Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 22, 2020

Heat and Dust 1975), by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, winner of the Booker Prize in 1975

Reviews From the Archive

An occasional series, cross-posting my reviews from The Complete Booker.
To see my progress with completing the Complete Booker Challenge, see here.

Heat and Dust, by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, won the Booker Prize in 1975.

October 13th, 2005

1975: Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

It took less than a day to read this – 180 pages long and easy to read – but it’s a rich and fruitful book. It comprises two stories in parallel: the tale of Olivia who abandons her British husband when she goes to India; and of her un-named relative who goes to Satipur some fifty years later to solve the mystery of what became of Olivia. She ends up becoming ‘seduced’ by India too.

Olivia is naive but adventurous, and she doesn’t like the other British wives and their disdain for Indian religion and culture. She is bored by their vapid lifestyle, and she outrages ‘society’ by visiting the local Naweb, an impoverished rogue in league with the Dacoits (bandits). The Naweb seems to exert a strange magnetic influence on those around him, including Harry, Olivia’s only discerning friend and the one who helps her out when things go awry.

In the process of discovering these scandals about her great-aunt , the narrator finds herself following in some of her footsteps. However, whereas during the British Raj Olivia was isolated from the ‘real India’ by class, caste and custom whatever her wishes may have been, in post-independence India her successor lives amongst Indians, and can make different decisions about how to live her life. Once again India is depicted as a place that attracts those interested in its ‘spirituality’ but the dropout Chid’s distaste for life as a mendicant shows just how silly it is for affluent outsiders to hanker for a life of poverty and hardship.

The title shows that Jhabvala had no illusions about the reality of life for most Indians.

I finished reading and journalled this book on 13.10.05.


  1. I have this book and love the movie even more – Greta Schacchi in her first leading role and wasn’t she wonderful, and Shadhi Kapoor as the Nawab. Wonderful story and Merchant Ivory produced some beautiful movies before Ruth Jhabvala sadly died.


    • I’ve never seen the film… I wonder if I course source a copy…
      I have just discovered Kanopy films through my library. Can you access that in NSW?


      • The movie is stunning Lisa – I sourced a copy on EBay and it’s truly one of Merchant/Ivory’s best – wonderful cast including Julie Christie. I think you would love it! The woman who played the Nawab’s mother was brilliant too – what a character she made of her!


        • I’ll definitely look for it. But at the moment our French homework each week involves watching and then discussing a French film so I’ll probably leave it until our topic moves onto something else.


  2. I’ve never heard of this book. I have enjoyed books about life in India. Such a fascinating country. I love the cover on this.


    • It’s gorgeous, who doesn’t love a Rolls? I had a ride in one once, on my wedding day, after all the fuss and bother, it was lovely to sink back in comfort and relax…
      I’ve never been to India, but it’s on my bucket list. One day, maybe.


  3. It must be an amazing place for everyone I know who have visited always sing its praises. I was told I had a great aunt who went to Calcutta as part of a scheme to teach the Indians about the manufacturing of hemp which the Brits had appropriated.The actor Brian Cox does an interesting documentary on this and that was new to me. William Dalrymple too writes interesting books on the British in India. That film will be a must see this weekend hopefully. Once again the brilliance of books to bring us such knowledge.


    • I had a great aunt who was matron in a hospital there, and my grandfather ‘served’ in India, as they used to say. I think that was something that a lot of Brits used to do as part of their career path. I hope they behaved well while they were there…


  4. I read and loved this in my early 20s. I was recently looking at my copy and wondering how it would read now. Must reread someday.


    • It sometimes feels risky to re-read something that you loved from long ago. I think it’s true to say that most of us were less discerning readers when we were younger, and so we worry that we might lose a fond memory when we read again with our older, more critical eyes…


  5. I haven’t read anything else by Jhabvala unfortunately – I only know her from Heat and Dust and her screenplays (and she was definitely a superb screen play writer).

    I would enjoy the French films Lisa!


    • Available on SBS and Kanopy, if you can get that in NSW. Last week I watched The Gilded Cage on Kanopy and loved it:)


  6. I enjoyed this at the time but now I can’t recall much about it at all…


    • I’m relieved someone else has that problem – I often think I know I read and enjoyed a book but can’t remember much about it! I was beginning to worry it was just me!


      • LOL It happens to me all the time!
        It’s why I started a reading journal all those years ago in 1997.
        And then why I started an Excel file to index them so that I could find which book was in which journal.


      • No definitely not just you….

        Liked by 1 person

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