I read Heat and Dust for my Booker challenge; the novel won the Booker Prize in 1975. It seems like a very typical Booker winner: a critical portrayal of the British Empire, race and Englishness.
It was strange reading this book, because it took quite a long time for me to find out or decide whether the main character and narrator of the novel was a man or woman. Although I don't know why that is so important to know... :) The narrator's name is never mentioned and she (yes, it turns out that she is a she) doesn't tell much about herself - at first. Also, after I finished reading the book and googled Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, I was astonished to find out that she is not an Indian author (which I stupidly assumed from her name and the fact that the novel is set in India), but a German-born British author (who has lived in India). So all in all, this novel certainly caused a lot of gender/nationality confusion. :)
I don't remember the last time I've enjoyed the way a story unfolds as much as I did when I read this. The novel contains two parallel storylines that alternate within the narrative. The un-named narrator, a young English woman, travels to India in the 1970s (the present of the novel) in search of the true story of her great-aunt Olivia. The parallel narrative naturally tells the story of Olivia, wife of an English civil servant in India in 1923. We learn on page 2 that Olivia has caused a scandal in her time by eloping with an Indian prince. The reasons behind this elopement are quietly and subtly revealed during the course of the novel.
The structure of the novel is somehow magical. The present and the past, the narrator and Olivia, India during the British Empire and India in the 1970s, are all intertwined together in a colourful mix of memories. The character of Olivia fascinates the narrator (and the reader!) who is struggling to understand Olivia's choice to leave her husband and live with Nawab, an impulsive Indian royal with an extravagant lifestyle. Meanwhile, the narrator begins to find herself deeper immersed in the culture of India - loving and hating it at the same time.
The novel reminded me of George Orwell's Burmese Days, which also describes the last days of the British Empire - in Burma, which was then part of India. Burmese Days also has characters like Major Minnies in the quote above, who sacrifice their entire lives for the British Raj in India, but who never allow themselves to forget the social and cultural gap between themselves and the "others", i.e. the natives: He who loved India so much, knew her so well, chose to spend the end of his days here! But she always remained for him an opponent, even sometimes an enemy, to be guarded and if necessary fought against from without and, especially, from within: from within one's own being.
Then there are Indians, like Nawab, who are highly educated, cultured and rich, but who can never hope to be treated as equals when socialising with the British in their own country. And finally, there are those stuck in-between: like Olivia, who cannot understand the other Brits' need to draw clear boundaries between themselves and the locals.
This was a surprising novel, much better than I expected. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the British Empire and its aftermath in India.
... and in Finnish: Kirja on suomennettu nimellä Kuumuus ja kiihko, mikä saa sen kuulostamaan lähinnä romanttiselta hömpältä. :) Rakkaus ja romantiikka eivät minusta olleet kirjan kantavia teemoja millään tavalla, joten siinäkin mielessä suomenkielinen nimi on aika harhaanjohtava.
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: Heat and Dust. John Murray. 1975. 181 pages.
Wikipedia: Heat and Dust
Wikipedia: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala