A House for Mr. Biswas: Issues of Postcoloniality
Fragmentation, alienation, and exile are common terms associated with postcolonial literature. Imperialism played a key role in bringing these senses of alienation and disorder to the countries where imperialists ruled. And one of the best-known writers in English today is Vidyadhar Suraj Prasad Naipaul, himself a product of post-imperialist society. To some, he might be better known for the controversial material in his travelogues than for his novels. But this does not undermine his acclaim as a novelist. Naipaul is an expatriate from Trinidad whose primary business as a novelist is to project carefully the complex fate of individuals in a cross-cultural society.
Mr. Biswas, the protagonist of the novel, A House for Mr. Biswas grew up under the colonial shadow. He inherited the expatriate sensibility as a legacy from his forefathers, who had been migrated from India to the West Indies as indentured laborers of the sugar estates. Their precarious situation in Trinidad, along with their rootless condition, is thus presented by Naipaul in the following manner: “They continually talked of going back to India, but when the opportunity came, many refused, afraid of the unknown, afraid to leave the familiar temporariness.”
Although Mr. Biswas’s father, Raghu, somehow succeeded in striking a root in an alien country by making his own house in Parrot Trace, a small village of the West Indies, he became homeless and fatherless in his childhood and was uprooted from that village. After leaving his paternal village he moved from one place to another, and finally, he drifted from the countryside to the metropolitan city of Port of Spain. He struggled all through his life, a postcolonial everyman’s struggle, to gain an identity of his own. His search for root and professional identity in a chaotic society constitutes the central theme of the novel. Like other postcolonial litterateurs, Naipaul is also of the view that the withdrawal of the colonial rulers does not put an end to exploitation. Hence the exploitation of laborers of the Tulsi estate at Green Vale is elaborately depicted.
The Tulsi household represents the traditional communal life of people of many countries of the Third Word. The assertion of the individuality of Mr. Biswas brings about his conflict with the Tulsi family. Since Hanuman House imposed slavery, repression and tyranny, Mr. Biswas revolted against the domination of Mrs. Tulsi in order to retain his freedom and individual identity. The conflict between Mr. Biswas and Mrs. Tulsi represents in essence the conflict between the colonized and the colonizer. The protagonist of the novel revolted against Mrs. Tulsi by showing disrespect to the traditional values of Hanuman House. Mr. Biswas joined the Aryans to give a shock to Mrs. Tulsi by ignoring her strong religious belief.
Like a typical postcolonial text, a House for Mr. Biswas exhibits the instances of the hybridization of cultures. The indigenous tradition is influenced by the culture of the imperialist. The following lines reveal one such hybridization: “On the Sunday before examination week he was bathed by Mrs. Tulsi in water consecrated by Hari, the soles of his feet were soaked in lavender water; he was made to drink a glass of Guinness stout, and he left Hanuman House, a figure of awe, laden with a crucifix, sacred thread and beads a mysterious sachet, a number of curious armlets, consecrated coins and a lime in each trouser pocket”. Mr. Biswas’s brother-in-law wore both crucifix and sacred thread and revealed the hybridization of Hinduism and Christianity. A similar instance of hybridization is found in the case of Mrs. Tulsi, the orthodox Hindu widow. Although she observed all the Hindu rituals strictly, she used to send Sushila to burn candles in the Roman Catholic Church.
To conclude, a postcolonial everyman Mr. Biswas is really an archetypal symbol of exile. Life and landscape are beautifully blended in the novel and descriptions are organically employed to reinforce the theme. The setting becomes an integral aspect of the mental state of the leading character. And the novel thus highlights the miserable plight of those rootless individuals, who are eager to find their own identity in society under continuous socio-political changes. The protagonist’s ardent desire to have his own house is actually his attempt to find his social identity in a transitional society.