A House For Mr. Biswas

The first time I read A House for Mr. Biswas was in preparation for a class study at school and no statement ever resonated more than, “How terrible it would have been. . . to have lived without even attempting to lay claim to one’s portion of the earth; to have lived and died as one has been born, unnecessary and unaccommodated.” As humans we are programmed to want to leave a mark of our existence behind. A person’s legacy is proof of presence, of worth, of being. Mohun Biswas’ life was an unending quest to establish his identity and a sense of belonging. This unfortunately, was always met with failure and dejection as his dreams and aspirations proved to be too great for a reality burdened by the weight of religion, tradition and caste designation.

The life of Mohun Biswas is plagued by uncertainty and dread from the day of his birth. He is “six fingered and born in the wrong way” and as foretold by the pundit, not only would he be a liar, a spendthrift and a lecher, he would also have an unlucky sneeze. All of this was decided on the assumption that Biswas was born at midnight, the inauspicious hour.

It seems as if he is born to suffer the pain of being alive. In part one of the novel he is described as being ‘muddy’ and ‘dusty’. His body was stunted by malnutrition which caused “eczema and sores that swelled and burst and scabbed and burst again, until they stank.” Malnutrition also gives him “a shallow chest, thin limbs and a rising belly.” Mentally and physically, Biswas is completely at odds with this difficult world into which he was born.

Throughout the novel, Biswas is shunted from pillar to post and one cannot ignore his discomfort and resentment at having to be humbled by his destitution. But then again, one also cannot help but think that his predicaments are partly due to his notion that he is better than the everyday rustic Indian peasant. His brothers Pratap and Prasad, though simple and illiterate have made their mark in their small world. As young boys, they have already established themselves as labourers, just like their father and labourers they would continue to be. Mr. Biswas is not cut out to be a labourer, field work is not for him. As the only son who went to school, his mindset is altered. He is going to be a writer and not a labourer, no other alternative would be considered.

This theme of fantasy versus reality runs through the novel and it is very often tied in with alienation, marginalisation, the individual’s attitude to power and authority and family. Mr. Biswas is ambitious. He holds in his mind a clear picture of how his life is to unfold. But with no real plan and no solid purpose, his ambitions remain in his head and only surfaces when he needs to save face or mock those who patronise him. It is this ambition that leads to his alienation from a particular society to which he belongs and from which he is determined to escape.

Marrying into the Tulsi family is as close as he comes to having an identity. With his own family broken and scattered, the Tulsis become something of a surrogate. Yet, as much as Hanuman House becomes Biswas’ home for a while, it is also like a prison and he, merely another inmate. The sons-in-law are hostages by marriage and to survive in this matriarchal regime, the sons-in-law do as is expected of them. Since Biswas isn’t one to suffer pointless rules, he naturally becomes the clown, the buffoon and the rebel.

It all begins when his father Raghu drowns in the pond. As mentioned before, Biswas was gifted with an unlucky sneeze and when Raghu, assuming that his son is lying at the bottom of a murky pond, dives in to retrieve him, he drowns when a perfectly safe Biswas sneezes. He is naturally blamed for this tragedy and not the fact that his father was long past his prime and completely unfit to be diving for such a long period.

Immediately after Raghu’s funeral, Biswas and his family are driven out of their home by unscrupulous neighbours who believed that Raghu was a wealthy miser who hid all his money in bags beneath the earth in the yard. His sister Dehuti is sent to his well-to-do aunt Tara’s house to become a good servant, his brothers have also been assigned to another relation to continue their vocation as field labourers and estate workers. As for his mother Bipti, broken and defeated, she withdraws into herself leaving the young Biswas to process the break-up of his family on his own.

At the end of the first chapter, Naipaul writes, “And so Mr. Biswas came to leave the only house to which he had some right. For the next thirty-five years he was to be a wanderer with no place her could call his own, with no family except that which he was to attempt to create out of the engulfing world of the Tulsis…..it seemed to him that he was really quite alone.”

This cruel deprivation of home and family, like a spectre, haunts Biswas throughout his life thus creating within him this feverish need to establish himself as a person of worth.

Mr. Biswas’ father was a Brahmin (which is considered the highest level in the caste system which is still so prevalent in Indian Hindu society and was brought to Trinidad during indenture), he was also a labourer. This lowers Biswas in the eyes of others except on occasions of religious ceremonies where, being the son of a Brahmin, he is fed and pampered and given gifts of money and clothes. But once the ceremonies are over, he becomes once more only a labourer’s child.

It is his aunt Tara’s decision to send him to Pundit Jairam to learn the trade of becoming a pundit, after all, what else could he do? He is unfit for fieldwork and does have a basic education after all. It would be easy for him to learn the important scriptures and ceremonies required to become a respectable pundit. The episode where Jairam forces Biswas to eat the bananas until he becomes sick is a damning statement of the double standard of the pious Brahmins. Jairam would have preferred to let the bananas rot instead of allowing anyone else to eat them. As the son of a labourer, whether he Brahmin or not, Biswas is not at the same level. He is a ‘nobody’ who survives upon the charity of others.

His return to the communal home which he and his mother share is made only worse as Bipti seems less than welcoming. He wants some kind of reassurance that he was not at fault but that is slow in coming. It is Tara and not his mother who shows sympathy and recognises the injury done to him.

Tara’s husband Ajodha owns a garage and a rum shop. The rum shop is run by Ajodha’s brother Bhandat and that is where Biswas is sent next. He would earn money working there but not enough to strike out on his own. He has to live with Bhandat and his wife and his two sons in two rooms and he has to share one of these rooms with Bhandat’s sons. His only possessions are some books and enough clothes to hang on a nail on one wall. One day Bhandat and his family must attend a funeral and Biswas has the two rooms to himself but as the day wears on the thrill is lost. Aimless and purposeless he longs for the day to end.

When Bhandat beats Biswas and accuses him of stealing a dollar, Biswas runs back to the back trace where his mother lives and berates her for sending him away to live with other people but she only rubs salt in his wounds agreeing with what the pundit had said about him on the night of his birth. Just like before, it is Tara and not his mother who sympathises and tries to comfort him. But that only makes things worse. By then, Biswas realises that without his father he is an easy target for cruelty.

It is this particular injustice which makes it easier for the reader to understand why it is so important for Biswas to claim his children when they are at the Tulsi house. It is easier to understand that whilst he shuffles aimlessly through life, he tries his best to help his children establish their identity after he is denied his. What he does not realise in this quest of his to have the perfect life is that he does have a purpose. It may not have been what he envisioned, but his children are living examples of what he had accomplished.

In chapter three, the Tulsis are introduced by way of a description of Hanuman House. It stands “like an alien white fortress.” The Tulsis have the reputation among Hindus as being a pious, landowning, conservative family. It is rumoured that they are still in contact with relatives in India. There is very little that is known about them. The only thing that people saw of them was what was shown. The imposing fortress of a house with the equally forbidding ‘new room’, religious celebrations and the Tulsi Store make up the façade the family uses to impress others. What outsiders do not see is the squalor beyond those walls; the musty hall and sooty kitchen, the furniture-choked landing and the dark cobwebbed loft.

The Tulsi family is like an army. They are everywhere. The marriage which is arranged between Biswas and one of the Tulsi daughters, Shama, takes him by surprise. The full extent of what happens to him doesn’t hit him until later and by then he is trapped. With no job, no money and property of his own, he is expected to become a Tulsi. No other identity would be acceptable especially since he had nothing to offer and it is this identity that he continues to rebel against. The image that the Tulsis have of him conflicts with the image Biswas has of himself. As far as they are concerned he is just the son of a labourer, his caste grants him no special allowances. The Tulsis become the enemy, the indomitable force that threatens his ideal life. The only way he can undermine that force is to mock the hierarchy of the Tulsi clan and insult the “young gods” as he calls his youngest brothers-in-law.

He aligns himself with Punkaj Rai and the Arwacas Aryan Association in challenging arranged marriages and the caste system. He agrees with Punkaj Rai’s idealism, that “birth was unimportant; a man’s caste should be determined only by his actions.” However, Biswas only sees and agrees with one side of this argument.” Biswas is against caste designation and yet he resents the Tulsis’ insensitivity to his Brahmin status. His ungrateful attitude to the people who house, feed and clothe him is anything but admirable. Biswas’ mocking and disrespectful comments about other members of the Tulsi family bring full circle, the whole truth of Pankaj’s statement.

Before marrying Shama he reflects on his loss and the “despair of finding romance in his own dull green land.” What else is there for him? There is nothing but the reality of his limitations; his inherited class identity, a backward colonial society and Hanuman House. Apart from himself, no one else has any great expectations of Biswas and therein lies his greatest conflict. He wants people to see him for what he is capable of but all they see is what he shows them.

Even with all of that, he is still assigned work on the Tulsi sugar estate in Green Vale. As much as he hates field work, in this profession as a driver he must do what is equally distasteful. He must oversee labourers who are not unlike his own grandfather, father and brothers. He must subject the labourers he oversees to the same treatment his father and brothers would have endured. At first he is sympathetic but it doesn’t take him long before he becomes hardened and uncaring, identifying himself with the overseers of old.

The longer he stays at Green Vale the more that dream of becoming more than a Brahmin son of a labourer recedes. Animosity increases between himself and the labourers and once the sun sets, he retreats like an exile to his crowded, shabby room of the barrack house.

Becoming a reporter-journalist is the closest Biswas ever came to fulfilling his dream of becoming a writer and yet there is something pathetic about the whole thing. His articles are ridiculous and sensationalised, his correspondence course with the London Ideal School of Journalism remains unfinished and the typewriter he buys in anticipation of a successful career remains idle, even his stories remain unfinished.

Even though his job as a reporter becomes tedious and pointless at times, he has made a name for himself and establishes himself as a professional and in so doing attains some freedom from the Tulsis. Eventually though reality takes precedence over fantasy. He realises that his job at the Sentinel is taking him nowhere closer to owning his home so he quits and gets a better paying one at the Welfare Department.

Once his son Anand begins to show promise at school, Biswas begins living through him, transferring all his energy and attention towards helping Anand prepare for his future. He bestows upon his son everything he believes he should have had, delighting in his easy success.

The house Biswas finally owns on Sikkim Street is again a partial fulfillment seeing as he buys the house without previously knowing of its faults. But it is still his. It is the one thing he ever wanted. Ownership of this house represents more than just shelter, it is freedom to do as he pleases, it is his mark upon the world never mind the debt that in his last days he is burdened with – a financial debt that he will pass on to his family. Even in his death, Biswas gets only a partial recognition and not the gallant, self-mocking one he had imagined.

At the end, Biswas’ fantasy just did not match the reality of his society and circumstances. Perhaps had he not been so deceived and burdened by his fantasy he might have recognised his true purpose and left a legacy that wasn’t so tainted by his fear of living in and leaving this world “unnecessary and unaccommodated.”

Works Cited:

Naipaul, V.S. A House for Mr. Biswas. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1961

Weiss, Timothy F. On the Margins: The Art of Exile in V.S. Naipaul. The University of Massachusetts Press, First Edition, 1992