A House for Mr Biswas

A House for Mr Biswas Part 1, Chapter 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The Chase was a remote village of sugarcane workers with only two rumshops and a handful of small food-shops, including the one Mr Biswas operated out of a tiny, decrepit room for six years. There were two rooms in the back and, in the yard, a makeshift kitchen constructed of tree branches, pieces of corrugated iron, and walls made of “almost anything.” It was surrounded by empty land, and the Tulsis only bought it on the false tip that a road would be built nearby.
Mr Biswas has successfully left Hanuman House, but scarcely of his own will—instead of simply asking about the store he was promised at The Chase, he forced the Tulsis to kick him out. Now, he finally finds himself in a home where nobody else rules over him—although it is dilapidated and isolated.
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The move out of Hanuman House was easy for Mr Biswas but arduous for Shama, who owned much more and bought kitchen supplies from the family store with Mr Biswas’s hard-earned sign-writing income. When they arrived at The Chase, Mr Biswas faced hostility from other shopkeepers and, of course, his wife, who spent the whole voyage staring silently out of the donkey-cart. Mr Biswas did most of the unloading, paid the carter, and surveyed the tins that the previous shopkeeper had left behind as the village’s boys cheered for the departing cart outside.
In a town as small as The Chase, everybody notices when Mr Biswas and Shama move in; they immediately become part of the village’s social fabric. Shama’s wealth of possessions serves as a constant reminder of her family’s higher class status than her husband’s. Outside Hanuman House, where the Tulsis provided everything, Mr Biswas and Shama now have to negotiate the financial dimension of marriage, too.
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Shama began crying loudly, complaining of her shame and lamenting that Mr Biswas’s desire to “paddle [his] own canoe” led them to this horrid place. Instead of comforting her, Mr Biswas started ruminating about the lonely, silent, dark establishment he was set to run; Shama ended up comforting him by starting to set up the house and lamenting his fruitless attempts at helping.
Suddenly, the novel’s substantial cast of characters dwindles to two; without the Tulsis around, Mr Biswas and Shama’s relationship is free to take its course, since they have nobody but each other. Already, her energy contrasts with his passive contemplation, and he continues to receive but never give emotional support.
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The previous owner left behind an iron bed that smelled of bedbugs (which never died out as Mr Biswas and Shama carried it from place to place), as well as a small, sturdy kitchen table. Mr Biswas was grateful that Shama brought an expensive Japanese coffee-set and admired her enthusiastic efforts to set up the house. She also made him food, which he found miraculous, since “for the first time a meal had been prepared in a house which was his own.” In the following weeks, they made the house “cleaner and habitable,” but it always felt “temporary and not quite real,” a mere preparation for the life to follow.
Mr Biswas’s pride in his new home depends entirely on Shama providing for him; he is proud of what he has, not what he has done, even though even most of the objects in the house are not even his own. Mr Biswas and Shama begin to leave their mark on the home they have abruptly inherited; yet, while this is the first time Mr Biswas gets to control his own space, he nevertheless views it as temporary.
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Mr Biswas set his mind to selling goods, and the ease of doing so astonished him, making him feel as though “he had pulled off a deep confidence trick” by stocking his shelves and waiting for people to come buy things. In the first month, he “made the vast profit of thirty-seven dollars,” and Shama quickly turned out to be an apt bookkeeper. They became accustomed to their solitude and no longer fought, although Mr Biswas found the place’s intimacy hard to bear and had mixed feelings about “the atmosphere of service and devotion” from his wife. So “he was even glad when abruptly, it broke.”
After growing up in poverty, laboring for his income, and reading so much self-help literature, Mr Biswas is surprised to realize how easily wealthy families like the Tulsis can passively profit off their property. As Shama’s contributions finally become visible to him, he begins at once to appreciate her and realize that he does not deserve her loyalty; he is so unaccustomed to close relationships that he does not know what to do with one.
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One day, Shama proposed a house-blessing ceremony and Mr Biswas flew into a rage. She sighed, and he soon discovered “how a woman nagged,” which astonished him since he was “living in a wife-beating society.” And he was further astonished that Shama nagged so adeptly, seemed like such “an experienced housewife,” and especially went through her pregnancy so smoothly.
Mr Biswas is surprised at Shama’s ability to get what she wants—after thinking of her as a powerless young girl for so long, he admires her power briefly before starting to feel threatened by it. He is, of course, angry at her orthodox ways and plan to bring the Tulsis into his space.
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After three days, Mr Biswas finally pointed out Shama’s nagging—mostly, she sighed and blew her nose in bed, and she did so even louder that night. In the morning, Mr Biswas agreed to the house-blessing. Shama hired three workers to build a bamboo tent in the yard and bring in food; all the Tulsis came “except Seth, Miss Blackie, and the two gods” (Shekhar and Owad), who were busy in school. Hari donned his pundit’s dhoti, and the Tulsis barely acknowledged Mr Biswas.
Although gender norms dictate that Mr Biswas has all the formal decision-making and financial power in his marriage, Shama is perfectly capable of getting what she wants; she is incredibly resourceful and easily bends circumstances to her will, while he daydreams about circumstances spontaneously changing to benefit him.
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Mr Biswas felt like “a stranger in his own yard,” with the Tulsis even ignoring the sign he hung out front declaring himself the store’s proprietor. He had nowhere to go, so he stood out front and planned his coming argument with Shama. Sushila caught some of the older children playing in the dark, and Mr Biswas found others playing house in a hedge—one of them even imitated him, and the ensuing laughter “filled Mr Biswas’s mind with thoughts of murder.”
Suddenly, Mr Biswas goes from owner to stranger—his sense of belonging vanishes when the Tulsis (the house’s actual owners) visit and their children again scatter around his territory, just as they occupy every available corner of Hanuman House. The children’s game proves to Mr Biswas that he is truly the family’s laughingstock.
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Since her family’s arrival, “Shama had become a Tulsi and a stranger again.” The ceremony was about to begin, but Mr Biswas did not want to see it and soon realized that his wares were in jeopardy. He rushed back to his shop and found a cluster of children in the corner, breaking soda bottles, surrounded by fallen and open tin jars. He kicked the children out and grabbed one boy by his collar, which prompted the boy to run outside to his mother, yelling, “Uncle Mohun beat me.”
Shama’s allegiance seems to abruptly shift back, and Mr Biswas discovers the Tulsis directly undermining his business—for once, he has a legitimate grievance against them (even though it is the children who are at fault). Even the child addresses Mr Biswas as “Uncle Mohun,” denying him the formal title that he otherwise feels he deserves throughout the novel.
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Mr Biswas followed outside to set the record straight as “Hari droned imperturbably on” with the house-blessing and Padma found the broken bottles inside—eight cents each, Mr Biswas explained, and the boy’s mother, Sumati, began beating him with a stick over her sisters’ protests. Mr Biswas figured that the beating was for show and, after it ended, Sumati declared that “everybody is now satisfied” and returned to the ceremonial tent.
Everything about this passage is a mere performance: Hari’s blessing is endless and empty; Mr Biswas saves face by speaking to Sumati and Padma; Sumati beats her son only because family norms demand it. This attachment to empty ritual relates to the Tulsis’ orthodoxy and concern for social status.
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A swarm of “uninvited guests” from the village lined up outside Mr Biswas’s shop, seeking the free food that would follow the blessing ceremony. Mrs Tulsi told Mr Biswas he had a “nice little property” and he could not decide whether she used the English word “property” out of satire or sincerity. He complained about the state of the house, and she suggested he make some improvements with sugarsacks—he said perhaps people could just live in coal barrels instead of houses. Sushila led Mrs Tulsi away.
Still suspicious of Mrs Tulsi’s motives, Mr Biswas undermines his opportunity to reconcile with her after their final conflict Hanuman House. The Chase’s poor workers take advantage of the opportunity to eat the wealthier Tulsis’ free food; the English word “property” is, of course, the concept that allows the Tulsis to build their wealth while most of Trinidad stays poor.
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Mr Biswas went inside and lay down on his bed, resuscitating his old romantic fantasies of leaving everything and everyone. He heard Shama rattling the door hook and pretended to be asleep; she came inside and said, “you make me really proud of you today,” surprising him with her vitriol. He told her to go outside and “make sure it properly bless,” and she left, telling her sisters he had a headache.
Mr Biswas returns to his favorite pose: retreating from the world, laying in bed, daydreaming about freedom but refusing to pursue it out of fear. Like her mother, Shama approaches Mr Biswas with an ambiguous statement that he treats as sarcastic, which leads her to respond in kind.
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After the house-blessing ceremony, Mr Biswas’s business took a turn for the worse—a new shopkeeper came into town and started making money. Shama complained that he let too many people buy on credit, reminding him that “ought oughts are ought.” He suggested that they un-bless the house; she suggested that people owed too much to even want to come by. He replied that perhaps he didn’t have a shopkeeper’s face, and in fact looked like nothing in particular—not a “shopkeeper, lawyer, doctor, labourer, overseer.” He came down with “the Samuel Smiles depression.”
The villagers seem to always flock to new shopkeepers, who would not understand that they likely cannot pay their debts. Mr Biswas begins to think about whether he is made to fulfill a particular calling or vocation but, as usual, concludes that the world has no defined place for him to belong and settles for imagining alternatives instead.
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Shama was a puzzle,” composed of various selves: the girl from Hanuman House but also “the wife, the housekeeper, and now the mother.” Mr Biswas paid little attention to her pregnancy, but her sisters did, which led her to behave differently, enduring her pregnancy in the fashion of her sisters but not complaining about it. Clearly, Shama expected to undertake life’s “established pattern of sensation” by pursuing “a series of negatives: not to be unmarried, not to be childless, not to be an undutiful daughter, sister, wife, mother, widow.”
Mr Biswas begins to see Shama as a complex, multidimensional person who nevertheless has simple desires; like the others in her family, she is driven by a sense of duty to others rather than any independent quest or longing. This structure of motivation is a key difference between the traditional Hindu lifestyle Mr Biswas left behind and the modern one he increasingly adopts as the book progresses.
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Shama’s sisters helped her make diapers out of Mr Biswas’s floursacks and brought her to Hanuman House when it was time for the birth. She left him clean clothes and simple recipes, written in the same words she usually spoke, which he found charming. And he started to think of “mostly male” names for the child; his customers suggested he let the pundit do his job naming the child, but Mr Biswas rejected the idea and continued writing names for his boy on the back of a volume of Shakespeare.
Unsurprisingly, the Tulsi women do most of the work related to childbirth, but Mr Biswas still wants control over his child. His hope for a son reflects both his desire for a child who is more like him than Shama (and perhaps will choose him over the Tulsis) and, of course, the common preference for male children (who can work) in Hindu and Western societies alike.
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In fact, the baby was a girl, healthy and already named Savi when Mr Biswas reached her in Mrs Tulsi’s Rose Room in the Hanuman House. His pick was “Sarojini Lakshmi Kamala Devi,” but Seth and Hari named her instead and already registered her birth under the name Basso—that was the “real name” that someone could call her to “damage” her, but everyone would call her “Savi.”
Just as Raghu was absent for Mr Biswas’s birth, Mr Biswas is absent for Savi’s and barely plays a role in her first days; Seth and Hari effectively take over his paternal duties, which solidifies the Tulsis’ claim to Mr Biswas’s daughter.
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Atop the birth certificate, Mr Biswas wrote, “Real calling name: Lakshmi. Signed by Mohun Biswas, father.” He and Shama both felt like he violated the sanctity of a government document. He complained that Seth had written his occupation as “labourer,” insisted on addressing his daughter as Lakshmi, and boldly wrote “proprietor” instead of “labourer” on the birth certificate.
Recognizing the power of government documents to determine official truth, Mr Biswas puts his literacy to good use and again fights the Tulsis as indirectly as possible. Savi’s birth certificate proves Mr Biswas’s upward mobility but feeds his jealousy, given his own childhood poverty and irrelevance to the world.
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Mr Biswas passed the drawing room, the wooden bridge, and the old verandah on his way to the hall, where nobody paid attention to him, and the children solemnly ate sulphur and condensed milk for their “eggzema.” Mrs Tulsi asked Mr Biswas about Savi and let out a string of “simple, unconnected statements” that built to a “puzzling profundity” as she cried on his shoulder and worried about the future. She finally declared that “they can never kill you,” and Mr Biswas wondered, “who are they?”
Even right after his daughter’s birth, Mr Biswas still fails to win the attention he wants in Hanuman House. Of course, Mrs Tulsi does offer him attention, but he wants much more attention, and her incoherent platitudes about life and death quickly turn the spotlight back on herself.
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Seth came inside and implored Mr Biswas to start acting responsibly; in response, Mr Biswas asked whether Hari might be able to un-bless the house, and the children laughed before Seth reminded them that they would not get food because of their “eggzema.” Mrs Tulsi returned to her pontificating, and Mr Biswas asked her for a coal barrel.
Seth reestablishes himself as the Tulsis’ male authority, which contrasts with Mrs Tulsi’s inexplicable weeping. Mr Biswas’s return to coal barrels is telling: this is the absurd logical conclusion of his desire to belong in a home (it would not matter whether the home is livable, or merely a coal barrel, so long as it is his own).
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Mr Biswas went to visit Misir, who had sent his family to his mother-in-law and begun focusing on writing short stories about starving, unemployed people who die tragically. Misir suggested that Mr Biswas start writing stories but recoiled in disgust when his friend mentioned his responsibilities and new daughter, blaming “this cat-in-bag business.” Mr Biswas asked about the Aryans; Misir said that nobody cared, that “Shivlochan is a damn fool” and Pankaj Rai is back in India, which would make a good story. Mr Biswas claimed to have seen a two-headed dead pig at Hanuman House and suggested that Misir write about that, instead, and went home.
Misir (whose name is suspiciously close to “misery”) writes absurdly pessimistic, formulaic stories about unlucky people who find neither success nor belonging—these obviously point to Mr Biswas’s own fate. Naipaul may be parodying the kind of story he could wrongly be seen as trying to write; after all, in the prologue, he challenged the reader to see Mr Biswas’s story as one of dignified accomplishment rather than pathetic failure.
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After three lonely weeks, Shama and Savi returned; Mr Biswas delightedly resumed living “without having to assert his rights or explain his worth” and complaining to Shama. He loved watching her so gently bathe the baby and took solace in the fact that Savi would be massaged and hear rhymes like him, Shama, and generations of babies before them.
Mr Biswas felt lonely during Shama’s absence only because he had nobody to listen to his complaints and affirm his worth. And, with a child, he feels that he is somehow participating in the course of human history.
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One evening six months later, “a small worried-looking man” named Moti came to Mr Biswas’s store and asked for some lard, then declared that he was proud Mr Biswas was a good Hindu and did not have any. Moti mentioned a devout Hindu lawyer named Seebaran, who saved “the man before you.” Despite his wealth, a man named Mungroo managed to live entirely off credit, which Mr Biswas was embarrassed to have given him.
Moti is obviously trying to win Mr Biswas’s favor by praising his religiosity and claiming special knowledge about the previous shopkeeper. While Mr Biswas realizes that the other villagers have duped him, he does not seem to expect that Moti may be doing the same
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Moti asked to look through Mr Biswas’s accounts, began leafing through his papers, and suggested that he talk to Seebaran lest he become a pauper. Then he declared he was leaving, but Mr Biswas begged him to tell Seebaran, who would have “a lot of work here.” He went to tell Shama, exclaiming, “you don’t know Seebaran?” before she revealed she heard his entire conversation with Moti. She suggested he ask Seth, whom Mr Biswas distrusted immensely even though “he used to study doctor. Doctor or druggist.”
This exchange is a struggle over trust: Mr Biswas immediately trusts the newcomer whom the business-savvy Shama finds suspicious and refuses to listen to her. He trusts people who offer affirmation and praise, while Shama trusts those like Seth, whom she takes to be knowledgeable.
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Mungroo was a champion stick-fighter who organized the village’s young men in “a fighting band” in case The Chase needed defending. Mr Biswas used to enjoy watching their evening practices, and especially the way the sticks were made. First, designs were carved and then burnt into the sticks; the scent vaguely reminded him of when his own father used to burn the same poui bark in his childhood. Then, the sticks soaked in coconut oil and were “‘mounted’ with the spirit of a dead Spaniard.”
On the surface, Mungroo’s band seems like an alternative means of defense for loyal villagers whom the police and government might mistreat. Like Dhari and Seth, Mungroo’s status depends on his capacity for coercion and violence. The Chase again evokes Mr Biswas’s childhood through sensory experiences unique to village life.
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Mungroo was actually a roadmender but did not like to work, preferring to extort money out of the villagers in exchange for his protection. But Mr Biswas admired him and continued selling to him on credit, which only stopped when he complained to other villagers, who told Mungroo, who hurt Mr Biswas’s pride by ceasing to speak with him and spitting every time he walked by the store.
In fact, Mungroo is an extortionist thug and not a protector, but Mr Biswas still seeks his good graces because of his power in the village; once again, the protagonist is blinded by the allure of power.
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Moti soon came by with papers from Seebaran, full of dotted lines to sign, which cryptically declared that Mr Biswas must pay “this sum” plus “One Dollar and Twenty Cents ($1.02c)” for the letter. Moti declared that Mr Biswas need not pay it, went back through the accounts and noticed that many of the creditors had not signed their slips, and then explained that Mr Biswas would need to pay much more than one-twenty to get Seebaran to fight his case. They settled on five dollars, which Mr Biswas gave Moti alongside the accounting slips, and the visitor jumped on his bike and pedaled off while Mr Biswas watched from his counter.
Mr Biswas fails to notice the math error that points the reader to Seebaran’s untrustworthiness; although he previously compared shopkeeping to a confidence trick, he now seems to be falling for one. He makes hasty agreements without thinking through their implications; Moti demands more money because Mr Biswas failed to get his receipts certified, which reflects the gap between personal trust in village life and the government’s rigid standards for legitimacy.
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Shama mockingly suggested Mr Biswas “empty the drawer and run after” Moti, then left for the back room, where she sang a cremation song and prepared to take Savi to Hanuman House. After her departure, Mr Biswas watched his creditors return from the fields, imagining that they would repay him soon.
Shama, of course, already realizes Mr Biswas’s grave mistake but still lacks any influence over his poor decisions; there is nothing she can do besides return to her family.
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Mungroo called Mr Biswas outside, where he stood leading a crowd of villagers with papers. Confident that “the law was on his side,” Mr Biswas threatened to send Mungroo to jail. Mungroo’s followers restrained him; Mr Biswas said they would testify for him in court and directed Mungroo to Seebaran
Mr Biswas recognizes that the formal law technically supersedes Mungroo’s local power and ends up arrogantly flaunting his case before it is even complete, as though he had absolute power to determine Mungroo’s fate.
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Moti visited after a week to go over the people who had and would pay. But he explained that Mungroo had retaliated and presented a letter calling Mr Biswas to court “for damaging his credit!” Seebaran always tells clients to keep their mouths shut, explained Moti, but Mr Biswas protested that he had never even met the man—although Moti replied that “he want to see you now.” Without signed slips, Moti continued, Mr Biswas had little chance of winning in court, so it was in his best interests to settle.
Of course, Mr Biswas’s absolute trust in Seebaran is eventually revealed as absurd and self-defeating; the lawyer’s mysterious proclamations from a distance recall the arbitrary levers of colonial power and allow the powerful to take advantage of the poor.
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In fact, Seebaran and Mungroo’s lawyer already decided on a hundred dollars for damages and a hundred for legal fees. Mr Biswas went to bring Shama back from Arwacas, but did not tell her about the debt—instead, he borrowed the needed money from Misir, who had begun offering loans, and ultimately spent more than half of his time in The Chase paying it back.
A hundred dollars is a lot of money to Mr Biswas, and it increasingly seems like the previous shopkeeper left because of Seebaran, not in spite of his help. As usual, Mr Biswas is afraid to admit his failures to Shama, who always knew better. Like Trinidad’s first Indian laborers, he is now indentured by his debt.
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The six years Mr Biswas lived at The Chase were boring, unnecessary, and monotonous. He aged, developing wrinkles and a “perpetually distended” stomach due to indigestion. He stopped reading Samuel Smiles and switched to theology (both Hindu and Christian), Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, but soon gave up entirely to focus on his work and financial issues. He thought perpetually of leaving.
Mr Biswas’s eroding aspiration and imagination demonstrate his aging as well as his wrinkles; he finally realizes the tremendous distance between his reality and his hopes, which might account for his initial turn to philosophy and theology before he gives up reading altogether.
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Another comfort was painting. He made “cool, ordered forest scenes” and “perfect flowers” on his shop’s wall and floor, and even “attempted a portrait of Shama” before she gave up on posing for him after he focused endlessly on her clothes and the sack of flour she was sitting on.
For Mr Biswas, painting has transformed from an occupation to a form of artistic expression, much like writing for Misir, when literature fails to offer him a perspective beyond his daily financial struggles.
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Mr Biswas also read and tried to write stories, but “lacked Misir’s tragic vision” and gave up everything he started. Other times, “he devoted himself to some absurdity” for weeks on end, like growing out his fingernails or picking at his face, whenever Shama had gone home. She had a son, whom Mr Biswas agreed to name Anand at Seth’s behest, three years after Savi, who stayed at the Tulsis’ house. He visited her every week, asking prying questions, like who had given her heavy iron boots to straighten out her bow-legs. (It was Mrs. Tulsi.)
Mr Biswas tries for the first time to write fiction, an aspiration he will never fulfill (since he represents Naipaul’s father, this aspiration is not merely personal but intergenerational, and it is no coincidence that Anand is born at this same stage in the novel). With nothing but boredom awaiting him at The Chase, he begins to value and pursue his connections with his family.
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The Tulsis kept multiplying, with new children born and the family of a recently deceased son-in-law moving in. Shama complained about their lack of manners and tendency to “theft and obscene practices,” but was glad to hear that “the widow” had begun “inflicting spectacular punishments on her bereaved children.” Savi, too, celebrated their mistreatment even as Mr Biswas tried to convince her to return home. She loved her granny, despite her father’s protests and pleas for Shama to stop letting Mrs Tulsi feed her fish brains.
The Tulsis’ myriad children are an undifferentiated crowd—Mr Biswas does not bother figuring out who is whose, for he is only invested in his own children. Mrs Tulsi cares for Savi in a way that he never can and he never received during his own childhood; like Shama, Savi seems to identify with the Tulsis much more than her father.
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Because he continued to think he was only living at The Chase temporarily, Mr Biswas never improved the house, which made him surprised upon discovering “that house and shop bore so many marks of his habitation,” from the wear on the hammock to the smell of cigarettes and paint in the back room. And he realized “that these disregarded years had been years of acquisition,” that they now had too many possessions for a donkey-cart, like the hatrack they bought “because it was a piece of furniture all but the very poor had,” the hat Mr Biswas bought to put on it, and a beautiful mirror.
Mr Biswas is so bored at The Chase that he likely needs to believe he will be leaving it soon; but his view of it as a temporary stop disconnected from the normal progression of his real life is interrupted by his realization of what has changed and accumulated over the years. The hatrack shows how Mr Biswas’s tries to achieve class status by imitating the outward signs of it, even when it means retroactively buying a hat to justify his peculiar purchase.
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Mr Biswas began to see that Hanuman House was governed not by chaos but by a strict hierarchy: Padma ruled above Chinta, who superseded Shama, Savi, and then himself at the bottom. He realized that the adults valued the children as “a source of future wealth and influence” and realized “he needed such a sanctuary” as the Hanuman House, where he went whenever possible and did his best to win esteem. He usually failed but gradually won acceptance and “a certain licence,” securing laughs from the family and even the ability to have interesting conversations about religion, since he abandoned his Aryanism. During “important religious ceremonies,” he was now deemed “too incompetent, and too intelligent,” to work with the other men and instead went with Hari to argue with pundits.
Mr Biswas’s perspective on the Tulsis continues to shift as he views it from a distance; feeling increasingly disconnected at The Chase, he sees Hanuman House as his best opportunity for connection and finally achieves it—not through his successful flattery, but through his obvious show of effort, which others acknowledge and appreciate despite his previous surliness. Now that his context has changed and he can no longer take the Tulsis for granted, he wages a campaign for acceptance rather than a campaign of disobedience.
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Mr Biswas started to go back for these ceremonies the day before and fantasize about finding the comfort and satisfaction that had let Pundit Jairam and Ajodha live so happily. But he never found it, instead feeling uneasy at realizing that he would always have to return to the “nonentity” he had always lived and now found in The Chase’s boring store. And, as always, he feared for the future, which appeared to him as a timeless void. Once upon a time, conducting a motorbus for Ajodha at night, Mr Biswas had passed a boy leaning on his family’s solitary hut, wearing only a vest; he continued to remember the image of that boy.
Mr Biswas begins to envision happiness not as a radical break from his boring life, inspired by fiction, but rather as a concretely achievable goal continuous with his current (but unsatisfying) life. He increasingly sees the value of finding supportive family relationships and sufficient personal space in his everyday life. Yet he is unsure whether he stands to achieve this and recognizes that his moments of clarity are few and far between, interruptions from his isolated drudgery in The Chase.
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This sense of “utter desolation” often came to Mr Biswas before the ceremonies at Hanuman House and, in time, he again grew resentful of the Tulsis. He began to blame Shama for his sense that The Chase was a temporary home; Hanuman House would always be hers, but never his, as the Tulsis’ unique Christmas celebrations—which excluded all the sons-in-law—invariably reminded him. He would always return to Pagotes and see Bipti, who always compared him to Raghu and claimed “she had nothing more to do, and was waiting for death.” She would bring him tea, chat with someone outside in her newly “energetic and capable” voice, and emphasize her poverty.
He no longer resents the Tulsis because of their impositions on his life, but now because of their happiness that he can never fully join—this recalls his simultaneous inspiration and envy when he visited Ramchand’s hut. Bipti is paradoxically relieved and energized now that “she had nothing more to do” in life; much like Shama, she conceived her goals in terms of a checklist of maternal duties, and now that they are fulfilled, nothing more weighs on her.
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Eventually, Shama declared her intention to give up The Chase and go back to Hanuman House, which led her and Mr Biswas back to arguing, “only, now everything Shama said was true and cutting.” They argued like this for two years. When she again found herself pregnant and claimed “you had nothing to do with it,” they argued until Mr Biswas hit her; “they were both astonished,” and he was sure he lost the argument because of her humiliating emotional strength. She went back to Hanuman House while he fantasized about flying kites with Anand and determined that he would not visit Shama until she reached out—and then did go after the baby must have been born, somehow realizing “that he was closing the doors for the last time” in The Chase.
Mr Biswas continues to block out the obvious but painful truths that Shama points him to; for the first time, he physically attacks her, but his violence seems to reflect his emotional weakness and inability to admit his faults. He refuses to budge because he imagines it would be a show of the vulnerability he has finally admitted to himself in private. When he finally gives up and goes to visit his third child—whose birth he also missed, like those of Savi and Anand—he seems to finally admit his need for connection and support by realizing that he does not want to return to his isolated life at The Chase.
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Mr Biswas cycled to Arwacas, sitting upright and belching to relieve his indigestion, dodging policeman because his bicycle had no lights. When he arrived, the usual group of old men was congregated outside Hanuman House, talking endlessly of returning to India even though they were afraid to do so and “leave the familiar temporariness.” As usual, the children were scattered throughout the hall, and fortunately “no one seemed surprised to see him.” He noticed new children who moved in after their father died. Savi mentioned that she had not seen her father “for a long time,” as well as that Shama had a new baby and reported that Mr Biswas beat her.
The old men are clearly character foils for Mr Biswas: just as he imagines The Chase as a temporary step and finds himself stuck there for much longer than planned, they always planned to return to India but increasingly realize that they are bound to stay in Trinidad. Throughout this book and the nearly post-colonial world it depicts, people imagine that they will eventually find belonging and are merely temporarily displaced, only to discover that they must find belonging in their state of displacement.
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Shama was busy massaging her new daughter, Myna, upstairs on the bridge and barely acknowledged Mr Biswas’s presence before asking if he had eaten, overlooking his constant complaints about the Tulsis’ food and its effect on his digestive system.
Mr Biswas’s violence is clearly on Shama’s mind, so she focuses on the relatively neutral topic of food (even though, for her quarrelsome husband, it is still controversial).
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Myna slept, and her parents walked past the children, including Savi, playing their new card and board games on the verandah. Shama said that Mrs Tulsi was sick, gave Mr Biswas cold leftovers, and asked whether he planned to return to The Chase that night. And “he knew then that he hadn’t intended to go back, ever.” He watched the sisters play cards—Chinta with particular flair—as Shama made him a bed with the children’s on the verandah.
As Shama cares for Mr Biswas and he watches the family play games, he again gets a taste of the support and conviviality he never had as a child and yearns for so deeply. Although he has finally found independence at The Chase, he realizes that independence cannot be its own end, for his desire for belonging means he needs community and vulnerability, too.
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In the morning, the mothers were preparing their children for school, and Mr Biswas suddenly realized that Savi had started going, too. Shama made Savi tie her shoes and Mr Biswas offered to help, but Savi needed to learn—or receive a beating from Shama, who found a stick and then stood watching while “Savi fumbled ineffectually” with her laces. Shama had Savi’s younger cousin, Jai, demonstrate his shoe-tying abilities and then hit Savi with the stick while Mr Biswas watched. But Sushila came to remind them that Mrs Tulsi was sick and the hall fell into silence, as Shama stormed away. Sumati finished readying Savi for school and sent her away. Shama almost never beat Savi at The Chase but it was a matter of course, tradition, and sibling rivalry among the sisters at Hanuman House.
Mr Biswas realizes how much of Savi’s early life he missed and how scarce his role in her life has been thus far; his impulse to help her tie her shoes represents a belated and feeble effort to make up for his absence, but Shama’s insistence that she learn to do it independently subtly parodies Mr Biswas’s own inability to truly stand on his own two feet. He also notices how the presence of Shama’s sisters at Hanuman House shapes the way she treats their daughter; astonishingly, for one of the first times, he starts to comprehend social norms.
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Mr Biswas ate breakfast before Shama took him upstairs to see Mrs Tulsi, who was “barely recognizable” laying in her forehead bandage next to a table covered in medicine jars and bottles. Inadvertently, Mr Biswas began talking in Hindi to Mrs Tulsi, who replied, “it doesn’t matter how I am” and sniffed her smelling salts. She called Shama to massage her head with rum and lamented her family’s horrible luck—namely, their having too many daughters. She had fourteen when her husband died; Mr Biswas and Shama’s two would “have to live with their Fate. Mothers-in-law, sisters-in-law. Idle husbands. Wife-beaters.” She proclaimed that she had “lived long enough to know that can’t expect anything from anybody” and instead expected those who spat on her to keep asking her for more. “When you have a soft heart,” she lamented,” you have a soft heart.”
Although Mr Biswas had always insisted on speaking English to the Tulsis in the past, his accidental break back into Hindi marks his willingness to lay aside his pretensions for the sake of the family whose value he has only now begun to realize. Mrs Tulsi’s frustration at her daughters recalls Mr Biswas’s burning desire to have a son while Shama was pregnant with Savi; immersed in self-pity, she subtly points Mr Biswas in the right direction by alluding to his violence toward Shama and contrasting her own generosity and selflessness with his entitlement and expectations that others provide for him.
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Mrs Tulsi and Shama both cried as Shama massaged her mother with more rum. Seth entered and asked Mrs Tulsi how she was feeling, failing to acknowledge Mr Biswas and Shama out of impatience. Soon, Mr Biswas realized “that the scene had been arranged,” the stage was set for decisions, and Shama’s tears both relieved some of Mr Biswas’s embarrassment and reflected her pain at the “husband she had been given by Fate.”
As usual, the Tulsis are putting on a manipulative show, but Mr Biswas still opens himself to their influence. Mrs Tulsi’s miserable illness, they suggest, is a response to his own failure as a husband, father, and provider; of course, Mr Biswas’s motives are still much more selfish.
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Mr Biswas told Seth that the store was on “a bad site” and explained that his debtors would never pay him. Seth remembered the Mungroo case and proposed that their only option was to “insure-and-burn,” which would give Mr Biswas good money. He asked whether Mr Biswas was “still too proud to get your hands dirty in the fields” and proposed he work as an estate driver in Green Vale, which Shama begged him to try. Mr Biswas explained that he knew nothing about estate work while Mrs Tulsi and Seth mentioned Owad’s success in college.
Seth is eager to bend the law to the family’s advantage, and despite Mr Biswas’s facetious insistence that he knows nothing about sugar estates (even though he grew up surrounded by estates and estate workers), he finally warms up to the notion of performing the one job that always separated him from his own family and led him to feel superior to them.
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Mr Biswas asked whether he would be in charge of “this insuranburning,” leading everyone to laugh. Seth proposes that Mr Biswas tell the police that Mungroo threatened to kill him, which means they would blame him for any fire. He could burn down the shop a few weeks later, Seth explained, and Mr Biswas asked if this was “why all those motorcars burning up every day in this place? And all those houses?”
The Tulsis know not to trust the incompetent Mr Biswas with any power over their business; long after falling victim to a scam, he finally realizes that people all around him are taking advantage of the sweeping laws that cannot properly discriminate between legitimate and fraudulent claims.
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