Book Review: Heat and Dust
by Ramlal Agarwal
Jhabvala’s Heat and Dust: A Double-decker
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala came to India in 1951 after her marriage to an Indian Parsi architect and settled in a posh locality of Delhi. She had done her M.A. from London University by thesis on a short story in England. Naturally, she as an alien in Indian became curious about the social life of the Indians and their guiding principles of social behaviour. Indian manners are in sharp contrast with Western manners. Initially, a Western observer in India is excited by their novelty. As a keen student of literature, Jhabvala, like Amrita, the first heroine of her first novel To Whom She Will, does not merely look at them but also looks through them. She looked for the under-currents that regulated society. It did not take her long to realize that Indian society was consciously and unconsciously ruled by ancient wisdom and codes of conduct for people of different castes and temperaments. It is this understanding that guides her through her first five novels.
As the reader moves from one novel to another novel, he becomes aware of Jhabvala’s engagement with India and her observation of Indian manners getting more and more acute and shark. In the next three novels, she deals with East-West encounters and night lights the pathological and pathetic condition of Westerners in India and the fake spirituality that Indians flaunt and to which they become prey.
In the meanwhile, she was drawn to writing cinema scripts and started spending her time in America and England. She also started writing about Indian expatriate in America without any change in her vision and style. She wrote highly acclaimed screenplays for Merchant - Ivory Production Ltd.
In Heat and Dust, Jhabvala is mainly concerned with the climate and culture of India. India is a tropical country and the climate is invariably oppressive not only to Westerners but also to natives, it affects growth, habits, work-culture, sex life, and spiritual life. It is a fact that during scorching Indian summer, leaves will and men prefer to remain indoors. Mrs. Moore of The Passage to India realized that nothing in India seems to have any meaning. The human never quite touches the infinite. The trees of the poor-quality border the road, the countryside is too vast to admit of excellence. Men are mainly creatures like the rest and so debarred from glory India invites cosmic meanings, but beauty is absent. Nature rejects Romantic engagement. Jhabvala goes a step further and seems to think that the absence of beauty is made up of its binary opposition i.e., ugliness.
This is borne out by her characterization of the Nawab, a Prince, and Inder Lal a petty clerk. The Nawab bears a grudge against the British. He thinks the British played foul with his ancestors and harassed his mother. He was aware of the English might, and therefore he put on the mask of politeness in his behaviour with the British but wanted to hurt them. The Nawab keeps meeting with dacoits and carries on all sorts of sordid activities through them, He is a hypocrite par excellence. Like his ancestors, he is cunning like a fox and scheming like a spider, and is without any redeeming qualities. Inder has is a faceless, boneless petty clerk. He is besieged with problems at the office and home. His wife suffers from bouts of fits and his married life is a mere form without substance. He, too, is without any form without redeeming qualities.
The cruelty of nature in a tropical country affects people in more ways than one. Chid's none -too-healthy and frequent of erections and ejaculations, his diarrhoea, and his sap less ness on one hand, and the surge in religious sentiments and pomposity on the other are off-shoots of excessive heat and dust storms. Chid came to India to find peace. Instead, all he got was dysentery and are anaemia.
Westerners, it seems, believe that scorching heat and blinding dust storms throttle reasoning and logic and men come to rely more and more on instinct and impulse and legends like Baba Firdaus and the Husband's Wedding Day become the norm. In Forster’s A Passage to India, Dr.Aziz the protagonist is nothing but impulsive. His initial bout of love and admiration for the English and his subsequent hatred for them characterize his person. The famous incident on the Mara bar Caves highlighted the difference between temperaments of the people from temperate climates and tropical climates. Forster in his revised draft of the novel tried to cover it up in ambiguity and gave a twist to the novel. Jhabvala does not shirk from facing the facts.
Heat and Dust are about two English women who are young, beautiful, and sensitive. They came to India at different points in time. Olivia came as a wife of a British official and her granddaughter to trace the life of her grandmother and visit places she visited. It was a time when India was hopelessly divided into small, petty princely states and presented a painful picture of the wasteful lives of princes and princesses on one hand and wretched lives of commoners on the other, both suffocating under British Rule. Jhabvala deals with both of them.
Olivia, Like Adela, and Mrs. Moore in The Passage to India and unlike other women at Satipur bear no ill-will-towards the natives. She treats the Nawab of Khatum, a princely state attached to Sitapur and a frequent visitor to the English camp, with Warmth. She is impressed by his courtesy, his place, and opulence. During a visit to the shrine of Baba Firdaus, the Nawab tells her the story of his ancestors and how they were wronged by the British. Olivia sympathizes with him and puts her hand on his chest. The Nawab loses no time to exploit the situation. Consequently, Olivia becomes pregnant. As time passes, Olivia begins to worry. The local women notice the change in her body and advise her to go for an abortion. A midwife is chosen to do the job. The midwife does it by inserting a twig. When Olivia begins to suffer from the crude method of the midwife, she is referred to Dr. Sanders who discovers the fact, and it becomes known to the British horde. Olivia does not return to Douglas and goes to the palace of the Nawab. She wants to get away from her milieu and the Nawab buys her a cottage in the cooler climate of the Himalayas. The Nawab felt happy. It was his way of taking revenge on the British.
Like Olivia, her granddaughter meets Inder Lal who takes her to the shrine of Baba Firdaus and explains the myth of the Baba and the Husband's Wedding day and recounts his woes. The granddaughter sympathizes with him and like Olivia puts her hand on his chest. Like the Nawab, Inder Lal also does not let go of the opportunity, and she becomes pregnant. She, too, wants to move to the cooler climate but unlike Olivia does not accept abortion.
Heat and Dust got very hasty and insensitive reviews in India. They are of little concern to readers who care for the skill, balance, and control that go into the making of the novel. They are moved by the innocence, credulity, and quiet suffering of the two heroines in an alien and hostile culture that is in itself writhing under a cruel climate and dust storms. ***