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Critical Essay by Ramlal Agarwal
SOURCE: "A Critical Study of Heat and Dust," in Studies in Indian Fiction in English, edited by G. S. Balarama Gupta, Jiwe Publications, 1987, pp. 53-60.
In the following essay, Agarwal discusses the stories of Olivia and her granddaughter in Heat and Dust, proposing that their tragic fates in India are due to their "liberalism and sensitivity."
When the Booker Prize for 1975 was given to Heat and Dust the literati in India refused to be impressed. They thought that Jhabvala was awarded the prize for her ruthless damning of India, the country in which she had lived for over a quarter of a century. Naturally they hit back by damning the book. In an article called "Cross-cultural Encounter in Literature," published in The Indian P.E.N. [November-December, 1977] Nissim Ezekiel observed:
I found Heat and Dust worthless as literature, contrived in its narrative structure, obtrusive in its authorial point of view, weak in style, stereo-typed in its characters and viciously prejudiced in its vision of the Indian scene. To the distinguished English novelist who was the Chairman of the Jury for the Booker Prize, and to his colleagues, this judgement would no doubt be quite inexplicable, though it was widely shared in India. Indian reviewers dwelt on the India of Heat and Dust on the character of the Indian Nawab or Prince who has an affair with the wife of a British Civil Servant stationed in his town, and on the explicit and implicit commentary on Indian mores as well as the Indian setting, things Indian generally. For them, there could be no separation between these and the quality of the novel, its authenticity, its literary substance. English reviewers seemed to ask only how such matters were used within the novel's pattern of events, what light they threw on the writer's perceptions of character and conduct. The intercultural encounter was secondary, minor, interesting but not in any sense disturbing. Heat and Dust did not generate any heat or raise any dust in England. It did both in India, partly because of the Booker Prize which put on the novel the stamp of British approval, naturally without any concern for Indian sensibilities. The gulf between the two viewpoints seems unbridgeable.
Obviously Ezekiel found Heat and Dust worthless, contrived, etc. because of Jhabvala's explicit and implicit commentary on Indian mores as well as the Indian setting. One can understand Ezekiel's righteous indignation at what he considers an attempt to ridicule India, but one wonders whether it can stand as literary criticism. Jhabvala's explicit and implicit commentary on Indian mores and Indian setting is not extraneous but an integral part of the novel itself. It surfaces by itself though the two heroines of the novel try their best to turn a blind eye to it. The two heroines of Heat and Dust love India perhaps more than Ezekiel does. They give themselves over to it unreservedly. In the end they come to grief because they over-look the fact that it is disastrous to get mixed up with an alien culture however rich or ancient it may be. This is the theme of the novel and once this is clear one can see the reasons for which it was received so enthusiastically in the West.
Heat and Dust tells two stories instead of one. One of them deals with an English woman called Olivia and the other deals with her granddaughter. Olivia is in India because her husband Douglas is a District Officer at Satipur. She loves her husband but he is too busy to keep her company all the time. Soon Olivia finds herself oppressed with loneliness. When she meets the Nawab of Khatm, a small princely state, she finds herself attracted to him. She is impressed by his opulence, his authority, his unfailing hospitality, and above all, by his courteous attention to her. At the first meeting itself, Olivia realizes that "here at last was one person in India to be interested in her the way she was used to." Olivia does not like the English community at Satipur and remains shut up all day. She develops an intimate friendship with Harry, an Englishman living with the Nawab in an undefined position and this leads to a friendship with the Nawab himself. Olivia's assessment of the Nawab's personality agrees in many respects with Harry's:
He is a very strong person. Very manly and strong. When he wants something, nothing must stand in his way. Never, ever. He's been the Nawab since he was fifteen (his father died suddenly of a stroke). So he's always ruled, you see; always been the ruler.
She finds that the English at Satipur do not approve of the Nawab and avoid discussing him in her presence. They do however, make sly remarks about his marriage and about his being connected with dacoits, which displeases and shocks Olivia. Her sympathy for the Nawab is part of her attitude to the Natives which is radically different from that of the others in her community. This sympathy is partly a result of her innate goodness and partly a consequence of her ignorance of the people and customs of India. She develops a critical attitude to her community and to her husband. Douglas' complacency and Olivia's mistrust of it are beautifully illustrated in the following passage:
'Oh goodness, darling, you have seen it hundreds of times … Why were they laughing? What did you say?'
'I just told them, in a roundabout way that they were a pack of rogues.'
'And they like being told that?'
'If you say it in Hindustani, yes.'
'I must learn!'
'Yes, you must,' he said without enthusiasm.
'It's the only language in which you can deliver deadly insults with the most flowery courtesy … I don't mean you, of course.' He laughed at the idea. 'What a shock they'd have!' Why? Mrs. Crawford speaks Hindustani; and Mrs. Minnies. 'Yes, but not with men. And they don't deliver deadly insults. It's man's game, strictly,' 'What isn't it?'
Olivia said. He sucked at his pipe in rather a pleased way which made her cry out sharply:
'Don't do that!' He took it out of his mouth and stared in surprise, 'I hate you with that thing. Douglas,' she explained.
Her refusal to accompany the other Englishwomen, Beth Crawford and Mary Minnies, to the mountains in summer is a characteristic act of rebellion, though it is subtly camouflaged by an exhibition of love and concern for Douglas. On many issues she takes up positions which are repulsive to the other members of her set. For example, she defends Sati, a savage Hindu custom in the eyes of the English people:
'It's part of their religion, is not it? I thought one wasn't supposed to meddle with that.' Now she looked down into her Windsor soup and not at all at Douglas; but she went on stubbornly; 'And quite apart from religion, it is their culture and who are we to interfere with anyone's culture especially an ancient one like theirs…. I know,' Olivia said miserably. She had no desire to recommend widow-burning but it was everyone else being so sure—tolerant and smiling but sure—that made her want to take another stand. 'But in theory it is really, isn't it, a noble idea. In theory,' she pleaded. Without daring to glance in Douglas' direction, she knew him to be sitting very upright with his thin lips held in tight and his eyes cold. She went on rather desperately, 'I mean, to want to go with the person you care for most in the world. Not to want to be alive any more if he wasn't.'
Olivia, unlike the others in her set, treats the Nawab as a friend. She does not believe, in her innocence, that the Nawab is associated with dacoits though it makes no difference to her relationship with him when later she discovers that he had dealings with them.
It is her interest in him as a human being which draws her closer to him, but in the end she is totally captivated by him and her surrender to him is complete. The Nawab's approach to the relationship is different. He finds Olivia attractive and sympathetic to him and deliberately sets out to win her. His talk about his daring ancestors and past glory is calculated to impress her. The tale of his present difficulties draws out Olivia's sympathy. The conquest of Olivia is for him, as for his ancestor Amanullah Khan, a subtle way of avenging himself on the English community. Even as the Nawab is closing in on Olivia, he recounts a story of how Amanullah Khan took revenge on a Marwar prince:
"Listen," he said. Once it happened that a Marwar prince did something to displease him. I think he did not offer opium out of the correct silver chalice—it was only a small thing, but Amanullah Khan was not the man to sit quiet when insulted…. He invited this Marwar Prince and all his retainers to a feast. A ceremonial tent was put up and all preparations made and the guests came ready to eat and drink. Amanullah Khan greeted his enemy at the door of the tent and folded him to his heart. But when they were all inside he gave a secret sign and his men cut the ropes of the tent and the Marwar prince and his party were entangled within the canvas. When they were trapped they were like animals, Amanullah Khan and his men took their daggers and stabbed with them through the canvas again and again till there was not one enemy left alive. We still have that tent and the blood is so fresh and new, Olivia, it is as if it had happened yesterday.
What the Nawab does to Olivia is not very different from what Amanullah Khan did to his guest. Olivia becomes pregnant by the Nawab, undergoes a painful abortion because she comes to know that the baby might show the signs of its origin. The primitive method of abortion used by the local maids makes her sick and she is finally treated by the English doctor who sees through everything. Naturally Olivia quits the English camp. From this point onwards, she recedes to the background of the Nawab's zanankhana. What happens to her there is only a matter for guess. She spends her last days somewhere in the Himalayas.
Douglas' granddaughter by his second wife is fascinated by Olivia's story, which she gets from old relations and letters, and comes out to India to reconstruct Olivia's story. What happens to her in India has a close parallel in what happens to Olivia.
By the time the young woman arrives in India, the palace in which the Nawab lived has become a derelict place. All its splendour has gone. Its riches have found their way to Europe. But the township of Satipur has grown, though in an amorphous manner. The places where the English lived have been converted into government offices. She rents a small room from Inder Lal, a government official. Inder Lal also acts as her guide to the places around Satipur. The young English woman keeps a diary in India. She meets a trio of Westerners, a young man and his girl and another youth. The diarist asks the girl why she is in India. The girl laughs grimly and says: "To find peace. But all I found was dysentery." One of the two men had taken the Indian name of Chidananda. After a few days, the diarist finds Chid lying in an old tomb, dying of diseases and hunger. She takes him home, in spite of Inder Lal's protests. In the course of her research tours, the diarist goes to the shrine of Baba Firdaus. The shrine is famous because it is said that there the peoples' wishes are heard. At the shrine the diarist and Inder Lal, very much like Olivia and the Nawab in the past, develop physical intimacy which results in the diarist becoming pregnant. But unlike Olivia, she does not terminate her pregnancy. She accepts responsibility for her action and wants to have the child. In the end she too, like Olivia, goes to the Himalayas, which are to her a symbol of the spiritual mystery that India offers to the seeker beyond the heat and dust, the spiritual presence of India's mystery:
Mountain peaks higher than any I have dreamed of, the snow on them also is whiter than all other snow—so white it is luminous and shines against a sky which is of deeper blue than any known to me. That is what I expect to see. Perhaps it is also what Olivia saw: the view—or vision that filled her eyes all those years and suffused her soul.
The ending of Heat and Dust, in terms of the careers of both the heroines, Olivia and the Diarist, is full of ambivalence.
Heat and Dust is remarkable for its structural innovations. Though the two stories are very much like each other, the manner of telling them is different. The first one is dramatic. It tells itself. One episode follows another. The author just brings characters with different attitudes and backgrounds together and leaves them to depict themselves by their behaviour and by the way they interact upon one another. Psychology is telescoped or taken for granted. So little of what goes on inside the characters is ever mentioned that they seem empty or flat. But this is a deliberate fictional strategy on the part of the novelist. Olivia's story presents a cool reconstruction of bygone days with multiple points of view. The novel derives its authenticity from the truthfulness of their points of view and not from the objective reality of the Indian scene or character. Douglas, for example, represents the typical view held by British officials that they were here to rule the country and that they could not rule it unless they learnt to discriminate between the rulers and the ruled. Douglas, like his colleagues, wants to preserve the identity of the English in India. Harry represents the Englishmen who had been closer to the Indian Maharajas and Nawabs. Harry is an extension of Raymond in A New Dominion but he is not detached as Raymond was and he is not in tune with the Englishmen in India. He belongs to the Nawab's camp and is, therefore, hated by his compatriots. Harry, like Raymond, goes back to England and starts hating his Indian experience. When he meets the Nawab in England he gets the shock of his life:
Harry said that he had a shock when he saw him again in London. Fifteen years had passed, the Nawab was fifty years old and so fat that there was something womanly about him. And the way he embraced Harry was womanly too: he held him against his plump chest with both arms and kept him there for a long time. And then all the old feelings came back to Harry. But afterwards he found that his feelings towards the Nawab had changed—probably because the Nawab himself had changed so much. He seemed softer and milder, and with many troubles of a domestic nature.
Major Minnies represents a more balanced view based on an understanding of Indian climate and Indian character. If Douglas represents one extreme view, Olivia and her granddaughter represent the other. They are too sympathetic and liberal in their outlook. If Douglas and others like him show a sneering attitude to India, Olivia and her granddaughter show an understanding one. Olivia knows that religion and culture are not to be mocked at. The second story uses the first person narrative. The narrator-heroine records what she sees or what happens to her in the most matter-of-fact style. Here too psychology is telescoped. Naturally the story is pictorial. It presents the picture of India in which the English are no longer the ruling class and if they are there, they are there as visitors or seekers, very different from their predecessors, and very much at the mercy of their Indian hosts or Gurus. The story presents the picture of India seen through a single subjective point of view. The stories dealing with the objective and the subjective points of view are so structured as to reinforce each other. They are also brilliantly interlocked. One offers a distant perspective, the other a close view. As such, the novel moves on two levels in time. It shuttles between the past and the present. Though the two heroines are separated by half a century, they are not unlike each other in their sensitiveness and receptiveness to India and both of them go through identical experiences. The novel moves backward and forward. This is because time is assumed and the action is a static pattern continuously redistributed and reshuffled in space. Jhabvala follows this device to show the timeless aspects of the country. The spatial reality of India is conveyed through the descriptions of the dry, parched up land, smouldering rubbish, mud-thatched houses, lying beggars, over-crowded hospitals and hysterical people. This spatial reality is, as she sees it, still operative even though the temporal reality has changed inevitably. The India of princes and palaces has made room for the India of petty government servants and overcrowded huts and hospitals, but the heat and the dust are still there, and they still affect people as they affected people fifty years ago.
'The novel,' says Trilling, 'is a perpetual quest for reality, the field of its research being always manners as the indication of the direction of man's soul' [The Liberal Imagination, 1970]. The quest for reality through the study of manners has been Jhabvala's preoccupation. We know the Nawab through his preoccupation with his ancestor, and the old legend of the British community. What is true of the Nawab is also true of Inder Lal and other characters. We know Inder Lal through his preoccupation with his office work, his relationship with his mother and wife and with the diarist. Jhabvala's characters are set in a crowded country where the pressures of its climate and complicated tradition of manners are great. To say that those who are not born in such a country find it overwhelming is not to malign India.
In Heat and Dust Jhabvala shows that the two English heroines of the novel lack moral realism. They become victims of illusions generated by their liberalism and their sensitivity. They are carried away by their generosity. Therefore, they do not perceive the dangers of excess of feeling for a country they love but do not understand. Olivia admits that she does not understand India but she is not deterred from responding to the country unreservedly:
I enjoy being here. I enjoy your company. We have a good time. Don't look like that, Harry. You're being like everyone else now: making me feel I don't understand. That I don't know India. It's true I don't, but what's that got to do with it? People can still be friends, can't they, even if it is India.
Heat and Dust is Jhabvala's last novel with Indian setting. Naturally it sums up her experience of India, an experience reinforced and refined over the years. Small wonder if the novel has a pure gem-like quality about it.
This section contains 3,205 words
(approx. 11 pages at 300 words per page)