“Heat and Dust” is a story which moves backwards and forward in time, between the present (Post British Colonization-1970) and the past (During British Colonization-1923). It tells a story of two Englishwomen in India, the narrator and her grandmother Olivia, whose lives are interwoven, separated by fifty years. The narrator’s search to find out about Olivia brings her to the heat and dust of Satipur, India She discovers that Olivia was a woman smothered by the social restrictions placed upon her by the British society.
Olivia was shunned and despised by the British society after falling in love with the Nawab, being impregnated by him and then aborting the baby. In discovering the truth about these events, The narrator finds herself in love with an Indian man, Inder Lal. Eventually, she develops an understanding towards herself and India. The theme of alienation is spotted in the text Heat and Dust, where Olivia, and Englishwoman arrives in India, just to find herself marooned in a whole new culture and world.
She “did not speak a word of the language” and could not join in the conversations between the wives of the British officials. She finds the people boring and comments that Mrs Crawford and Mrs Minnies “were so ugly in their dull dresses” and always thought that “they knew best”. She is also often seen “crying with tiredness and complaining” because she is lonely as “Douglas was extremely busy with is work all day”. Due to his increasing workload, Olivia and his relationship deteriorates and Olivia begins to seek an affilation with the Nawab who she realized was “one person in India who was interested in her”.
In Heat and Dust, the narrator, despite being European, has no objection to abide by the Indian norms and customs. She is able to accept the Indian culture which is vastly different from her own. She lives in a house of an Indian, Inder Lal in the midst of the crowded lanes and bazaar. She learns to “speak Hindi” and even owns a “Hindi textbook”. Besides, the narrator even wants to “sit on the floor” like other Indians and drags her bed “out into the courtyard” to sleep with the locals.
She has “accepted the heat” and is able to “live with them, eat their food and even wear Indian clothes”. By embracing Indian culture, the narrator feels “not alone in India but instead, a “part of India”. In “Heat and Dust”, Olivia is unhappy and dissatisfied with her life in India. She laments on how dull and boring are the wives of the British Officials. Eg: “Mrs Crawford and Mrs Minnies were so ugly in their dull dresses”. She is also sick at the fact that the British thought they knew everything.
Olivia does not feel belonged, spending “lonely days in the cool, dark house”, as she constantly feels bored. Even her own husband was too engrossed in his work to provide her the attention and accompaniment she yearns for. In the end, Olivia pursues an attachment with the Nawab to escape her loneliness. In “Heat and Dust”, Olivia yearns to belong to the Nawab. She falls in love with him, aborting her baby and then eloping to the mountains. During the British Imperialism, being physically involved with an Indian is considered as going “too far”.
However, Olivia is willing to sacrifice her identity and seek an affiliation with the Nawab as he was her only true bond in India. In the end, Olivia was ostracized by the British and became a social outcast in England. The use of irony is one predominant feature in Heat and Dust. Douglas, a British official, despite his profound knowledge and adequate information about India, has no idea that his own wife is having an affair with the notorious Nawab. Furthermore, of all people, Olivia chooses to have an affair with the Nawab, who is very much disliked by the British.
Olivia’s lonely life in the mountains is a kind of punishment for being disloyal to the British , which ironically resembles her initial life in India. The author also uses parallelism to tell the story of Heat and Dust. The storyline twirls itself round two time frames—British Colonisation (1923) which is during Olivia’s time and Post Colonisation (1970) during the narrator’s time. There are similarities in the two time frames and that is India is portrayed as a negative place. Crime, disease, poverty, superstition beliefs, eunuchs, jealousy, low esteem are still linked to India even after the British Imperialism.