A House for Mr. Biswas
A House for Mr. Biswas
by V. S. Naipaul
THE LITERARY WORK
A tragicomic novel set in Trinidad at the turn of the century through the 1950s; published in 1961.
An East Indian searches for meaning, identity, and a sense of place in colonial Trinidad.
The descendent of East Indian indentured servants, Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was born August 17, 1932, in Chaguanas, Trinidad. His father, Seepersad Naipaul (1906-53), was a journalist and an aspiring writer whose literary ambitions spread to his sons Vidiadhar and Shiva. A bright student, Vidiadhar Naipaul gained admission to Queen’s Royal College—one of just four secondary schools on the island—and in 1948 won a coveted government-sponsored scholarship to study abroad. He entered University College at Oxford in England as a literature student in 1950, graduated in 1953, and began working for the British Broadcasting Corporation, hosting the program Caribbean Voices. He also wrote for the New Statesman literary journal and published his first novel, The Mystic Masseur, in 1957. Two novels followed, earning him a reputation as a formidable new novelist, but it was with the publication of A House for Mr. Biswas in 1961 that Naipaul’s work achieved masterpiece status. Not part of the colonial ruling establishment, nor of the native culture, the protagonist is an East Indian in Trinidad, an ethnic outsider searching for a sense of self and place. Through this protagonist, the novel focuses on a displaced people reinventing themselves in a foreign and often inhospitable land.
From indentured servant to twentieth-century minority
Trinidad’s cultural and ethnic melange stems from its 500-year history of conquest and foreign occupation. Originally the home of Amerindian peoples, the island was sighted in 1498 by Admiral Christopher Columbus, who claimed it for Spain. With the Spanish came thousands of European settlers and African slaves to develop the colony, driving out native peoples and dramatically transforming the landscape. By the 1790s the immigrant population, mainly French Catholics settlers and African slaves, had wholly displaced the indigenous peoples, outnumbering them by a factor of 16 to 1.
By this time sugar had become “king,” and plantations dominated the island and economy. Lured by the lucrative trade, the British seized control of the West Indian colony in 1797. A wave of British settlers followed the Spanish and French, while African slaves continued to comprise the bulk of the workforce. In 1834, slaves in the British Empire were emancipated, and indentured servants from another of Britain’s colonies, India, were brought to Trinidad as replacements. From 1838 to 1917 some 144,000 East Indians moved to Trinidad under a policy of unrestricted immigration to support the sugar industry. Typically indentured for five years, East Indians received land grants at the expiration of their contracts or after ten years of residence—often in place of return passage to India—in the interest of keeping a low-wage workforce on the island. Approximately one-third of the servants returned to India, while the majority stayed and established shops, opened businesses, and farmed sugar on their newly acquired land.
Because of its colonial heritage and legacy of slavery and indentured servitude, twentieth-century Trinidad lacked a unified national cultural identity. White Europeans dominated the government and upper classes, yet people of African or East Indian descent comprised 80 percent of the population. Racism and discrimination were rampant in society, with the inhabitants strictly divided along economic and color lines.
Whites in the Caribbean did not fully accept the changing reality of the new post-slavery conditions … [and] as long as sugar remained “king,” all social goals were subordinated to boosting production. Little positive incentive was given to develop the arts, to inculcate a sense of national identity that was faithful to the plurality of the peoples.
(Knight, p. 188)
What emerged in place of a national identity were two strong “minority” communities who shared only their rejection of European culture and who openly clashed with each other. While white elites remained at the top of society, East Indians and the descendants of African slaves were forced to compete for the same meager allotments of land and opportunities. Put in this competitive position, they showed a general distrust for each other and segregated themselves socially. The two communities adapted differently: while the descendants of African slaves, whose ancestors had come from diverse regions, created their own new culture in Trinidad, East Indians held firmly to old Asian traditions, showing a steadfast refusal to assimilate or change cultural patterns that impressed many of the African descendants as arrogance. Tensions festered and at times flared. The sight of East Indians cheering India’s cricket team over that of the West Indies was enough to nearly start a “war” (Saft, p. 77).
The sense of displacement and lack of a national community in Trinidad are key concerns in A House for Mr. Biswas, as they were for Naipaul personally. Both Mr. Biswas and Naipaul seek identity—a “home”—a sense of place and self that did not readily exist for East Indians in Trinidad at the time. In the novel Mr. Biswas marvels that Pastor, an African who makes his living filling out forms for illiterates outside the county courthouse, has discovered and assumed his role in society. “Even Pastor, for all his grumbling, had found his place,” Mr. Biswas notes. Upon this revelation, Mr. Biswas “Perceived that the starts of apprehension he felt at the sight of every person in the street did not come from fear at all; only from regret, envy, despair” (Naipaul, A House for Mr. Biswas, p. 318). As an East Indian colonial in a British colony, Mr. Biswas is physically in one place and culturally in another, and so struggles to find his identity.
Exile off Main Street
As a consequence of immigrating as servants, East Indians were “at the bottom of the social scale” in Trinidad (Rodman, p. 19). Their dark skin, comparable to that of the African slave, only intensified their lowly status. According to Trinidad’s first black prime minister, Eric Williams (1956-81), West Indians’ “concern with colour and lightness of skin was almost an obsession” during the first part of the twentieth century (Williams in Rodman, p. 20).
The legacy of slavery and servitude had long-term effects on living conditions and social interaction in Trinidad. Division existed not only between Europeans and their Asian and African counterparts, but also within Trinidad’s Asian and African communities, of which no segment was more removed or outcast than the East Indians. Physically they were separated because they lived in rural Trinidad. East Indians made up just 4 percent of the population of Trinidad’s chief town, the Port of Spain, before 1917, although they comprised approximately 40 percent of the total population. Socially they were barred because of their distinct cultural and low-status farm labor.
The living and working conditions of East Indians in Trinidad further isolated them. The 25-cent wage of indenture was tantamount to slavery (a full 43 cents below the recommended minimum wage in 1919). Poverty was widespread, with nearly 20 percent of the population filing for poor relief in 1911 and their numbers surging annually. Through the 1940s, malnutrition soared—80 percent of the rural, mostly East Indian population in 1920 was infested with hookworms. Meanwhile, wages, instead of rising with inflation, dropped annually through 1935.
Compounding the poverty, housing was scarce. Just 48,000 houses existed on the island in 1911, which together with an additional 45,000 barrack rooms (former slave quarters) had to provide shelter for the bulk of Trinidad’s 300,000 inhabitants. As evidenced in the novel, dozens of East Indians lived in a single dwelling or squatted in ramshackle squatter’s cabins erected illegally on others’ property, as Mr. Biswas’s mother and many aunts and uncles do in the novel. Ideally the East Indian household sheltered one nuclear family or one extended family (traditionally a mother, father, unmarried children, and married sons with their wives and children), with the family sharing “a common kitchen” and “family purse” (Klass, p. 44). But the complications of life in Trinidad, including the dearth of dwelling places, often interfered with realizing the ideal. The acute housing problem among East Indians helps explain why home ownership is an all-consuming passion for Mr. Biswas in the novel (as does Biswas’s search for individual identity).
East Indian social life in Trinidad
East Indians at first voluntarily segregated themselves from other communities, in large part because of cultural tradition. They practiced Hindu or Muslim religions, which were not officially recognized by the colonial government, and married within their own religious group. As evidenced in the novel, interaction between cultural groups in Trinidad was very limited. Occasionally Mr. Biswas sneaks off to Chinese restaurants, but this is a clear act of defiance against his wife’s family. In fact, friendships, business relationships, and formal marriages between Trinidad’s various cultural groups were rare in Trinidad until the 1940s, when social and political change began to occur. In the novel, Mr. Biswas’s uncle marries a Chinese woman, whom the family never formally recognizes. They acknowledge only Hindu marriages, ironically, since the British government only acknowledge onlyHindu marriages, the iron-Similarly children borne by Chinese or African women to East Indian men were not officially recognized by East Indian families; such “illegitimate” children could not inherit property and were otherwise ostracized.
While East Indians in Trinidad maintained Hindu (85 percent) and Muslim traditions by keeping the patriarchal family structure and to some extent the caste system alive, both traditions weakened over time. Most Hindus practiced daily puja, or worshipful offerings to gods; ate in accordance with religious teachings; and observed customary religious holidays and rites (though, like the Tulsis in the novel, many eventually adopted the celebration of Christmas). Women usually filled traditional roles as wife, mother, and homemaker, laboring also in agriculture or at home-based businesses, while men worked outside the home. The education of boys took priority over that of girls—a policy reinforced by the local school system in which just three in 200 girls advanced to secondary school (Williams, p. 22). As in India, women dressed modestly in saris or salwar kameez; men sported Eastern or Western attire. Dowries were required for Hindu girls to marry, and their marriages were arranged, ideally to someone above their family’s station. In the novel, Mr. Biswas is paired with Shama, one of the Tulsi family daughters, because he is a Brahmin—the highest caste. Though he has no real occupation or property, his caste brings honor to the Tulsi family. Their daughter is “marrying up.”
The educational system proved to be another dividing factor in Trinidad. Until World War II, the government had no universal system of primary education and spent little on the education it did provide. The majority of schools were private and secular, operated by Christian religious institutions that did not cater to Hindus or Muslims. The consequences of the government abdicating responsibility for public education were serious: racial and economic differences were accentuated. Poor, non-Christians were discriminated against, performance standards for teachers were nonexistent,
“DOWN BY LAW”
With no right to vote, little education, and no political representation until 1946. East Indians felt persecuted by the law and distrusted the official legal system in Trinidad, so they implemented their own system of justice: the law of the cutlass. “The Indian agricultural worker in Trinidad was a man with the cutlass [blade that cuts sugar cane], oppressed by the law which, instead of being his protector, was his principal enemy” (Williams, p. 20). In the novel. East Indians invoke the “law of the cutlass” to settle disputes among themselves, and maintain control over their households. The successful way to resolve conflicts in the Tulsi home is via physical force, not through the legal system. When considering the possibility of local law enforcement’s getting involved in a dispute, Mr. Biswas has a “fleeting vision of black policemen, courthouses, gallows, graves, coffins” (Biswas, p. 135). Resorting to official law is clearly a frightening option. In fact, the police force was dominated by foreigners—90 percent from Barbados or other islands. Routinely the Tulsi women give their children “a dose of licks” as a sort of “ritual” to make them “big men”; and when Mr. Biswas is exasperated with his children he has “visions in which he cutlassed, poisoned, strangled, burned, Anand and Savi” (Biswas, pp. 197, 154, 273). The one time that Mr. Biswas decides to resolve a problem by hiring a lawyer, he is sued for slander and toses his case. British law, as demonstrated by this incident, favored the upper classes, not the commoner or the ethnic outsider.
and there was no uniformity of curriculum. As a result, just one in ten East Indian boys attended primary school, one in 14 East Indian girls. In contrast, the island average at the time was one in two boys, three in five girls.
An even worse situation existed at the secondary-school level. There were just four secondary schools in Trinidad, all very expensive and strictly urban. The only bridge for poor kids to secondary school was via government-sponsored exhibitions, whose winners received free tuition plus textbooks. A second exhibition or academic contest enabled winners to attend college abroad—usually Cambridge or Oxford in England—but the number of awards granted for each contest was extremely small. While just 800 students of about 47,000 advanced to secondary school in 1911, only four attended with exhibition scholarships, and only three advanced from secondary school to college abroad as exhibition winners. Of the lucky few, Mr. Biswas’s son, Anand, and Naipaul himself won the secondary and college scholarships, as did Trinidad’s first black prime minister, Eric Williams. For East Indians and Africans, the exhibitions were often the only opportunity for educational and socioeconomic advancement, and so were of paramount importance to families wishing to better themselves.
Ironically, though higher education enabled poor children to advance, it also became a social barrier separating students from family and friends, and dividing the generations. The main purpose of education in Trinidad was the Angli-cization of the colony, and the secondary curriculum, according to Eric Williams, was indistinguishable from that of an English public school. Textbooks were written by J. O. Cut-teridge, an aristocratic, non-Trinidadian British official who emphasized the classics and mathematics. There was no teaching of Creole, African, or East Indian culture and history, and the literary and scientific styles were “affected, pompous, high-flown and ponderous”—a far cry from colloquial speech or daily experience in the cane fields or Port of Spain (Williams, p. 23). Non-European students exposed to this type of education became far more “British” than their families, yet remained clearly not British in the eyes of mainstream society. Like Mr. Biswas, an avid reader, and his educated children, the students themselves often felt alienated from, even repelled by, their inherited traditions and questioned their cultural identity. Naipaul’s characterization of the ethnic outsider seems to stem from his own experience as a product of this educational system, from his “rootlessness” as a colonial divided from his cultural heritage yet unable to share in that of Trinidad’s imperial ruler (Chapman, p. 303).
“Picong”—a tradition of satire
In Trinidad, a unique tradition of political satire became a major force in society. By the mid-twentieth century there were no less than four daily newspapers and an abundance of weeklies for a population of one million, with each featuring humorous political attacks on local government, bureaucracy, and traditions. Called “picong,” this unique form of “sniping satire,” which originated in Calypso music, conveyed the popular “Trinidadian” attitude of refusing to take anyone or anything too seriously (Saft, p. 81). Most Trinidadians viewed the established order as unrepresentative and corrupt. Yet an inherent joie de vívre generally provided “a studied philosophy of life which rests upon a highly developed sense of humor” (Saft, p. 82). In the weeklies no topic was sacrosanct and “a major part of the attraction” was “their punching holes in public figures” (Saft, p. 82). The humor “level [ed] all hierarchies” and, as in the novel, poked fun at tradition and the status quo (Saft, p. 82).
Naipaul’s novel is a masterpiece of “picong.” A newspaper columnist, Mr. Biswas specializes in biting satire. He, like Naipaul’s father, exposes the folly of society and finds his muse in his editor Mr. Burnett (for Naipaul’s father, it was Mr. MacGowan), who openly encourages his outlandish stories. With nothing above reproach, Mr. Biswas constantly satirizes his own life and experiences, recording events in his mind: “Amazing scenes were witnessed in St. Vincent Street yesterday when Mohun Biswas, 31, unemployed, of no fixed address, assaulted a receptionist at the offices of TRINIDAD SENTINEL. People ducked behind desks as Biswas, father of four, walked into the building with guns blazing, shot the editor and four reporters dead, and then set fire to the building” (Biswas, p. 319). Of course, Mr. Biswas does none of these things—they are random thoughts passing through his mind that illustrate his sensational, black sense of humor. The general focus of the newspaper he writes for conveys the same black humor, an attribute appreciated in Trinidad: “The peasant was then reported as saying that he read the Sentinel every day, since no other paper presented the news so fully, so amusingly, and with such balance” (Biswas, p. 328). In deference to Trinidad’s penchant for “picong,” the Sentinel editor includes “amusingly” in his description, a quality outside newspapers often do not equate with fine reporting.
Big changes on a small island
A mix of variables characterized Trinidadian society. “Class, colour, caste and race combined to create an immensely complex pattern of human relationships” and made it extremely difficult for change to occur (Bridget Brereton in Rogozinski, p. 317). The elite Protestant British and Roman Catholic French-Creole classes agreed on nothing but money. As mentioned earlier, blacks and East Indians clashed. Oil and farm workers were pitted against middle-class white-collar workers. And even within the East Indian community, Hindus and Muslims divided along religious lines. Reinforced by the social and educational systems, the divisions helped isolate power in the hands of a privileged few. In 1934, however, when the
MILK AND PRUNES—BRAIN FOOD
Because it was a life-making or life-breaking event, the government-sponsored educational exhibitions were a family priority in Trinidad. Families poured their energy and resources into the education of a select child as preparation for the scholastic exams. He or she would be tutored at the family’s expense and would receive certain privileges. In the novel. milk and prunes are the special diet East Indian families prescribed for educational brilliance. Both foods were not only precious commodities but were seen as possessing special intellectual qualities. As a rule, milk would not be purchased from European-operated diaries but acquired from family cows or bought from “a man six lots away who, oblivious of the aspirations of the district, kept cows and delivered milk in rum bottles stopped with brown paper”; prunes were believed to be “especially nourishing to people who exercised their brains” (Biswas, pp. 336-371). Mr. Biswas at first scoffs at Mrs. Tulsi for indulging Owad [her son] in these excesses. But soon Mr. Biswas not only sees the wisdom of her choice but hopes his own son will some day be worthy of the treatment. “He was watching and learning, with an eye on his own household and especially on Anand. Soon, he hoped, Anand would qualify to eat prunes and drink milk from the Dairies” (Biswas, p. 337).
Wages Advisory Board recommended that peoples’ needs were less, wages fell below those paid in 1920, at which point the repressed classes finally banded together for change. East Indians in particular became more public in their demands for improved wages and working conditions, staging a hunger strike. They also staged demonstrations, with East Indian sugar workers marching from San Fernando to Port of Spain, inspiring workers in other industries to follow suit.
About this time East Indian advocate Krishna Deonarine, came to the fore of local politics. The grandson of indentured servants, he changed his name to Adrian Cola Reinzi to pass as a more-privileged Spaniard. Reinzi organized the Oilfield Workers Trade Union and the All Trinidad Sugar Estates and Factory Workers Trade Union in 1937, inaugurating a major turning point in race relations on the island, as “oil and sugar, African and Indian … joined hands” (Saft, p. 45). By 1941, 12 unions had been established in Trinidad, with workers finally putting aside cultural differences to form coalitions and agitate for change.
A second important impetus for change occurred three years later with the arrival of American service personnel. In September 1940 the British leased its military bases in Trinidad to the United States. Inadvertently the presence of Americans helped erode color and class distinctions because, in contrast to the British, the Americans provided high-paying jobs to Trinida-dians, regardless of their cultural heritage. Also, whereas the British had maintained a very separate and formal public relationship with the general population, Americans “labored bareback, got drank and brawled, and white respectability crumbled” (Saft, p. 46). In other words, they worked and lived with the public, frequented Port of Spain nightclubs, and dated locals. Meanwhile, the standard of living rose, aided by World War II oil exports (which rose by 1/3), increased urbanization, and American dollars. With more financial resources, people gained status, servility decreased, and society radically changed. By the war’s end, a nationalist movement had evolved that would produce a new, self-governing Trinidad.
The close of World War II signaled the end of British colonial rule in Trinidad (though it would not gain full independence until 1962). Universal suffrage was granted in 1945 and “rowdy” elections took place the following year (Saft, p. 48). Because of the island’s lack of party affiliation outside the British Crown Colony, elections were wide open, with 141 candidates vying for 18 seats in parliament. Politicians appealed to the citizenry along race and class lines. East Indians candidates sought the Hindu and Muslim vote. Among them was Ajodha Singh, a popular candidate because of his reputation as a colorful campaigner and “mystic masseur,” who massages a person’s aura or karma (Saft, p. 48). Naipaul’s father, Seepersad, a local journalist, covered the political developments when Naipaul was just a boy. Drawing on these memories, and on his father’s stories, Naipaul satirized the events surrounding Trinidad’s first elections in his novels The Mystic Masseur and The Suffrage of Elvira. He also incorporated some of the characters into his masterpiece, A House for Mr. Biswas, including a fictionalized version of Ajodha Singh.
The postwar years in Trinidad brought a nationalist surge and increased prosperity, with the economy benefitting greatly from higher oil prices through the 1950s. Testament to the independent spirit sweeping the island, Eric Williams was elected prime minister in 1956. A respected intellectual and skilled politician, Williams was instrumental in Trinidad’s achieving total independence from Great Britain in 1962, after a brief membership in the West Indies Federation (1958-62). Williams helped unify Trinidadians, instilling a strong sense of community and national pride where neither had existed before. He called for “nationalism and democracy” and “a mobilisation of all the forces in the community, cutting across race and religion, class and colour” (Williams in Rogozinski, p. 318).
With wages up 10 to 20 times what they had been before World War II, prosperity continued to grow and to help erase class and color lines. As Mr. Biswas does in the novel, East Indians migrated to the cities where educational and white-collar job opportunities increased. Literacy rates rose to 90 percent. Children of all races mixed at school, as did their parents in the workplace. Caste and culture barriers eroded in the desegregated urban environment, and the standard of living rose across the board. “Since the Second World War, the sense of self and the sentiment of nationalism intensified throughout the Caribbean,” and “Hindu and Muslim East Indians formed coalitions with black Trinidadians” (Knight, pp. 302, 303). For the first time, East Indians—through education—became part of the recognized middle class as barriers of all forms began to erode and a new national society formed.
Tracing the life of Mohun Biswas, a humble East Indian born and raised in Trinidad, A House for Mr. Biswas begins at the end, in the house Mr. Biswas spends his life pursuing. It then flashes back to the onset of Mohun Biswas’s troubles. Because of chronic illness, he is fired by the Trinidad Sentinel, his employer since he moved to Port of Spain. Mohun has a considerable mortgage, his children, on whom he may have depended, are abroad at school, and he is dying of stress and a bad heart. Yet he is content at the thought of going to his final resting place from his own home, “his own portion of the earth. That he should be responsible for this seemed to him, in these last months, stupendous,” and it was (Biswas, p. 8).
Born to indentured servants in “a crumbling mud hut in the swamplands,” Mohun Biswas seems doomed from the outset (Biswas, p. 15). He has six fingers and comes out feet first—bad omens in his community—and shortly thereafter is inadvertently the cause of his father’s death. To increase his fortune in life, he is named Mohun, which means “the beloved,” but for years the trick does not seem to fool the gods and bad luck hovers overhead like a rain cloud. His mother sells the family shack just before oil is discovered on the property. The sale leaves her destitute, his brothers with a life of hard labor in the cane fields, and Mohun without vocation or direction. He tries in vain to become a pundit, or holy man, because of his birth into the Brahmin caste, but questions Hindu teachings and has neither the horoscope nor, quite literally, the hands for it. He works in ram shops and at odd jobs, but succeeds at nothing. In fact, Mohun’s only marketable skill is sign painting—a craft from which he can at best eke out a minor living. But he has dreams—and books. Mohun is a voracious reader, devouring all the books he can acquire. They enable his escape into the outside world and fuel his desire to make his own place in it. For many years Mohun remains directionless, working as a sign painter for various businesses around town. One day a job brings him into contact with a 16-year-old East Indian girl named Shama. He thinks little of marriage and his mother has all but given up on the prospect when Shama’s family abruptly intervenes. The Tulsis are one of the most influential Hindu families in Trinidad. They own sugar plantations, stores, and cinemas, and wield considerable power in the community. When Mrs. Tulsi realizes Mohun’s attraction to Shama, as well as his Brahmin caste status, she quickly arranges his marriage to her daughter. Before Mohun fully realizes what is happening, he is part of the Tulsi household and living in their home in Arwacas: Hanuman House, named for the monkey god.
Life for Mohun in Hanuman House becomes quite literally like life in a monkey house. All of Shama’s siblings and their families live there together—some 30 or more—with Mrs. Tulsi and her son Seth reigning supreme. Mohun bristles at everything having to do with the living situation, feels he has nothing in common with the Tulsis, and continually causes disruptions and quarrels. Though he clearly does not fit into the family structure or show aptitude for working on their plantations like the other sons-in-law, the Tulsis find places for him to serve the family business and interests. He is sent to other properties—first to operate a small general store, then to supervise fieldworkers on their plantation. During these years his own family continues to
A House for Mr. Biswas invokes allegorical names, drawing on East Indian history and Hindu legend. The protagonist’s name, Mohun, meaning “beloved,” was the titie most often associated with Mohandas Gandhi (though he did not approve of it). In this way, Naipaul is illustrating his sympathy for this flawed character and indicating that his experience as a contused, fallible non-hero or “Everyman” is honorable. Appropriately Naipaul dedicates the Tulsi residence lo Hanuman, monkey god and savior in the Hindu epic Ramayana, an intricate tale of good and evil about the creation of Hindustan (India). In doing so, he employs the double-entendre oí Hanuman House as monkey house and of Hanuman’s unifying role in the epic. In the epic, Hanuman rescues Sita (the hero Rama’s beloved) by building a bridge across the water to another land, and in the novel the Tulsi home serves as the bridge from India to Trinidad.
grow with the birth of three daughters and a son, but he remains disconnected from them as well as from his in-laws. Shama’s loyalty lies with the Tulsis, and Mohun feels a stranger around his own children.
With the dream of building a home always firmly in the back of his mind—ever more so since living in Hanuman House—Mohun makes two attempts to realize his goal: the first while working at the plantation at Green Vale and the second when the Tulsis move to the country in Shorthills. But ill fortune still dogs him. Both homes are destroyed by natural disaster, leaving Mohun more dispirited, yet more determined, than ever. He “yearned after the outside world; he read novels that took him there” and, with the destruction of his houses, felt he had nothing to lose by finally going to explore it for himself (Biswas, p. 207).
Following the lead of a friend who has gone to Port of Spain to work in the world’s first psychiatric hospital, Mohun moves to the city and lands a job as a reporter for the Trínidaá Sentinel. He teams up with a bold, bawdy Hindu editor who capitalizes on Mohun’s keen powers of observation and black sense of humor. Mohun begins writing sensational columns, such as the roving Scarlet Pimpernel, about a reporter who seeks out the common man and, if recognized, pays him or her a reward.
With memories coming from he knew not where, he wrote:
SCARLET PIMPERNEL SPENDS NIGHT IN A TREE
Anguish of Six-Hour Vigil
The report then described a sleepless night, encounters with snakes and bats, two cars that passed in the night, heedless of the Scarlet Pimpernel’s cries, the rescue early in the morning by peasants who recognized the Scarlet Pimpernel and claimed their prize.
(Biswas, p. 329)
Most of his subject matter is made up; Mohun converts his disillusionment with his life into fuel for his creativity: His stories are largely fictional and thoroughly outrageous, as when he pens “I am Trinidad’s Most Evil Man.” Suddenly Mohun is respected by society—even by his family! His audacity and bold humor is rewarded, and his fortune begins to change.
Though the newspaper is eventually bought out and his writing assignments become more mundane, Mohun is content with his career and begins to focus on his family. All the Tulsis move to Port of Spain and for the first time he bonds with his children—especially his son, Anand, to whom he transfers his ambitions. They share a passion and gift for reading and composition, and Mohun invests his time and energy preparing Anand for the secondary school exhibition. Anand eventually wins a scholarship and, that accomplished, Mohun turns his sights one final time to owning a home.
The price is too high, the structure unsound, the seller unscrupulous, but Mohun purchases a house on Sikkim Street and at long last moves his family into a home of his own. Everything he dreamed of comes true. His relationships with his wife and children radically transform: “Since they had moved to the house Shama had learned a new loyalty, to him and to their children … and to Mr. Biswas this was a triumph almost as big as the acquiring of his own house” (Biswas, p. 8). He is awestruck at the wonder of being in his own house each time he enters,
to walk in through his own front gate, to bar entry to whoever he wished, to close his doors and windows every night, to hear no one’s noise except those of his family, to wander freely from room to room and about his yard, instead of being condemned, the moment he got home to the crowded room in one or the other of Mrs. Tulsis houses, crowded with Shama’s sisters, their husbands, their children. (Biswas, p. 8)
He is thrilled to find his place in the world and, though short-lived, his happiness and life are at last complete. He dies in his own home, and his daughter Savi returns to pay the mortgage and care for the family while her brother is away at college.
Hanuman House as a microcosm of East Indian society
In colonial Trinidad, where the population outnumbered that of single dwellings sixfold and the majority lived in cramped quarters, slept on floors, and often cooked and bathed outdoors, the home could be seen as a microcosm of life in the immigrant community. Hanuman House, where the Tulsi family resides, is a perfect example of the living conditions of East Indians in Trinidad: crowded, undemocratic, chaotic, and part of, yet far removed from, mainstream society.
Relationships within Hanuman House are complex. As in the local political and social structure, one must forge alliances to survive. Mr. Biswas realizes this the moment he moves in: “It was a strain living in a house full of people and talking to one person alone, and after some weeks Mr. Biswas decided to look around for alliances. Relationships at Hanuman House were complex and as yet he understood only a few, but he had noted that two friendly sisters made two friendly husbands, and two friendly husbands made two friendly sisters” (Biswas, p. 105). Biswas seeks to ally with like-minded family members to change some of the “house rales” but cannot even secure the allegiance of his own wife. Within the house, sheltered by her family, Shama’s first loyalty is to the Tulsis and she does not alter her sentiments until much later when Biswas breaks free from the Tulsis and buys his own home.
Seated firmly atop the hierarchy like the British colonials who ruled Trinidad, Seth and Mrs. Tulsi ran the family enterprise—Seth the business, Mrs. Tulsi the household. Despite his bold assertions to Shama that he is “not at his beck and call, like everyone else in this house,” Mr. Biswas must answer to Seth and follow his directives (Biswas, p. 107). Mrs. Tulsi, hearing that he is making fun of Seth’s spoiled children and refusing to work for the family, reminds Biswas of his obligations. Like an indentured servant, he is indebted because they have taken him in, “penniless, a stranger” and given him their daughter, a home, food and shelter (Biswas, p. 109). Mr. Biswas declares that his motto is “paddle your own canoe” yet, as an East Indian without a trade he literally cannot (Biswas, p. 107). He acquiesces to the family because he has no choice. Like most East Indians in his situation, he must become part of the system and not forget his place in it: at the bottom.
In time—even in Hanuman House—the system evolves, though not necessarily harmoniously. Like the rest of the community, Hanuman House is comprised of old and new generations, with those seeking to modernize and those clinging to old world tradition inhabiting the same small space. Brothers-in-law Hari and Govind represent the old-world East Indian culture, with Hari practising puja for the family and performing Hindu rites, and Govind committing the Ramayana to memory and singing its verses at every opportunity. At the opposite extreme are Mr. Biswas and the brother-in-law he nicknames W. C. Tuttle. They are avid readers who both feel “that by marrying into the Tulsis they had fallen among the barbarians” (Biswas, p. 459). While Hari and Biswas maintain a quiet disdain for each other, Tuttle and Govind opt for duelling gramophones: Govind “Ramayana-grunting” and Tuttle blaring modern “music of celebration” at full volume simultaneously from adjacent rooms (Biswas, p. 461).
In this setting, East meets West head on and, as in general society, the mixture is disjunctive; it does not blend smoothly. Yet the blending continues nonetheless. Seth marries a Protestant woman, the children study in Christian schools (the older boys attend British universities) and the Hindu family starts celebrating the Christian holiday Christmas. They eat traditional curries and roti but sample store-bought ice cream and Coca-Cola as well. The children learn English and forget Hindi, which becomes a “secret” language spoken only among the elders, and little by little the household becomes increasingly confused, as society in general desegregates and modernizes.
In less than 50 years the Tulsis build a strong foundation in Trinidad, acquiring real estate, cinemas, and businesses throughout the island, but still never feel at home.
Despite the solidity of their establishment the Tulsis had never considered themselves settled in the town of Arwacas or even Trinidad. It was no more than a stage in a journey that began when Pundit Tulsi left India … and ever since they had talked, though less often … of moving on, to India.
(Biswas, p. 390)
But the Tulsis, now the third and fourth generations who know only Trinidad, would never return east. Like others of their community they become part of the island, even as they remain outsiders, maintaining East Indian identities and adapting to change, however reluctantly. The result is a permanently displaced people—colonial immigrants who do not wholly belong to the land and are slowly losing ties to their cultural roots.
Hanuman House mirrors mid-twentieth-century East Indian life in Trinidad: the social stratification, the complex politics and economics of the upper and lower classes, the growing generation gap, and the East-West culture clashes. Along with these realities, it illustrates the isolation of the colonial immigrant searching for a sense of self and belonging in a foreign and often hostile environment. In the context of this house, Mr. Biswas straggles in pursuit of his own identity, or a place of his own. “As a boy he had moved from one house of strangers to another; and since his marriage he felt he had lived nowhere but in the houses of the Tulsis” (Biswas, p. 8). His experience and pursuit parallels that of the East Indian immigrant community as a whole—indentured servants, moving to an unfamiliar land, living with strangers, obligated to those who provide food and shelter. Hanuman House symbolizes the community within a community—East Indians in the West Indies, double-edged in that it has been both protective and repressive. For most of the Tulsi sisters, Hanuman House is a place of refuge where the brutal and unfamiliar outside world evaporates, but for Biswas it is a prison from which he must free himself in order to take his place in society and forge his own identity.
Sources and literary context
Naipaul based A House jor Mr. Biswas on his own experiences in Trinidad, patterning the characters of Mr. Biswas and his son, Anand, on his father and himself. In his most recent book, Between Father and Son: Family Letters (2000), Naipaul reveals that the relationship between himself and his father was strikingly similar to that of the characters. Like his own father, Mr. Biswas dreams of literary success, transfers those dreams to his son, and
When Naipaul arrived in Britain as a young student, the nation was rebuilding after the ravages of World War II. Colonies in Britain’s once vast empire gained independence, and British ties shifted from the areas of Caribbean, Africa, and Southeast Asia to the areas of Europe and the United States. In spite of Britain’s demise as a colonial power, national pride remained strong at the lime, especially in its ancient aristocratic institutions. At Cambridge and Oxford Universities, though more students of the lower classes were being admitted, many in the privileged class still believed that they alone deserved their place in Britain’s finer institutions. The Dean of Balliol College, Oxford, is described as having often spoken derogatorily of the lower-class students—of whom Naipaul would have been considered one. “The snobbery,” said one former student, “was absolute—as if they felt now was the last chance to re-establish things as things ought to be and as life had been before the war” (J. MacNaughton in Williamson, p. 100). There were some who publicly decried the leveling of society in the postcolonial era, arguing that a recognisable and secure upper class … represents far less danger than would-he elites in an egalitarian society, whose privileges would be hidden and therefore uncontrolled” (Worthestone in Williamson, . 101). Class distinctions remained prevalent in British society, and nostalgia for the old colonial past was “coupled with a suspicion of strangers and some resentment of the newcomers who were increasingly arriving” (Williamson, p. 105). It is in the context of this climate of conditional acceptance on top of his own background as. an immigrant outsider, that Naipaul creates such a convincing portrayal of the East Indian colonial experience in Trinidad.
dies financially burdened but gratified that he is leaving a better future for his children. Naipaul, like Anand, was “torn between self-absorption and familial concern, writing home out of duty, need and affection” (Kakutani). Showing his deep affection and a growing realization of the relevance of his father’s experience as a universal struggle for identity, Naipaul records and embellishes upon the life and memories of the man he knew.
The novel draws on what Naipaul describes as ostracized peoples, estranged from societies to which they ostensibly belong, seeking ways to genuinely belong. He deliberately broadened out from his family experience to that of the West Indian community in Trinidad, as he describes in his book Reading and Writing:“One day … I began to see what my material might be: the city street from whose mixed life we had held aloof, and the country life before that, with the ways and manners of a remembered India” (Naipaul in Schmitt, p. 132). He specifically portrayed the reality of descendants of indentured servants, of which he was one, and in so doing, conveyed larger truths about the general colonial predicament in Trinidad.
Most critics agree that A House for Mr. Biswas is Naipaul’s literary masterpiece, but not all responses to the novel have been positive. Naipaul has been criticized for depicting Third World peoples as culturally inferior to Westerners, and his works have received a less-than-fa-vorable initial reception in India and the West Indies. But at least one reviewer identified with the portrayal in A House for Mr. Biswas, saying that “for the first time, he is able to feel his own history not merely as a squalid farce, but as an adventure in sensibility” (Schmitt, p. 151). Another reviewer praised the metaphors embedded in the novel: “The book is powerfully symbolic, but it is never crudely or obtrusively so”; Biswas “represents all things because he is fully presented as a person whose every quirk and idiosyncrasy we know” (Rohlehr in Schmitt, p. 153). Others agreed, calling Biswas “an archetypal figure”—the “Third World Everyman,” the wanderer-stranger searching for his role in the universe (Schmitt, pp. 153, 133). Still others celebrated the novel’s engaging humor, and the comic dimension of its epic hero. “If,” said Paul Theroux writing in the New York Times Book Review,“the silting up of the Thames coincided with a freak monsoon” causing him to be marooned in South London, the one book he would want with him would be A House for Mr. Biswas (Theroux in Chapman, p. 303).
Chapman, Jeff, and Pamela S. Dear, eds. Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, Vol. 51. Detroit: Gale, 1996.
Kakutani, Michiko. “Naipaul’s Letters Reveal True Nature of Mr. Biswas and Son.” Seattle Post Intelligencer. 16 Feb. 2000. http://www.seattlepi.nwsource.com/books/booxl66.shtml (20 Jan. 2001).
Klass, Morton. East Indians in Trinidad. Prospect Heights, III.: Waveland Press, 1961.
Naipaul, V. S. A House for Mr. Biswas. New York: Press, 1961.
_____. Between a Father and a Son. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.
Rodman, Hyman. Lower-Class Families. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.
Rogozinski, Jan. A Brief History of the Caribbean. New York: Facts on File, 1999.
Saft, Elizabeth, ed. Trinidad & Tobago. Boston: APA, 1993.
Schmitt, Deborah A., ed. Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 105. Detroit: Gale Group, 1998.
Williams, Eric. Inward Hunger: The Education of a Prime Minister. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969.
Williamson, Bill. The Temper of the Times. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990.
Wolpert, Stanley. A New History of India. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.