V.S. Naipaul, “A House for Mr. Biswas”

1961

Naipaul’s novel of the sprawling Tulsi house and one man’s attempt to escape it inaugurate an era of postcolonial writing in the Anglo tradition. The prolepsis of the prologue allows us to see Mr. Biswas on his deathbead, surrounded by piles and piles of stuff, but happy because he is dying in his own house: “How terrible it would have been, at this time, to be without [his house]: to have died among the Tulsis, amid the squalor of that large, disintegrating, and indifferent family… to have lived without even attempting to lay claim to one’s portion of the earth” 11. In this way, Naipaul rephrases Joseph Conrad’s “taking away of things” in the “dark places of the earth,” creating a kind of microcosmic colonialism in Mr. Biswas, a refusal of communal 3rd world living in favor of Western values of materialism and independence. (It seems no mistake that Mr Biswas is first a sign painter, and at Hanuman House, no less (the trickster monkey god). Even at the very end of the novel he is measuring to “expand the yard” with Shama. In a parallel to Death of a Salesman, “the debt remained… living had always been a preparation, a waiting. And so the years had passed; and now there was nothing to wait for” 561. It is not the journalism career he has had, but the ambition to achieve something that would promise happiness, which animates Mr. Biswas. Its accomplishment, however, leaves him withering (Sister Carrie). In a parallel twist, after years of complaining about his stomach (material) it is his heart (emotional/spiritual) which gives out, confining him without dignity downstairs, a prisoner in his own house. He gets fired and begs his son Anand to come home, but he flakes out. “And Mr. Biswas never complained again,” but “once again became the comforter” 563. He welcomes his daughter home at the end “as though she were herself and Anand combined” 563. Mr. Biswas dies and is cremated, leaving his family with the house and the debt.

From Wikipedia:

Mohun Biswas is born in rural Trinidad to parents of Indian origin. His birth is considered inauspicious as he is born “in the wrong way” and with an extra finger. A pundit prophesies that the newly born Mr Biswas “will be a lecher and a spendthrift. Possibly a liar as well”, and that he will “eat up his mother and father”. The pundit further advises that the boy be kept “away from trees and water. Particularly water”. A few years later, Mohun leads a neighbour’s calf, which he is tending, to a stream. The boy, who has never seen water “in its natural form”, becomes distracted watching the fish and allows the calf to wander off. Mohun hides in fear of punishment. His father, believing his son to be in the water, drowns in an attempt to save him, thus in part fulfilling the pundit’s prophecy. This leads to the dissolution of Mr Biswas’s family. His sister is sent to live with a wealthy aunt and uncle, Tara and Ajodha, while Mr Biswas, his mother, and two older brothers go to live with other relatives.

Mr Biswas is withdrawn prematurely from school and apprenticed to a pundit, but is cast out on bad terms. Ajodha then puts him in the care of his alcoholic and abusive brother Bhandat which also comes to a bad result. Finally, Mr Biswas, now becoming a young man, decides to set out to make his own fortune. He encounters a friend from his days of attending school who helps him get into the business of sign-writing. While on the job, Mr Biswas attempts to romance a client’s daughter and his advances are misinterpreted as a wedding proposal. He is drawn into a marriage which he does not have the nerve to stop and becomes a member of the Tulsi household. 

With the Tulsis, Mr Biswas becomes very unhappy with his wife Shama and her overbearing family, which bears a slight resemblance to the Capildeo family into which Naipaul’s father married. He is usually at odds with the Tulsis and his struggle for economic independence from the oppressive household drives the plot. The Tulsi family (and the big decaying house they live in) represents the traditional communal world, the way life is lived, not only among the Hindu immigrants of Trinidad but throughout Africa and Asia as well. Mr Biswas is offered a place in it, a subordinate place to be sure, but a place that’s guaranteed and from which advancement is possible. But Mr Biswas rejects that. He is, without realizing it or thinking it through but through deep and indelible instinct, a modern man. He wants to BE, to exist as something in his own right, to build something he can call his own. That is something the Tulsis cannot deal with, and that is why their world—though that traditional world, like the old Tulsi house which is its synecdoche, is collapsing—conspires to drag him down. Nevertheless, despite his poor education, Mr Biswas becomes a journalist, has four children with Shama, and attempts (more than once, with varying levels of success) to build a house that he can call his own. He becomes obsessed with the notion of owning his own house, and it becomes a symbol of his independence and merit.

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