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Jhabvala’s Heat and Dust: A Double-decker

By: Ramlal Agarwal 

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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 earned her M.A. from London University by writing a thesis about the short story set in England. Naturally, she, as an alien in India, 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 undercurrents 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. This understanding is what guides her through her first five novels.

As the reader moves from one novel to another, he becomes aware of Jhabvala’s engagement with India and her observation of Indian manners getting more and more acute and sharp. In the next three novels, she deals with East-West encounters, the pathological and pathetic condition of Westerners in India, and the fake spirituality that Indians flaunt and to which they become prey.

In the meantime, she was drawn to writing cinema scripts and started spending her time in America and England. She also started writing about Indian expatriates in America without any change in her vision and style. She wrote highly acclaimed screenplays for Merchant-Ivory Productions 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 the scorching Indian summer, leaves will drop and men will prefer to remain indoors. Mrs. Moore, in The Passage to India, realizes that nothing in India seems to have any meaning. A human never quite touches the infinite. The trees are of poor-quality border the road. The countryside is barren and too vast and leaves little room for excellence. So, men are mainly creatures like the rest, and so are barred 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 behavior 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 Lal is a faceless, saplesspetty clerk. He is besieged with problems at the office and at home. His wife suffers from bouts of fits, and their marriage is a mere matter of form substance.

The cruelty of nature in a tropical country affects people in more ways than one. Chid is none-too-healthy and suffers from frequent erections, ejaculations, and diarrhoea, Chid came to India to find peace. Instead, all he got was dysentery and anaemia.

Westerners, it seems, believe that scorching heat and blinding dust storms throttle reasoning and logic, so 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 characterizes his personality. The famous incident at the Malabar caves highlights the difference between the temperaments of people from temperate climates and tropical climates. Forster, in his revised edition of the novel, tried to cover it up in ambiguity and gave the novel a twist. Jhabvala does not shy away from facing the facts.

Heat and Dust is about two English women who are young, beautiful, and sensitive. They came to India at different points in time. Olivia came as the 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, painting a bleak picture of the wasteful lives of princes and princesses on the one hand and the wretched lives of commoners on the other, both suffocating under the British rule. Jhabvala deals with both of them.

Olivia, like Adela and Mrs. Moore in The Passage to India, and unlike other Englishwomen at Satipur, bears 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 palace, and his 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 in exploiting 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, she does not accept abortion.

Indian reviewers and readers were greatly offended by the novel. and thoughtthat it was a deliberate attempt to tarnish the image of a country which has had the highest achievements in the arts, science, and philosophy. Therefore, they vented their ire on Jhabvala and questioned her credentials as a novelist and treated the novel as trash. Ironically, the novel won the Booker Prize and was highly regarded by Western critics and readers who were impressed by Jhabvala’s the cool gaze into the darker aspects of the country instinctively averted by its people, and she presents it with rare acumen and finesse. They were touched by the poignant tale of open-hearted, liberal, and sensitive women from generation togeneration, coming to griefin a cruel climate and alien culture.

The novel reminds us of one of Kipling’s famous lines: Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.


Ramlal Agarwal did his M.A. from Mumbai University in 1965 and Ph.D. from Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University in 1977. Taught English and also served as Principal (1995 to 2000), Chairman, Board  of Studies in English, Dean of the faculty of  Arts, Dr. B.A.M.U., Aurangabad. Reviewed Indian Writing in English for World Literature Today, U.S.A., and contributed articles and reviews to The Times of IndiaIndian ExpressQuest, Youth Times, and other national papers and magazines. His work on Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was published by Sterling Publishers, Delhi (1990). He currently lives in Jalna ( Maharashtra ) and runs an NGO.

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