Sunday, February 10, 2008

The search for enlightenment, release, forgiveness (Booker Challenge - Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala)

This post along with this one constitute my thoughts about Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's 1974 Heat and Dust - Booker prize winner, and it contains a spoiler. Heat and Dust is a story of differences. The English and the Indian, the intellectual and the spiritual, the servants of the empire and the 'natives.
Yes, concluded the Major it is all very well to love and admire India - intellectually, aesthetically, he did not mention sexually but he must have been aware of that factor too - but always with a virile, measured, European feeling. One should never, he warned, allow oneself to become softened (like Indians) by an excess of feeling; because the moment that happens - the moment one exceeds one's measure - one is in danger of being dragged over to the other side.
Or of losing one's wife, I guess the book would say. Perhaps for its time this book read more profoundly than it does now. Perhaps it performed literary atonement for political sins and awarding it the Booker showed the English really meant it? I don't know. I found the story predictable, the writing style admirable but reportorial. I was interested but never moved. Perhaps it is because I saw the movie (although that was many years ago), but I was left feeling a little empty.

When Olivia, the wife of a British official, and a local Indian prince begin their relationship he asks her:
Olivia, do you also hate and despise orientals? Of course you do. And you are right, I think. Because we are very stupid people with feelings that we let others trample on and hurt to their hearts' content. English people are so lucky - they have no feelings at all.

The British characters in this book search for power, for love, for enlightenment, for their roots - with all this longing surely there is some feeling too - however disguised? Conversely, the married Indian prince toys with and seduces a stupid and idle British woman and gets her pregnant. She aborts her baby and lives in the mountains in India for the rest of her life. If the prince felts any remorse, in fact, if he felt anything at all, I was unaware of it. So I guess the finally irony is that the British made true subjects of the Indians after all.

I did find the descriptions of life in India interesting. One of the primary reasons I read is to get inside difference - whether of individuals, cultures, times, geographies, what have you. It is curious, the draw this country, of poverty, of harsh caste hierarchies, has to people seeking release from themselves. I hope to travel there one day and in the meantime will, I guess, visit through literature.


heather (errantdreams) said...

Although I was reviewing an utterly different book this morning, I had a similar complaint about it---I just couldn't connect emotionally with the characters. When that happens, no matter how much I like other aspects of the book, it'll always feel like there's something missing. It's a shame with this one, because the concept sounds interesting.

Ted said...

Heather - it ends up being so disappointing! I read the last 1/3 of this book with a very idle, unconcerned feeling. Ah well. Jhabvala does create great screenplays!