Heat and Dust : The Story of India

A while ago, I read a book called Heat and Dust. The abridged version, actually, but the same story nevertheless. I’d like to share it with you….

Authentic Author : Ruth Prawer Jhabvala


The character “I” in this story is told to be an independent young woman who was born and lived in England. Her grandfather, Douglas Rivers, was once an assistant of chief in Satipur, India, when British still colonized India. He was married with Olivia, but a scandal happened back then in 1923, when everything changed in, especially, Olivia’s life. Douglas remarried with Tessie Crawford, had a son, who lived in England and was told to be the father of this story’s writer.images

The writer (name is not told) had always been interested in Olivia’s life story, but it’s not until his dad died she got some important information. One day due to Marcia’s (Olivia’s sister) death, a friend Harry gave the Rivers family Olivia’s letters to Marcia about her life in India. The writer kept these letters, and in 1970s, she decided she needed to know more about Olivia, and left for India.

The rest of this book shows the parts of writer’s diary and Olivia’s life, comparing their life in the same place in India but in the different time. Their life was completely different but yet the same in some strange ways. Here it goes…

Being the first wife of a busy official in a foreign country with no one else to share thoughts was pretty depressing for Olivia. Sure she loved her husband Douglas, and he loved her very much as well, but during the day, Olivia only had her piano and she was beginning to get bored. One day the Nawab, an Indian prince, invited British’s officials in Satipur for dinner. Olivia was excited because this was new to her, and she totally enjoyed it when the Nawab seemed to have special interest in her.

Few days later, the Nawab came to her house. They had a good time chatting in the living room. Olivia was clearly thinking the Nawab was a good man. One day, they both went to Baba Firdaus’ shrine, a holy place where Hindu women usually come if they wish to have a baby. But the place was believed to be built by a Muslim, and this aroused controversy every year at Husband Wedding’s Day.  People are killed and injured.

Olivia then started to hear bad news about the Nawab. The British believed that he was a leader of a robber gang that’s been robbing and arousing fear for local villagers. Also the fact that he did nothing to stop the controversy on Husband Wedding’s Day or the widow-burning custom where wives were burnt alive together with their dead husbands. Hearing this talk didn’t make Olivia lose faith in her new friend and she kept visiting the Nawab’s palace during the day, which Douglas didn’t even know, and defended him when the other British talked about his bad.

The climax is when Olivia and the Nawab went to Baba Firdaus’ shrine together. At that time Olivia and Douglas were planning of having a baby, so of course Olivia’s hoping this visit could grant her wish. But after visiting, she and the Nawab made out under a tree…

Which is kind of what the writer also did.

When the writer arrived in Bombay’s airport, she found that India had developed and looked different than what Olivia described in her letters. She stayed in a missionary guesthouse for a while until she went to Satipur and rented a room in Inder Lal’s home. Inder Lal worked for the government, yet he and his family was poor. But he was kind. He took the writer to the building that used to be the Nawab’s palace, the Rivers’ home, the Saunders’ home, etc, and he introduced her to many things about living in India.

She got used to live there, even made friends with Inder Lal’s mom and her ‘holy’ friend, Maji. But her best friend was still Inder Lal. But then Inder Lal’s wife Ritu got some sort of mental illness and as Maji suggested, had to leave for a pilgrimage to the Himalayas. Inder Lal’s mom and a homeless man named Chid accompanied her.

Either that was because he was lonely or he really liked the writer, Inder Lal started to spend more time with her. Their story ended up the same with Olivia’s – both of them went to the shrine and made out.

Olivia and the writer might not have shared the same blood and certainly had never met each other. But they did have the same destiny as the made out thing got them both pregnant, and they both tried to abort the baby. Olivia’s abortion was done by two Indian midwives ordered by the Begum, the Nawab’s mother. At night she bled and Douglas brought her to the hospital, but of course it was too late, she miscarried. But the doctor, Dr.Saunder, recognized the sign of Indian midwives and accused Olivia for abortion. She ran to the Nawab’s home and never came back, living the rest of her life in a house provided by the Nawab in the mountains.

The writer, on the other hand, cancelled her abortion plan right after Maji the midwives rubbed her hand on her stomach. She decided to keep the baby, but she would, like Olivia, stayed in the mountain. She would be there in a religious group’s place, stayed during her pregnancy, oh, maybe even longer. Actually, she considered staying up there for the rest of her life, just like Olivia did.

In the terrible heat and dust of India, people changed. Life changed.