Book Review: A House for Mr. Biswas

Posted on July 6, 2012

By Tanaya Singh:

The stories narrated by Mr. Naipaul have always been the mirrors to lives of people, showing us who we are and what life is all about. Winner of Nobel Prize in literature in 2001, V.S.Naipaul was born in Trinidad in 1932. After 1954 when he began to write, he stayed with this profession. A house for Mr. Biswas is a tragicomic masterpiece. The protagonist Mohun Biswas is a Trinidad native of Indian ancestry who has been battered by social, economic and cultural forces beyond his control. The peculiarity in Mr. Biswas is that he faces all the circumstances with ultimate grace and dignity.

He was born as an anathema for the society with an extra finger. Since then and till the end, the book is a journey of his trial in becoming a “somebody” from an absolute” nobody”. After the death of his father, Mr. Biswas is split between his depressed mother, incomprehensible relatives and his own ideas about the world around him. The path he takes in life is mostly determined on the basis of the novels he reads. After a series of unsuccessful jobs, he settles in the life of a sign painter. On one of his errands as a painter, he meets the love of his life, Shama, while working for her family-the Tulsis. With a surprising turn of events and under unpredictable circumstances, he is married to her. Shama is one of the many Tulsi daughters, coming from a family that has a chokehold on each of its members. The sons-in-law are absorbed into the rambling household, losing their identities in the murky undergrowth of a joint family. For the next decade, Mr. Biswas follows the Tulsi family traditions. He works one menial job after another in the family businesses, for wages that are little more than pocket change while living with his wife in a single room in various buildings owned by the Tulsis. And finally he becomes the only so-in-law of the great Tulsis who had the courage to rebel.

The only dream he has is to give his family a modern lifestyle and also to have a house of their own. Mr. Biswas tries to build a shack for his family on the Tulsi sugar estate where he works as a driver, only to have it destroyed by the unhappy workers. He builds another shoddy house on the Tulsi farm at Short hills, but he is forced to abandon it to support his family. Working as a journalist in the capital of Port of Spain, Mr. Biswas argues with the family matriarch and angrily gives notice. Finally, a chance encounter in a cafe leads to the purchase of a house on Sikkim Street. It is ridiculously overpriced and poorly constructed, but it is his.

“But bigger than them all was the house, his house…how terrible it would have been at this time, to be without it: to have died among the Tulsis…to have lived without even attempting to lay claim to one’s portion of the earth, to have lived and died as one had been born, unnecessary and unaccommodated.”

The story and the plot of the novel do not involve any major twists and turns. The simple words and expressions in the book revolve around the spirit of a man who had no riches, talents, victories or planning. It shows the courage with which this dilapidated structure of flesh and bones gets up every morning with a renewed dignity to go on for menial jobs that keep on changing at a frequent rate. The book is no doubt a must read. It is one of its kinds that makes you laugh, wonder, and criticise at the same time.
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