I’d heard of V.S. Naipaul and even watched a BBC Imagine programme in which the author and Noble Prize Winner for literature was interviewed by Alan Yentob. I like to think of myself as a reader, but until I’d read A House for Mr Biswas I had read none of Naipaul’s books.
A House for Mr Biswas is described as an ‘epic’ which is just another way of saying it’s quite long. With an Introduction, Epilogue and Afterword, written by Naipaul in 2011. The book runs to 627 pages. I’d guess around 200 000 words, the average wordy novel being around 100 000 words and novellas around 15 000 to 40 000 words.
In the Afterword Naipaul gives us the genesis of his epic.
‘The idea for the book was simple. A dying man considers the few physical objects which he has accumulated during his life, and by which he is now surrounded, perhaps mockingly, perhaps comfortingly. He reflects on the history of each object and so his life in the end is reduced to these physical objects rather than a network of relationships.’
Just as the words caught fire at a certain stage, so the material I was composing appeared at a certain stage to lift me out of myself…
I was often asked later whether what I had written was autobiographical. The answer was not as much as it might appear.
I admit I thought the book autobiographical, but there is something everyman about Mr Biswas. I too am Mr Biswas. He’s petty and venal and cowardly, and life is something that happens to him. He is a higher-caste Hindi, but his father worked as a labourer in the cane fields of pre-war Trinidad, an immigrant from India. Mr Biswas acquires a wife almost by accident. Working as a sign-writer in the Tulsi store, he sees Sharma working behind the counter and tries to smuggle a love note to her. He may be penniless, but he is of the right Brahmi caste and in no position to demand a dowry and finds himself married and living in the Tulsi house. ‘Cat and mouse,’ he later called it, with matriarch Mrs Tulsi as the cat.
But he’s self-aware enough to know how it works as an institution. And everybody in the extended family that lives in the house with them works for Mrs Tulsi and the family business. He labels the two sons of Mrs Tulsi, the two gods, and Seth, married to Mrs Tulsi’s sister, the big boss and enforcer.
Mr Biswas’s Aunt Tara, sister to Mr Biwas’s dad, also prospered by marrying Ajodha. Each Trinidad family tries to outdo the other in their success stories both within and out with each family. Aunt Tara takes in Mr Biswas’s sister as an act of charity when their father dies as a serving girl. Their prosperity is based on their measured charity. They employ an aged gardener to work on their new property and promise to pay him thirty cents a day, but when the gardener takes a break in the hottest part of the day, Aunt Tara deducts six cents from his pay for a cup of tea. Similarly, Mrs Tulsi reduces a stonemason to tears by refusing to pay him and does not understand why workers are no longer willing to work for food and a few cents as in the old days. Mr Biswas does not even get to name his first child, Savi, and he tries to annotate the birth certificate with the name he has chosen to comic effect.
Mr Biswas has what would be called nowadays a mental-health breakdown. But being part of the Tulsi household means, despite family feuds, as one of them, he is taken care of. Wives and children are routinely beaten. Mrs Tulsi’s beatings of her own daughters was legendary and a source of great pride, but none of the children of the extended family starve.
The two gods were not beaten. They were above such things. Mr Biswas has literary pretensions. His short-story, not unnaturally, is labelled Escape by Mr. Biswas. And it begins and ends in the same way. At the age of thirty-three, when he was already the father of four children…
Mr Biswas had a problem with no solution. He wanted a place of his own to live with his family, away from the controlling influence of Mrs Tulsi. But his job as a reporter with the Sentinel, while suitably prestigious, hardly covered the cost of renting from Mrs Tulis. Even a job working for the city bureaucracy with a car and expenses and salary of $50 a fortnight wasn’t enough to move without become more indebted. The reader knows, of course, he dies in debt, because this is how the book begins—with Mrs Tulsi outliving him.
The comic aspect of the novel and relationship to family is best understood with the return of the one of the young gods, Oswad, Mrs Tulsi’s son, back from studying to become a medical doctor in England, with all of Mrs Tulsi’s wealth and manipulations allowing him to become a person of substance, which he accepts, of course, as his rightful due. But Oswad finds in England that he ‘disliked all Indians from India. They were a disgrace to Trinidad Indians…their Hindi was strange…incomprehensibly, they looked down on colonial Indians. Oswad’s friend suggested because he had canvassed for the Labour Party he was one of the architects of the Labour election victory of 1945. He parrots one of the Soviet dogmas from their constitution.
‘He who does not work, does not eat.’
Mrs Tulsi repeats the sentence and her servant, Mrs Blackie said she wished they could send some of her people to Russia.
Oswad said Russia was so modern they planted rice by shooting it from a plane instead of bullets.
Long after the little god had moved on to a new ideology, Mr Biswas was indebted, but they couldn’t stop him hoping for better, symbolised by a new home, if not for himself, for his children. A bit like the rest of us. A bit like V.S. Naipaul (R.I.P).