A House for Mr Biswas

A House for Mr Biswas

A House for Mr Biswas Part 1, Chapter 2 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
After leaving home, Mr Biswas could not say where his house was or whether anyone found Raghu’s money. The land where they lived soon yielded oil, and while working on an article years later Mr Biswas “saw nothing but oil derricks and grimy pumps” there. “The world carried no witness to Mr Biswas’s birth and early years,” a truth he first encountered at the Canadian Mission school in Pagotes, where his teacher Lal—a convert from Hinduism to Presbyterianism—asked him for his age and birth certificate, which Bipti could not produce.
The discovery of hidden underground wealth on its land—in the form of oil—ultimately, if indirectly, fulfilled Dhari’s search for Raghu’s buried treasure. However, Mr Biswas’s dispossession also led him to school, which he never even considered beforehand and his brothers never got to attend; he only realized what he had lost when he learned that his birth was unofficial without a government record.
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Tara took Bipti to the decrepit office of an uncouth solicitor named F.Z. Ghany, who handled a few cases in a different village each day of the week, in order to come up with a “buth suttificate” for Mr Biswas. Bipti insisted that only Pundit Sitaram knew when Mr Biswas was born, but Tara did not trust him, so Bipti chose June 8, and Ghany had them sign a certificate with the “nice Hindu name” of Mohun Biswas, who was busy “spitting carefully” in a corner of the room. Ghany encouraged Bipti to bring in her other children the next week, and finally “official notice was taken of Mr Biswas’s existence, and he entered the new world.”
Mr Biswas was present but did not participate in his entry into “the new world” beyond his family’s original small village; just like his name, his birthdate was chosen arbitrarily, although in spite of the pundit’s influence rather than because of it. Tara’s distrust in Sitaram reflects her animosity toward the rituals and requirements of Bipti’s more traditional Hinduism; this is closely tied to Tara’s class status and relatively Westernized lifestyle.
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At school, the children chanted multiplication tables, which Lal found delightful—he appreciated their “thoroughness, discipline, and […] stick-to-it-ivenesss,” which he felt Hindus usually lacked. He caned Mr Biswas with a tamarind rod for miscalculating “ought twos” and asked another student (Alec) where he found his bodice he was wearing—from his sister-in-law, the boy explained, and Lal told him to tell her the multiplication tables he learned.
Like Tara, Lal represents the more assimilated class of Indians in Trinidad and resents the traditional Hindus he views as backward. His harsh discipline and emphasis on rote memorization are conventional instruments of the British colonial education system—only, here, they are being implemented by an Indian who has internalized those values.
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From Lal, Mr Biswas also learned about poems and prayers, geology and desert oases. But he viewed it all as “unreal” until he heard about the Great War from Alec, the boy who wore the bodice and other brightly-colored clothes “because I is a Portuguese or something.” He “revealed his secret” to Mr Biswas, who “dramatically unbuttoned” to do the same, and later shared his “Dodd’s Kidney Pills.”
With Alec, Mr Biswas finally forms a relationship of his own accord and finds some antidote to his loneliness. While Mr Biswas enjoyed his early days in school, he saw the British curriculum as completely disconnected from his life—the subjects of his education are closer to fantasy than reality, which ultimately constitutes part of their appeal.
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Alec and Mr Biswas were inseparable; they smoked cigarettes for the first time and traded their shirt buttons for marbles together. Mr Biswas began to copy Alec’s intricate drawings of letters and, when he wrote “CANCELLED” beautifully on a math test he had little interest in completing, Lal yelled for the “sign-painter” to come write “I AM AN ASS” on the blackboard, which Mr Biswas did exquisitely, to the class’s approval.
Lal foreshadows Mr Biswas’s later work as an actual sign-painter; even though the words he draws are inimical to his education, they are still perhaps the most valuable lesson he takes from it. He is enamored with the surface beauty of letters as such, rather than their meaning, which is why the narrator says he draws (rather than writes) them.
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In their six years of friendship, Mr Biswas and Alec learned next to nothing about one another’s lives at home. Mr Biswas was embarrassed and unhappy with his accommodation in a mud hut full of strangers, and especially with Bipti’s sense of depression and lack of affection. His fully-grown, boring brothers visited at Christmastime, and although Dehuti lived nearby, he almost never saw her, except when Tara’s husband “held a religious ceremony and needed Brahmins to feed.” He went over in a clean dhoti and his sister served him food, but upon leaving “he became once more only a labourer’s child.” Indeed, later in life, he could always get along with the rich but always had to return home to poverty.
Although Mr Biswas found a limited sense of belonging at school and with Alec, home still felt alien and uncomfortable, as it remained throughout his life. When Tara calls him to her house, he goes only in his capacity as a member of the scholarly Brahmin caste—he is the only one of his family’s Brahmins to get an education (which shows that caste is irrelevant to work life in Trinidad, even if it still structures Hindus’ social life), and he feels honored to associate with people of high status, even if his own status is an accident of birth.
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Ajodha, Tara’s thin and cold husband, made Mr Biswas uncomfortable. Ajodha liked when others read to him and often paid Mr Biswas to read from an American newspaper’s medical column about risks to the body, whose author inexplicably continued to think of something new every day for several decades. Whenever he visited Tara, then, Mr Biswas had little occasion to see his sister.
Ajodha is unaffectionate and aloof, but his insistence that others read to him reflects his desire to be recognized for his status (both in terms of class and within his family). Despite his peculiar field of interest, he feeds Mr Biswas’s early interest in reading and writing.
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Bipti worried that none of her children had married, and Tara nevertheless decided to pull Mr Biswas out of school and make him into a pundit. Pundit Jairam taught him Hindi, scriptures, and ceremonies for eight months in the house he shared with the “crushed, hard-working” wife who took care of him. Jairam was famous for his outspoken religious views, and Mr Biswas began receiving attention when he visited Tara to lead prayers and bring the money and gifts her visitors offered back to Jairam.
For Bipti and Tara, formal schooling was a default and temporary option for children until they could find work, rather than a meaningful means to a wider range of work opportunities later in life. Like Pundit Sitaram’s outlandish superstitions, Jairam’s cruelty toward his wife and insistence on living off others’ sacrifices suggest that religion functions here as a tool for certain powerful individuals to control other believers.
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One day, Pundit Jairam received a large bunch of bananas as a gift, and as they ripened beautifully Mr Biswas figured that there were plenty and decided to take two, but their absence was obviously noticeable. Jairam came home, ate his dinner, and talked through his religious arguments. The next morning, Mr Biswas remembered what he had done and began collecting flowers for puja, but Jairam did not come, so he went to bring his teacher some milk.
Mr Biswas rationalized his theft on the principle that Jairam could never put all the bananas to good use, which subtly but importantly reflects a broader tension over ideas of property and excess in this book. In many cases, property is shared among the members of a household and excess fills the gaps wherever it is needed, but this clashes with the Western concept of legal property rights, in which the formal owner of property maintains rights to excess property.
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At breakfast, Pundit Jairam gave his plate to Mr Biswas and told him to eat. Mr Biswas declined, for the food was not his own; Jairam ordered his wife Soanie to bring the bunch of bananas and told Mr Biswas that they must be his now, since he touched them, and that he must eat them all now lest they go to waste. Mr Biswas was surprised by Jairam’s tone but started to eat, taking no pleasure in the bananas’ taste and eating one after another until he grew sick. He never ate bananas again and began getting stomachaches whenever he felt “excited or depressed or angry.” He also grew constipated, and his unpredictable defecation led him to leave Jairam and return to Pagotes.
Jairam shows that, despite his Hindu orthodoxy, his attitudes about ownership are deeply Western: even though Mr Biswas is living in his house as his apprentice, the boy has no right to Jairam’s surplus bananas and unfairly claims them all by taking two. This moment seems to stick with Mr Biswas through his digestive troubles, which tend to arise when he faces conflicts over what belongs to whom. Meanwhile, Soanie is subservient and voiceless in Jairam’s household, which reflects women’s status as domestic servants, effectively, and also as property in traditional Indo-Trinidadian families.
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One night, Mr Biswas was afraid to go to the latrine in the dark and risk waking up Pundit Jairam. He used a handkerchief instead and threw it off the back verandah, only for Jairam to berate him in the morning: the handkerchief landed on the oleander tree, polluting its flowers so they could no longer be used for puja. Jairam told Mr Biswas he could never be a true pundit—Mr Biswas destroyed his father, Raghu, and Jairam could not let the same happen to him. And so Jairam sent Mr Biswas back to Pagotes.
Just as he accidentally killed the calf in the first chapter, Mr Biswas again accidentally breaks a religious taboo because of his efforts to avoid other people’s judgment, which gets him kicked out of yet another home.
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Bipti was alarmed, not excited, to see Mr Biswas upon his return. She questioned him in a rage before turning protective and feeding him, but “she could not coax him out of his sullenness.” At the time, he did not realize the “absurd and touching” fact that his mother welcomed him to a home and meal that were not hers to give, but thirty years later he would recite a “simple poem in blank verse about this meeting,” in which “the circumstances improved to allegory: the journey, the welcome, the food, the shelter.”
Although Bipti feels that her son has again proven his incompetence at work, she puts her maternal obligations toward him first; in his poem, Mr Biswas presumably realized that he was treated as belonging in a place where he clearly did not, by a mother whom he had wounded repeatedly and irreversibly. Bipti seems to have done everything in her (limited) power to counteract his feelings of alienation and rootlessness.
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Bipti was also irritated because she was forced to defend Dehuti, who eloped with the yard boy at Tara’s house. Upon visiting Tara’s house, Ajodha implored Mr Biswas to explain how he got himself kicked out of Pundit Jairam’s; at first, everyone laughed, but when recounting the banana incident Mr Biswas “saw his own injury very clearly” and began crying into Tara’s arms.
Dehuti’s escape also puts Bipti in the difficult position of defending a child who broke a taboo and angered those around her; her stubborn loyalty recalls Shama’s in the prologue and demonstrates that Mr Biswas was loved even if he did not feel like it. This moment also illustrates that women in this book are forced to unilaterally support their disloyal family members in order to save face.
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Alec had begun working in Ajodha’s garage, “doing mysterious greasy things.” Mr Biswas went to Ajodha’s rumshop, run by his brother Bhandat, who “apparently drank, beat his wife and kept a mistress of another race.” The shop, past its prime, was a simple construction of iron and concrete invariably full of drunk and miserable estate workers. Every night, Bhandat counted “the day’s takings”; he was paranoid and quick to anger, accusing Mr Biswas of spying for Tara because he was stealing from her every night: after giving enough drunk patrons less than they paid for, he could steal the price of one drink. He always did this with flair and grew angry with Mr Biswas afterward; seeing these antics, the drinkers took to calling Mr Biswas “smart man,” and he took revenge each morning by spitting in the rum bottles, which were all identical but labeled and priced differently.
Although Ajodha is frigid and unempathetic, he also offers both Alec and Mr Biswas economic opportunities; his disposition certainly contributes to his success in the emerging capitalist economy of colonial Trinidad, as do Bhandat’s deceptiveness, greed, and paranoia. Of Bhandat’s vices, having “a mistress of another race” is the most socially offensive to Hindus. This evidences their animosity toward other groups and treatment of women as disposable. The insult “smart man” suggests a tension between education and intelligence on the one hand, and worldly, business-savvy cynicism on the other. (Ajodha manages to combine both.)
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Mr Biswas lived with Bhandat’s family, sleeping with his two sons on a floor mattress in a windowless room. Whenever the shop was closed, he would visit Bipti, Alec, or Tara, whose bookcase now had twenty volumes of The Book of Comprehensive Knowledge, mistakenly delivered by an American traveling salesman. Ajodha never read them, but he was happy to see Mr Biswas doing so, and so on Sundays Mr Biswas would read him the week’s That Body of Yours columns before perusing The Book of Comprehensive Knowledge for the rest of the day.
Mr Biswas again moves into a home to which he doesn’t belong, with people he does not particularly like, because he needs to make money. The outrageous, alluring promise of “Comprehensive Knowledge” entices Mr Biswas but also parodies his search for power and wholeness through ideas with little bearing on his life, as well as the history of Western efforts to develop so-called theories of everything. Ajodha and Tara get the book by accident, just like the way Mr Biswas gets his education.
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Ajodha encouraged him to convince Bhandat’s boys to read The Book of Comprehensive Knowledge, but they were too busy dedicating their nights to sexual fantasy, in which Mr Biswas never quite managed to participate in the proper way. They also talked about Bhandat’s mistress, whom he visited on the weekends. During the week, Bhandat shouted at and beat his wife, frightening the boys and Mr Biswas next door, and continued stealing more and more from the rumshop.
Again, in comparison to other boys, Mr Biswas is timid, erudite, and awkward—sex is not even on his radar yet, and Bhandat’s boys respond to their father’s neglect in much the same way as Prasad and Pratap did theirs: by trumpeting their masculinity and focusing on concrete success in the world, rather than daydreaming about “Comprehensive Knowledge.”
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One weekend, after one of Ajodha’s relatives died, Bhandat’s family went with Ajodha and Tara to the funeral, leaving Mr Biswas with a free weekend and Bhandat’s two rooms to himself. He could not decide what to do with them, so ended up wandering around the environs all day until returning home “tired, empty, miserable, yet still excited, still unwilling to sleep.” He awoke to Bhandat, drunk and unexpectedly home early, accusing him of stealing a dollar and spying for Tara and Ajodha. Bhandat beat Mr Biswas until his cheekbone bled and kicked him out, sending him back to Bipti.
When Mr Biswas finally finds a moment of absolute independence—he has no work to do and nobody to order him around—he is elated but quite literally cannot figure out what to do with himself and becomes depressed at his inability to make anything of his freedom. When Bhandat returns, Mr Biswas again finds himself thrown from place to place without any say in the matter, accused of breaking rules despite having had no ill intentions.
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When Mr Biswas returned home, Bipti massaged him with oil “for the first time since he was a baby” and argued with him about where he might go next, reminding him that Pundit Sitaram prophesied his failures. Mr Biswas implored his mother not to go see Tara but she did, and he told her all about Bhandat’s theft and mistress. Tara did not believe his reports, and then she explained that the missing dollar was merely in the bottom of Bhandat’s pocket. Mr Biswas cried, saying, “I have no father to look after me and people can treat me how they want,” which won Tara’s sympathy. However, he blamed her for Dehuti’s departure, which pushed her over the edge: she left and Bipti told Mr Biswas he would “reduce us all to pauperdom.” Mr Biswas declared that he would get his own job and house.
Again, when Mr Biswas must shamefully return home, he earns the affection from his mother he always desired—he only seems to find love through helplessness now that he has “no father to look after me,” but he continues to provoke and push away the people who pity and care for him, especially when they put other family members first (Tara believes Bhandat over Mr Biswas). Even though his first foray into independence has just failed, Mr Biswas stubbornly insists on pursuing it nonetheless—which turns into a lifelong quest.
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Mr Biswas began looking for a job on Monday morning, walking up and down the main road and imagining himself working in each of its stores—but none of them appealed to him, except (momentarily) the undertaker’s shed full of coffins: he thought he could “help to bury Bhandat.” He pondered the strange notion of “dry goods,” wandered past food stalls, and watched carts race up and down the road. He went home to inform Bipti that he would not take a job or see Tara, but planned to kill himself, and his mother heartily encouraged him: “That would be the best thing for you. And for me.”
Mr Biswas is caught between his desire to make something of himself and his complete ignorance about how to go about doing so. His education and reading on Comprehensive Knowledge have done little to prepare him for the manual labor that likely awaits. When he threatens suicide, presumably because he sees no easy path to work and might win his mother’s attention, she again calls his bluff and shows that he can only rely on himself.
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Energized with rage, Mr Biswas marched down the main road for miles, till he had long left town. Ramchand, Tara’s former yard boy and Dehuti’s husband, tapped him on the shoulder and greeted him amicably. Ramchand said that he was working at a different rumshop, explained that Dehuti often asked about Mr Biswas, and invited him over for dinner. Mr Biswas was impressed that Ramchand cared about his approval—he was of a lower caste, after all, even if he made good money. At dinner, Mr Biswas realized that he never had taken his caste status as a Brahmin seriously—and it felt like even more of a joke at Ramchand’s well-decorated hut, even though Dehuti seemed unhappy with him and particularly with their possessions.
With his family’s indifference on full display, Mr Biswas simply escapes via the path of least resistance: he walks on and on without a plan until, for the umpteenth time, a family member saves him from himself. At Ramchand’s hut, Mr Biswas realizes both the social privileges his caste has bestowed on him in the Indo-Trinidadian community (Bipti and Tara previously lamented Dehuti’s relationship with Ramchand because of his lower caste status) and the ultimate futility of caste in a world where money is the be-all-end-all of status.
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In fact, Dehuti barely spoke or interacted with either of them; she brought out her baby but seemed entirely “untouched by her husband’s bubbling desire to please.” She was “frankly ugly,” too, sitting in the astonishingly mature manner of an old woman and seemingly unlike the sister Mr Biswas used to know. Ramchand asked Mr Biswas to read the writing on his walls—calendars and cards from Sunday school—and declared that he would be “a great man. Reading like that at your age.”
Dehuti’s attitude recalls Bipti’s resignation after Raghu’s death; suddenly, all of Mr Biswas’s siblings have transformed into adults except for him. Despite his sense of worthlessness and alienation, Ramchand assures him that his education promises to make him “a great man” and foreshadows the advantages it eventually gives him.
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Ramchand felt sorry for Ajodha (who was “just asking” to “fall really sick”), Pratap (whose donkeys kept dying), Prasad (who could not find a wife), and Bhandat (because of his mistress). He obviously “thought his own condition perfect, and this perfection delighted him.” Ramchand showed Mr Biswas the extra room they were building and suggested that he might be able to stay there, which depressed him even more. Dehuti claimed to lack “modern ambitions” and thought herself hideous, in response to which Ramchand smiled.
Ramchand seems to have already achieved precisely what the protagonist wants for himself: a house, wife, job, and (most importantly) strong sense of self. Rather than inspiring Mr Biswas, this makes him jealous. Dehuti despairs at being forced to live a “modern” materialistic lifestyle rather than the traditional Hindu one of her family, from whom she is now ostracized because her husband prioritizes his possessions over his social connections.
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Mr Biswas’s stomach began to swell, preventing him from eating despite his hunger, because “their happiness, which he couldn’t share, had upset him.” He left and promised to return, although he knew that he never would because his ties to Dehuti had been broken. He resolved to stop looking for a job and just ask Tara.
Mr Biswas’s emotions continue to manifest physically—just as he smelled raw flesh after his father’s death, he gets a stomachache upon realizing that Ramchand has managed to find “happiness” by forging his own path and turning his back on the Hindu community.
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Alec returned to Pagotes, now covered in paint instead of grease. Mr Biswas watched him paint a sign for the Humming Bird Café and outlined his predicament before joining him as an assistant. The Café’s proprietor asked if Mr Biswas could paint birds, so his sign would look just like that of the Keskidee Café across the street. They explained that the “modern thing is to have lots of words,” like the signs in Port of Spain, and ran through a number of possibilities before settling on “Idlers keep out by order.” And “so Mr Biswas became a sign-writer,” learning to control a paintbrush and finishing “IDLERS KEEP OUT BY ORDER” before moving on to cigarette advertisements.
Alec’s early interest in letter-drawing has translated to a job painting signs, which is the first indication that people might seek professions that match their dispositions rather than taking on the most convenient work. Similarly, their pitch to the Humming Bird Café relies on an appeal to the “modern” ways of the city over the most immediately salient model—as a metaphor, this points to Mr Biswas’s discovery that he can follow a “modern” path to achieve Ramchand’s kind of lifestyle instead of simply following those around him.
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Soon, Mr Biswas returned to Tara’s house, but was disappointed to discover that one of Bhandat’s sons had taken over his old job reading to Ajodha. Bhandat had run off with his mistress after his wife died in childbirth; Tara took in his boys and refused to speak his name ever again. His sons enjoyed their newfound comfort.
Tara continues to make up for her family’s emotional unavailability; when she takes in Bhandat’s abandoned sons, Mr Biswas responds with jealousy at his own apparent decline in status, like he did at Ramchand’s hut.
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Sign-painting was satisfying but inconsistent; Alec traveled around looking for work, and Mr Biswas spent much of his time practicing. “Work, when it came, came in a rush,” and a rush of sign-writers followed to appease the competing shopkeepers, who always wanted more elaborate signs than the competition. Mr Biswas read foreign magazines for lettering inspiration and quickly took a liking to the stories in them, before turning to novels whose rich descriptions of “intoxicating worlds” excited him. He grew restless and wanted to move, but Bipti thought herself too old to live among strangers.
Despite finding part-time fulfillment through work,  Mr Biswas still lives in a house full of strangers and feels alienated at home. Yet he never thinks about the prospect of moving away and leaving his mother alone, which might testify to his attachment or sense of family obligation. Still enamored with books, he discovers literature for the first time and begins to further refine his taste for the possibility of escaping his predicament.
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Bipti also promised to marry off the reluctant Mr Biswas, which would complete her life’s work. Pratap and Prasad were already married, but Mr Biswas preferred to read, soon finding himself “addicted” to books by Samuel Smiles and then elementary science manuals. Still, he occasionally mustered a belief in romance, like when he worked on signs through the night or hung out the doors of Ajodha’s buses as their conductor, shouting the “glorious Amerindian names” of faraway places.
Samuel Smiles was a Victorian journalist famous for preaching the virtues of self-help and blaming poverty on people’s own irresponsible behavior. But Mr Biswas’s own poverty resulted directly from the British policy of indentured servitude, which makes his interest in Smiles ironic. While he is busy reading Western books and fantasizing about taking charge of his own life, Bipti tries to fulfill her traditional duty as a Hindu mother by marrying him off.
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Alec and Bhandat’s boys sometimes came and “took Mr Biswas to certain houses which terrified, then attracted, and finally only amused him.” But also exciting were the occasional “glimpse of a face, a smile, a laugh,” even though girls no longer represented “painful loveliness” to him and he only secretly considered love. He waited and yearned “for the world to yield its sweetness and romance,” and first saw Shama at Hanuman House in Arwacas “in this mood of expectation.”
Bhandat’s boys remain fixated on sex, while Mr Biswas begins to dream about love, which would scarcely be possible for him since arranged marriage is the norm in his community. The exile faced by Dehuti and Ramchand would certainly face him if he married for love, and especially if he married a non-Hindu.
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