A house for Mr Biswas

The Star (St. Lucia) - - BOOK REVIEW - By Claudia Elei­box

AHouse for Mr. Biswas, pub­lished in 1961, is V. S. Naipaul’s first book of in­ter­na­tional renown and in­cludes sit­u­a­tions ex­tracted from the life of his fa­ther who was a de­scen­dant of In­dian in­den­tured labour­ers liv­ing in Trinidad.

Naipaul ex­cru­ci­at­ingly traces the con­vo­luted story of the frus­trat­ing forty-six years of Mr. Mo­hun Biswas’ life. From start to fin­ish, the novel is a la­bo­ri­ous ma­te­ri­al­iza­tion of Mr. Biswas’ dream of in­de­pen­dence. There is, of course, re­lief from Naipaul’s cyn­i­cism in Mr. Biswas’ hi­lar­i­ous char­ac­ter and the fact that the story is some­what re­lat­able to every­one’s life pur­pose: find­ing some­where to call your own.

For starters, Mr. Biswas is with an ex­tra fin­ger. His par­ents are told that he is cursed and des­tined to “eat them up”. Be­ing re­stricted from touch­ing bod­ies of wa­ter, Mr. Biswas’ child­hood is not as ex­cit­ing as that of his sib­lings. His un­lucky sneeze also pre­vents his fa­ther from go­ing to work on some days.

When Mr. Biswas is given the re­spon­si­bil­ity of tend­ing to the neigh­bour’s calf for a lit­tle pay, he loses it dur­ing one of their ex­cur­sions. Mr. Biswas, ter­ri­fied of the con­se­quences, de­cides to hide un­der the bed un­til the calf is found. Af­ter some time, his par­ents, ut­terly pan­icked, be­lieve he sank to the bot­tom of the river and the fa­ther drowns while div­ing to find him.

Af­ter this tragedy, Mr. Biswas’ mother re­ceives grace from her sis­ter and is given a small liv­ing space for her and the chil­dren. Mr. Biswas and his sib­lings are never again close to their mother and the theme of the fam­ily emerges. The pen­du­lum of Mr. Biswas’ unsettled life be­gins to swing. He’s sent to be trained by a pun­dit, to be­come a Brah­min, sells in his fam­ily’s liquor shop and, de­spite his un­grate­ful de­meanour, even­tu­ally finds joy in sign paint­ing. One day sees him work­ing at the Tulsi store where all the young mem­bers of the dom­i­nat­ing Tulsi fam­ily work, and where Mr. Biswas meets Shama. Af­ter brag­ging to his friends that he has a girl­friend, Mr. Biswas fi­nally finds the guts to write Shama a short love let­ter; a let­ter that Shama’s mother takes as a mar­riage pro­posal. The Tul­sis, known for mar­ry­ing off their daugh­ters to men - only to have them all live in the same house and work in one of their many busi­nesses - trick Mr. Biswas into their trap.

Mr. Biswas spends the rest of his life try­ing to be­come in­de­pen­dent of the Tul­sis. He at­tempts to find jobs out­side the Tulsi do­main and to build a house of his own. Shama mer­ci­lessly suf­fers through all of Mr. Biswas’ com­plaints and tantrums. She keeps re­mind­ing him “you only came with the clothes on your back” and that he should be thank­ful for his de­liv­er­ance. How­ever, Mr. Biswas be­lieves he has been robbed of his in­de­pen­dence, his only com­fort be­ing his books.

Mr. Biswas loves to read and his books travel with him to ev­ery new adventure. He re­al­izes that he can write and se­cures a job as a jour­nal­ist in the lo­cal news­pa­per “Sen­tinel”. This de­picts the ob­vi­ous theme of lit­er­a­ture in the novel. The gen­res of writ­ing and read­ing vary and Mr. Biswas, who is very bur­den­some, uses his knowl­edge for both ben­e­fi­cial and petty rea­sons.

“He read po­lit­i­cal books. They gave him phrases which he could only speak to him­self and use on Shama. They also re­vealed one re­gion af­ter an­other of mis­ery and in­jus­tice and left him feel­ing more help­less and more iso­lated than ever. Then it was that he dis­cov­ered the so­lace of Dick­ens. With­out dif­fi­culty he trans­ferred char­ac­ters and set­tings to peo­ple and places he knew. In the grotesques of Dick­ens ev­ery­thing he feared and suf­fered from was ridiculed and di­min­ished, so that his own anger, his own con­tempt be­came un­nec­es­sary, and he was given strength to bear the most dif­fi­cult part of his day: dress­ing in the morn­ing, that daily af­fir­ma­tion of faith in one­self, which at times for him was al­most like an act of sac­ri­fice.”

Mr. Biswas tries to build a house in Green Vale but suf­fers from an anx­i­ety at­tack af­ter it fails. He moves from Hanu­man House to Port of Spain to Shorthills and, af­ter ex­pe­ri­enc­ing so many event­ful years, the reader will be half­way re­lieved that there is a house for Mr. Biswas and he is freed from the Tul­sis.

“The mind, while it is sound, is mer­ci­ful. And rapidly the mem­o­ries of Hanu­man House, The Chase, Green Vale, Shorthills, the Tulsi house in Port of Spain would be­come jum­bled, blurred; events would be­come tele­scoped, many for­got­ten. Oc­ca­sion­ally a nerve of mem­ory would be touched – a pud­dle re­flect­ing the blue sky af­ter rain . . .”

The book is writ­ten in an in­con­sis­tent pace. Some events are spanned across a num­ber of pages and some rapidly oc­cur­ring in a few sen­tences. So af­ter Mr. Biswas spends an ex­ten­sive amount of time ar­gu­ing with the Tulsi fam­ily, frus­trat­ing Shama and his four chil­dren Savi, Anand, Myna and Kamla, and fi­nally get­ting a house, he re­al­izes that he has missed their child­hoods and Shama is a true bless­ing. He now con­sid­ers him­self old and though he is in a lot of debt his re­spon­si­bil­i­ties will soon cease to ex­ist. “Change had come over him with­out his know­ing. There had been no pre­cise point at which the city had lost its ro­mance and prom­ise, no point at which he had be­gun to con­sider him­self old, his ca­reer closed, and his vi­sions of the fu­ture be­came only vi­sions of Anand’s fu­ture. Each re­al­iza­tion had been de­layed and had come, not as a sur­prise, but as a state­ment of a con­di­tion long ac­cepted.”

Naipaul’s ex­cel­lent prose lulls the reader through the myr­iad ex­pe­ri­ences of Biswas’ strug­gle for in­de­pen­dence. De­spite the fact that this tome may seem like a for­mi­da­ble chal­lenge akin to Mr. Biswas’ ex­pe­ri­ences, one is pleas­antly en­ter­tained by the plen­ti­ful in­jec­tions of caus­tic hu­mour. If you hap­pen to have some pock­ets of time, in­vest them in dip­ping into the world cre­ated by this mas­ter­piece.

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