Book Review: A House for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul

Mr. Biswas, the affable likeable fellow who manages to get himself married to a girl from a Hindu family without much of an effort, except for a simple weak I-love-you note, has a life that could easily resemble that of a semi-educated African stuck between his motherland and his dreams of the west. 

Mr. Biswas, the affable likeable fellow who manages to get himself married to a girl from a Hindu family without much of an effort, except for a simple weak I-love-you note, has a life that could easily resemble that of a semi-educated African stuck between his motherland and his dreams of the west. 

Yet, Trinidad is far away from Africa, all the way in the West Indies, but in V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas, `the dust smells like Africa, and the cars look like many African cars, rickety, their drivers always chancing on arriving to the next destination.

Mr. Biswas’ tale is funny and full of loneliness. It bellies a lot of enthusiasm amongst people accustomed to failing and trying to pull down those with good ideas, ideas like trying to build your own house when in all your marriage life, you have lived in the Tulsi ‘mansions’ owned by your mother-in-law because you have chanced to marry a Tulsi girl.

In A House for Mr. Biswas, in his struggle to build a house for his family, Naipaul is famous for having polished the comical touch that had shown lightly in his first novel, The Mystic Masseur.

In the Tulsi family, he managed to laugh at himself and at his obsession with India, the home of his ancestors, the humorous references to the Tulsi sons as the gods, the almost choreographed performance that follows every fainting episode of the chief of the household cum the old hen, Mrs.Tulsi, and his open distaste for the behavior of rubbing a foot and passing Epsom salts near her nose.

In Mr. Biswas, Naipaul reveals the eternal search of identity for Trinidadians of Hindu origin that did not belong in Trinidad where they lived or to India where they came from. It paints a picture of Naipaul’s identity crisis in his real life.

Indo-Trinidadians who make up the country’s largest ethnic group are primarily descendants from indentured workers from India, brought to replace freed African slaves who refused to continue working on the sugar plantations.

The Indian community is divided roughly half-and-half between those who maintained their original, native Hindu or Muslim religions and those who have taken to Christianity or have no religious affiliation.

Through cultural preservation groups, Trinidadians of Indian descent maintain at least some of their customs and rites.

For a 1961 novel, the allusions to professing Hindu believers spotting rosaries secretly under their shirts like valuable pendants, not in India or Italy, but in the Caribbean is a good demonstration of how different foreign cultures can mesh and imprint themselves on a people to result into a socio-cultural mosaic.

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