Monday, June 2, 2014

Heat and Dust

The novel’s opening sentence tells us immediately that Olivia, the wife of an English colonial official named Douglas Rivers, ran away with the Nawab of Khatm.

What follows is an account of the events leading up to this scandal in 1923, based on letters that Olivia wrote to her sister. These letters have come into the possession of the grand-daughter of Rivers and his second wife. She has come to India is to learn what happened to Olivia after she ran away with the Nawab.

The stories of these two women weave back and forth as the grand-daughter acquaints herself with India, and although she says Olivia "was everything I'm not," she ends up replicating many of Olivia’s experiences. She too has two lovers, one English and one Indian. She too becomes pregnant, seeks an abortion, and finally follows Olivia into oblivion.

This double narrative is packed with other ironies, many of them subtle. Olivia for instance refuses to go into the mountains during the hot season with other English wives, whom she finds dull. She insists on remaining with her husband, but since he is away at work all day, she falls into company with the Nawab as a way of avoiding boredom. Thus her desire to remain with her husband sets up the circumstances for leaving him. And where does she end up? In the mountains where the Nawab buys her a house, and where she remains for the rest of her life.


She "longed to be pregnant; everything would be all right then – he [her husband] would not change, she would not change, they would be as planned." She finally conceives but only after her affair with the Nawab has begun. Both men are delighted, their reactions virtually identical: "You’re not afraid? You’ll really do this for me? How brave you are." Then she has an abortion.

The Nawab

He is a minor prince, handsome and dashing, "a strong forceful character." But by the time he is 50 he has grown fat and womanly, and divides his time between his wife, his mother in Bombay, and Olivia in the mountains. When he comes to London he does not bring Olivia. He dies in New York City, and the palace is inherited by his nephew, Karim, who lives in London.

Inder Lal

He is the modern counterpart of a minor prince - a government official. His office is located in the house where the grand-daughter's great-aunt Beth (one of the women that Olivia found so dull) once lived. He sublets a room to the grand-daughter and has an affair with her. Like the Nawab he has a wife who is mentally ill.

The Grand-Daughter

She initiates her affair with Inder Lal at the same place (a shrine) after following the same custom (involving red string) as Olivia with the Nawab. Her abortion attempt begins in exactly the same fashion as Olivia's, although she changes her mind and stops the procedure. After visiting Olivia's house in the mountains, she heads for an ashram to have her baby.


Before going to India the grand-daughter meets Karim in London. He is as handsome and charming as the Nawab, and has the same admiration for their violent ancestor Amanullah Khan. He is just as interested in looting India as the Nawab, and is in partnership with a British couple who are described in terms similar to the Nawab's dacoits.


The Nawab and the grand-daughter/narrator remain nameless throughout the book. The Nawab’s Indian wife is nicknamed Sandy, while the grand-daughter's English lover, who has come to India seeking enlightenment, is known only by his Indian name, Chidananda.


The grand-daughter says, "India always changes you." Major Minnies says, "India always finds out the weak spot and presses on it."

The Nawab says, "These people will never learn. Whatever we do, they will still cling to their barbaric customs."

Inder Lal says of his co-workers, "You don't know what people are like or what is in their hearts even when they are smiling with friendly faces."

Dr. Gopal enumerates the diseases of India and concludes by saying, "I think perhaps God never meant that human beings should live in such a place."

Chidananda returns from a pilgrimage a changed person. "All he will ever say - the only explanation he gives for his changed feelings toward India - is how he can't stand the smell."

The Book

Heat and Dust won the Booker in 1975. Its title reflects the squalor of India. Its brevity (181 pages) and personal tone belie its density.

I particularly liked the ironies, the ambiguities, the inconclusive ending. I also liked the twin timelines with the mirroring of events and characters - devices that are essential to the book's message.

But how palatable is that message? Perhaps the grand-daughter's departure from Olivia's path (deciding to have her baby) is an effort to blunt the book's negativity and end on a hopeful note.

In 2008 a retrospective review of Booker winners by Sam Jordison in The Guardian offered a damning verdict, calling the book "pedestrian...dull and pointless...literature for people who hate literature."