Jhabvala’s Heat and Dust (1975has two picnics fifty years apart.

The narrative concerns the lives of two unfulfilled English women in Satipur, a town amidst the heat and dust of the plains in Uttar Pradesh, in north-central India. In 1923, Olivia Rivers visits Baba Firdaus (a fictitious shrine) and is seduced by the Nawab of Khtam, or local Indian ruler. In 1973, an unnamed woman, indirectly related to Rivers, visits the shrine with her lover Inder Lal, a city clerk.

The shrine is in a grove of trees supported by a cool, very steady spring. The Nawab begins his seduction of Olivia by staging a picnic (with all of his retainers and servants), to which they travel in his Rolls Royce. While the Nawab shows Olivia the shrine, “the servants had unpacked the picnic hampers, filling the sacred grove with roasted chickens, quails, and potted shrimps.” At a second visit to Olivia and the Nawab are alone and take to opportunity to make love. She’s so enthralled and so eager to get out of her dull life with Douglas that she’s keen to be seduced. However, when she becomes pregnant and does not know who the father is, she opts for an abortion. She leaves Douglas and settles in a house in the hills where she lives in purdah until she dies many years after. From the looks of if she has exchanged one boring life for another, but perhaps where the thrill of sex compensates for not having anything else to do.

Picnic at Satipur. James Ivory’s Heat and Dust (1982). Screenplay by Ruth Prawar Jhabvala based on her novel (1975).

In 1973, the woman travels by bus to the shrine. She imagines that the place will be romantic, but it’s Husband’s Wedding Day, and there is a crowded, noisy street fair. The couple brings an ordinary picnic lunch and supplements the meal with “fly-specked food” from vendors. On their return home, the woman and Inder Lal become lovers, and she becomes pregnant.  After some angst, she forgoes an abortion. She visits Olivia’s old house, now derelict, and returns to Satipur, none the wiser but focused on her baby.

Jhabvala does not give the Nawab a proper surname. There is never any mention of adultery. River’s abortion is a scandal. But most unforgivable is that Rivers has crossed a line by taking an Indian lover, and it’s unforgivable.

Featured Image: Shashi Kapoor as The Nawab with Greta Scacchi as Olivia Rivers in Heat and Dust. Also discussed in PicnicsonFilm.org

See Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Heat and Dust. London: John Murray, 1975.