Naipaul's "A House for Mr Biswas": Living with the Characters
Sometime in the opening decade of the last century, not far away from the mosquito-infested swampland and verdant sugarcane field in a forgotten village of South Trinidad, Mohun Biswas is born to Raghu, an illiterate, superstitious and miser of a person and Bipti, his illiterate wife. It is at his maternal grandparent’s hovel that the boy is born, for her mother has reached there just before the childbirth only to protest his father’s exasperating miserliness. But then his father Raghu is no rich fellow, in whose case the word miserliness could be meaningfully applied; he is just a labourer in one of the numerous sugarcane-estates of Trinidad, where, years ago, his forefather had come all the way from India to slog and eke out a living. And thus opens V. S. Naipaul’s magnum opus “A House for Mr Biswas”. Set in the first half of twentieth century, the narratives explore characters and customs, trace change in all its socio-cultural manifestations and portray in vivid detail a saga of quest for one’s own personal space on earth.
While depicting the Indian community in Trinidad, Naipaul does not make any attempt to highlight its rootlessness, for the island was a kind of virgin area then, affording opportunities to everybody including those migrant labourers. Instead Naipaul says it in many words what it was like being an Indian at that stage of history: superstitious, uneducated, discriminatory along gender lines, manipulative and so on. Mr Biswas is born with a sixth finger and it is prophesied that the jinxed fellow will cause his father’s death, live a life of extravagance and become a pathetic lecherous of a man. He will have unlucky sneeze and be especially vulnerable to water. His sixth finger dies and falls off when he is nine days old yet the jinx stays on. One day when he is less than nine years old or so, his father goes in search of him, dives in a swampland fearing that his son is drowned along with the calf he has been minding, and then dies while inside the water. Yes, Biswas’s sneeze precedes his father’s death.
With his father’s death, his family disintegrates. It is as tenuous as that. His brothers Pratap and Prasad go to live with their distant relation to eventually live lives of their own; his sister Dehuti is taken in as a servant of the family of his mother’s sister Tara; and Biswas remains with his mother Bipti in a back trace just to be put in a school and then withdrawn prematurely to afford him some training in religious rituals under the tutelage of a cruel and calculating pundit named Jairam. Somehow he gets away from Jairam, but then he is sent to live with the brother of his mother’s sister’s husband, one Bhandat by name who is interested in swindling his own brother Ajodha (Tara’s husband) and in leading a life of depravity.
The cruelty meted out to young Biswas at every stage makes him move from place to place, pursue different avocations but with little success. He tries to be an electrician by reading “Hawkins’ Electrical Guide” but fails to progress beyond winding an armature, reads a good many Samuel Smiles novels with no big literary ambitions, becomes a bus conductor in Ajodha’s bus and finally takes up the job of a freelance sign-painter, a job he is confident to excel in.
Biswas meets Shama, the first and incidentally the only girl in his life in Arwakas at Tulsi Store where he goes to paint the signpost. [Where’s the prediction of his acquiring a lecherous proclivity?] He is afraid to propose and elects to push a note in a slip of paper: I love you and want to talk to you. Somehow this note falls into the hands of Mrs Tulsi, the mother of the girl, and she, with the help of her brother-in-law Seth [sister’s husband], goes on to cash in on the opportunity. Mr Biswas is almost coaxed into, nay forced to marry Shama in a simple little ceremony at the registrar’s office. Now he has no choice before him of running away; he feels like raising a standard of rebellion. This is how hatred is instilled in his mind against his in-laws and throughout his life, thereafter, he pursues that feeling. Shama the placid girl receives the outcome of her husband’s frustrations throughout her life, sometimes in the shape of tantrums but often as invectives. Naipaul is very comical in choice of such invectives, viz crab-catcher, big boss, Roman cat-your mother, and probably this is one of the major reasons why the opus is termed as “a work of great comic powers”.
Poor, unemployed, homeless and yet married—Biswas has no other go but to stay with his in-law’s family. It is no family as such; it is rather a community of helpless sons-in-law and widow daughters and their children. Mrs Tulsi has fourteen daughters in all. As long as there was floor space, there was bed space. The two sons of Mrs Tulsi [gods as Biswas would love to call them] get the preferential treatments, in their stay, food, respect and in everything. Seth the house and estate manager is especially critical of Biswas. Wife-beating, insults, discrimination, child-flogging, cacophony, public display of tantrums, intermittent squabbles, miserliness and malnutrition, jealousy and manipulation—Mrs Tulsi’s place at Hanuman House has everything except peace. There is no place for romance but there are childbirths at regular intervals. At the age of thirty-three, when he was already the father of four children…Mohun Biswas amasses his responsibilities but garners no means though in his heart of hearts he wants to escape Hanuman House.
Ajodha’s family and that of Mrs Tulsi carry old competitions. Ajodha, Biswas’ mother’s sister’s husband has only words of commiseration for Biswas—how the poor nephew got into a real gum-pot—but nothing more than that. Biswas is taken to be the troublesome and disloyal member of Hanuman House, and so one day he is unceremoniously forced to stop freeloading and leave his independent profession of sign-painting in favour of choosing the job of a driver of the Tulsi estate. Yet, he does not leave his critical stance of the entire family and one day, just by spitting on his brother-in-law Owad, receives thrashing from a co-son-in-law, Govind by name, who is both uncouth and at the same time more than ready to show his loyalty to Tulsis. Biswas moves out of Hanuman House to The Chase to start his own shop and enjoy his independence.
At the Chase he gets some success but it is his inexperience in credit management that spells doom for his entrepreneurship. Litigation and inability to tackle the local goon drives him out of business. Here, too, the influence of Tulsis does not abate: in the name of doing some luck-boosting worship the entire inmates of Hanuman House come to the Chase, ransack the arrangement and leave cursing the enterprise. Shama is unable to develop any real interest in the Chase; thinks that Hanuman House is permanent whereas the Chase is just temporary and in the process they have to abandon it one day. And at the behest of Seth, he insuranburns [insure-and-burn] it.
Back at Hanuman House. Here comes the birth of a child—the first one to Mr Biswas and Shama, and the father has no role in naming her. Even in the birth certificate of the baby girl Savi the profession of father is maliciously chosen as labourer just to insult Mr Biswas. His second issue, a son Anand is born there. And the third issue, a girl Myna by name.
As the driver or sub-overseer of Tulsi estates Biswas shifts to Green Vale, a barrack-type accommodation fit for a labourer to occupy. Here he earns salary of twenty-five dollars a month and starts saving. Plus the insuranburn brings him seventy-five dollars. He starts dreaming about his house, his meagre funds notwithstanding. He cooks for himself in the barrack and on a Christmas Day, following a scuffle over a present to his daughter Savi, Mr Biswas takes his daughter with him to his barrack. Shama at Hanuman House with her son and baby daughter and father and the daughter duo in the barrack—this does not develop into a good arrangement. A week later Shama and children join Mr Biswas and there is a sort of rapprochement. Then a house gets constructed, a wooden house, in building of which the consideration of economy is taken too far. And one day it is blown away under the force of incessant rain and gale. Even in building this, Seth does not hesitate to sell the rusted corrugated roof-sheets to Biswas and cheats him. Hari, the co-son-in-law of Biswas who is considered to be an expert in luck-boosting rites repeats the same exercises as he did for Biswas’s shop at the Chase and ironically the house crumbles, very much like failure had rushed to the shop following Hari’s luck-boosting rites.
Back, once again at Hanuman House, Mr Biswas is in no position either to endure excesses of an overcrowded house or to escape it; he almost surrenders to it. But then situation changes. Mr Biswas moves to Port of Spain. He starts as a sign-painter with the local daily, the Sentinel but in time succeeds in impressing the editor Mr Burnett by his writing abilities. He becomes a reporter, excelling in his ability to augment the shocking value of banal happenings. Again, at Port of Spain Biswas is invited by Mrs Tulsi to live with her, where she has been living for some time to give education to her son Owad. Shama and children move there. There, Mr Biswas takes intensive care of his son Anand’s education. Besides, he learns shorthand, unsuccessfully tries to move into teaching of journalism. He tries to compose short stories, but cannot advance beyond the opening line. However his reputation in the Sentinel remains intact, or rather receives boost day by day. He interviews various personalities of Trinidad with superlative qualities: the fattest, richest, poorest, tallest, thinnest, fastest, and strongest. Owad moves to London to receive medical studies and Mrs Tulsi leaves Port of Spain. Mr Biswas and Shama are now in-charge of the house. But this liberty withers away as Seth converts the front space into a garage for his truck and in time Owad comes back to Port of Spain as a conceited fellow, bragging all the while how cotton is grown in Russia in variegated colours or rice is transplanted there being shot from aeroplanes. He even does not hesitate to beat Anand. Biswas now feels how urgent it is to have his own house. In the meanwhile, he has a short stint as a government servant in the welfare department.
The Sentinel agrees to take him in once again when he is sacked from the welfare department. Biswas uses his savings to buy a very crudely built house from another tout at Sikkim Street, St James, Port of Spain and in the process sinks into debt. He feels cheated when he discovers everything bad and inconvenient in the dream house he bought, but starts liking it. His daughter Savi goes abroad for study and Anand follows her. In the meantime Biswas suffers from a heart attack and gets hospitalized for more than nine weeks. Trinidad Sentinel gives him three months’ notice and sacks him. Finally at the age of forty-six he dies. For all his boisterous reporting, he would have liked his obituary something like this: Roving Reporter Passes on, but the very Sentinel for which he did many memorable features reports: Journalist Dies Suddenly.
Naipaul has consciously makes it appear that he is not depicting any larger-than-life profile. His Mr Biswas is a common person, a struggling person with so many weaknesses, but indirectly he throws a challenge for his readers to take a liking to the character despite everything. Why only Mr Biswas, the Shama lady is also an endearing character despite all her placidity and obstinacy to cling on to her mother. Even there’s much love between the couple: ‘Going to buy that gold brooch for you, girl! One of these days.’ At the end she recognizes what her husband is capable of. The character of Mrs Tulsi has been well explored: with a large family the widow is seen to be doing her best. There are plethora of characters and everyone has got its rightful share of the attention of the author, nothing more and nothing less.
Finally, the irony is well pronounced in the end. The permission of the Health Department to cremate the body of Mr Biswas is, as if, the reward Naipaul has reserved for the protagonist. Even in selection of the reward he is not very generous, yet sympathetic.
The opus is interesting, engrossing except the diversion he takes to the Short Hills and I’m not sure if the reading experience is in any way greatly enhanced by that. At the end of the day, the most striking feature is its controlled language—the narratives are unsentimental; the twists are seamless and nowhere the author is seen to be belabouring his point. I loved to read it, nay loved to live with the characters.
A. N. Nanda
Labels: Book Review