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Book Review: A House for Mr Biswas

Updated: Jun 2, 2021

#bookreview #review Every person has an ambition, a burning desire, a dream. For Mr. Biswas, that dream was to have his own house.

The story of Mr. Biswas, is the story of a common man, wanting to achieve his dream, but with no means to do so. Mohun Biswas,(always exalted as Mr. Biswas ) is born into a Hindu Brahmin family, living in colonized Trinidad under poor circumstances. He is born with six fingers and at midnight, and immediately branded as unlucky. He moves from house to house after the death of his father and later after his marriage, staying with the Tulsis and feeling like an outsider all the time. It is the struggle for identity, miles away from his religious and cultural roots, and now isolated in this closed community of migrants that the British moved from one colonized country to another. He is an outsider even within his own community, and the not so well-read Tulsi family whom he feels are inferior to his own well-read self. Loathe to dilute his own persona in the barter- like household system of his in-laws, the Tulsi family, Mr. Biswas become cynical and resentful, all the time longing for his own house, in spite of the fact that he lacks both the means and the drive to achieve his dreams.

Naipaul describes it as it is, in detail and unapologetically so, and there was a time I asked myself why I should continue reading this rather depressing tale of the unenterprising Mr. Biswas. For this is not a page turner, nor are there any interesting or likable characters and at times the story hardly moves, instead the book showers the reader with the dismal daily life of Mr. Biswas. This is not the kind of uplifting,feel good book that many would like to read. Naipaul brings literary realism to the fore as he navigates through the life of Mr. Biswas up until Mr. Biswas finally buys his house. What makes the book a worthy and recommended read is the way in which Naipaul illuminates the story, be it with humour (and there is plenty of it, even in trying circumstances) or satire. The satire comes at times as wisecracks and witty retorts, sometimes as observations, sometimes in the etching of a character or a situation as also in the modified customs of the Hindu-cum Christian household. Naipaul also excels in painting a vivid imagery of the landscape, the food and the various houses with their mis matched furniture. The book explores the inherent human values, as the family dynamics change and there is a jostle for establishing one’s place in the hierarchy of the Tulsi household. In fact, the entire Tulsi household and their functioning are quite representative of the colonial era, with Mr. Biswas often rejecting the system and refusing to be its ‘slave’. As for Mr. Biswas, somewhere along the length of the book, the reader comes to understand him and feel for him, even though he may still not be likeable. His relationship with his wife, though stormy, settles down to an understanding, but with each party holding their fort. The relationship with children, his desire to provide them with a better future, the importance of scholarship and education, these attributes are still very much relevant today. Literature and journalism also make up a big aspect of the book, with continued references to the grammar books, to Mr. Biswas’ reading of Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus (perhaps that why he is addressed as ‘Mr.’?) and to the eventual journalist career that Mr. Biswas takes up. Mr. Biswas’ various ‘amazing scenes’ are hilarious and the dialogues between the editor and Mr. Biswas, on which words to use or not use in an article, are highly entertaining. And in spite of the fact that as a reporter Mr. Biswas writes in good and grammatically correct English, the spoken dialect is still the native Caribbean one. A large section of the book’s dialogue is in this dialect, and I thoroughly enjoyed it (Man!) though this might be an irritant for some. The book is set in the early 20th century in Trinidad, an island colony in the Caribbean, and follows three generations of the Indian community. Naipaul’s grandparents were the first-generation Indians to arrive in Trinidad, and the story of Mr. Biswas is loosely based on the life of Naipaul’s father, who was employed with the Trinidad Guardian. Anand, the son of Mr. Biswas seems to be drawn on Naipaul, and he too moves abroad on a scholarship, just as Naipaul did. The book was written by Naipaul when he was just thirty years of age, and it immediately bought him into limelight. V.S. Naipaul won the Nobel prize in literature in 2001.

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