Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The journey was uncomfortable - Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's Heat and Dust

I wonder if Ruth Prawer Jhabvala read Eliza Fay’s book.  Her narrator in Heat and Dust (1975) seems to have read it:

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.  (2)

Funny coincidence at least.

Jhabvala, unlike Fay, spends her novel writing about India – Bombay in this case.  The young woman who narrates goes to India during hippie days – various Beatlesque spiritual seekers are wandering about, and there is some good comedy at the expense of one of them – to search for information about “Grandfather’s first wife, who had eloped with an Indian prince” (2). This gives Jhabvala two levels to work with, the present of the narrator, and the 1920s of her great-aunt Olivia.  Independent versus colonial India; ordinary Indians in the present compared to the prince and his court in the past; a modern woman of one time compared to a modern woman of another.

The two women visit the same shrines and landmarks; both have affairs with Indian men; both are tormented by the weather:

As the heat and dust storms continue, Ritu’s condition has become worse.  (81)

The journey was uncomfortable, and not only because of heat and dust.  (131)

It’s the title, so I am supposed to notice, right?  The former is in the present, the latter in the past.  I wonder how many “heat and dust”’s I missed.  The European women are supposed to escape into the mountains, to Simla, setting of so many Kipling stories, but Olivia, understandably drawn to the local prince, who is exotic and virile and the usual stuff but most importantly interesting, stays in Bombay to endure the heat and dust, a great act of will that in a novel from an earlier time and a different kind of writer would have destroyed her.  Not anymore.

Jhabvala’s prose is more or less like this:

As the Nawab touched the baize cloth covering the grand piano, a small animal – it looked like a squirrel – came scurrying out and ran for its life.  The Nawab did not seem surprised.  “Do you like my pianos” he asked Olivia; and added apologetically “There is no one to play them.”  (87)

The past section is obviously written by the narrator in the present, but is full of things she could not possibly know, so is her own fiction about her relative; thus the parallels between the stories are to a large degree her invention.  Or it is not written by the narrator, but rather by the omniscient narrator who is aware of all sorts of big and little correspondence about which the young woman in the present knows nothing.  Choose your metafiction.

Abortions, or their possibility, feature in both stories.  Ah, I thought, I am reading a novel from 1975, working with feminist issues of its time.  Why did this narrator go to India, what was she looking for in this old family story?  These questions give Heat and Dust its less political, more psychological or even metaphysical interest.  The narrator turns out to be one of the spiritual seekers drawn to India.  What does she seek?  What does she find?  Jhabvala does not tell, not directly.


  1. You've piqued my curiosity. I read Head and Dust a decade or two ago, and I have now only a vague memory of having read a fine novel; however, with my memory being what it is, I might be misremembering, so I will have to include Heat and Dust on my growing reading list. Oddly enough, I remember mostly what I think were vivid scenic and dramatic descriptions rather than characterizations, but I could be quite mistaken.

  2. I hope the descriptions stick with me, too. I meant to quote some, but Jhabvala is not a flashy writer, so out of context some of the options looked a little flat. They certainly did not feel flat while reading.

  3. Have you see the film? If not, any interest in it? You know how Forster wrote novels with the whole Italian mystique and as I like to call it 'women go wild in Italy' thing, I see another strain with India--as in his Passage to..Something to do with the heat?

  4. No, I have not seen the film. I would like to - good cast, good director, good story, and a nice technical challenge of seeing the same settings at a 50 year distance, which could be quite striking on film.

    You are right about the mystique. Jhabvala is perhaps offering a gentle comment on Passage to India. In her novel, at least, the heat and dust are not really a cause but may act as an excuse.

  5. I only know Jhabvala through her adaptations of Forster for the screen although that intrigued me enough for me to buy this book at some time more than ten, or even twenty years ago. Still haven't read it though.

  6. It's a strong novel, only dated in ways that make it interesting, a good sign. I am pretty sure that I would be able to independently derive an interest in Forster and James from the text, but of course now there is nothing like independence. I have not seen any of her early films with Merchant-Ivory, though.