He said that one has to be very determined to withstand - to stand up to - India. And the most vulnerable, he said, are always those who love her best. There are many ways of loving India, many things to love her for - the scenery, the history, the poetry, the music, and indeed the physical beauty of the men and women - but all, said the Major, are dangerous for the European who allows himself to love too much. India always, he said, finds out the weak spot and presses on it.
Olivia becomes a victim of the Indian Heat and Dust in Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's Booker-winning novel. The reader gets acquainted with her heightened sensitivity early on in the book when during a dinner table discussion on the practice of sati, she says,
"Oh I could!" cried Olivia, and with such feeling that everyone was silent and looked at her…"I'd want to. I mean, I just wouldn't want to go on living. I'd be grateful for such a custom."
Olivia falls for the beguiling charms of the Nawab of Khatm, with whom, unknown even to herself, she tumbles into love.
Her story is narrated by her step-granddaughter Anne, who returns to India to uncover the details of Olivia's scandal. As the story progresses, one discerns a mirror-like quality in the lives of the two characters. Anne herself falls for India's allure and develops an illicit relationship with her cohort Inder Lal, with whom she becomes pregnant, just like Olivia and the Nawab fifty years ago. And like Olivia too, she decides to stay back in India to know how it would it be when she is transformed by the place.
Yet to have done what she did – and then to have stuck to it all her life long – she couldn't have remained the same person she had been. But there is no record of what she became later, neither in our family nor anywhere else as far as I know. More and more I want to find out; but I suppose the only way I can is to do the same she did – that is, stay on.
There is an element of exotica to the book, a sort of peering in from an Occidental perspective, which, considering the circumstances, cannot be begrudged. For to a native like me, a decision to stay back would amount to throwing an axe at one's own leg, even if it were accompanied by lofty sentiments.
A touching segment details Anne's worry for a beggar woman who roams the streets of Satipur and her final hours in the lap of an elderly lady, affectionately called Maji. When Anne discovers that there is no room for her at the local hospital and that this does not seem to generate a general feeling of shock, she is awash with a sickening sensation that is new to her, a sensation that she realizes she is experiencing because the old woman, her life were dispensable.
But there is release finally for the beggar woman and for Anne too:
It was as if everything had already been squeezed out of her and there was nothing left for her to do except pass over. Maji was very pleased; she said Leelavati had done well and had been rewarded with a good, a blessed end.
These words acquired a mystical quality for this reader, who tied them up with larger questions of salvation and afterlife.
Ruth had a long cinematic association with Merchant-Ivory Productions and penned award-winning screenplays for them.
In 1983, Heat and Dust was made into a film starring Greta Scacchi, Shashi Kapoor and Julie Christie in the roles of Olivia, Nawab and Anne, respectively.
Here is a picture from the 2002 Baftas with James Ivory on the left and Ismail Merchant on the right. Merchant passed away last year.