V.S. Naipaul (2011 [1969]) A House for Mr Biswas.

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).

Storyville: One Child Nation, BBC 4, BBC iPlayer, director Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang.


https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000bh0j/storyville-one-child-nation

I’ve been pondering the difference between affect and effect. The former is a verb. The latter is a noun and verb. The etymology of affect suggests it has its roots in ‘a little like love’.

The effect of China’s implementation of a one-child policy for couples, men and women, in the early 1980s was nothing like love. It was a top-down, Communist Party, misogynistic policy, based on pseudo-economics, demographics and projections of population growth. This was best summed up by a midwife who conducted tens of thousands of abortions and admitted drowning babies in buckets because she had no other choice. We’d starve and resort to cannibalism, she argued. The Great Famine of 1959-1961 instigated by Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward was in living memory so this propaganda drive was an idea that gained consensus.

The reversal of a one-child policy, around six years ago, was also an economic decision. China’s one child policy had the desired effect. It was no longer the most populous nation on earth. Under President Xi Jinping the Great Leap Forward has reached its conclusion. China is where America was before the first world war, a rival power trying to establish hegemonic influence.

But a simple rule of thumb and way to boost a countries GDP is to have more children. The more children the greater GDP. India is an example of this effect. Children also offset another ratio, the proportion of working population measured against the non-working population. In leaping forward, China has come to mirror the West in that it has a growing aging population and less workers to pay for their retirement. China also faces an additional demographic burden in that there are many more men than women. In our country, as I imagine in China, around sixty percent of the lowest paid jobs are done by women. Women’s work is not well-paid. But the misogynistic assumption that we need more women to care for our elderly holds a universal appeal. China’s implementation of a two-child policy is based on simple economics, or so they’d have us believe. The propaganda machine that churned out memes about the virtues of having one child has volte-faced and advocates two or more children as the perfect number. We live in an Orwellian world in more ways than one.

Nanfu Wang, a Chinese American, with her chid in tow, goes back to her homeland to document the one-child policy. She notes the irony that in China and America (Christian fundamentalist rights challenge of Roe v Wade) neither nation allows women to control their own bodies.

Wang returns to the rural village where she was born during China’s one-child policy. Her name tells you something about the villager’s aspirations. It’s a boy’s name. The one-child policy was modified to allow for two children to be born in some rural areas, but only if a five year gap appeared between births. Village elders had some discretionary power.  For those that failed to follow this policy, village elders were instructed to knock the down the house of the pregnant woman and fine them. Here Wang interviews the village elder who was responsible for these actions at that time. Like many in the village, a repeating motif, was that he was doing what he was told. He was powerless. The village elder’s equally elderly wife was however not affected by the same inertia and fatalism. She warned Wang that her mother, who still lived in their village, would pay, if her husband experiences any difficulties.

Pregnant women who nevertheless continued with their pregnancy, one woman, for example, hid in the pigsty, were hunted down and strapped to a stretcher and taken to the midwife.

The midwife Wang interviewed told her she would perform an abortion every ten minutes. And she’d performed thousands of such procedures. Foetuses at eight and nine months were left to die. Those born and breathing, drowned in a bucket. Mothers routinely sterilised.  

A Chinese photographer showed Wang his study of the corpses of aborted foetuses and other neonates lying in the trash.

One consequence of the one-child policy, especially in rural villages was the abandonment of female babies after they’d been born. Wang interviewed her Auntie and Uncle who’d left their daughter in the marketplace hoping someone else would take her and bring her up. They admitted their daughter had been ate by mosquitoes and died. Nobody wanted a female child. The marketplace was a graveyard for other female babies left by their parents.

The market place became just that when opportunities later came to sell children to wealthy foreigners in the United States, Europe and Canada. One American couple admitted adopting three Chinese babies. The prices they paid ranged from $10 000 to $25 000 or more. Female babies were no longer left to die in the market place, but swept up, with the finders paid a fee by State run orphanages from $50 to $200 per baby.

In a warped sense, this could be considered win-win, but with not enough babies and demand from abroad booming the next step was kidnapping infants. Village elders would, for example, visit the poorest members of their community, issue them with a fine and take a daughter for payment, until it was paid. The child would be classified as an orphan. Police officers would sign a form agreeing that the child had been found outside the orphanage, abandoned and the child would be sold to the highest bidder. In many ways it mirrors the scandal of Chinese prisons selling prisoner’s kidney, but is even sicker.

The effect of China’s one-child policy worked too well. The affect is devastation of lives and an increase in corruption from top down to bottom up. One Child Nation is the story of a holocaust.