05 February 2009

A House for Mr Biswas

Heartbreak House

Author: V S Naipaul
Pages: 563
Year of Publishing: 1961

Having read V S Naipaul’s A Million Mutinies Now (a epic travelogue for its sheer scope and detailing) and An Area of Darkness (a scathing description of post-Independence India), one knows that whether one chooses to agree or not with his provocative, highly opinionated views, one knows Naipaul is anything but  dull, and that keeps you hooked.

For a long time now one has been hearing about A House for Mr Biswas being undoubtedly his best work. Also, since I had only read his non-fictional works, there was a certain curiosity to read his fiction work.  Yet, A House For Mr Biswas is not wholly fiction and borrows a lot from Naipaul’s own life.

The central character of Mr Biswas is based on the life of Naipaul's father, and the novel tracks his life from birth to death. Right since he is born he is considered a bad omen for the family. By a quirk of fate the prediction does come true with Biswas’ father getting drowned while trying to save him. The family goes through very trying times, even as his mother Bipti appears totally detached and keeps whining all the time. Biswas is often sent to his wealthy aunt’s place, where he does odd jobs for the family. Biswas loves the ambiance there and dreams of being able to afford the same lifestyle someday.  His mother tries to keep finding schemes to get him 'settled' – one as an apprentice to a mean-minded Pundit (this whole episode is hilarious as much as it is ironic) – ends up frustrating Mr Biswas even further.

That's when Biswas' life takes another dramatic turn. A harmless bit of flirting with his employer's daughter plunges him straight into marriage. Biswas is not prepared, but his in-laws, the affectionate yet firm Mrs Tulsi and her commanding son-in-law, insist on the match. This, even though Biswas is penniless.

He moves in with the Tulsis – a queer, noisy extended family where the Tulsi daughters are welcomed to stay with their husbands and children. Since most of the son-in-laws are not very well-to-do, they are employed either in one of the family’s shops or fields.

Mr Biswas is enraged seeing that he has to follow the rules set by his wife’s family. He abhors the tasteless food they serve. He helplessly cribs that it ruins his stomach, and in general leaves no opportunity to deride them or pick up fights with the elders. The family is more often than not patient with him, trying to buy peace by giving him a fresh opportunity. Many a times, Mr Biswas gets so outraged by the family that he moves out, only to face hardships outside and return back defeated. He finds scant support from his wife who is practical about their financial condition and stays put at her mothers’ place with her kids.

The only time Mr Biswas’ life looks up is when he lands a job as a journo at the Sentinel. Tired of the Tulsis, he attempts to build a house of his own at least on two occasions. But always short of cash and saddled with a million troubles always, he ends up making a mish-mash of it each time and lands right back with the Tulsis.

However, Mr Biswas does manage a house of his own towards the end and nothing gives him more happiness than to live in a place where he doesn’t have to be indebted to the Tulsis. Strangely, Biswas finds more peace and cheer in the last few years of his life (with his son Anand and Savi) than he ever gets in his lifetime.

The novel is a marvel in character creation and Naipaul’s ability to penetrate through human psyche and proclivity with such searing candor makes A House For Mr Biswas an immensely rich work. The description of the Tusli family with its varied and colourful characters is especially ingenious.

Also, the novel can be read on a number of levels. Even without any special emphasis on its historical context, it still holds true as a novel about frustration and tragic vulnerability that lies at the core of all human existence.

The subtext is never overt, but it’s possible to read the Tulsi House as a symbol of colonialism. Trinidad was under British rule and Naipaul could possibly be driving home the point about how restrictive and controlled such living could be. Mr Biswas’ constant failure with every new endeavour hints towards the ill-preparedness of the Trinidadian populace when left on their own. Without adequate training or experience, Biswas is always clueless.

Yet, reading A House For Mr Biswas can be exhausting, for the tedium it brings at several points. The novel is too long, too repetitive. The same things keep happening to Mr Biswas all through the novel. In addition to that, the overly descriptive style of the book tends to tire you out.
But then again, there's another way of looking at the novel. The book moves at snail's pace , but so does Mr Biswas' own life that refuses to take off. Somewhere in the tedium felt by the reader lies Mr Biswas' own frustration at seeing his life languishing.
Naipaul's subject matter is grim but the author's trademark dark humour and ironic wit ensures that A House for Mr Biswas remains as entertaining, as it is enriching.

-Sandhya Iyer


sandy said...

Net edition: http://www.sakaaltimes.com/2009/02/11185749/Heartbreak-House.html

Sash said...

Vir Sanghvi's comment on Naipaul. Take a read


sandy said...

Thanks Sash, will do.

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Rajendraprasada Reddy said...

This review is good like the novel.

Bluesky said...

Nice. But needed a little more detailed