Recently, I finished reading V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas. Being a person who considers books as closest of my friends, the tale made a good impression on me, coming from a master storyteller like Naipaul. Along with the fact that it was a wonderful read and dealt with a journalist’s life, the book touched a completely different chord in my heart as well.
It’s a story about a man’s search for a home and the theme is all pervading throughout the book.
In this blog I choose not to review this masterpiece since the book has generated numerous appreciation and positive reception over the years. However, what’s making me write about it is the simple fact that Mr. Biswas’s fight against odds all his life to build a house of his own, makes the book very close to my heart. Reading the book I had a feeling of oneness with Mr. Biswas. He is like anyone of us, in this struggle for existence. He is planning and thinking as to how to make enough money to invest in a house that he can call his very own. In our quintessential struggle for existence, aren’t we all trying to establish a niche for our own selves in this world? And this search for building a house on our own comes from this very drive.
With building a house, we in a way want to reach out and connect with immortality, our vain attempt to prolong the impermanence of our survival. But we are all caught in that mesh. Try as much as we want to all of us dream or desire to leave a mark like a stamp of the reality of our being in some way or the other. Whether we are successful or not is irrelevant but we all do try in whatever way possible to lengthen our time even after we are long gone.
Mr. Biswas struggled tremendously in the Tulsi household – his in-laws’ house. That was an affluent family and with a little bit of adjustment and toning down of the temper Mr. Biswas could have spent his entire life in that house. But he was a born rebel like many of us and was ceaselessly turning situations at the Tulsi house murkier so as to reach a nadir from where there can never be a looking back possible. He did all that in his quest for a place of his own – a home of his own.
There is a little bit of Mr. Biswas in each one of us. In spite of the hardships and tribulations we all aspire to make a place that we can call home. Some of us fail in the endeavour while some fulfil the long cherished dream.
The book also delved deep into the domain of searching perfection in the most imperfect things that are truly ours. Mr. Biswas finally buys a house which is less than perfect. But the most important element about it is that it’s his home and no other wonderful space could match up to his standard of the bliss that he found in his home.
This aspect is so true when we compare it with our own lives. We go to beautiful houses, we visit hotels, 5 Star resorts and feel wonderful about the fact that we are privileged to experience the luxuries offered. But we long to return to our homes, no matter how worn out or how unattractive they might be in comparison with fancy plush spaces. Mr. Biswas and his family tried their best to project their home as one of the best houses ever and would often camouflage one portion or hide some other to make it picture-perfect to the world. This is again something which would find resonance with what many of us often do. The imperfections of things or people who are our truly our own seem endearing to us and we seem to be having no qualms over living with them.
A House for Mr. Biswas is a biography on Naipaul’s own father and the book can be rightly called the biggest tribute of a son to his father. Through the character Anand, Naipaul portrays his own self. And reading Mr. Biswas-Anand’s conversation in the book gives us a glimpse into the amazing father-son chemistry that Naipaul shared with his father. It was nothing extraordinary on the face of it. It’s much unlike those relationships where material gifts form the biggest sanctions of emotional ties. Perhaps, long after his father’s death while writing the book, Naipaul realised that what his father transpired was far wealthier than all the riches of the world put together. His father who died at the age of 43, could give Naipaul the hunger of self actualisation and instilled in him the love for literature and writing.
A book which he took more than three years to complete helps readers to understand the inner psyche of the writer as well. Many consider him a disgusting snob while others term him as a conceited disdainful upstart as well. But delving deep down into the book will help readers understand the vulnerability lying behind the intimidating exterior. The book is as much about his father as it is about him. What he went through while growing up, how was he humiliated as a child by his uncles, the tribulations of living in a joint family where his father had been a despised figure, the helplessness a young boy feels when he sees his father losing sanity, the happiness he feels but cannot express when he sees the pride in his father’s eyes for all his accomplishments, have all been exposed to the readers for them to interpret. The man who has been known to be shirking emotions turns his readers misty-eyed with his nonchalance and insouciance.
When he had gone to England for education, his father was living the last days of his life. At that time Naipaul couldn’t return and respond to his father’s call but he harboured the pain deep within him for years and when he wrote the book, he laid bare his throbbing heart to the readers.
This is again true for most of us as well, right? We realise the worth of people once they are no longer with us. Or maybe we understand their value but we fail to express. And when we want to do that then mostly it’s too late. All we are left with is contemplation and maybe penning down about those people and the moments spent with them.
After all, our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thoughts.