It took less than a day to read this - 180 pages long and easy to read - but it's a rich and fruitful book. It comprises two stories in parallel: the tale of Olivia who abandons her British husband when she goes to India; and of her un-named relative who goes to Satipur some fifty years later to solve the mystery of what became of Olivia. She ends up becoming 'seduced' by India too.
Olivia is naive but adventurous, and she doesn't like the other British wives and their disdain for Indian religion and culture. She is bored by their vapid lifestyle, and she outrages 'society' by visiting the local Naweb, an impoverished rogue in league with the Dacoits (bandits). The Naweb seems to exert a strange magnetic influence on those around him, including Harry, Olivia's only discerning friend and the one who helps her out when things go awry.
In the process of discovering these scandals about her great-aunt , the narrator finds herself following in some of her footsteps. However, whereas during the British Raj Olivia was isolated from the 'real India' by class, caste and custom whatever her wishes may have been, in post-independence India her successor lives amongst Indians, and can make different decisions about how to live her life. Once again India is depicted as a place that attracts those interested in its 'spirituality' but the dropout Chid's distaste for life as a mendicant shows just how silly it is for affluent outsiders to hanker for a life of poverty and hardship.
The title shows that Jhabvala had no illusions about the reality of life for most Indians.
I finished reading and journalled this book on 13.10.05.
Lisa Hill, ANZ LitLovers