“A House for Mr. Biswas” by V S Naipaul

A House for Mr Biswas

This is a rather ancient book by 21st century standards, penned in the late fifties and published in 1961, by Trinidad born, Indian origin, Oxford educated, UK citizen, Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul. Then why read it at all? Well, for one thing, this guy is no ordinary writer. All his life he did nothing but write, write and write. Many of his books are extraordinary. He won the Booker prize in 1971 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001. He was knighted in 1990.

This book is a magnum opus spanning over 600 pages. The master storyteller brings to life each of the characters and locations in such explicit detail that everything becomes familiar to the reader as if the persons and places were all in his own backyard. Those who love fast paced action thrillers, murders and mysteries may not be fascinated by this one. It is a down to earth account of the daily lives of down to earth people, sons and daughters of a little British colony where many mixed races live together in harsh if not pathetic circumstances. The author manages to paint a perfect portrait without exaggeration or unnecessary recourse to sentiment. The reader is often left wondering whether to feel sorry for the central character or laugh at him.

The humour is typical of an English gentleman – subtle, tongue-in-cheek and greatly amusing. Take this for instance: “The house was alive but subdued when he got back. He found four children on his bed. They were not his. Thereafter he occupied his room early in the evening, bolted the door and refused to answer knocks, calls, scratches and cries.”

Naipaul offers some friendly advice for aspiring journalists: “Even people with outstanding writing ability say they cannot find subjects. But in reality nothing is easier. You are sitting at your desk. You look through your window. But wait. There is an article in that window. The various types of window, the history of the window, windows famous in history, houses without windows. And the story of glass itself can be fascinating. Already, then, you have subjects for two articles.”

Every now and then Naipaul makes a dig at Hindu rituals but the implied criticism is not unfounded. Nearly one fourth of the population of this tiny nation is Hindu (even half a century after Naipaul wrote the book.) They went to the colony as indentured labourers in the mid 19th century and their descendants have remained there ever since. Having little or no contact with India, they are left to practice Hinduism in their own unique ways. The author notes every religious ritual with amusement. Consider this: “In his thin voice, Hari whined out the prayers. Whining, he sprinkled water into the hole with a mango leaf and dropped a penny and some other things wrapped in another mango leaf.”

Naipaul does not hesitate to make cheeky remarks about well-know personalities, particularly Indians. And of course, he makes his characters do all the talking. Here’s an example: “Scathing was one of his favourite words and the person he had handled most scathingly was Krishna Menon.” Naipaul must have had a well-developed sixth sense or perhaps he bumped into Menon in London. This was before China invaded India and inflicted a humiliating defeat and Menon as Defence Minister drew a lot of flak.

How Trinidad-born Indians perceive India-born Indians is interesting too. “Owad disliked all Indians from India,” the author observes. “They were a disgrace to Trinidad Indians; they were arrogant, sly and lecherous; they pronounced English in a peculiar way…..” He goes on and on, making the reader double up with laughter (or red with indignation if his national pride is invoked). Incidentally the book is replete with umpteen examples of Trinidadian English which could give Indian English a run for its money. It is also peppered with politically incorrect words like ‘negro’ but we need to concede that in those days nobody called the blacks ‘blacks’ – and Naipaul was perhaps using common parlance.

If you have an interest in the Indian diaspora, do read this book. It takes patience, but it’s worth the effort.

A HOUSE FOR MR. BISWAS
AUTHOR: V S NAIPAUL
PUBLISHER: PICADOR
PUBLICATION DATE: 1961

Reviewer: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

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