Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The colonizer finds herself in the world of her subjects (Book - Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala)

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is the writer of the talented group that brought us most of the films named for the other two director and producer members of the trio - Ismail Merchant and James Ivory. If you have never seen their film adaptations of A Room with a View (1985) or Howard's End (1992) they are spectacular films - I think I watch A Room with a View at least once a year. They also made Heat and Dust (1983) before they had exploded onto the international film market. I remember seeing it when it was screened at MOMA. It's based on Jhabvala's Booker winning novel of the same title and which I am reading for Dewey's Booker Challenge.

The book is a multi-layered affair in which a young English woman in the 1970s travels to India to learn more about the story of her great-grandmother Olivia, who though recently married to an Englishman whom she then joins in India, runs off with an Indian Prince. This all happened in the 1920s. Muti-layered because it combines a present-day narrative of the young woman's trip, written as diary entries, with imagined memories of Olivia's life in the 1920s that, in turn, are taken from her letters to her sister. The writing style is sparse, almost reportorial. It is very event-driven, I feel like I can see (with my 20/20 hindsight) how Jhabvala's writing suits the medium of film, where the visual details can be lingered upon, if desired. Where we can be shown rather than told. I've read about half of this short novel and much of the early action consists of Olivia's boredom with the social scene in India as a recent immigrant:

He had been in India for over twenty years and knew all there was to know about it; so did his wife. And of course so did the Crawfords. Their experience went back several generations, for they were all members of families who had served in one or other of the Indian services since before the Mutiny. Olivia had met other such old India hands and was already very much bored by them and their interminable anecdotes about things that had happened in Kabul or Multan. She kept asking herself how it was possible to lead such exciting lives - administering whole provinces, fighting border battles, advising rulers - and at the same time to remain so dull. She looked around the table - at Mrs. Crawford and Mrs. Minnies in their dowdy frocks more suitable to the English watering places to which they would one day retire than to this royal dining table; Major Minnines and Mr. Crawford, puffy and florid, with voices that droned on and on confident of being listenined to though everything they were saying was, Olivia thought, as boring as themselves.

Olivia seems to be one of those people who fancies herself an adventurer in her head, but when push comes to shove she is skittish, naive, and rather whiny. But the writing is simple and confident and there are some wonderful observations of this strange and interesting culture that was the English empire in India. So I continue.

Next day Olivia went to visit Mrs. Saunders. She took flowers, fruit, and a heart full of tender pity for her. But although Olivia's feelings towards Mrs. Saunders had changed, Mrs. Saunders herself had not. She was still the same unattractive woman lying in bed in a bleak, gloomy house. Olivia, always susceptible to atmosphere, had to struggle against a feeling of distaste. She did so hate a slovenly house, and Mrs. Saunders' house was very slovenly; so were her servants. No one bothered to put Olivia's pretty flowers in a vase - perhaps there was no vase? There wasn't much of anything, just a few pieces of ugly furniture and even those were dusty.

I do enjoy the description and yet feel it fails somehow to come to life. I can't help thinking what Dickens would have made of such a character. But now, as I'm nearing the beginning of the affair (I think) things are beginning to heat up a little. The colonizers have a policy against the tradition of a widow throwing herself on the funeral pyre of her deceased husband and fail, one day, in enforcing it. It become the subject of a lively dinner conversation in which Olivia finally drags herself out of her protective skin of judgment to enter the world in which she is living:

"...She sat for four days on a rock in the river and said that if she wasn't allowed to burn herself then she'd starve herself to death. In any case she wasn't going to be left behind. In the end Sleeman had to give way - yes he lost that round but I'll tell you something - he speaks of the old lady with respect. She wasn't a fanatic, she wasn't even very dramatic about it, she just sat there quietly and waited and said no, she wanted to go with her husband. There was something noble there," said the Major - and now he wasn't being tolerant and amused, not in the least.

"Too noble for me, I fear," said Beth Crawford - as hostess, she probably felt it was time to change the tone. "Fond as I am of you, dear man," she told her husband across the table, "I really think I could - "

"Oh I could!" cried Olivia, and with such feeling that everyone was silent and looked at her. Douglas also looked - and this time she dared raise her eyes to his: even if he was angry with her. "I'd want to. I mean, I just wouldn't want to go on living. I'd be grateful for such a custom."

Now is she just trying on that sentiment, like a teenager trying on a piercing, a radical haircut, or a new controversial opinion? Perhaps. But she thinks she means it, and rather than stand at a distance any longer from those her country colonized, she dares to step inside. Olivia is waking up to herself. This may get interesting.

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