I was a teenager when I first read V.S. Naipaul’s A House For Mr. Biswas. That was 17 years ago. It was an assigned book in my Toronto high school English class. Ours was a program of rare multicultural outlook, thanks to my teacher, Anne Carrier. You see, back in 1984 it was unheard of to be exposed to Asian or Caribbean literature in a North American high school, an oversight which still seems trivial to white or non-immigrant Americans and Canadians today. But make no mistake, then as now, there is inherent value in an enriched global reading list. Written in 1961, Biswas was an unanticipated treasure of validation, a fresh alien gem atop the well-thumbed Faulkners, Salingers, and Twains.
My family had immigrated from Guyana 15 years earlier during a time when Asian Indian culture was mysterious enough to the mainstream. Indo-Caribbean language, history, and behavior were yet years away from entering the awareness of the general public, and would prove a near impossibility to explain or to describe to friends and teachers. As any immigrant child will attest, there are few things more isolating than cultural loneliness. It serves as an impenetrable barrier that separates one from friends and colleagues, and compels both a heightened closeness and subtle resentment towards family members, ironically the only people who truly share the condition.
So the discovery of Indo-Caribbean literature at such an impressionable age was doubly important. I recall well the awe, nervousness, and excitement elicited from Biswas’s opening pages. It was set in Trinidad, mere miles from my birthplace of Guyana! Its major characters were Indians descended from indentured servants, the same as me and mine! The book’s cadence of angst and subdued anger—an alternation that ripples through all post-colonial societies, yet is missing from most American literature—kept beat with the displacement in my own heart. And, most interesting, the rhythm and tonality of the characters’ speech was the singsong Caribbean patois with which I had grown up. You see, that way of talking was a source of shame to many early immigrants; Jamaican cool was yet to reach North America and give public resonance to the Caribbean modality. To have discovered its usage within the pages of a book validated by no less than the Toronto Board of Education was to truly realize personal cultural arrival.
The book itself tells a simple story. It begins with the emergence into this world of Mohun Biswas, “six-fingered and born in the wrong way,” foreshadowing the bad luck he would have and cause. A poor journalist turned civil servant, Biswas lives a brief humorous life punctuated by battles with his in-laws and a strained relationship with his writer son, the essence of his angst symbolized by his quest for a house of his own. Naipaul’s genius is in elevating the seemingly mundane and comedic to themes of timeless importance, injecting his writing with subtle imagery and allegory. His hated in-laws the Tulsis, for example, live in a home called “Hanuman House.” That Hanuman is the Hindu monkey god is Naipaul’s sly intimation of the house’s more zoological or chaotic nature.
The allegory of Biswas is an inspiring one. Mohun Biswas is compelled toward a rebellious nature through various cultural traditions for which he has little patience. Biswas is at the bottom rung of society because of his work, family history, and poorness. He is further at the bottom of the pecking order in his extended family, kept there by the weighty demands of his culture. But a modern hero infected with frequent emotional outbursts, his aspirations are never quelled. After enduring a beating by an in-law, Biswas declares, “I am going to get a job on my own. And I am going to get my own house too. I am finished with this.” The goal of any descendant of indentured servants has yet to be better or more simply stated.
In many ways, Biswas is the Indian-Caribbean archetype, a man from an ancient cultural tradition of castes and unnavigable religions whose sudden proximity to the world of Western modernity fills him with hope for more. His behavior is sometimes reprehensible, but his predicament is one with which so many of us, particularly Indians caught up in a new world, can relate. His quest for a house of his own mirrors well the quest of colonized peoples for a nation and an identity of their own. To appreciate the plight of Biswas is to understand the history of his nation and that of the entire Indian-Caribbean milieu: a people uniquely positioned between the rich traditions of the East and the commercial demands and promises of the West, yet tragically benefiting from neither.
V.S. Naipaul, knighted in 1990, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001, taking his place among literary immortals like Rudyard Kipling, Ernest Hemingway, and Rabindranath Tagore. They say he was honored “for having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories.” Certainly, A House for Mr. Biswas is but one jewel in the sparkling collection of the life’s work that earned him the award, as it slyly tells of Indian-Caribbean emotional history within the modern dynamic of cultural collisions.
It is generally agreed that the story of Biswas is largely autobiographical, with Biswas’s writer son being Naipaul’s literary avatar. Hence Biswas is likely the tome for which this great writer will be most fondly remembered throughout the ages. For those unfamiliar with his books, Biswas is an excellent beginning point. It was certainly mine, and started me on a marvellous path of literary adventure and self-discovery.
Raywat Deonandan is the author of
Sweet Like Saltwater (TSAR Books, 1999). www.deonandan.com.