A House for Mr. Biswas chronicles the unsettled life and death of Mohun Biswas, who is born into a poor Indian family in rural Trinidad. It is divided into two parts, framed by a prologue and an epilogue.
The last of three sons, Mr. Biswas, as he is referred to throughout, is born with six fingers on each hand at the astrologically inauspicious hour of midnight. This is considered by a Hindu pundit to be a sign of misfortune, and the prediction is confirmed when Mr. Biswas’s father drowns trying to rescue his son from a river. Mr. Biswas becomes dependent on his Aunt Tara and lives with his penniless mother in a mud hut. Tara has plans for him to become a pundit, but his mentor lacks patience with the unruly boy. Sent to work at a rum shop owned by the family, Mr. Biswas is beaten after being falsely accused of stealing, and he vows never to return. He gets a job as a sign writer for local shopkeepers.
When he goes to Hanuman House to paint signs for the Tulsis, a landowning Hindu family, he meets Shama, a sixteen-year-old girl. The Tulsis arrange a marriage, which Mr. Biswas is powerless to resist. Moving into Hanuman House, he feels trapped and lost in a house that is full of Tulsi daughters, sons-in-law, and children. He receives no dowry and no job, and he acquires a reputation as clown and troublemaker. After a fight with one of the sons-in-law, he moves to The Chase, a settlement of mud huts in the sugar-cane area, and runs a small, decrepit food shop owned by the Tulsis. After six years of boredom there, while Shama bears him a daughter, Savi, and a son, Anand, he moves to a squalid barracks in Green Vale while working as a suboverseer on the Tulsi land. Still feeling trapped, he dreams of building his own house.
Determined to realize his ambition quickly, Mr. Biswas employs a workman to build a house close to the barracks, even though he cannot afford it. Built with inadequate materials, the house is never completed, but Mr. Biswas nevertheless moves into it, with Anand, while Shama, Savi and two recently born babies live at Hanuman House. A violent storm ruins the house, which is later burned down by discontented laborers.
In part 2, Mr. Biswas moves to Port of Spain, where he stays at his sister’s home and gets a job as a reporter for the Trinidad Sentinel. He gains notoriety as a writer of sensational human interest stories. Soon he moves into Mrs. Tulsi’s house; she has moved to Port of Spain with her son, Owad. For a while Mr. Biswas flourishes, but his future becomes uncertain once more when Owad goes abroad to study, Mrs. Tulsi returns to Hanuman House, and he is demoted at the Sentinel.
Mr. Biswas’s next move in his life of wandering is to a Tulsi estate northeast of Port of Spain, where almost the entire Tulsi family is moving. Living there rent-free, he saves money and decides to build again. This time, the house is completed in less than a month but is destroyed by fire as a result of his own foolishness. He moves back to Mrs. Tulsi’s Port of Spain house, to which many of the Tulsi family also move.
His son Anand excels at school, but Mr. Biswas considers his own career to be over. He forgets his long-held goal of owning a house. He receives a job offer from the government, however, and as community welfare officer he...
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recovers his enthusiasm for life. In his new position, he acquires some of the accoutrements of success and respectability, although he cannot free himself from his insecurities.
These fears increase when Mrs. Tulsi, now old, ill, and querulous, returns to live in her house. She is followed by Owad, returning in triumph from London. Following a quarrel, Mrs. Tulsi evicts Mr. Biswas from her house. This leads to Mr. Biswas’s chance encounter with a solicitor’s clerk and his hasty decision to buy the clerk’s house. He soon discovers that the house is badly constructed and that he has paid an inflated price for it. Yet before his death five years later, he attains some satisfaction; he finally has a house he can call his own, out of the clutches of the Tulsi family.
When Mohun Biswas died of heart trouble at forty-six, jobless and penniless, leaving a wife, four children still in school, and a three-thousand-dollar mortgage on a poorly constructed house, it might seem that he was a failure in life. In his own eyes, however, Mr. Biswas was triumphant. Not only had he won one of the two great battles of his life (his wife, Shama Biswas, had finally learned to put her husband and her children ahead of the family into which she was born, the enormous Tulsi clan), but also he had bought his own house on his own land, thus providing a place for his family to be a family. In the prologue to the novel, V. S. Naipaul reveals Mr. Biswas’ sense of satisfaction with his achievements, while at the same time realistically describing the house of which he is so proud. The story then moves backward in time to the birth of Mohun Biswas and proceeds chronologically, concluding with his funeral.
Mr. Biswas, as he is called throughout the novel, was born in a mud hut on a sugar estate, born backward, with a sixth finger, and thus obviously ill-fated from birth. His asthmatic father put all the children to work as soon as possible, and he was delighted when this luckless boy got an opportunity to make some money tending a calf. Unfortunately, the boy lost the calf, which drowned, and his father drowned diving for the frightened and missing boy. Thus, early in his life, Mr. Biswas had caused the death of his father and the breakup of the family. After he left the mud hut, he was to be homeless and alone for thirty-five years, wandering from place to place and changing from occupation to occupation. That odyssey is the story line of the novel.
The first jobs by which Mr. Biswas tries to secure his future are dismal failures. His apprenticeship to a pundit leaves him with a permanent stomach problem, caused by his being forced to eat seven bananas as a punishment for having taken two from the pundit’s bunch. The resulting nervous stomach and constipation prevent his being able to function in the strict religious timetable, and he leaves in disgrace. The second job procured for him by a well-to-do uncle is in a rumshop run by the uncle’s brother. Unfortunately, the manager, who steals regularly from the business, accuses Mr. Biswas of theft and beats him. This time, Mr. Biswas quits, resolving to find his own work. When an enterprising friend employs him as an assistant sign painter, his life is destined to change, for the job takes him to Hanuman House and to the Tulsi family, which lives there, and against whom he is to fight a life-long battle for a spouse loyal to him, not to them, and for a house which is his, not theirs.
At the beginning of his campaign against the Tulsis, Mr. Biswas is at a distinct disadvantage. Having been indiscreet enough to pass a love note to young Shama, he is bullied by the family into a marriage which brings him no dowry, no house, and no job. Stuffed into a room in Hanuman House, Mr. Biswas is given no respect, either by his wife or by the relatives who also inhabit the house. Although he has a roof over his head, he feels homeless. Although he is married, he feels alone. Angrily, he retaliates by insulting the family members, spitting at them from his window, even throwing food on them. Inevitably, he is beaten and finally sent with his pregnant wife to live in a shack which functions both as home and shop. At this point, the pattern is set which is to rule Mr. Biswas’ home life for years. Whenever he quarrels with Shama and whenever she is about to give birth, she returns home, sometimes for months. Meanwhile, he has no one with whom to share his worries, and his children grow up hardly knowing their father. In their six years at the shop, Mr. Biswas fails dismally, at last alienating the community when he employs a lawyer to collect the overdue bills. As a sub-overseer at another family project, he is the innocent victim of a quarrel between owners and laborers. His dog is killed, his son Anand Biswas is terrified, and the house he has built is burned.
Finally, Mr. Biswas moves to Port of Spain, becomes a journalist, and for a time feels like the head of his household, even though he shares a house with his mother-in-law and her remaining son. Gradually, however, the Tulsis take over, parking lorries in his rose garden and generally assuming ownership, as they have done no matter where Mr. Biswas has lived. There is another attempt to build a house, but this time Mr. Biswas nearly burns down his own house. Back go the Tulsis and Mr. Biswas to the Port of Spain house, which is now filled with family members who have suddenly decided that they must be educated in city schools. Even though he becomes a Community Welfare Officer and buys a car, Mr. Biswas is still at the mercy of his wife’s family, as he discovers when his mother-in-law evicts him to ready the house for her son, who is returning from England, and brings him back into a single room. Desperate, Mr. Biswas imprudently buys a poorly built, overpriced house, a purchase which will keep him in debt throughout the rest of his short life and leave his family without a penny but which enables him at last to claim his wife, his children, and his identity. While the novel’s prologue had suggested that the Biswas family would lose the house, at the end of the book the older daughter, Savi Biswas, returns to Port of Spain to earn a living for the family. Although the Tulsis make their usual destructive raid when they gather for Mr. Biswas’ funeral, the ramshackle house does not fall before their onslaught, and ironically, after the funeral the Biswas family goes back to Mr. Biswas’ house, which is now empty.