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Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: Book Review

August 17, 2010

A movie was made out of this lovely book.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s main narrator is the step grand-daughter of a English lady named Olivia who mysteriously runs away with the Nawab during the English occupation. It’s a lovely story. Made lovelier by Jhabvala’s seamless, and gentle story-telling. The narrator of the book is herself an enigmatic, slightly-insane figure.

It reminded me a lot of Pankaj Mishra’s The Romantics – but far more weighty and less annoying. It’s always tricky business to write a book exotifying a country like India. Yes, India changes us all. Love changes us all. Colonialism was paternalistic. How to make this theme fresh? Jhabvala managed to do just this.

I want to just add, in the clip above, there’s a scene where the Nawab and Olivia are playing musical chairs at a picnic. In the clip, she wins the game and claps her hand in delight. But in the novel, the Nawab wins. This was important because Olivia had assumed that the Nawab would let her win in the name of propriety. But he doesn’t. A small, but important clue about the kind of person he is becomes established in that early courtship. Which is to say, I have a feeling I wouldn’t like the movie. Despite the fact that Shashi Kapoor looks damn hot.

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