My Favorite Booker Prize Winner: “Heat and Dust” by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala won the Booker Prize for Heat and Dust in 1975, a long-ago year when elegant economy was preferred to the purple prose of baggy monsters. At a succinct 181 pages, Heat and Dust is a colorful small canvas as much as a novel. And her pitch-perfective simplicity strikes a chord that the brilliant Hilary Mantel, Peter Carey, and Lucy Ellmann cannot reach in their long, complex, beautifully-written Booker winners. (Please bring back the short novels!)

On a third reading of Heat and Dust, I am still enchanted by the seamless interweaving of two stories of Englishwomen in India. One story is set in 1923, the other in the early ’70s (Jhabvala’s then-present). The nameless narrator, a young woman captivated by the letters of her great-aunt Olivia, has come to India to research Olivia’s history. Her pretty great-aunt had followed her husband Douglas, a high-level civil servant, to India of the Raj, but she was soon bored by solitary days and the tedious social life with Douglas’s middle-aged English friends. She embarks on an unlikely friendship with the handsome, charming Nawab, the prince of the region. After she leaves Douglas to live with the Nawab, the letters home dwindle and none of her relatives see her again. The narrator wants to know what happened.

The narrator tells her own story of India in vivid journal entries, describing English and American tourists who became disillusioned on a quest for spirituality, and her close friendship with an Indian family, especially Inder Lal, a government officer and her landlord. He is trapped in traditional family life and an arranged marriage to a sad woman who has seizures. After various sight-seeing trips together, the narrator and Inder Lal become lovers, who laugh and confide everything to each other in the dark. There are parallels between the narrator and Olivia: both fall in love with India and form bonds with Indian men. One is a prince, the other a civil servant, but their characters are shaped by the same culture.

How important is love? To Olivia, it was everything. She enjoyed her exotic adventures with the Nawab and their deep physical relationship. The experience is different for the quiet narrator, who values friendship more than romance. She is tall and flat-chested, and children chase her through the streets and call her hijra, a word for the eunuch dancers who look like men but dress like women and sing and dance. She ignores the the catcalls, figuring rightly that they will soon get used to her. Under the protection of Inder Lal’s mother, she makes friends with neighbors and women at the market.

But her goal is to retrace the footsteps of Olivia. She visits the building that was once Olivia’s house. She especially appreciates her visit to a famous shrine, where the childless women pray to get pregnant. It was the spot where Olivia went on a memorable picnic with the gracious Nawab.

The narrator does not expect anything of India: she simply wants to know the country and the life of her great-aunt. She is not nostalgic for England, and understands there is no magic in India: she is fascinated by the beauty and strangeness (and sometimes ugliness), and the relationship of the present to the past.

I would love to go to India, in the spirit of the narrator, but the heat and dust, the difficulties of travel, the tragic sights of beggars, the language problem (perhaps courses online) would be a challenge. After the pandemic, in the distant future, maybe a package tour. Who knows?

I understand that this is probably no longer Jhabvala’s India. Born in Belgium in 1927 and educated in England, she lived for many years in India with her husband, and moved to the U.S. in 1975. You may know her as the writer of many screenplays of Merchant-Ivory films, including Howards End, for which she won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

What is your favorite Booker Prize winner? I have discovered so many great writers that way, though, honestly, I have fallen behind in recent years. Time to catch up?

Why Is an Indian Sufi Master on My TBR? and Three Literary Links

I often surf the net and jot down titles of books I want to read. And then I look at the list and wonder why these particular books seemed so interesting.

Some books on the list do survive my next-day scrutiny. I yearn to read The Magic Doe by Qutban Suhravardi, translated by Aditya Behl. The book description says it is “an excellent introduction to Sufism and one of the true literary classics of pre-modern India.” I am mostly interested in the literary aspect of The Magic Doe: I am too practical for mysticism, and indeed I once started laughing during a lecture on Transcendental Meditation and had to leave. It seemed slightly cultish: some of my acquaintances moved to the lovely town of Fairfax, Iowa, home of Maharishi University. And I vaguely worried–some had donated money to the university–and I sometimes checked on them at social media to make sure they’re all right. (They always look radiant.) Like Kurt Vonnegut in his essay “Yes, We Have No Nirvana,” I am skeptical of TM, though I don’t doubt it has benefits for certain people.

And Now Three Literary Links

Something about Hester Prynne looks a little off!

  1. I am sure you will enjoy the following article: 50 Very Bad Covers for Literary Classics at Lit Hub. Emily Temple writes:

When a book passes into the public domain, it means not only that it’s available for adapting and remixing, but for reprinting and reselling with a brand new cover. Some of these covers are . . . pretty bad. Which, obviously, makes them very fun to look at.


I have collected a number of these very fun, very bad covers below. All of these covers are “real,” that is, attached to books that are at least nominally available for purchase, though many are digital covers for digital editions. You’ll find a number of covers from Wordsworth Classics, premier publisher of badly Photoshopped book covers, but many more from the wilds of digital independent publishing. Some are merely ugly; others make it clear that no one involved in the creation of the cover cracked open the book.

2. At The Guardian, I enjoyed the Top 10 Literary Matriarchs list compiled by A. K. Blakemore. I was pleased to see Livia from I, Claudius on the list. Now there’s a matriarch you couldn’t trust, if the rumors are true about the poisonings, etc,. but she was certainly powerful. To see her on the list shakes it up a bit!

Sian Phillips as Livia Drusilla in I, Claudius

3. Are you thinking about spring cleaning? The writer Helen Carefoot at The Washington Post says we are dealing l with enough pressure at home during the pandemic, and suggests we go easy on the deep cleaning.

She writes,

In a normal year, this might be the time to block out a weekend, pull up your sleeves, and lift a season’s worth of dust and grime off of every surface in your house. But with the emotional and financial tolls the pandemic has inflicted on so many, and with home having to function as a space for work, play and everything in between, it might be worth rethinking the mammoth spring-cleaning operation.

I agree!