Heat and Dust

For many years I admired Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s screenwriting prowess–several of her scripts for Merchant Ivory became some of my very favorite films. I found out shortly after she passed away that she lived not only in the same building as my sister and brother-in-law in NYC, but also on the same floor. Mrs. Jhabvala was a fan of their little dog Chalupa, and they had no idea who she was until they saw a linked obit on my Facebook page!

Heat and Dust is the first of her fiction I’ve read, and I highly recommend it.

The novel is set in India and is largely focused on the experience of India and Indians through the eyes of British colonialists. There are thematic similarities with E.M. Forester, but also a bit of Conrad or Graham Green in there as well. The novel is short and breezy but feels larger. The prose is tightly controlled and reminiscent of Nadine Gordimer.

I note that the most lush scenes all involve cemetery settings or death. Most of the “civilized” settings are moribund, dusty, derelict. The English are cut off from sensation and emotion–they busily build and fuss like worker bees or ants, never feeling the hot pulse of life. The Indians who become Anglicized wilt. The English who “go native” become sick and moribund. Everyone struggles to find an oasis, a respite, a flourishing patch of Earth in an oppressive landscape. Mores and traditions are challenged and break down. More than the climate becomes hot and steamy. The intertwined and interrelated cultures are sunbaked and confused but aim for a higher spiritual truth, as aloof, distant, and full of mysterious promise as the icy peaks of the Himalayas.

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