Culture clash

Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, was awarded the Booker Prize in 1975. The author was brought up in Germany and England, married an Indian, and spent a lot of time in India. Her novels often reflect her own situation with regard to India, so she doesn't write as an insider (as, for example, her fellow Booker winner, Aravind Adiga's The white tiger), but rather as an outsider looking in, and striving to come to terms with the vast country. Some Indian critics have labelled her authorial detachment as a return to an old-fashioned Western attitude towards India. I must admit that in Heat and dust, I do think they may have a point.

This short novel has two strands to it: the life in the India of the 1920's of Olivia. Fresh out from England, and recently married to an old-India hand, Olivia is enthralled by the country and its people. Her enthusiasm for the country however blinds her to some rather nasty internal politics in which she is soon implicated with devastating results. The other strand follows Olivia's step-grand-daughter, as she too struggles to come to terms with the land. Her struggle ends in a similar way to Olivia's but with a rather more upbeat outcome, suggesting that although India may remain essentially unknowable to Western eyes, it is possible to come to an accommodation with it.

Olivia, I must say, comes across as a bit of a naive idiot - I felt like shaking her on several occasions. And it's hard to see what she sees in the Nawab, who comes across as a rather nasty piece of work, as undeserving of trust as the British officials say he is. So in spite of Olivia appearing to support Indians against British stereotypes of them, the novel actually reinforces the stereotype. The modern story does show Indians in a slightly more positive light, but I still think it's very stereotypical, Indians are generally shown as rather naive, superstitious people, who need the guidance of Europeans to fulfill their potential. I think if I was an Indian I would find it quite insulting. Positively, the landscape of India is portrayed lovingly and realistically. There is clearly a great interest, if not love, for the land and its peoples.

Oddly I have found novels by authors brought up in Imperial India (such as M.M. Kaye's The Far Pavilions, much more sympathetic in their recreation of ordinary Indians. An interesting but flawed novel.


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