groped for my watch which I had put on top of my suitcase under the bed: it wasn't there. Oh no! Not already! A voice from the next bed: "Here it is, my dear, and just be more careful in future, please." Half an hour after midnight. I've slept about four hours. Of course I'm still on English time so it would be now about seven in the evening. I'm wide awake and sit up in bed. I'm in the women's dormitory of the S.M. (Society of Missionaries) hostel. There are seven string beds, four one side three the other. They're all occupied and everyone appears to be asleep. But outside the city is still awake and restless. There is even music somewhere. The street lamps light up the curtainless windows of the dormitory from outside, filling the room with a ghostly reflection in which the sleepers on their beds look like washed-up bodies.
But my neighbour – the guardian of my watch – is awake and wanting to talk: "You've probably just arrived, that's why you're so careless. Never mind, you'll learn soon enough, everyone does. ... You have to be very careful with your food in the beginning: boiled water only, and whatever you do no food from these street stalls. Afterwards you get immune. I can eat anything now if I want to. Not that I'd want to – I hate their food, I wouldn't touch it for anything. You can eat here in the S.M., that's quite all right. Miss Tietz looks after the kitchen herself and they make nice boiled stews, sometimes a roast, and custard. I always stay here when I come to Bombay. I've known Miss Tietz for twenty years. She's Swiss, she came out with the Christian Sisterhood but these last ten years she's been looking after the S.M. They're lucky to have her."
It may be due to the ghostly light that she looks like a ghost; and she's wearing a white night-gown that encases her from head to foot. She has tied her hair in one drooping plait. She is paper-white, vaporous – yes, a ghost. She tells me she has been in India for thirty years, and if God wants her to die here, that is what she will do. On the other hand, if He wants to bring her home first, she will do that. It is His will, and for thirty years she has lived only in His will. When she says that, her voice is not a bit ghost-like but strong and ringing as one who has been steadfast in her duty.
"We have our own little chapel out in Kafarabad. It's a growing town – because of the textile mills – but not growing in virtue, that I can tell you. Thirty years ago I might have said there is hope: but today – none. Wherever you look, it's the same story. More wages means more selfishness, more country liquor, more cinema. The women used to wear plain simple cotton dhotis but now they all want to be shiny from the outside. We won't speak about the inside. But why expect anything from these poor people when our own are going the way they are. You've seen that place opposite? Just take a look."
I go to the window and look down into the street. It's bright as day down there, not only with the white street lights but each stall and barrow is lit up with a flare of naphtha. There are crowds of people; some are sleeping – it's so warm that all they have to do is stretch out, no bedding necessary. There are a number of crippled children (one boy propelling himself on his legless rump) and probably by day they beg but now they are off duty and seem to be light-hearted, even gay. People are buying from the hawkers and standing there eating, while others are looking in the gutters to find what has been thrown away.
She directs me to the other window. From here I get a view of A.'s Hotel. I had been warned about that place before I came. I had been told that, however bleak and dreary I might find the S.M. Hostel, on no account should I book myself into A.'s.
"Can you see?" she called from her bed.
I saw. Here too it was absolutely bright, with street and shop lamps. The sidewalk outside A.'s was crowded – not with Indians but with Europeans. They looked a derelict lot.
She said "Eight, nine of them to a room, and some of them don't even have the money for that, they just sleep on the street. They beg from each other and steal from each other. Some of them are very young, mere children – there may be hope for them, God willing they'll go home again before it's too late. But others there are, women and men, they've been here for years and every year they get worse. You see the state they're in. They're all sick, some of them dying. Who are they, where do they come from? One day I saw a terrible sight. He can't have been more than thirty, perhaps a German or Scandinavian – he was very fair and tall. His clothes were in tatters and you could see his white skin through them. He had long hair, all tangled and matted; there was a monkey sitting by him and the monkey was delousing him. Yes the monkey was taking the lice out of the man's hair. I looked in that man's face – in his eyes – and I tell you I saw a soul in hell. Oh but I've seen some terrible sights in India. I've lived through a Hindu-Muslim riot, and a smallpox epidemic, and several famines, and I think I may rightly say I've seen everything that you can see on this earth. And through it all I've learned this one thing: you can't live in India without Christ Jesus. If He's not with you every single moment of the day and night and you praying to Him with all your might and main – if that's not there, then you become like that poor young man with the monkey taking lice out of his hair. Because you see, dear, nothing human means anything here. Not a thing," she said, with the contempt of any Hindu or Buddhist for all this world might have to offer.
She was sitting up in her bed. For all she was so thin and white, she did look tough, toughened-up. A ghost with backbone. I looked down again at the figures sprawled under the white street lights outside A.'s Hotel. It seemed to me that she was right: they did look like souls in hell.
16 February. Satipur. I have been very lucky and have already found a room here. I like it very much. It is large, airy, and empty. There is a window at which I sit and look down into the bazaar. My room is on top of a cloth-shop and I have to climb up a flight of dark stairs to get to it. It has been sub-let to me by a government officer called Inder Lal who lives with his wife and mother and three children in some poky rooms crammed at the back of a yard leading from the shop. The shop belongs to someone else and so does the yard. Everything is divided and subdivided, and I'm one of the sub-divisions. But I feel very spacious and private up here; except that I share the bathroom facilities down in the yard, and the little sweeper girl who is attached to them.
I think my landlord, Inder Lal, is disappointed with the way I live in my room. He keeps looking round for furniture but there isn't any. I sit on the floor and at night I spread my sleeping-bag out on it. The only piece of furniture I have so far acquired is a very tiny desk the height of a foot-stool on which I have laid out my papers (this journal, my Hindi grammar and vocabulary, Olivia's letters). It is the sort of desk at which the shopkeepers do their accounts. Inder Lal looks at my bare walls. Probably he was hoping for pictures and photographs – but I feel no need for anything like that when all I have to do is look out of the window at the bazaar below. I certainly wouldn't want to be distracted from that scene. Hence no curtains either.
Inder Lal is far too polite to voice his disappointment. All he said was "It is not very comfortable for you," and quickly lowered his eyes as if afraid of embarrassing me. He did the same when I first arrived with my luggage. I had not hired a coolie but had hoisted my trunk and bedding on to my shoulders and carried them up myself. Then too – after an involuntary cry of shock – he had lowered his eyes as if afraid of embarrassing me.
It would have been easier for him if I had been like Olivia. She was everything I'm not. The first thing she did on moving into their house (the Assistant Collector's) was smother it in rugs, pictures, flowers. She wrote to Marcia: "We're beginning to look slightly civilised." And again, later: "Mrs. Crawford (Collector's wife – the Burra Memsahib) came to inspect me today in my nest. I don't think she thinks much of me or the nest but she's ever so tactful! She told me she knows how difficult the first year always is and that if there is any little thing she could possibly do to ease things for me, well I must just consider her to be always there. I said thank you (demurely). Actually, her being there is the only difficult thing – otherwise everything is just too perfect!. If only I could have told her that."
I have already seen the house in which Douglas and Olivia lived. In fact, there has been a very lucky coincidence – it turns out that the office where Inder Lal works is right in what used to be the British residential area (known as the Civil Lines). Inder Lal's own department, Disposal andSupplies, is in what was the Collector's house (Mr. Crawford's, in 1923). Douglas and Olivia's bungalow now houses the Water Board, the municipal Health Department, and a sub-post office. Both these houses have, like everything else, been divided and sub-divided into many parts to fulfil many functions. Only the Medical Superintendent's house has been kept intact and is supposed to be a travellers' rest-house.
20 February. This morning I dropped in on the two ladies of the Inder Lal family – his wife, Ritu, and his mother. I don't know whether I caught them at a moment of unusual confusion or whether this is the way they always live but the place was certainly very untidy. Of course the rooms are poky and the children still at the messy stage. Ritu swiftly cleared some clothes and toys off a bench. I would have preferred to sit on the floor as they did, but I realised that now I had to submit to all the social rules they thought fit to apply to my case. The mother-in-law, in a practised hiss aside, gave an order to the daughter-in-law which I guessed to be for my refreshment. Ritu darted out of the room as if glad to be released, leaving me and the mother-in-law to make what we could of each other. We smiled, I tried out my Hindi (with scant success – I must work harder at it!), we made hopeful gestures, and got nowhere. All the time she was studying me. She has a shrewd, appraising glance – and I can imagine how she must have gone around looking over girls as possible wives for her son before finally deciding on Ritu. Quite instinctively, she was adding up my points as well, and alas I could guess what her sum came to.
I have already got used to being appraised in this way in India. Everyone does it everywhere – in the streets, on busesand trains: they are quite open about it, women as well as men, nor do they make any attempt to conceal their amusement if that is what one happens to arouse in them. I suppose we must look strange to them, and what must also be strange is the way we are living among them – no longer apart, but eating their food and often wearing Indian clothes because they are cooler and cheaper.
Getting myself a set of Indian clothes was one of the first things I did after settling down in Satipur. I went to the cloth-stall downstairs and then next door where there is a little tailor sitting on a piece of sacking with his machine. He measured me right there and then in his open shop in full view of the street, but with such care to keep his distance that his measures were too approximate for any kind of fitting. As a result my clothes are very loose indeed but they serve their purpose and I'm glad to have them. I now wear a pair of baggy trousers tied with a string at the waist such as the Punjabi peasant women wear, and their kind of knee-length shirt. I also have a pair of Indian sandals which I can shuffle off and leave on thresholds like everyone else. (They are men's sandals because the women's sizes don't fit me). Although I'm now dressed like an Indian woman, the children are still running after me; but I don't mind too much as I'm sure they will soon get used to me.
There is one word that is often called after me: hijra. Unfortunately I know what it means. I knew before I came to India, from a letter of Olivia's. She had learned it from the Nawab who had told her that Mrs. Crawford looked like a hijra (Great-Aunt Beth was, like me, tall and flat-chested). Of course Olivia also didn't know what it meant, and when she asked, the Nawab shouted with laughter. But instead of explaining he told her "I will show you," and then he clapped his hands and gave an order and after some time a troupe of hijras was brought and the Nawab made them sing and dance for Olivia in their traditional style.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Heat and Dust"
Copyright © 1975 Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Winner of the Booker Prize in 1975, Heat and Dust is a short but interesting study in contrasts. It is the story of two women, both British, who find themselves living in unfamiliar India. Olivia is the new, young wife of a civil servant stationed in India in 1923, and the unnamed narrator is a young woman seeking to learn more about her grandfather's first wife, i.e. Olivia, in the present time.The narrator arrives in Bombay and finds a room to rent in the compound of an Indian functionary. He feels embarrassed by her bohemian lack of furniture, and she writes in her journal, "It would have been easier for him if I had been like Olivia. She was everything I'm not." The idea that, although related, the two women are opposites in some fundamental way, shapes the book. Olivia is the stereotypical sheltered British woman of a certain class who feels constrained by the strictures of "polite" society. An innocent in the ways of seduction and politics, she is soon caught up in both in the person of the local Nawab, a charismatic but impoverished Indian prince. As she is drawn more and more into his influence, like an "irresistible force of nature", Olivia realizes that she is no longer the person she was when she came to India.She felt that now-out of pride, or to prove her innocence-she ought to be the one to hang back. She hesitated for a moment but found that she did not, after all, have enough pride (or innocence) for that. She followed him quite quickly to the car.Olivia is the perpetual outsider. Longing to be accepted by the British ex-pats, yet feeling the pull of "the other side", Olivia floats through her days on an excess of emotion. She makes few decisions, and when she does, they seem an outcome of the moment, not of rational reflection.I found Olivia's naiveté to be cloying after a while, as she remains ignorant of reality far longer than seems plausible. She never seems to get it, even when it is right in front of her. The narrator, on the other hand, is proactive in her desire to become "one of them", and seeks out the exact same experiences which just seem to happen to Olivia. Uninhibited, worldly, and with a touch of youthful callousness, the narrator changes the lives of those around her. Yet, she too is not immune to the sensuality of the Other.India always changes people, and I have been no exception. But this is not my story, it is Olivia's as far as I can follow it.But Olivia's story is her story, and the two are mirror images reflecting back to each other the consequences of making choices and accepting them.Heat and Dust reminded me of The Painted Veil in that both Olivia and Kitty are awakened to a more mature life through their experiences in an exotic setting. Kitty¿s character and understanding develop throughout the book, and I was touched by the story¿s ending. Olivia doesn¿t seem to evolve in the same way. We are left assuming that she has been changed by her experiences, but unsure how. It is the presence of the narrator and her story that add the necessary complexity to make this a more thoughtful read. Although I failed to empathize fully with either Olivia or the narrator, I found myself rereading a few sections after finishing the book: always a sign to me that the author has managed to do more than simply write a good story.
A quick read, romantic, literary and lyrical. The book is structured around two narratives: Olivia, a bored English colonial wife in India in 1920 who scandalizes the British community by falling in love with a local Indian prince; and her step-granddaughter who fifty years later goes to India to find the woman behind the letters she has in her possession. The book is very internal, but Jhabvala does a marvelous job of describing the British colonial life and modern India with all its beauty and warts. Recommend this one.
Heat and Dust concerns itself largely with the love affair of Olivia, the wife of a minor English imperial official Douglas Rivers with the local prince, the Nawab, as related by the granddaughter of Rivers and his second wife when she travels to India 50 years later. The granddaughter's experiences are quite similar to Olivia's, in fact one wonders whether she is conscously mimicking Olivia. India's impact on these English is strong and not necessarily beneficial. The extremes of weather, exotic food, languages, religions, indeed the heat and the dust overwhelm. A particularly interesting character is 'Chidi', a young Englishman temporarily turned Hindu mystic. Jhabvala is an enormously accomplished author and screenwriter with an intriguing background. Born to Polish parents in Germany, moved with them to ondon to escape Hitler, and married an Indian architect and lived in India from 1951 to 1975 and now resides part-time in NYC. Jhabvala won the Booker Prize (best book by a citizen of the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland in the English language) Told in a gentle, open and endearing style.
I bought this because it is one of my favorite movies. Good book too.
Winner of the Booker Prize in 1975, this novel tells the parallel stories of two young English women, living in India at different time periods. Anne visits the country in the 1970s, well after Indian independence in 1947, but long before India became the economic power it is today. Anne is there to learn more about her grandfather's first wife, Olivia, who lived there in the 1920s, during British colonial rule. Olivia ran off with the Nawab (a Muslim prince), bringing scandal down upon the family. The novel alternates between the two time periods and points of view. Anne deciphers Olivia's story from her letters, written primarily to her sister. She visits places Olivia used to live. Houses have become places of business; only the British cemeteries are left standing as a memorial to earlier times. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was born in Germany to Polish parents in 1927, attending Jewish schools and moving to England in 1939. She married an Indian man in 1951, and relocated to New Delhi. There she began her literary career. Unlike many Europeans, she took instantly to India and celebrated the country through her writing. Since the mid-1970s, Jhabvala has been better known for her screenplays, having collaborated with Merchant Ivory on such wonderful films as Room with a View, Howards End, and Remains of the Day. Heat and Dust paints a vivid picture of India; the title alone evokes a common first impression of the country. I made a brief visit there on business two years ago, and of course I was struck by the heat and dust. I also found it difficult to witness the extreme contrasts of wealth and poverty. Jhabvala doesn't shrink from these images, either. There is a scene in the novel that concerns a beggar woman dying in the street. No one will help her for fear of contracting her disease. The hospitals are too full to accommodate cases where there is no hope. Anne and another woman can only help her find a peaceful place to spend her final hours. As the novel progresses we learn more about Olivia, a naive young woman who is bored and lonely. She is drawn into the excitement of the Nawab's palace, and one can almost understand why she would leave her rather dull husband. The novel is less clear about the character of Anne. Like Olivia she develops a romantic relationship with an Indian man, but she is far more independent and self-sufficient (perhaps reflective of the time period). The novel ends rather abruptly and inconclusively. I liked this book, but honestly was not "wowed" in the way I expect of prizewinning novels.