Sir took for inspiration childhood memories of his

Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, familiarly known as Vidia
Naipaul, was born on 17 August 1932 in Chaguanas in Trinidad. He was the second
child of his mother Droapatie (née Capildeo) and father Seepersad Naipaul. In
the 1880s, his grandparents emigrated from India to work as farm labourers. In
the Indian immigrant community in Trinidad, Naipaul’s father became an
English-language journalist, and in 1929 began contributing articles to the
Trinidad Guardian newspaper. In 1932, the year Naipaul was born, his father
joined the staff of the Trinidad Guardian newspaper as the Chaguanas
correspondent. In “A prologue to an autobiography” (1983), Naipaul
describes how his father’s reverence for writers and for the writing life
spawned his own dreams and aspirations to become a writer.


In 1939, when he was seven years old, Naipaul’s family moved to
Trinidad’s capital, Port of Spain, where Naipaul enrolled in the government-run
Queen’s Royal College, a well-regarded school that was modelled after a British
public school. Upon graduation, Naipaul won a Trinidad Government scholarship
that allowed him to study at any institution of higher learning in the British
Commonwealth; he chose Oxford. After the completion of his studies at Oxford
and the death of his father in 1953, Naipaul moved to London in 1954. In
December of that year, Naipaul was hired as presenter for the BBC weekly
programme called Caribbean Voices. A generation of Caribbean writers was
introduced to audiences on Caribbean Voices, including George Lamming, Samuel
Selvon, Derek Walcott, and Naipaul himself. Naipaul stayed in the part-time job
for four years.


Naipaul was encouraged by the publisher André Deutsch to write a
novel as opposed to a set of short studies. Naipaul then wrote The Mystic
Masseur which was
published in 1955. In 1956, Naipaul returned to Trinidad for a two-month stay
with his family. Travelling by ship there, he wrote humorous sketches of the
ship’s West Indian passengers. These sketches became the inspiration for The
Suffrage of Elvira, a comic novella about a rural election in Trinidad.
For his next novel, A House for Mr. Biswas (1961), Naipaul took
for inspiration childhood memories of his father (later he wrote that the novel
“destroyed memory” in some respects). The novel is Naipaul’s first
work to achieve acclaim worldwide. The work is primarily a sharply drawn look
at life that uses postcolonial perspectives to view a vanished colonial world.


 A House for Mr.
Biswas is episodic and packed with conflict. Mr
Biswas subverts heroic convention: he is smart and funny, but also often
petulant, mean and unsympathetic. His enemies, who are mostly his relatives,
are largely unlikable, but they also have their admirable moments. Mohun Biswas is born in
rural Trinidad and Tobago to Hindu Indian parents and his father is a Brahmin. From
his birth until his untimely death 46 years later, Mr Biswas mostly lives in a
series of houses that either do not belong to him or are houses unworthy of the
name. Each of these houses is for Mr Biswas an attempt at solving a problem,
and each is a wrong answer in a different way. Mr Biswas is like a figure out
of myth – and indeed his birth is attended by negative portents and dour
prophecies; he is declared to be “born in the wrong way”, seems doomed to live
through each of these futile iterations before his destiny can be complete. The
pointlessness and the wasted effort of these dead-end attempts give the novel a
comic edge that links it both to picaresque and to the existentialist


Futility is the way home. In the search
Mr Biswas carries his meagre possessions and his growing family along, from one
unsuitable house to another, from Hanuman House to the Chase to Green Vale to
Shorthills to a rental in Port of Spain. These residences are mere walls and
roofs to Mr Biswas. His tragedy is not only that none of them is a house for
him, but that his awareness of the poor fit is acute and constant. Most of the
houses belong to his despised in-laws, the Tulsis. A couple of them are built
by Mr Biswas himself, but these are swiftly undermined by their shoddiness and
by elemental threat: one succumbs to flood, the other to fire. Brutal ironies
dog Mr Biswas every step of the way on life’s journey, the unfairness mounts
intolerably; and yet it is a funny book, too, full of jagged capers, lively
malice, clever talk.


Great in macrocosm, the novel is also
flawless in microcosm. It contains many perfect set pieces, strewn like jewels
through the book, in which the prose gleams with a kind of secret knowledge.
Many are the moments of imaginative sympathy, one such account, of the burning
of poui sticks for the rough village sport of stick-fighting, captures the way
the scent of the sticks opens up in Mr Biswas a sudden seam of memory.



Naipaul’s usage of third person point of
view from the perspective of Mr. Biswas is effective as it forwards the plot.
His reaction to events provides pathos and humour to the novel as well as
continuously evoking sympathy from the readers. The setting, spanning Trinidad,
creates diversity and embraces Trinidad’s wide population and culture. The
language within the novel varies. Occasionally concise and straight to the
point such as in the Prologue in the description of Mr. Biswas’ life. Sometimes
long and strung out such as whenever Biswas has the pleasure of describing
someone of whom he is not fond.  The
double entendre is also constantly used throughout. Critics have claimed that
in chapter 3, the scene where Shama and Mr.Biswas over him poking his thigh, is
actually charged with sexual tension. The structure of the chapter also makes
an impact and constitutes the organizing principle of the novel. The narrative
of the novel is propelled by a clear goal – the acquisition of the titular
house – which, it becomes apparent, can only be achieved by the most
exhaustively circuitous route.


Literature is a second form of
protection for Mr. Biswas. Most important are Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus,
whom Mr Biswas brandishes apotropaically. Were he to actually adopt their stoic
precepts, his experience of life would be different. As it is, they serve him
as defensive consolation, a carapace for his irredeemably querulous nature. Mr
Biswas himself nurtures the dream of literature. He writes, assembling the
dream of writing from its basic building blocks, converting form into
imagination. Schoolboy calligraphy becomes sign-writing. Sign-writing becomes
journalism. Journalism edges towards something more lasting.


Moments of inventory taken by Mr. Bisnas
at each of his houses are among the most indelible passages in the book: one
scarcely credits the idea that such meticulous and loving checklists could be
invention. These things must have had these lives, and so they paradoxically
underscore the veracity of Mr Biswas’s own experiences. But the realism of the
human interactions throughout the novel is similarly irresistible. Here they
all are: Mr Biswas, his mother, Bipti, his brothers and sister, his aunt, Tara,
and her husband, Ajodha, his wife, Shama, his children (Savi, Anand, Myna,
Kamla, appearing one by one, becoming real before our eyes, and being
themselves actively drawn into the contest of life), his aggravating in-laws:
Mrs Tulsi, Seth, Padma, the indulged sons of the family, the absurdly numerous
daughters, their husbands, their children; and the huge cataract of secondary
and tertiary characters, the innominate crowd. All are convincingly themselves,
and yet all are contained in the arc of the novel, brought in to play their
parts in the story of Mr Biswas’s life.


Incident, fight, rancour, subterfuge:
this is Mr Biswas’s experience during the long years he lives with the Tulsis.
His principal foes are his mother-in-law, Mrs Tulsi, and her brother-in-law,
Seth. They hold grudges against him, and he out-grudges them. He bickers,
insults, mocks. His wife, Shama, no fool, plays both sides skilfully, siding
with her husband sometimes, abandoning him at other times. Some of these battles
of will Mr Biswas wins, others he loses. Physical violence is commonplace: the
frequent beatings the children in the extended household receive also spill
over, rarely but astonishingly, into adult interaction. Pointless impasse is
common. A House for Mr Biswas hums along to the interweaving tunes of these
several discords.


The book is also a patient, almost
ecstatic evocation, of landscape and social life in Trinidad in the first half
of the 20th century. And if the human interactions are characterised by agony,
the times and places – the farms, the roads, the villages, the thrumming energy
of the city, the mornings, afternoons, dusks, nights – are described with
profound and vigilant affection. Playing the angry and fast-moving currents of
badinage against the dreamy swirl of memory, the novel’s flow is one of
full-bore local savvy. The book presents a balanced totality and fecund
complexity, for the way it brings to startling fruition in 20th?century
Trinidad the promise of the 19th?century European novel.


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