Read Heat and Dust Online

Authors: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Heat and Dust

BOOK: Heat and Dust
13.81Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

By the same author

NOVELS

To Whom She Will
(
US
Amrita
)

The Nature of Passion

Esmond in India

The Householder

Get Ready for Battle

A Backward Place

A New Dominion
(
US
Travelers
)

In Search of Love and Beauty

Three Continents

Poet and Dancer

Shards of Memory

East Into Upper East

STORIES

Like Birds, Like Fishes

A Stronger Climate

An Experience of India

How I Became a Holy Mother

Out of India (Selected Stories)

Copyright © 1975 by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

First Counterpoint paperback edition 1999.

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the Publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer, 1927–

Heat and dust / Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.

p. cm.

I. Title.

PR9499.3.J5H4 1999

823—dc21 99-20006

CIP

COUNTERPOINT

2560 Ninth Street, Suite 318

Berkeley, CA 94710

www.counterpointpress.com

Distributed by Publishers Group West

20 19 18 17 16 15

e-book ISBN 978-1-61902-822-7

Contents

Heat and Dust

Shortly after Olivia went away with the Nawab, Beth Crawford returned from Simla. This was in September, 1923. Beth had to go down to Bombay to meet the boat on which her sister Tessie was arriving. Tessie was coming out to spend the cold season with the Crawfords. They had arranged all sorts of visits and expeditions for her, but she stayed mostly in Satipur because of Douglas. They went riding together and played croquet and tennis and she did her best to be good company for him. Not that he had much free time, for he kept himself as busy as ever in the district. He worked like a Trojan and never ceased to be calm and controlled, so that he was very much esteemed both by his colleagues and by the Indians. He was upright and just. Tessie stayed through that cold season, and through the next one as well, and then she sailed for home. A year later Douglas had his home leave and they met again in England. By the time his divorce came through, they were ready to get married. She went out to join him in India and, like her sister Beth, she led a full and happy life there. In course of time she became my grandmother – but of course by then everyone was back in England.

I don't remember Douglas at all – he died when I was three – but I remember Grandmother Tessie and Great-Aunt Beth very well. They were cheerful women with a sensible and modern outlook on life: but nevertheless, so my parents told me, for years they could not be induced to talk
about Olivia. They shied away from her memory as from something dark and terrible. My parents' generation did not share these feelings – on the contrary, they were eager to learn all they could about Grandfather's first wife, who had eloped with an Indian prince. But it was not until they were old and widowed that the two ladies began at last to speak about the forbidden topic.

By that time they had also met Harry again. They had kept up with him by means of Xmas cards, and it was only after Douglas' death that Harry came to call on them. They spoke about Olivia. Harry also told them about Olivia's sister, Marcia, whom he had met shortly after his return from India. He had continued to see her over the years till she had died (drunk herself to death, he said). She left him all Olivia's letters and he showed them to the old ladies. That was how I first came to see these letters which I have now brought with me to India.

Fortunately, during my first few months here, I kept a journal so I have some record of my early impressions. If I were to try and recollect them now, I might not be able to do so. They are no longer the same because I myself am no longer the same. India always changes people, and I have been no exception. But this is not my story, it is Olivia's as far as I can follow it.

These are the first entries in my journal:

2 February.
    Arrival in Bombay today. Not what I had imagined at all. Of course I had always thought of arrival by ship, had forgotten how different it would be by plane. All those memoirs and letters I've read, all those prints I've seen. I really must forget about them. Everything is different now. I must get some sleep.

Woke up in the middle of the night. Groped for my watch which I had put on top of my suitcase under the bed: it wasn't there. Oh no! Not already! A voice from the next bed: “Here it is, my dear, and just be more careful in future, please.” Half an hour after midnight. I've slept about four hours. Of course I'm still on English time so it would be now about seven in the evening. I'm wide awake and sit up in bed. I'm in the women's dormitory of the S.M. (Society of Missionaries) hostel. There are seven string beds, four one side three the other. They're all occupied and everyone appears to be asleep. But outside the city is still awake and restless. There is even music somewhere. The street lamps light up the curtainless windows of the dormitory from outside, filling the room with a ghostly reflection in which the sleepers on their beds look like washed-up bodies.

But my neighbour – the guardian of my watch – is awake and wanting to talk:

“You've probably just arrived, that's why you're so careless. Never mind, you'll learn soon enough, everyone does. . . . You have to be very careful with your food in the beginning: boiled water only, and whatever you do no food from these street stalls. Afterwards you get immune. I can eat anything now if I want to. Not that I'd want to – I hate their food, I wouldn't touch it for anything. You can eat here in the S.M., that's quite all right. Miss Tietz looks after the kitchen herself and they make nice boiled stews, sometimes a roast, and custard. I always stay here when I come to Bombay. I've known Miss Tietz for twenty years. She's Swiss, she came out with the Christian Sisterhood but these last ten years she's been looking after the S.M. They're lucky to have her.”

It may be due to the ghostly light that she looks like a
ghost; and she's wearing a white night-gown that encases her from head to foot. She has tied her hair in one drooping plait. She is paper-white, vaporous – yes, a ghost. She tells me she has been in India for thirty years, and if God wants her to die here, that is what she will do. On the other hand, if He wants to bring her home first, she will do that. It is His will, and for thirty years she has lived only in His will. When she says that, her voice is not a bit ghost-like but strong and ringing as one who has been steadfast in her duty.

“We have our own little chapel out in Kafarabad. It's a growing town – because of the textile mills – but not growing in virtue, that I can tell you. Thirty years ago I might have said there is hope: but today – none. Wherever you look, it's the same story. More wages means more selfishness, more country liquor, more cinema. The women used to wear plain simple cotton dhotis but now they all want to be shiny from the outside. We won't speak about the inside. But why expect anything from these poor people when our own are going the way they are. You've seen that place opposite? Just take a look.”

I go to the window and look down into the street. It's bright as day down there, not only with the white street lights but each stall and barrow is lit up with a flare of naphtha. There are crowds of people; some are sleeping – it's so warm that all they have to do is stretch out, no bedding necessary. There are a number of crippled children (one boy propelling himself on his legless rump) and probably by day they beg but now they are off duty and seem to be light-hearted, even gay. People are buying from the hawkers and standing there eating, while others are looking in the gutters to find what has been thrown away.

She directs me to the other window. From here I get a view
of A.'s Hotel. I had been warned about that place before I came. I had been told that, however bleak and dreary I might find the S.M. Hostel, on no account should I book myself into A.'s.

“Can you see?” she called from her bed.

I saw. Here too it was absolutely bright, with street and shop lamps. The sidewalk outside A.'s was crowded – not with Indians but with Europeans. They looked a derelict lot.

She said “Eight, nine of them to a room, and some of them don't even have the money for that, they just sleep on the street. They beg from each other and steal from each other. Some of them are very young, mere children – there may be hope for them, God willing they'll go home again before it's too late. But others there are, women and men, they've been here for years and every year they get worse. You see the state they're in. They're all sick, some of them dying. Who are they, where do they come from? One day I saw a terrible sight. He can't have been more than thirty, perhaps a German or Scandinavian – he was very fair and tall. His clothes were in tatters and you could see his white skin through them. He had long hair, all tangled and matted; there was a monkey sitting by him and the monkey was delousing him. Yes the monkey was taking the lice out of the man's hair. I looked in that man's face – in his eyes – and I tell you I saw a soul in hell. Oh but I've seen some terrible sights in India. I've lived through a Hindu-Muslim riot, and a smallpox epidemic, and several famines, and I think I may rightly say I've seen everything that you can see on this earth. And through it all I've learned this one thing: you can't live in India without Christ Jesus. If He's not with you every single moment of the day and night and you praying to Him with all your might and main – if that's not there, then you
become like that poor young man with the monkey taking lice out of his hair. Because you see, dear, nothing human means anything here. Not a thing,” she said, with the contempt of any Hindu or Buddhist for all this world might have to offer.

She was sitting up in her bed. For all she was so thin and white, she did look tough, toughened-up. A ghost with backbone. I looked down again at the figures sprawled under the white street lights outside A.'s Hotel. It seemed to me that she was right: they did look like souls in hell.

16 February.
    Satipur. I have been very lucky and have already found a room here. I like it very much. It is large, airy, and empty. There is a window at which I sit and look down into the bazaar. My room is on top of a cloth-shop and I have to climb up a flight of dark stairs to get to it. It has been sub-let to me by a government officer called Inder Lal who lives with his wife and mother and three children in some poky rooms crammed at the back of a yard leading from the shop. The shop belongs to someone else and so does the yard. Everything is divided and sub-divided, and I'm one of the sub-divisions. But I feel very spacious and private up here; except that I share the bathroom facilities down in the yard, and the little sweeper girl who is attached to them.

I think my landlord, Inder Lal, is disappointed with the way I live in my room. He keeps looking round for furniture but there isn't any. I sit on the floor and at night I spread my sleeping-bag out on it. The only piece of furniture I have so far acquired is a very tiny desk the height of a foot-stool on which I have laid out my papers (this journal, my Hindi grammar and vocabulary, Olivia's letters). It is the sort of desk at which the shopkeepers do their accounts. Inder Lal
looks at my bare walls. Probably he was hoping for pictures and photographs – but I feel no need for anything like that when all I have to do is look out of the window at the bazaar below. I certainly wouldn't want to be distracted from that scene. Hence no curtains either.

Inder Lal is far too polite to voice his disappointment. All he said was “It is not very comfortable for you,” and quickly lowered his eyes as if afraid of embarrassing me. He did the same when I first arrived with my luggage. I had not hired a coolie but had hoisted my trunk and bedding on to my shoulders and carried them up myself. Then too – after an involuntary cry of shock – he had lowered his eyes as if afraid of embarrassing me.

It would have been easier for him if I had been like Olivia. She was everything I'm not. The first thing she did on moving into their house (the Assistant Collector's) was smother it in rugs, pictures, flowers. She wrote to Marcia: “We're beginning to look slightly civilised.” And again, later: “Mrs. Crawford (Collector's wife – the
Burra Memsahib
) came to inspect me today in my nest. I don't think she thinks much of me
or
the nest but she's ever so tactful! She told me she knows how difficult the first year always is and that if there is any little thing she could possibly do to ease things for me, well I must just consider her to be always
there.
I said thank you (demurely). Actually, her being there is the only difficult thing – otherwise everything is just
too perfect
!. If only I could have told her that.”

I have already seen the house in which Douglas and Olivia lived. In fact, there has been a very lucky coincidence – it turns out that the office where Inder Lal works is right in what used to be the British residential area (known as the Civil Lines). Inder Lal's own department, Disposal and
Supplies, is in what was the Collector's house (Mr. Crawford's, in 1923). Douglas and Olivia's bungalow now houses the Water Board, the municipal Health Department, and a sub-post office. Both these houses have, like everything else, been divided and sub-divided into many parts to fulfil many functions. Only the Medical Superintendent's house has been kept intact and is supposed to be a travellers' rest-house.

20 February.
    This morning I dropped in on the two ladies of the Inder Lal family – his wife, Ritu, and his mother. I don't know whether I caught them at a moment of unusual confusion or whether this is the way they always live but the place was certainly very untidy. Of course the rooms are poky and the children still at the messy stage. Ritu swiftly cleared some clothes and toys off a bench. I would have preferred to sit on the floor as they did, but I realised that now I had to submit to all the social rules they thought fit to apply to my case. The mother-in-law, in a practised hiss aside, gave an order to the daughter-in-law which I guessed to be for my refreshment. Ritu darted out of the room as if glad to be released, leaving me and the mother-in-law to make what we could of each other. We smiled, I tried out my Hindi (with scant success – I must work harder at it!), we made hopeful gestures, and got nowhere. All the time she was studying me. She has a shrewd, appraising glance – and I can imagine how she must have gone around looking over girls as possible wives for her son before finally deciding on Ritu. Quite instinctively, she was adding up
my
points as well, and alas I could guess what her sum came to.

I have already got used to being appraised in this way in India. Everyone does it everywhere – in the streets, on buses
and trains: they are quite open about it, women as well as men, nor do they make any attempt to conceal their amusement if that is what one happens to arouse in them. I suppose we must look strange to them, and what must also be strange is the way we are living among them – no longer apart, but eating their food and often wearing Indian clothes because they are cooler and cheaper.

BOOK: Heat and Dust
13.81Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

The Grace Girls by Geraldine O'Neill
Territory by Bliler, Susan
Prince of Cats by Susan A. Bliler
Mallow by Robert Reed
The Edge of Justice by Clinton McKinzie
Home Free by Marni Jackson