Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Heat and Dust - Ruth Prawer Jhabwala

Ruth Prawer Jhabwala is the only writer who won an Oscar and a Booker. 'Heat and Dust' won her the Booker for 1975. Her two Oscars came for 'Howard's End' and 'A Room with a View'. 'Heat and Dust' was also made into a movie starring Shashi Kapoor and Julie Andrews..
Penguin, 181 p
It's a slim book. A classic. A young girl comes to India to learn more about her great grand aunt Olivia who lived in India in the 1920s. Olivia lived in a town called Satipur (named after the practice of Sati) which was then a part of the kingdom of Khatm ruled by the charming Nawab of Khatm. Olivia, married to an English bureaucrat Douglas, finds life in the heat and dust of India extremely boring, and avoids the boring meetings of the English people. She prefers the company of the Nawab (who takes a liking for her) and his gay English partner Harry. The three of them meet in the Nawab's palace and Olivia is picked up almost every day by the Nawab's car. It seems that they are just friends. But Douglas understands that there is more to it than that. Olivia tries halfheartedly to restart her dream of making a family - only Douglas seems incapable of making her pregnant. Olivia does become pregnant thanks to the Nawab who seems to use her pregnancy as a way of getting back at the British for treating him so badly. Olivia goes to the palace to abort her child, does not return to Douglas and lives in an unknown place taken care of by the Nawab who is fast losing all access to his money.

The narrator, living in the 1970s, finds herself a room for rent in Satipur. Her landlord is an Indian government officer with a troubled family life. She explores the region to find out more about Olivia. She meets a whole bunch of people, an English man who is trying to be an Indian monk (with whom she has an affair), her house owner Inder Pal (with whom she has an affair and gets pregnant and goes to a midwife for an abortion), and finally decides against it and has her baby in the same town that Olivia lived out her life.

It's after the story moves a considerable distance that I realised that the life of the narrator was shared a pattern with that of Olivia's - the Indian lover, the weak gay partner (Harry and the monk), the pregnancy and the abortion. Only the narrator decides against it and changes the pattern.

Ruth Prawer Jhabwala tells the story so tightly and with such a deep understanding of the landscape that you feel she lived one of the roles. The boredom of the British officers and their wives, their own class segregations, their relationship with the Indian nawabs, the lives of the Indian nawabs and how it changed in those years when the British slowly gained control over them and their kingdoms, the food, the relationships, the love, the hate, it moves so slickly and so tautly that you are completely transported into that world. Ruth Prawer Jhabwala never describes a scene of intimacy nor does she indicate what the relationships are about. So one wonders what Harry is to the Nawab, what Olivia means to her and how far it will go, what the relationship between Olivia and Douglas is until you sense correctly that the Nawab and Harry are gay partners, that Olivia and the Nawab had an affair and that Douglas and she do not share much love. Similarly the narrator is extremely casual about the sexual needs of the monk when he lives with her and even the way she enters into a liaison with Inder Pal. There is no judgment or even a thought given in that direction of the relationships - it could well have been that they ate dinner together or listened to some favorite music together. I am impressed with the way she structured the book, the way the two stories merge and share a similar pattern with similar relationships. Without saying anything she says so much about how each of the relationships still means a lot for each of them - how many dimensions they traverse. It's an extraordinarily told story about ordinary people.

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