Mohun Biswas (Mr Biswas) is born in rural Trinidad to parents of Indian origin. His birth is considered inauspicious based on details of the labor and a pundit prophesizes the newly born Mr Biswas will “lecher and a spendthrift. Possibly a liar as well”, and further advises that he be “kept away from trees and water. Particularly water”. A few years later, Mohun leads a neighbour’s calf (which he tending) to a pond and whilst Mohun is bathing the calf wanders off. Mohun hides for fear of what the neighbour will say. His father searching for him is told he was last seen at the pond, and fearing the worst dives in the hope of saving him. But his father drowns. This leads to Mr Biswas, his two elder brothers, elder sister, and impoverished mother, Bipti, to take refuge with Bipti’s sister and her wealthy husband, Tara and Ajodha.
Mr Biswas is sent to live with, and train to become, a pundit, but is cast out on bad terms. Ajodha then puts him in the care of his alcoholic and abusive brother Bhandat which also comes to a bad result. Finally, Mr Biswas now becoming a young man decides to set out to make his own fortune. He encounters a friend from his days of attending school who helps him get into the business of sign-writing. While on the job, Mr Biswas attempts to romance a client’s daughter and his advances are misinterpreted as a wedding proposal. He is drawn into a marriage which he does not have the nerve to stop and becomes a member of the Tulsi household.
With the Tulsis, Mr Biswas becomes very unhappy with his wife Shama and her overbearing family. He is usually at odds with the Tulsis and his struggle for economic independence from the oppressive household drives the plot. Despite his poor education, Mr Biswas becomes a journalist, has four children with Shama, and attempts (more than once with varying levels of success) to build a house that he can call his own. He becomes obsessed with the notion of owning his own house and it becomes a symbol of his independence and merit.
A House for Mr. Biswas is such a novel, a depiction of a whole culture, the melted-pottage immigrant world of the Caribbean, with Biswas a synecdoche of post-colonial peoples everywhere. Such novels need to be big, both in their time frame and in number of pages. Don’t expect them to cater to your cultural values or desires for diversion.
Mr Biswas, however, is very entertaining, one of the funniest novels I’ve ever read, and the last in which V.S. Naipaul allowed full freedom for his exuberant sense of humor and the picturesque. If you are too upright to find the poor and alienated a proper subject for satire, you might well find old Biswas more frustrating than touching. If so, I pity you. In this book and in his earlier Trinidadian novels, Naipaul wrote from the inside out, and it was chiefly himself than he was mocking. His later novels, great as some of them are, view their subjects from the outside, from Olympus as it were. Frankly, I think A House for Mr. Biswas is naipaul’s greatest achievement.