A House 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.