India always changes people and I have been no exception
Heat and Dust is a book I’ve had on my mental could read list for a while. Being a Booker winner, a movie and set in India, I think I was expecting it to be a bit of an epic, something I might need to psych myself up for. Obviously I didn’t know much about it because it is not like that at all – it is a short, easy to read book that I sat down with (well lay down with really from the comfort of my bed!) in the morning, and was finished by lunchtime.
The book is set in Satipur, India and tells the story of two women, half a century apart. Olivia’s story takes place in 1923, during the time of the British Raj. She is in India with her husband Douglas, a junior official in the British Government. Satipur is the capital of Khatm, a province the British are seeking authority over, currently under the governance of a Nawab – a provincial governor, an Indian prince. It is the relationship between the Nawab, the British government officials and Olivia especially, with it’s political and personal tensions that make up this first story. We know at the beginning that Oliva eventually leaves her husband to be with the prince.
In the 1970’s, the granddaughter of Douglas travels to India to retrace Olivia’s footsteps and find out what happened to her. She had never returned to England. The narrator (who is not named) has the intimate letters Olivia had sent to her sister as a starting point. She visits the same places Olivia visited and her experiences although taking place in post colonial India, in many ways mirror those of her grandfather’s first wife.
This was a great book to read as an introduction to life in India under British rule from a British point of view. It didn’t paint the most flattering picture of the whole experience. Olivia as a new arrival felt foreign and out of place even among the fellow wives, who had been there for years and knew everything there was to know about India. When difficulties arose, her options were too limited. There was a certain lack of respect by the British toward the servants, the Nawab and the local customs.
Despite Olivia and the Nawab’s obvious attraction for each other, I didn’t find this to be a great love story. In a different setting it could even have been quite ordinary. Their relationship was a result I thought of the unsatisfactory environment they found themselves in. The combination of setting and story with the behind the scenes maneuvering was what made it enjoyable.
I liked it a lot and look forward to reading more novels set in India. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry is high on that list – it appears on so many book award lists, I’m expecting it to be wonderful!
Winner of the Booker Award in 1975
1975, 181 pages