Empires of Gender

Constructions of Gender in the Age of Imperialism

Masculinity under Imperial Stress – Mr Biswas and V S Naipaul

By Parminder Bakshi-Hamm, Independent Researcher, Germany

1In V S Naipaul’s novel, A House for Mr Biswas, finding a house for Mr Biswas becomes an undertaking of epic dimensions. In Mr Biswas‘ desire for a house, Naipaul tells the story of an Indian rural community in Trinidad deriving from indentured labourers . Two facts are important : A House for Mr Biswas is a narrative of a male protagonist told by a male author; and it is located in the period of British colonialism. The narrative is therefore also necessarily concerned with the conditions and events which determine Mr Biswas‘ masculinity.

2The novel significantly opens with the death of Mr Biswas, and the “Prologue” introduces us to a man whose life has been inconsequential in every way except for the one fact that he dies in a house that he owns:

And now at the end he found himself in his own house, on his own half-lot of land, his own portion of earth. That he should have been responsible for this seemed to him, in these last months, stupendous (8). [1] V S Naipaul, <i>A House for Mr Biswas</i>, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969. All references are to this edition and page numbers are indicated in brackets after the quote

Mr Biswas dies at the height of his achievement which consists of his house and a handful of possessions inside it:

The kitchen safe. That was more than twenty years old. Shortly after his marriage he had bought it, . . . the typewriter. That had been acquired when, at the age of thirty-three, he had decided to become rich by writing for American and English magazines; . . . the hatrack, its glass now leprous, most of its hooks broken, its woodwork ugly . . . the bookcase had been made at Shorthills by an out-of-work blacksmith . . . And the diningtable: bought cheaply from a Deserving Destitute . . . And the Slumberking bed, where he could no longer sleep because it was upstairs . . . And the glass cabinet: bought to please Shama, still dainty, and still practically empty. And the morris suite: the last acquisition . . . And in the garage outside, the Prefect. But bigger than them all was the house, his house (12-13).

3The “Prologue” is an incantation of the word “house”; it occurs 39 times in a text of 2,500 words. Yet for all its invocation, neither the house nor the things it holds are by any means distinctive; on the contrary they are nondescript, broken, damaged and scarred. Yet, precisely for this reason, the house and its objects carry nostalgic memories of a 46 year old, dying man, and define a chronology of how Mr Biswas came to associate the ownership of a house with the rationale for his very existence as a man. In his last days, Mr Biwas appreciates what the house means to him:

He could not quite believe that he had made that world. He could not see why he should have a place in it. And everything by which he was surrounded was examined and rediscovered, with pleasure, surprise, disbelief. Every relationship,every possession (12).

These are words of a man who could not take anything for granted, for whom there were no givens – words of a man dispossessed by the colonial encounter. The chapters that follow the “Prologue” narrate the story of Mr Biswas’ life, the gradual unfolding of his adulthood and masculinity in the lowest echelons of a colonial society which lead him to realise that the only way of gaining some little self-worth lies in the ownership of a house. Mr Biswas is not born with the desire to own a house – this aspiration grows, step by step and in fits and bursts, from his experiences as an Indian in colonial Trinidad until it becomes an obsessive drive, shapes his entire being and becomes fundamental to Mr Biswas asserting himself as a man in the colonial system.

4The impact of colonisation is everywhere in the novel. The family of labourers on a sugar-estates to which Mr Biswas is born, are there directly as a consequence of the colonial enterprise. Much of Naipaul’s novel is given to depicting the groups of Indian people in Trinidad, cut off from the land of their ancestors on the one hand, and their immediate social and political environment on the other, ceaselessly caught in the struggles for basic survival. It is an insulated world but not one of fairy tales and magic, but exactly the opposite: it is a perverted world of abject poverty and hardship, where almost everybody toils in inhuman conditions to scrape a living. In such a precarious way of life, traditions and rituals as well as spirituality understandably lose their efficacy and are reduced to absurd superstitions. The birth of Mr Biswas releases all kinds of negative currents. Shortly before his birth, Mr Biswas’ mother leaves the tyranny of his father with three other children and walks to the equally miserable conditions of her parents’ hut. His grandmother makes all the preparations for his birth that she is able to – call a midwife, gather cactus leaves in the middle of the night and hang them over every opening in the hut and organises a pundit to secure the baby’s future (15-16). But in every detail he fills in, Naipaul builds a sense of inadequacy and desolation – the cactus leaves are overdone and a substitute for the mango leaves that are used by Hindus in India, the midwife is ignorant and the priest somewhat of a fake. The absurdity of the situation is highlighted further in the person of the new born baby which has six fingers and comes out the wrong way. The pundit, on his side, predicts that the newborn will be a liar, a lecher and a spendthrift, will have an unlucky sneeze and bring evil to his family. The scene is thus set to delineate the life of Mr Biswas amongst his community of inferior, doubly colonised people, without comprehensive rights or prospects.

5In “The Birth of Mr Biswas”, Bruce Macdonald describes how Naipaul reworked materials from his father’s story “They Named Him Mohun” into his novel with the effect that reverence with which Naipaul’s father drew the pundit and the Hindu scriptures and traditions are replaced by satire. Macdonald notes that in his father’s story “Identity by name came first ... and was almost a way of making the child whole and giving him a place in the scheme of things”:

In the novel the identity of the child is lost in a welter of magic, and the name which is given to Mr. Biswas, Mohun, is hardly ever used. He has no place in this land of exile or in the cosmic order, and suitable even his name is forgotten at the naming ceremony. The contrast between the early ‘They Named him Mohun’ and the later adaptation for the first part of A House for Mr. Biswas highlights the tone which V. S. Naipaul establishes at the beginning of his novel. The conception of society has changed radically and we are prepared in advance by this scene for a world where there is no social order and where the individual no longer has a place defined for him in the world. All the old ceremonies and beliefs have been emptied of human significance and have become mere trivial forms. Even the powerful Hindu sense of Fate, of karma, becomes something to get around with non-sensical detail. The decay which follows in the novel is decay of the religion that has lost its meaning. [2]Bruce F Macdonald, “The Birth of Mr Biswas”, The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, 11:50, pp. 50-54, pp. 52-53.

Macdonald’s comments are relevant except that he neutralises the political context of A House of Mr Biswas by using phrases such as “land of exile” or “cosmic order”; Mr Biswas’ family are not exiles but colonial subjects and the cosmic order to which they have been assigned is controlled by colonial powers. The difference between Naipaul’s perceptions and that of his father is not simply generational but also political; Naipaul’s views are already coloured by his colonial education and from the British perspective of the time, Hindu traditions are degraded and seen to be incompatible with western values.