A House for Mr Biswas

A House for Mr Biswas

A House for Mr Biswas Part 1, Chapter 1 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Mr Biswas’s parents had “another quarrel” just before his birth, leading his mother, Bipti, to take her three children from his father, Raghu, and walk to the village where her own parents lived. Bipti told them about “Raghu’s miserliness”—as usual, her father affectionately chalked it up to fate, even though fate led him to the Caribbean sugar plantations and “left him to die in a crumbling mud hut in the swamplands,” perhaps leaving him grateful for his survival. Bipti’s mother, Bissoondaye, put the children to bed and brought a midwife. In the middle of the night, Mr Biswas was born with six fingers, “in the wrong way.” Bissoondaye hung cactus strips over her doors and windows to keep evil spirits out, but the midwife warned that “this boy will eat up his own mother and father.”
Even before he is born, Mr Biswas’s family life is defined by conflict—and, crucially, a conflict over material resources. Indeed, his enthusiasm at buying a rudimentary house is much clearer now that the narrator reveals that he grew up in the “crumbling mud hut” his father never surpassed. The family is already saturated with a misfortune that leads them to resignation: Raghu’s journey from India to Trinidad never brought him upward mobility, and Mr Biswas seems fated to fail in his quest, too—but the prologue has already demonstrated that he managed to beat the odds.
Themes
Independence vs. Belonging Theme Icon
Social Status and Hierarchy Theme Icon
Gender and Family Theme Icon
Colonialism, Oppression, and Escape Theme Icon
A pundit (later revealed as Pundit Sitaram) came the next day to explain that Mr Biswas was indeed born at “the inauspicious hour” of midnight and predict his personality with an old astrological almanac: Mr Biswas would have spaces between his teeth, meaning he would be “a lecher,” “a spendthrift,” and/or “a liar.” In addition, his six fingers meant to “keep him away from trees and water”—particularly natural water. The boy’s evil could be avoided if Mr Biswas’s father would not see him for twenty-one days—and then, on the twenty-first day, only look at him in a brass plate covered in handmade coconut oil.
From the start, Naipaul portrays Indo-Trinidadians’ traditional Hinduism as a sort of irrational superstition. The pundit’s arbitrary declarations mirror Raghu’s belief in the supremacy of fate over willful action. Nevertheless, the prologue makes it clear that Mr Biswas ultimately inverted this principle, overcoming his ostensible fate through his dedicated quest for independence.
Themes
Independence vs. Belonging Theme Icon
Gender and Family Theme Icon
Colonialism, Oppression, and Escape Theme Icon
Pundit Sitaram recommended a name starting with “Mo,” and Bipti could only think of “hun,” so Mr Biswas became Mohun—a holy name for Krishna, the pundit assured Bipti, who apologetically paid him what little she could afford.
Mr Biswas’s first name—which almost never appears in the book—seems to be a pure accident, as it is determined by the recommendation of religious authority and only coincidentally a holy name.
Themes
Social Status and Hierarchy Theme Icon
Gender and Family Theme Icon
On his ninth day of life, Mr Biswas’s sixth finger simply fell off in bed; Bipti “thought this was an excellent sign” and buried it in the backyard. He got “attention and respect” thereafter—his family massaged him and stretched out his limbs—and Bipti held a celebration for him nine days later, which people throughout the village attended. Raghu came too, but agreed to leave until the twenty-first day after a lengthy argument with Bipti and her parents.
From the moment of his birth, the protagonist gets the Western title “Mr” Biswas, which carries the “attention and respect” he never seemed to receive in his lifetime. Indeed, Mr Biswas’s concern with this “attention and respect” reflects the sense of entitlement that embroils him in conflict throughout the book and the sense of unbelonging that dominates his self-image from his earliest years.
Themes
Independence vs. Belonging Theme Icon
Social Status and Hierarchy Theme Icon
Get the entire A House for Mr Biswas LitChart as a printable PDF.
A house for mr biswas.pdf.medium
Bissoondaye began making coconut oil, which was ready when Raghu came back on the twenty-first day, well-dressed and “very correct.” Mr Biswas was very confused at being held above an oiled brass plate, but the viewing was successful. Bipti and her children went home to Raghu, and henceforth “Mr Biswas’s importance steadily diminished.” “He still carried weight,” but his family never forgot his unlucky nature and particularly his unlucky sneeze, since he so often caught colds—whenever he sneezed in the morning, his father would superstitiously stay home from work; Mr Biswas’s sneeze predicted “minor mishaps” of all sorts.  
Mr Biswas’s childhood “importance” only stems from the threat he may have posed to his family, had his father failed to properly view him on the twenty-first day. His lack of “importance” recalls his feeling of being “unnecessary and unaccommodated” (as he put it in the prologue), which suggests that his eventual grumpiness might stem from the dearth of love he received as a child. Although the pundit never warned about Mr Biswas’s sneeze, his parents quickly begin to see it as a bad omen.
Themes
Independence vs. Belonging Theme Icon
Gender and Family Theme Icon
One morning, Raghu heard Mr Biswas sneeze from the road, and Bipti had to convince him to go on to work; he returned shortly thereafter with a leg “swathed in bloody bandages,” but the cart-man who brought him in would not help him get home because he feared Mr Biswas’s sneeze. Raghu had a “deep fear” that Mr Biswas would bankrupt the family—he always felt on the brink of destitution and became more cautious the more he accumulated wealth. 
Mr Biswas does seem poised to destroy his parents, as predicted. But Raghu was already cautious and miserly before Mr Biswas’s birth, and he interpreted his son’s evident unluckiness in terms of his greatest fear—whereas Mr Biswas dies comfortably but indebted in the prologue, Raghu continually sacrifices the chance to put his money to use because he is so afraid to lose everything.
Themes
Social Status and Hierarchy Theme Icon
Colonialism, Oppression, and Escape Theme Icon
Raghu picked up his paychecks on Saturday, as the Indian clerk shouted out amounts that the overseer paid workers from stacks of bills and coins. He was fascinated by the bags the overseer filled with coins and began converting his currency down to fill his own bags, which he proceeded to hide—nobody knew where, and rumors of his wealth just led him to spend even less.
Raghu is fascinated with currency as an object, perhaps because the overseer’s bags signify his power and social status. By accumulating and hiding wealth, he also builds up a reputation, even though his family continues to live in poverty. Already, status is about others’ perception more than actual means, which recalls Mr Biswas’s pride in his beautiful but barely inhabitable house.
Themes
Social Status and Hierarchy Theme Icon
Mr Biswas grew,” and his limbs became “dusty and muddy and unwashed,” covered in eczema and stinking sores. He was stunted from malnutrition but never noticed that he was hungry or never went to school—he only minded that he could not go in ponds and rivers, like his brothers Pratap and Prasad (whom his father taught to swim) but enjoyed his baths and played with Dehuti, his sister. At nine and eleven, Prasad and Pratap were already acting like adults, caring for buffaloes in the fields. Mr Biswas could not go to the buffalo pond, and so when he was old enough he joined the “grass-gang” (whom the buffalo boys endlessly mocked).
Mr Biswas’s body begins to reflect his apparently poor luck and lack of attention from his family. Prospects that most contemporary readers might consider basic rights—food and education—do not even cross his mind, which attests to both the severity of his upbringing’s poverty and the sheer improbability of his ability to later go to school and become a reporter. He is destined to follow in his father’s footsteps, becoming a manual laborer like his older brothers.
Themes
Independence vs. Belonging Theme Icon
Social Status and Hierarchy Theme Icon
Education, Work, and Language Theme Icon
Later, Mr Biswas would have begun working on the cane fields (but would never have advanced on the estates because he was illiterate). Pratap, who was also illiterate, nevertheless found success: he made enough to buy his own land, sell his own cane, and eventually purchase “a large, strong, well-built house.” Mr Biswas never went down this path—instead, “events which were to occur presently” led him down a path that ended up with him reading Marcus Aurelius in his Slumberking bed.
Pratap seems to have achieved prosperity without status: he grew to live a comfortable but unrefined and indistinct life. The narrator suggests that Mr Biswas avoided this fate through accident, and perhaps even through his bad luck, which barred him from the kind of work that sustained the other men in his family. His willingness to lounge in bed while his brother gradually worked for his wealth suggests that luck may be more to thank than hard work for his success.
Themes
Social Status and Hierarchy Theme Icon
Education, Work, and Language Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Blue quotation bubble icon linking to an important quote associated with this summary and analysis.
When his neighbor Dhari’s cow birthed a calf, he paid Mr Biswas to bring it water. Mr Biswas took a liking to the calf, and upon walking it to feed one day he came across the shallow stream where Bipti and Dehuti washed the family’s clothes. He returned to the stream periodically, disturbing its fish and watching his spit disappear into it, transfixed, until one day the calf disappeared. He searched all afternoon but gave up, went home, and hid in the bushes.
The pundit’s prediction that Mr Biswas would be unlucky around water seems to have already come true: his fascination with the stream distracted him from the task he was supposed to perform. There is also a layer of irony in the pundit’s pronouncement here: he noted that “Mohun” is a name for Krishna, a Hindu god who cared for a herd of cows (which is why cows are sacred in Hinduism). When charged with this same duty, Mr Biswas fails miserably. 
Themes
Education, Work, and Language Theme Icon
Colonialism, Oppression, and Escape Theme Icon
From the bushes, Mr Biswas watched his parents send a reluctant Prasad to fetch firewood. Mr Biswas slipped inside the family’s hut from behind to hide under Raghu’s bed, where he pondered the dusty cloth smells and the muffled sounds that surrounded him. Dhari came to report that his calf had gone missing, and Raghu told him and Prasad to go search for Mohun and the missing animal. Bipti mentioned that Mohun “knows he mustn’t go near water” and Dhari wailed, believing that Mr Biswas must have drowned his calf in the pond.
Mr Biswas’s childish refusal to face the consequences of his negligence contrasts with Prasad’s adult responsibilities; clearly, his brothers are model children in the family, but the narrator has already revealed that this ultimately led them to live the same kind of relatively unenlightened, provincial lives as their father.
Themes
Education, Work, and Language Theme Icon
Gender and Family Theme Icon
A crowd of neighbors congregated; some exclaimed that they had seen Mr Biswas bring the calf to the pond, but Raghu decried them as “a pack of liars.” A carter named Lakhan noted that Raghu seemed not to care about his son, and the two argued about who would dive into the pond to look for him. Raghu suggested that Dhari was responsible, because he charged Mr Biswas with caring for the calf, but Dhari threatened to bring the matter before a magistrate, so Raghu led the villagers to the pond.
In Mr Biswas’s village, rumor travels fast and serves as people’s primary source of information, which is significant because the protagonist eventually turns to the formalized, Western medium of newspaper journalism to the same end. By threatening to bring the matter to court, Dhari shows that the British colonial legal system has the ultimate power to determine guilt and could even bankrupt Raghu; its judgment would rely on a legal concept of property rather than the folk principle that Dhari should have heeded the superstitions others followed when dealing with Mr Biswas.
Themes
Education, Work, and Language Theme Icon
Colonialism, Oppression, and Escape Theme Icon
Mr Biswas listened to this uproar “at first with pleasure, then with apprehension.” He heard his father come and go, and then finally left his hiding place at night to find his sister Dehuti crying over his clothing. When she saw him, she began to scream, but an elderly neighbor named Sadhu came to comfort her and brought her away, leaving Mr Biswas “alone in the dark hut, and frightened.”
Mr Biswas’s initial pleasure probably stemmed from the attention others were finally paying him. His attempt to comfort his crying sister actually frightened her—again, despite his best intentions, he still manages to harm his family and still finds himself utterly isolated and misunderstood.
Themes
Independence vs. Belonging Theme Icon
Gender and Family Theme Icon
The villagers congregated around the unassuming pond as Raghu went diving after his son, convinced that “there is something down there” but unable to see and unwilling to let Lakhan take over. He went down again and recovered the calf, covered in slime and weeds, and then yet again as Lakhan continued to insist on taking a turn to look for Mr Biswas. The villagers suddenly heard a sneeze, fell silent, turned and saw Mr Biswas; but Raghu had not returned and Lakhan dove in to recover his unconscious body—“but it was too late.”
The calf did indeed die without Mr Biswas’s supervision, which cements the ironic contrast between Krishna and the novel’s unholy, unlucky protagonist. So does his sneeze at the precise moment of his father’s drowning, which may have been prevented had Raghu been willing to give Lakhan a turn. Although Lakhan had previously noted that Raghu was not particularly worried about his son, his sense of absolute paternal obligation actually led his children to lose their father.
Themes
Gender and Family Theme Icon
Bipti began sending the villagers with messages, most importantly to her childless sister Tara, “a person of standing” who married a relatively well-off merchant. Clad in heavy gold and silver jewelry, Tara soon came to plan the funeral.
Again, among the mostly illiterate villagers, information travels via word-of-mouth rather than the written word. Tara’s wealth and status appear to make her an important contact.
Themes
Social Status and Hierarchy Theme Icon
Education, Work, and Language Theme Icon
At the funeral, Mr Biswas earned the attendees’ “honour and sympathy,” but also “a little dread.” He spontaneously started smelling and tasting raw flesh (even though he never tried meat) and began spitting furiously. Tara led the women in wailing for Bipti; because “cremation was forbidden,” Raghu lay in a coffin wearing his finest dhoti. “Photo now,” exclaimed Tara, but the photographer declared it too dark and brought everyone outside. He was “of mixed Chinese, Negro and European blood,” so could not understand the family’s Hindi as they brought the coffin outside. Bipti and her four children posed for the photograph, with Tara translating the photographer’s English.
Mr Biswas’s sensory hallucinations evoke the flesh of both the calf and his father. The funeral is pervaded with the tension between Hindu tradition and Western modernity: the family cannot cremate Raghu because of British laws, Tara insists on documenting the occasion with a photograph, and much is lost in translation because the family and the photographer are separated by a language barrier. The photographer’s mixed heritage also points to Trinidad’s complex history of migration under colonialism.
Themes
Gender and Family Theme Icon
Colonialism, Oppression, and Escape Theme Icon
Mr Biswas first saw the photograph in 1937, hung on the wall in Tara’s drawingroom amidst many other photos of funerals, friends, and landscapes. It was faded and punctuated by the photographer’s stamp and signature. He “was astonished at his own smallness,” his visible scabs and eczema, and the “unnaturally large, staring eyes” of everyone in the picture.
Looking back years later, Mr Biswas feels alien to himself—he particularly notices the early outward marks of the fragility, vulnerability, and femininity he feels internally for much of his life. Tara’s various photographs suggest that she is worldly and well-connected, in contrast with Mr Biswas’s family in his early childhood.
Themes
Independence vs. Belonging Theme Icon
Social Status and Hierarchy Theme Icon
Gender and Family Theme Icon
Tara rightly anticipated that the photograph would be “a record of the family all together for the last time,” as they split up shortly after the funeral. Bipti sent Dehuti to Tara, where she would learn etiquette and find odds of marrying well but have to live as Tara’s servant. Tara told Bipti to buy Dehuti new clothes, but Bipti confessed that Raghu left her nothing—even though Tara and everyone else in the village knew about his miserliness. The family searched the hut for his money, and Tara called Bipti a fool after she continued to insist there was none.
Without Raghu’s income, the family must break up—there is no question of Bipti supporting the family because of the rigid expectation that men work and women marry the most successful men they can manage to find (which also explains Dehuti’s move to Tara’s house). Ironically, Raghu’s careful insistence on saving as much as possible—by burying his money underground—actually contributed to his family’s eventual financial demise rather than guarding against it.
Themes
Independence vs. Belonging Theme Icon
Gender and Family Theme Icon
Unable to cook, the family began to eat with Sadhu; Mr Biswas thought his unsalted food tasted like raw flesh and spat it out. After Bipti gave him Raghu’s blanket, he screamed all night, as the raw smell seemed to emanate from it. Bipti awoke to a familiar but unidentifiable noise, which she soon realized was someone traipsing around the family’s garden, breaking the bottles Raghu had planted there. She woke up Prasad and Pratap—while Mr Biswas “closed his eyes to keep out the danger”—and, out the window, they saw Dhari digging up the bottles and singing. Pratap threatened to “beat him like a snake” and Dhari taunted them, saying that he was “here to look after you.” Bipti closed the window and let Dhari continue, assuring her sons that their neighbor was “only after your father’s money” and remembering Raghu’s warnings “about the people of this village.”
Mr Biswas continues to see his guilt in terms of the Hindu prohibition against eating meat. His reflex to hide from danger contrasts with Prasad’s willingness to take on an adult role in the household, now to fill the vacuum of male power his father’s death has left. Dhari gestures to this same vacuum when he claims he will “look after” them; without a father figure, the family seems to lose others’ respect and be seen as vulnerable and powerless. In fact, Bipti refrains from intervention because she does not seem particularly worried about the buried money that should now be hers.
Themes
Gender and Family Theme Icon
Pratap and Prasad woke before dawn, remained silent about Dhari’s meddling in the garden and went to work at the buffalo pond. After sunrise, Bipti went outside to see their flowers uprooted and vegetables destroyed. Dhari yelled from across the street, and she called him a “shameless vagabond” back. Surveying the garden he destroyed, he warned that “they will keep on looking” for Raghu’s money, and asked whether Bipti might want to help “them” out. Bipti had nowhere to turn: “she distrusted the police, and Raghu had no friends.”
Noticeably, Bipti only grows angry after their food source is destroyed—not when she realized Dhari was looking for Raghu’s buried money the night before. Without Raghu, Bipti is completely isolated: she has no social ties outside her family, and her distrust of the police is logical given Trinidad’s severe inequality and tense relations among different groups—presumably, the state is more likely to harm than help her.
Themes
Social Status and Hierarchy Theme Icon
Gender and Family Theme Icon
Colonialism, Oppression, and Escape Theme Icon
At night, Bipti, Pratap and Prasad waited with Raghu’s cutlasses and sticks—Mr Biswas again drifted off to sleep but woke to hear Dhari singing wedding songs as Pratap paced frantically around the hut with his cutlass. Bipti saw Lakhan, Dhari, and another neighbor, Oumadh, searching the garden with lanterns. Pratap yelled that he would kill them and sobbed as Bipti comforted him and sent him to sleep. Dhari warned, “we will be here every night now to look after you,” and Pratap sat on the ground holding his cutlass.
Compared to his brothers and mother, Mr Biswas seems to feel uniquely powerless—just as he hid under his father’s bed rather than face the consequences of losing the calf, he goes to sleep while the rest of the family prepares to fight Dhari and the other neighbors. Curiously, Lakhan is among them even though he previously seemed sympathetic toward Raghu and the family.
Themes
Independence vs. Belonging Theme Icon
Gender and Family Theme Icon
“In the end Bipti sold the hut and the land to Dhari” before moving with Mr Biswas to live with some of Tara’s relatives in Pagotes. Pratap and Prasad went to live with a distant relative and continue working on sugar-estates, “and so Mr Biswas came to leave the only house to which he had some right.” Everyone had left, and he grew apart from his “increasingly useless and impenetrable mother,” leaving him to feel “really quite alone.”
Mr Biswas’s sense of isolation deepens as he is coerced out of the only property his family ever truly owned. Just like his father’s displacement from India structured his lifelong distrust of others and obsession with hoarding wealth in case of catastrophe, Mr Biswas’s displacement from his childhood home seems a likely impetus behind his enthusiasm for obtaining his own property in the prologue.
Themes
Independence vs. Belonging Theme Icon
Social Status and Hierarchy Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Blue quotation bubble icon linking to an important quote associated with this summary and analysis.