Thursday 30 January 2014

Heat and Dust - A Review (Around the World in 80 Books)

Source: Wikimedia

'Heat and Dust,' by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Published: 1975
Genre: Historical Fiction
Theme: A tale of romance set in the days if the British Raj in India, with parallel threads about the two female protagonists exploring their selves and their place in India across two different eras

First up, sorry about the terrible delay. It's been a nightmarish month for me at work, with 3 deadlines, and 4 different friends turning up from out of town. I knew it would be bad, but I didn't expect it to be this bad. In the end, I was only able to read the one novel this month. That leaves 79 to read in the next 11 months for this challenge alone More than doable, but not ideal. Anyway, the one novel I went with was Heat & Dust, by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, a famous novel set in my own country (India) that I never got around to reading.

How was the book? Honestly, it isn't my kind of book. I can objectively say that it is a good book, well-crafted and with interesting characters - assuming it's your kind of genre (which isn't quite my case when romance plays a reasonably large part). The writing style would appeal to those who like a certain starkness when it comes to language. I suspect this may have something to do with the author's German background (she married a Parsi, hence the surname), with a fair bit of (relatively) modern German literature choosing the essence of the story over flair. Not having read much of her work, I should admit this is just my take based on this book. Personally, I tend to favour a more 'poetic' approach, at times bordering on 'purple prose,' much like classical literature and literature in the romantic languages (my French writings, for example, used to be favourably received because there was greater appreciation for imbuing prose with elements of poetry in that language, while my favourite writer, the Italian author Italo Calvino, had a brilliant way of using beautiful language to describe even the most mundane things). All said and done, though, Heat and Dust is a good book and a worthy winner of the Booker Prize, albeit one that can be a confusing read at times if one does not read it in one go.

Despite the minimalist style employed, the story itself is fairly complex, built around two separate but linked threads. One features an unnamed narrator, speaking in the first person and narrating her experiences in what was then a more contemporary version of India, while exploring the life of her grandfather Douglas' first wife, Olivia, through the letters she wrote back in her day. The other thread, as you would have guessed, is that of Olivia, who came to live in India as the wife of a highranking British official based in a land ruled by a charming but frivolous Nawab. Yes, you can see where this is going...

Douglas, a remarkably nice man who genuinely cares for Olivia and is loved by her in -return, nevertheless failed to help Olivia settle in India and frequently leaves her alone as he goes about his work. A privileged girl used to the comforts of Britain, the funloving Olivia struggles to deal with the alien and sometimes hostile ways of the strange land she has been forced to live in. It is at this time that she encounters the Nawab, a married man with a similar preference for the good life and a man capable of providing her with the chance to have some fun in this distant land she finds so dreary. The free-spending Nawab, typical of many royal playboys, spent lavishly on elaborate celebrations without actually having much money. Olivia and the Nawab become closer, while Douglas himself keeps his distance from the Nawab due to complications involving his means of obtaining money - namely an alliance with dacoits operating in the region. As Olivia and the Nawab get closer, between their interests and the growing distance between them and their respective spouses, a complication occurs, with Olivia getting pregnant. She eventually has an abortion in secret, with the aid of the Nawab's mother, but subsequently decides to live with the Nawab and move to the hill station of Shimla. The Nawab, alas, continued to waste money without actually being able to obtain any, and eventually died in abject penury. Olivia, by now having settled in this alien country that has given her much heartache, continues to live in India until her own death a few years later.

The other thread, featuring the narrator, shares some aspects of Olivia's story. Initially just trying to look into the tale of her step-grandmother, the narrator gradually realises that some of the facts are lost to time. At the same time, she begins to settle down in India herself (with more ease than the pampered Olivia, one notes, and perhaps more in keeping with the manner of her grandfather Douglas). In an interesting parallel to Olivia's life, she too gets involved with her Indian host, Inderlal, and becomes pregnant with their child. Unlike Olivia, though, she decides to keep the child, and in her now more personal quest to learn about this woman whose life two generations before parallels aspects of her own she decides to stay in India and moves to the same town, Shimla.

The setting, in each case, is something that is unmistakably representative of certain classes of India at the respective time of the tale. Where Olivia's tale was set in the days of the British Raj in India, a time of royalty and dominion over a hostile land, the narrator's India is one that is still trying to rise as a sovereign nation and find its own feet. As an Indian who has studied these periods extensively (too young to have experienced either, of course), I can identify with aspects of these. At the same time, there is a clear disconnect between what I see as an Indian and how the characters observe India. In many ways, this may have a basis in Jhabvala's own connection to India as an outsider who married an Indian and lived here for 24 years, the sort of situation where one gets to view things as a native but seldom actually having the viewpoint of a native.

The book becomes more engaging as one goes along, with the characters being fleshed out gradually. Olivia in particular goes from being somewhat spoilt and petulant to becoming a strong woman who learns to act for herself and deal with the harsh realities of the world. As I mentioned earlier, though, this is almost certainly the sort of book one should read through in one sitting or as close to it as one can manage (it's not long, not to worry). Having a stop-start approach that I had to take, followed by a wait of over two weeks to review it, is hardly ideal for a book such as this, where flow is not easily recovered.

Honestly, this is not the sort of review I'd want to write. I'm trying to pull together what little I remember feeling about a book I was not able to engage with adequately. But based on what I can recall and what I feel about it I'd say it is worth a read, provided one does not take too many breaks while reading it. It may not be the genre or style for everyone, but it is a well-crafted tale which goes from a simple narrative that does not engage much to a more complex story with complex (and more real) characters. Is it an ideal novel to introduce India? Speaking as an Indian, not particularly. It has its basis in historical fact, but focuses on a small enough segment that the inaccuracies in the wider historical setting don't make too much of an impact. Is it a good novel? Yes, but it isn't for everyone.

Sorry about the lack of reading this month, and the less-than-stellar review. I'll do my best to make up in February!

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