A House for Mr Biswas

A House for Mr Biswas Part 1, Chapter 5 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Mr Biswas never forgot the huge trees in Green Vale, which hid the estate from the surrounding plains. In the estate’s barracks, twelve families lived in one long, divided space, and Mr Biswas moved into one of the end rooms. Its window and walls were covered in newspapers, which made him “continuously exposed to the journalism of his time.”
Green Vale’s trees seem to imprison Mr Biswas inside, and his drive to build a house suggests an attempt to escape this isolation and finally claim a space of belonging. The newspapers foreshadow his turn to journalism; he is “continuously exposed” to the profession’s rhetorical power.
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Mr Biswas’s family brought all their furniture: the safe, table, hatrack, bed, rocking chair, and Shama’s dressing table, in which Mr Biswas only had one drawer. The other drawers contained birth and marriage certificates as well as tokens from Shama’s past life—a Bible and letters from a British pen-pal—which, to Mr Biswas’s astonishment, demonstrated that she had once been in touch with the outside world.
Even though Mr Biswas still feels relatively rootless and lost in his family life, his accumulation of objects testifies to the reality of his relationships and impacts on others and the world. But they again remind him of his low birth: Shama’s government documents and letters to Britain mark her family’s status by demonstrating its proximity to Trinidad’s colonial rulers.
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Mr Biswas was employed as “a driver, or sub-overseer,” for 25 dollars each month, twice the laborers’ pay. Although he had lived around sugarcane his whole life, he knew nothing about its cultivation, and Seth had to teach him when he came for inspections and to pay his workers every Saturday. He never knew that his father so respected drivers, but his workers clearly did, especially when he handled the moneybags on Saturdays. And he wondered whether his brothers were standing in line, waiting for their pay, at other estates elsewhere in Trinidad.
Although his family spent most of their lives on the cane fields, through pure coincidence Mr Biswas ended up on the other side of the equation, carrying the moneybags his father always coveted and wanted for himself. Despite Mr Biswas’s misery, his position on the estate reminds the reader how far he has actually come and how much he has gained through his marriage into the Tulsi family.
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But during the week, knowing that Mr Biswas was new to the job, the laborers easily deceived him and mocked his ill-fitting hat; he wished he had a horse like Seth, but once he mounted it and was promptly thrown off. Seth promised Mr Biswas a house but never followed up, and Mr Biswas grew more and more brutal, beginning to hate his workers and wonder why they earned so much as three dollars for a week’s work in the fields.
The tense relations between laborers and property owners demonstrates both the injustice of the colonial plantation system (whose inequalities persist after independence in Trinidad) and the way that work shaped Mr Biswas’s personality; the structural animosity between capital and labor led him to a personal animosity for them.
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Mr Biswas blamed Shama for throwing him into such physical and uncomfortable work, and the barracks’ filthy yard made him sick, so he would eat while reading the newspapers that covered the wall. He bathed using the spouts outside and invariably had to run around in front of the building in his towel, for everyone to see; one day, his towel slipped and he became furious at Shama, who went to Hanuman House with Anand.
Mr Biswas continues to embarrass himself, dwell on his shame, and deflect responsibility for his failures; just like novels and painting in previous phases of his life, the newspapers offer him an escape into a world of ideas and remote events.
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The following Saturday, Seth told Mr Biswas that the shop in The Chase “insuranburn now,” giving him 75 dollars, which he added to the fund for his house. He thought about the house endlessly and had it entirely planned out: wooden walls and ceilings, and a roof of galvanized iron; a drawing-room, two bedrooms, a verandah, and a kitchen in the yard; pillars so he could build an upper floor and a beautiful red and ochre paint job.
Mr Biswas miraculously gets money just as suddenly and arbitrarily as he lost it at The Chase; he now seems poised to build his coveted house with money he has scarcely earned. His detailed plans reflect both his obsessive desire to control every detail of the place where he might finally get to live unimpeded and his continuing fixation on class advancement.
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Shama did not like listening to him talk about the house and spent most of her time at Hanuman House, which was very close to Green Vale. Mr Biswas began cooking for himself and taking walks, but often he just lay in bed and read the newspapers. He grew obsessed with the headline, “AMAZING SCENES WERE WITNESSED YESTERDAY WHEN,” repeating the words and posting other lines on pieces of cardboard on the opposite wall.
The headline about “AMAZING SCENES” sets up but does not describe a scene; it shows how journalists can shape people’s expectations about and evaluations of particular events, as well as reminding Mr Biswas about his fantasy of living a spectacular, romantic life. Mr Biswas fails to connect with Shama in any terms beyond those of his own fantasies; like at The Chase, they both end up isolated and bored.
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As Christmas approached and Mr Biswas’s old, jovial signs hung around the area, Savi wondered whether the same father she knew could have painted them. At Christmastime the Tulsi Store was bustling and full of exciting luxuries, although the sisters tried to hide their excitement and “the elder god,” Shekhar, was particularly melancholy this year, frightened at the prospect of being married off. Everyone’s attention turned from the shop to the kitchen on Christmas Eve, and in the morning the children got balloons, apples and whistles or dolls in their pillowcases or stockings. Christmas itself “turned out to be only a series of anticipations,” with meal after meal disappointing most of those present.
Since Mr Biswas has stopped sign-painting, he seems to have become an entirely different person; it was the only profession that gave him satisfaction and the main source of satisfaction in his life at the time (besides reading). The family’s excitement about Christmas is purely cosmetic, but the Tulsis’ collective thrill still shows how they create a meaningful community that does not exist for Mr Biswas in Green Vale—even if around Christian holiday (which points to the legacy of cultural mixture in Trinidad).
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In Green Vale, there were no Christmas celebrations whatsoever, besides eating and drinking and the unfortunate eventual beating of wives. Mr Biswas went to visit Bipti and Tara, then on Boxing-day, his brothers Pratap and Prasad who “had married nondescript women from nondescript families.” He went to Arwacas the next day and stopped in a store to buy Christmas gifts on sale for the children. The shopman offered him a cigarette and brought him into the store; when they reappeared outside, a boy brought a large dollhouse and balanced it on Mr Biswas’s bicycle, which they pushed together down Arwacas’s High Street.
Green Vale’s desolation and loneliness during Christmas contrasts with Hanuman House’s festivity. In this passage, women are not only beaten, but also erased, treated as “nondescript” one-dimensional characters relevant only because of their relationships with men. And Mr Biswas remains extremely gullible to people who appear to address him with respect and dignity, but fails to see their ulterior motives.
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The dollhouse was better furnished than any house Mr Biswas had ever lived in, but he soon recoiled at realizing he spent over a month’s wages on it and still bought nothing for his son. This was as usual, for he truly knew Savi but “Anand belonged completely to the Tulsis.” The Tulsis already knew about the dollhouse, and everybody fell silent when Mr Biswas brought it into the hall. “When I give, I give to all,” noted Mrs Tulsi with fury, criticizing Mr Biswas for forgetting his son. The sisters beat their children for playing with the dollhouse that was not theirs, and Shama told Savi to put it upstairs. She stared dreadfully at Mr Biswas, who said he was going home and asked Savi and Anand to follow him outside.
By buying Savi the dollhouse, Mr Biswas continues his imagined war over her with the Tulsis; he wants her to belong to him, consequently neglecting his son and throwing away his wages in the process. Of course, this dollhouse is also a metaphor for the house he wants for himself and his family: he offers Savi a model of what he cannot provide for her in reality, fulfilling his fantasy of affluence in miniature.
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Mr Biswas already felt disappointed in Anand, who was small, shy, and anxious around his father. He implored Savi to let Anand play with the dolhouse too. Anand asked Mr Biswas for a car next time and began running around the yard, shouting, when his father agreed. The next week, Mr Biswas bought Anand a miniature car and took it to Hanuman House, where Savi greeted him in tears: “They break it up.” The dollhouse was not only beaten up, but also completely disassembled, turned to firewood, by Shama.
Although Anand has seldom spent time around his father and has good reasons to fear him, Mr Biswas looks down on his son primarily for his apparently feminine traits, which reveals how deeply concepts of gender roles influence his perception of people’s worth (his own failure to provide for his family, for instance, makes him feel like a failure as a man).
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Mr Biswas called for Shama; the family retrieved his “frightened yet determined” wife before scattering upstairs. Shama confessed that she broke the dollhouse, but said she did so merely for herself. Mr Biswas asked whether she “know[s] what I think of you and your family,” but she claimed not to care; he felt powerless and speechless. He told her to dress Savi, who screamed, and the house returned to its usual activity while she brought Savi’s clothes. Mr Biswas led his daughter outside and did not even think of Anand until he got to the High Street.
By breaking the dollhouse, Shama again shows Mr Biswas that the Tulsis take precedence over him, but her claim that she broke it for herself reminds him that he would not have her loyalty even if the Tulsis were not around to compete for it. Nevertheless, he feels he has successfully claimed Savi by sowing division between his daughter on the one hand and Savi’s mother, brother, aunts, and cousins on the other.
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Mr Biswas began to cycle toward Green Vale, with Savi balanced on the crossbar, until “a Negro policeman” stopped them on the road and gave him a summons for riding with no license and no lights. They walked the rest of the way and “spent a miserable week” in Green Vale. Savi was isolated and got lunch only because a visiting old woman pitied her—but she never ate it, for she did not trust the strangers. She waited for the days to pass as Mr Biswas read to her from his novels and philosophy books, tried to draw her, and failed entirely to break through to her. Occasionally, she heard him argue with himself on their walks; they were both excited for her return to Hanuman House on Saturday, just in time for the first day of school on Monday.
The fact that the police officer who stops Mr Biswas is black speaks volumes about the process of decolonization in Trinidad: colonialism’s victims take over its levers of power and perpetuate its norms. Mr Biswas fails to connect with Savi much in the same way he fails to connect with Shama: he has no interest in finding common ground with her. He tries to relate to her through literature, expecting that she will immediately grasp its personal significance for him and growing the impasse between them instead.
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That Saturday, Shama, Anand, and Myna came with Seth to fetch Savi. While doing his usual work with Seth, Mr Biswas heard Savi chat excitedly with her mother and felt betrayed by her. While Seth went to check on the fields, Mr Biswas sat inside, ignoring his family, even when Anand came inside to ask if he wanted some tea. He realized that “they had all forgotten the doll’s house.” When Anand did bring him tea, he thought about throwing it on Shama’s “fussy embroidered dress and smiling, uncertain face.” He drank it instead.
Mr Biswas realizes that Savi still fundamentally belongs to the Tulsis; she no more becomes his property by visiting him than he became a Tulsi during his initial stay in Hanuman House. The family’s borrowings from British culture are also on display: the family drinks afternoon tea, and Shama wears a “fussy embroidered dress.”
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Seth came back, remarked that Mr Biswas had “a case,” and declared that he would take care of it. Mr Biswas stayed in his rocking chair until dinnertime, when he became more jovial and Shama more morose while he ate at the table. Shama went to eat with the children on the steps outside and began crying as Mr Biswas mocked her tears.
As usual, Seth enters on official business that Mr Biswas is too incompetent to handle on his own. Mr Biswas continues to insist on separating himself from the Tulsis, physically and in conversation.
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Shama told Mr Biswas that he does not understand: he simply walked into her family, paid no attention to what people were doing around him, and then “curse[d] me upside down.” All the sisters were angry about the dollhouse, beating their children whenever they even talked to Savi. She “had to satisfy them.” He asked whether “Chinta would break up a dolly-house Govind buy?” as Shama continued to cry for the rest of the night.
Shama points out Mr Biswas’s deep sense of entitlement: he wants the family to bend to his will despite contributing nothing to it; he refuses to belong to her family but wants the family to belong to him. Even though he is dangerously suggestible and often bends over backwards to appease people with authority, he cannot understand how Shama might be subject to social pressures at Hanuman House.
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Shama asked how Savi acted during her week at Green Vale and was delighted to hear that she threw away the food from the old woman. Feeling better, Mr Biswas ignored Shama and started talking about the house he wanted to build. He tried to convince Savi to stay with him, but Shama took her and Anand home on Sunday night. Mr Biswas still felt alone but took comfort in the fact that “he had claimed Savi.”
Once he starts to feel more comfortable around Shama, Mr Biswas simply begins ignoring her; it is no wonder that he continues to feel alone. Even though both he and Savi were unsatisfied with her time at Green Vale, he still feels a need to “claim” her from the Tulsis.
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Shama revealed she was pregnant yet again, filling Mr Biswas with terror about the future as he descended into perpetual fatigue and restlessness. He no longer wanted to visit Hanuman House—sometimes he turned back once he had already reached Arwacas—and “did everything as noisily as he could” but nothing in his life changed, not even the newspaper headlines on his wall, even as he felt “an alertness, an expectancy” in the world around him.
Mr Biswas’s loneliness begins taking over his life; Shama’s fourth pregnancy and the atmosphere “alertness” show that the world continues to advance even as he stagnates, and he begins to feel not only that he belongs nowhere in the world, but also that he never will belong anywhere.
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When Seth decided to take back twenty acres of land that he had been renting to laborers, he and Mr Biswas “went from hut to hut, breaking the news.” Seth seemed bored and inconvenienced, as though he was taking the laborers’ land for their own good, and told Mr Biswas not to trust them. The workers dug up some roots and Mr Biswas and Seth agreed to hire a watchman, but they gradually became hostile, mostly to Mr Biswas.
The configuration of land rights in Trinidad lets Seth simply dispossess laborers of their livelihoods with no prior notice or justification; this also tarnishes Mr Biswas’s already rocky relationships with them. Again, Mr Biswas’s status in the world is transformed more or less by accident.
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Mr Biswas began locking himself in his room at nights, doing everything he could to “destroy the stillness” of the room and world around him. He thought about the things in his room that could destroy his body—the rocking chair that could crush his hands and feet, a nail on the wall that could pierce his eyes—and started thinking about letters and their beautiful shapes instead.
The world’s “stillness” proves to Mr Biswas his failure to belong; his fixation on things that could hurt him reflects his fear of the workers’ wrath as much as his own self-destructive impulses. As in his childhood, he finds comfort in the sensuous appearances (but not necessarily the meanings) of letters and words.
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At Hanuman House, a handful of the children married and moved out, including Shekhar, whose matching process was arduous and took him to live with his wife’s family. Mrs Tulsi left, too, buying three houses in Port of Spain (“one to live in, two to rent out”) while she looked after Owad there. The family fell into disarray—only Padma and Seth continued to win respect, and order only returned when Mrs Tulsi and Owad came home on the weekends. But holidays continued jovially, as before. Anand had begun going to the mission school, which he despised and feared, and his family started taunting him about it. This infuriated Mr Biswas, and he told Savi to call the rest of the Tulsis crab-catchers. Chinta and Mr Biswas argued—she wondered if he learned anything in school—until she complained to Shama, who failed to quell her husband’s temper.
Again, gender dynamics in the Tulsi household invert the norms of Hindu and Western families alike: Shekhar lives with his wife’s family, like Mr Biswas with his, and without Mrs Tulsi’s authority the family falls gradually into disarray. Mr Biswas reverts to a tense and argumentative relationship with the Tulsis; he projects this conflict onto Savi (who represents his side) and Anand (whom he associates with the Tulsis). Curiously, Mr Biswas and Chinta argue primarily about education and work—Mr Biswas’s insults wound Chinta because they associate her family with the low-caste work of crab-catching.
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One day, Mr Biswas found Anand kneeling in a corner of a room because, as Savi revealed, he was ashamed that he was too afraid to go to the “nasty, stinking” restroom at school. Everyone ridiculed him after school, and Shama beat him at home; but Mr Biswas recounted his troubles at Pundit Jairam’s house, and Anand stopped crying. Mr Biswas asked if Anand wanted to come with him—but received no reply—and told Shama to stop making him kneel.
Anand’s squeamishness about his bodily functions proves that he is his father’s son, even if Mr Biswas wants to associate him with the Tulsis. Both were shamed and ridiculed for their fear and, realizing that in this moment, Mr Biswas begins to identify with his son for the first time.
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Outside, Anand loitered next to Mr Biswas’s bicycle, saying nothing. Mr Biswas, “irritated by his shyness” but charmed by his fragility and deteriorating clothes, nevertheless cycled home alone in the dark.
Anand’s small stature recalls Mr Biswas’s own childhood weakness and ill health; he translates his mixed affection and disdain for himself onto his son.
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The same week, Mr Biswas determined that he needed to begin working toward his house; otherwise, “nothing would arrest his descent into the void.” He picked a site nearby, behind some trees and across a ditch from the barracks, and on Sunday morning he talked to a black local builder named George Maclean (who was also a cabinet-maker, carpenter, blacksmith, painter, tin cup-maker, solderer, and egg-seller). Mr Biswas met the “eager and uncertain” Mr Maclean at his home and proposed “a little business,” slowly and carefully suggesting that he wanted a house built, for Trinidad was littered with unfinished houses and Mr Biswas could not yet afford the full cost of his.
Although he has grand plans to make himself a home, Mr Biswas actually gets started on the construction much like he started painting, writing, and growing out his fingernails at The Chase: as a distraction. The resourceful George Maclean’s comically wide variety of professions reflects the difficulty of making ends meet in rural Trinidad—so do the unfinished houses around the island—and also highlights Mr Biswas’s contrasting ineptitude for anything practical.
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Mr Maclean simply asked Mr Biswas if he wanted a house. Mr Biswas affirmed that he did, but only a “small and neat” two-bedroom construction. In fact, Mr Maclean predicted all the specific features that Mr Biswas would want included. Altogether, “it going to cost you about two hundred and fifty, three hundred dollars.”
Mr Biswas’s exchange with Mr Maclean is saturated with class tensions: while Mr Biswas is afraid of rejection or revealing his lack of money, Maclean is remarkably direct and nonjudgmental. Curiously, Maclean is one of the few characters in the book also dignified with “Mr.”
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A few days later, Mr Maclean came to see the proposed site and was surprised to find that it sloped. Mr Biswas fantasized about the garden he wanted to build in front and asked about making the concrete pillars “plastered and smooth.” Mr Maclean asked for 150 dollars up front, and Mr Biswas agreed to give him 100, then “a little bit more” every month, to build the house “little by little.” Mr Maclean talked about needing “good labour,” a word Mr Biswas found pleasant-sounding, and implored him to find more money as soon as possible.
Mr Biswas fixates on the fine details of his house before he can even pay for it; his perfectionism reflects his desire to achieve absolute control over his living space. The proper word “labour” (instead of something like “work”) points to an upper-class refinement and reminds Mr Biswas that he has risen from a family of manual laborers to a status that allows him to employ manual laborers.
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Mr Biswas did not want to borrow money from Seth, Mrs Tulsi, or Misir, so he decided to try Ajodha, but found that he did not want to go, thought about going to Hanuman House, changed his mind back and forth, and took the bus to Pagotes.
Finding his options limited, Mr Biswas returns to the first relatives who sheltered and nurtured him amidst his childhood hardship.
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Tara’s yard looked the same as ever, and although Ajodha was definitely busy milking the cows nearby, Mr Biswas wanted to speak with his aunt first. She looked ill and weakened, so Mr Biswas felt it wrong to ask directly for money. As Tara went into the kitchen, he noticed the bookcase—The Book of Comprehensive Knowledge was still there, with various magazines and catalogues littering the lower shelf.
Mr Biswas returns to the scene of his initial romance with literature and “Comprehensive Knowledge”; just like his quests for these both, Tara’s house has endured and remains exactly the same as before.
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Sitting on the verandah, Tara asked Mr Biswas to stay around for dinner and to talk about his children, and then the Tulsis, whom she and Ajodha always hated for being too devout and insufficiently modern. “In [Tara’s] clean, uncrowded, comfortable house, waiting for a meal he knew would be good,” Mr Biswas felt the same.
Tara’s lifestyle and values continue to align closely with what Mr Biswas wants for himself. Her criticisms of the Tulsis validate his own but also remind him of the life he could have lived if he had not so hastily married Shama.
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Rabidat, the younger of Bhandat’s sons, walked in; like his brother, Jagdat, “he was living with a woman of another race and had some children, no one knew how many.” Dressed casually in shorts and an unbuttoned shirt, with a “superb body,” he sat down, flipped through a film booklet, asked, “How is everything, Mohun?” and then shouted for food before Mr Biswas could say anything.
Rabidat’s casual relationship, clothes, and manner prove that he is “modern” compared to the Tulsis; like Tara’s house, his physical beauty evokes Mr Biswas’s failures by contrast.
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Ajodha walked onto the verandah, briefly exchanged words about a lorry with Rabidat, and then began chatting with Mr Biswas, who pretended he was visiting because Bipti was sick. They drank some milk from the cows, Mr Biswas said that his mother turned out to be fine, and then Ajodha asked about his job before commenting on his belly fat and making fun of Rabidat, who returned to show off his muscles. Ajodha grabbed Mr Biswas’s hand to poke himself in the stomach: “Hard as steel.” He explained that this was partially because he never used pillows.
Like Rabidat, Ajodha seems to live in his own world, jumping from topic to topic and giving Mr Biswas little power in the conversation. His complete self-absorption and bizarre health advice are just as absurd and alienating as the Tulsis’ orthodox Hinduism.
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Mr Biswas resumed talking about his steady job and future house, but Ajodha began talking about a supplement called Sanatogen. Rabidat asked Mr Biswas how he could afford the house, and Ajodha insisted that, unlike Rabidat, Mr Biswas “has been saving up.” Just like that, “Mr Biswas realized that the time to ask had gone for good.” Tara and Ajodha asked him about the house’s construction and continued to berate Rabidat, who began to cry, for not living up to Mr Biswas’s standards, then sent him away to check the takings in Ajodha’s theater.
Although Ajodha has achieved everything Mr Biswas wants, he seems unable to recognize or appreciate it. In fact, Ajodha’s blindness to Mr Biswas’s overall misery and struggle to achieve upward mobility leads him to praise Mr Biswas for things he only hopes to achieve. Rabidat, who remains poor despite his modern ways, reacts to his perceived failures much as Mr Biswas did in his early life.
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Tara and Ajodha continued asking Mr Biswas about the house, but Bhandat’s older son, Jagdat, soon came to the verandah, dressed as usual in attire strikingly reminiscent of funeral-wear. Tara mentioned Mr Biswas’s house and, laughing, Jagdat asked he was inviting them all to the house-warming. They ate, separately, silently, and without enjoyment. Mr Biswas was optimistic that he might be able to talk with Tara alone after dinner, but Ajodha would not leave—and insisted he take a bag of oranges home for vitamin C, then added some avocado pears. Tara apologized for Ajodha’s temper, and Mr Biswas went to see him in his room, but Ajodha lay still in bed, awake, resting and unwilling to talk.
Jagdat’s formal and serious clothes contrast starkly with his younger brother Rabidat’s, as well as with his own attitude. Suddenly, the air turns as solemn as this funeralwear, and despite Mr Biswas’s excitement about the meal just pages earlier, he becomes too preoccupied with the family’s social dynamics to enjoy it. Tara is still the only person Mr Biswas trusts, but she lives at the mercy of Ajodha, who provides her with means and status but not a loving relationship
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As Mr Biswas went to catch the bus on the main road, Jagdat tapped him on the shoulder and offered him a cigarette—nobody was allowed to smoke at Tara and Ajodha’s house—and explained that he and Ajodha both knew that Mr Biswas had come to “squeeze something out of the old man,” and that Ajodha “could smell a thing like that before you even start thinking about it.” Mr Biswas asked Jagdat if he was planning to build a house, too, and Jagdat reacted melodramatically, accusing Tara and Ajodha of “spreading stories about me.” Mr Biswas asked how many kids Jagdat had—“four or five,” he replied, “well, four.” He mentioned that Bhandat was living “in a ramshackle old house full of creole people” and “that son of a bitch not doing a damn thing to help him.”
Despite his formal clothes, Jagdat’s secret smoking suggests that in staying at home he remains somehow stuck in childhood. He also reiterates what Mr Biswas should have remembered from his own childhood: the modern Ajodha is a businessman first and an uncle second; unlike the Tulsis, he does not see family as sacred. Jagdat’s overdrawn response to Mr Biswas’s innocuous question confirms the underlying resentment he feels toward Ajodha but also mirrors Mr Biswas’s deep jealousy of and rage at the Tulsis.
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Jagdat explains that Ajodha might help with vitamins but never with money—he barely paid his gardener and even docked his pay for a cup of tea. “That is the way they treat poor people,” Jagdat continues, but at least “God is good.” Mr Biswas knew it was time to leave but did not want to go, and Jagdat began talking about his children—like Mr Biswas, he “lived a divided life.” His woman was “Spanish […] but faithful.” Mr Biswas unceremoniously took the bus home.
Jagdat realizes the injustice intrinsic to the capitalist system that increasingly superseded family as the central organizing principle of Trinidadian society: rich people like Ajodha can get away with nearly anything and benefit from paying the poor less than a subsistence wage. Mr Biswas’s relationship with Mr Maclean lingers in the background of this conversation: he wonders how Maclean manages to survive on the paltry wages he pays.
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Mr Maclean came by the barracks in the morning, explaining that he was ready to begin Mr Biswas’s house. Mr Biswas was ready to give him “a hundred” and “more at the end of the month,” but there would be “no concrete pillars.” Mr Maclean sent in the misshapen crapaud pillars that night, alongside nails and scantlings. He brought his tools and set up a rudimentary workbench, and then came his labor: “a muscular, full-blooded Negro” in tattered clothes named Edgar.
Mr Biswas’s high hopes for the house prove impractical; Mr Maclean’s resourcefulness shows not only that Mr Biswas can still get a house, but also that there are ways to provide for oneself outside the rigid protocols of the formal market. Like Tara, he is incredibly jovial and charitable, almost too good to be true—her benevolence hinges on her class status, but his suggests that Mr Biswas may value class status too highly.
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After work, Mr Biswas returned to the site to find Edgar digging holes for the pillars and Mr Maclean’s completed frame for the house nearby. Maclean explained that Edgar “does do the work of two men,” except never knows when to stop digging and likes to drink on the job. So Mr Maclean told Edgar to stop digging and sent him to buy some rum; he sprinted off to buy it and returned, still running, a few minutes later. Mr Maclean and Edgar began drinking with a toast “to you and the house, boss.”
Edgar’s strength, cheerfulness, and stupidity play on racist stereotypes about enslaved black workers in the West. As in his capacity as an overseer on the sugar estates, here Mr Biswas finds himself suddenly flipped in status, from a physical laborer (like his family, or as in his sign-painting days) to an owner who benefits from but does not perform labor.
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The next day, Mr Maclean had another frame completed. Their costs puzzled Mr Biswas: their materials were 85 dollars but the remaining 15 dollars seemed insufficient to pay two men working at least eight days. After they left, Shama came to see the house and confirm her fear that Mr Biswas spent all his money on the construction. She was obviously pregnant by now and asked what this expenditure meant for the children; Mr Biswas figured that people in Hanuman House must have been worried about the possibility that he would take the children away from them, and she accused him of throwing his money away before insisting that Hari bless the house.
Mr Biswas’s surprise that Mr Maclean and Edgar can work for so little extends the underlying analogy to slavery and also shows how little he recognizes his new economic privilege as a member of the Tulsi family. He and Shama continue to fight over control of their family—he imagines that the Tulsis assume he is trying to claim his family (even though the house is primarily about claiming space for himself), and Shama wants to claim the house for the Tulsis by having Hari bless it, much as in The Chase.
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The next morning, a “constipatedly apathetic” Hari came to bless the house, “whining” his way through the prayers and offerings. Soon, “the house had begun to take shape,” but Mr Maclean said Mr Biswas needed to buy more materials before he could return.
Shama once again gets her way, and Hari’s blessing once again looks like an unnecessary formality with little inner meaning.
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Mr Biswas would go and look at the house’s skeleton every day, glad that it was not as crooked as he had anticipated. He wanted pitchpine floorboards, broad wall boards, and corrugated iron for the roof. But after two months, he only had 18 dollars more for the house, and Seth proposed that Mr Biswas buy cheap galvanized iron from their old brick-factory behind Hanuman House. So he went there, only to see that the iron in question was rusted and misshapen. Savi and Anand questioned whether it would suffice, but Seth lowered the price from five to three dollars, and Mr Biswas could not resist.
Even though his house is nowhere near finished, its skeleton represents Mr Biswas’s dream of independence, which he is also gradually building whenever the resources he needs to pursue it are available. So he continues to choose cheap secondhand materials over higher-quality ones at the market price. As in his work life, in the construction he makes do with whatever he can get.
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When he returned to Green Vale, Mr Biswas encountered Mr Maclean, who promised that the iron would be easy to fix up and paint. However, his tone was different. He suggested that pitchpine might burn easily and said a man has offered to sell him some cedar for just seven dollars; Mr Biswas hated cedar but agreed.
The subtle shift in Mr Maclean’s tone is suspiciously reminiscent of Moti’s on his second visit to The Chase; in his willingness to compromise, Mr Biswas quickly loses control over the details of the house that he previously thought so important.
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Anand, Savi, and Shama came on a lorry with the corrugated iron that weekend; none of the pieces fit together, but Mr Maclean promised to fix them and asked whether it might make sense to make rafters out of tree branches, since they would be invisible from the outside.
The house deviates further and further from the perfection Mr Biswas imagined, but he also seems to increasingly realize how little this ideal image matters: simply having a house might be enough.
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Mr Maclean started working, and Edgar was never to be seen again. Although the branches reminded Mr Biswas of a hut and the corrugated iron dropped rust all around the house, Mr Biswas was delighted to have a roof, which nearly covered the house and made it look habitable, although all its holes were obvious. Mr Maclean filled them with stones and pitch, which ran all over the roof in confused patterns. But it worked to keep the rain out, and nearby chickens started taking shelter in the empty house. Mr Maclean put in the floorboards and then again took leave until new materials arrived, having worked two weeks for eight dollars, which Mr Biswas found astonishing. Local children started playing in the house, leaving nails and footprints around it.
Edgar disappears mysteriously, without any explanation or real consideration by either Mr Biswas or the narrator. With the makeshift roof covered in stones and pitch, function continues to take precedence over beauty, coherence, and Mr Biswas’s original plan. Mr Biswas’s joy about the house, despite its imperfections, suggests that he may have started seeing independence as more important than status, at least in this narrow context and period of his life.
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Mr Biswas also started getting threats from the dispossessed workers and started sleeping with a sword and a stick for protection. He also got a puppy, which he named Tarzan, and which immediately began terrorizing the local chickens (and eating their eggs). One day, in response, the poultry owners sent Tarzan home covered in chicken droppings.
By aligning himself with the estate’s owners over its workers, Mr Biswas finds himself in physical danger for the first time. He begins playing out his conflict with the workers indirectly, through his dog, Tarzan.
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Mr Biswas kept painting placards and started buying up cheap novels, but he could not bear to open their badly made covers, which reminded him of death. One night, Mr Biswas heard noises outside and waited by the door with his cutlass, only to find Tarzan damp and covered in egg outside. He started leaving his oil lamp on at night and worrying that someone might burn his house down; Shama and Seth said not to worry, but the house slowly “became greyer.”
Like at The Chase, Mr Biswas seeks any respite he can find from the agony of his day-to-day responsibilities; his fear compounds his existing paranoid isolation, and it is unclear whether he truly adopted Tarzan for protection or company—regardless, he gets little of either.
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One evening, tired of seeing everything as temporary, Mr Biswas decided to treat all his time as meaningful. After his evening bath and dinner, he took The Hunchback of Notre Dame off the shelf, broke its spine, and started reading, forgetting everything but the novel, imagining a clearing in the forest—and then “a billowing black cloud,” which startled him and made him wonder what he truly feared.
Surprisingly, Mr Biswas abruptly decides to take charge of his life—rather than living for the sake of a better life to come, he begins to pursue his happiness in the present, and finds precisely the opposite: as he decides to stop distracting himself, he realizes how miserable he truly is.
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It was people that Mr Biswas feared, the people who filled every corner of the world, and he wondered why he managed to realize this so suddenly. Once “his whole past became a miracle of calm and courage,” the black cloud came rushing back, filling his mind, showing him that his life had been perfectly fine thus far, but he “spoiled it all by worry and fear.” And “now he would never more be able to go among people,” so “he surrendered to the darkness.”
Mr Biswas is not just thinking about the threats from other people in Green Vale, but also about his lifelong failure to connect with others, from his brothers and mother to Ajodha and Jairam to, of course, the Tulsis. Even though he has never been remotely happy in his life, he begins idolizing his past once he realizes that his fear was not explicit until now.
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In the morning, Mr Biswas soon remembered his fear and decided that it must not have left him. The world outside had people. He recited the newspapers and prayed, but could not escape people, and opened the door to greet Tarzan, to whom he explained his fear and confessed, “I am not whole.” He pet Tarzan and remembered enjoying it in the past, when he was whole. But now, he was overcome with fear and “grief for a happy life never enjoyed and now lost.”
Having determined to stop viewing his life in Green Vale as temporary, he starts to see his anxieties as permanent, which makes him even more miserable; after years of dreaming about success and romance, he has now convinced himself of their impossibility. He can only turn to his dog for support.
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The next day, Mr Biswas found a momentary respite from his despair as he started each element of his daily routine. The laborers were somehow no longer “negligible, non-descript people” but full individuals. Speaking with them, he initially forgot his fear but quickly discovered “another relationship spoiled, another piece of the present destroyed.” In the afternoon, he realized that he did not fear children, but only felt grief at the fact that they would experience “good and beautiful” things he never had. When he returned to his room, he got into bed “and forced himself to cry for all his lost happiness.”
Mr Biswas’s “black cloud” of depression takes over his perceptions, coloring all the daily interactions that he previously thought inconsequential and turning them into weighty referendums on his capacity for human connection. His “grief” about his children is nevertheless only a jealous grief for himself: because they share the advantages of the Tulsi family, they might avoid the obstacles he faced in his early life.
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Mr Biswas was powerless to stop his questioning; even the newspapers made him afraid. Eventually, he decided he had to ignore it and decided to go to Hanuman House. Everyone he passed on his way filled him with panic, which was normal, already “part of the pain of living.” But every single thing in his path that used to make him happy now led him to fear, and he felt he was destroying the present and past alike by merely looking at them. Afraid of deceiving his children, he returned to Green Vale.
Mr Biswas sees his despair as threatening his world’s richness: everything loses its charm and potential, and he wants to protect his children from himself. In a sense, Mr Biswas reaches a personal turning point here: he finally sees his capacity to hurt and deceive others, which has already strained his relations with the Tulsis. 
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Mr Biswas thought that, if he repeated the night before, he might banish his unhappiness. So after his bath and dinner, he sat down to read The Hunchback of Notre Dame—but kept remembering his fear. His “period of lucidity” diminished every morning, the calm before the questioning diminished every time he encountered anything at all, and ultimately any delay vanished, “and all action was irrelevant and futile.” He still found it better to be out in the world than alone, and he began to hate the emptiness of Sunday afternoons.
Mr Biswas tries to overcome his sense of alienation by reenacting the ritual that created it, which parallels his usual response to struggles: he repeatedly returns to Shama and Hanuman House, leaves wherever he is staying and finds another home that only turns out worse for him, and conceives himself as unable to act while actively choosing the same things that have already made him miserable.
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Mr Biswas looked for signs that his sudden “corruption” might dissipate—perhaps his bedsheets were not scattered in the mornings, or his fingernails were not bitten—but these occasional good signs never persisted. One night, while he was biting his nails, a part of one of his teeth broke off, and he threw it out the window.
Mr Biswas wants proof that the world will save him from himself, even though all these “signs” are within his control. Although he has relative independence in Green Vale, he certainly does not feel independent or in control. 
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Visiting one Mr Biswas Saturday, Seth asked what was wrong. Later, Mr Maclean called to say that he had found some more bargain wood for a wall. Asphalt was falling from the roof and the cedar floorboards were shrinking—the new boards were also cedar—but Mr Maclean was unsurprised at Mr Biswas’s apathy. He built a bedroom wall, two doors (cedar planks instead of the panels Mr Biswas wanted), and a window.
The ordinarily pleasant parts of Mr Biswas’s life—his house and his Saturdays paying the workers with Seth—fail to shake his depression. Mr Maclean’s shortcuts continue to wreak cosmetic havoc on the house, and now they have begun to reflect back Mr Biswas’s own sense of failure.
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Mr Biswas awoke from his dreams throughout the night. In the first, black threads chased him from the Tulsi Store to Green Vale—the same threads of asphalt that fell down from the house’s roof, and he could not help remembering that “Hari blessed it.” In the next, from atop a hill, he saw a crying woman—who was “Shama, Anand, Savi, his mother [Bipti]”—seeking help but wanted her to go away. Tarzan was outside the door with an injured paw, and Mr Biswas remarked, “you like eggs too much.”
The chasing threads of asphalt and Hari’s blessing explicitly tie the Green Vale house (which is supposedly Mr Biswas’s own) back to the Tulsis. The crying woman points clearly to Mr Biswas’s failure to address others’ emotional trauma while demanding attention to his own, and the fact that it partially represented Anand reflects Mr Biswas’s disdain for his son’s femininity.
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A few nights later, Mr Biswas awoke to the watchman reporting that “they set fire to Dookinan land,” a small plot across a ditch from the rest of the fields. Mr Biswas made the laborers cut the cane separating his land from the rest, and they did before putting out the fire. Afterward, “Mr Biswas realized that for more than an hour he had not questioned himself,” but the fear immediately came back—still, this proved to him that “he was going to get better soon.” Yet this “was the first of many disappointments,” moments of freedom that he eventually learned to stop counting.
Although the fire demonstrates the threat the laborers pose to Mr Biswas, paradoxically the crisis of making the same laborers respond to it draws him out of his depression rather than reminding him of why he is miserable. His relief seemed to stem from his sense of power and immediacy—both of which he otherwise lost in Green Vale, with the laborers and his family no longer respecting him, plus nothing to look forward to in the immediate future.
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Shama brought the children to Green Vale that Christmas; Mr Biswas dreaded their arrival, hoped that an accident would stop them and started plotting to kill them and himself. When they arrived, his plans suddenly seemed absurd, and he resigned himself to “the deception and especial pain” he would inevitably suffer at their presence. He envied and soon began hating Shama: her pregnancy, her noises, her care for the children, and her clothes. In the bed, Mr Biswas separated himself from Anand with a wall of pillows.
Mr Biswas’s self-destructive depression leads him to want to destroy the children he views as extensions of himself. It is, for once, fortunate that he continues to shrink from action; he adopts his usual stance of powerlessness and resignation, silently hating the family that reflects his lifelong failure to take action—indeed, his powerlessness and resignation.
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Mr Biswas barely left bed the next day, wanting to do nothing and feigning malaria. All that week he remained fatigued, did not want to leave his room, became constipated, and could only relax in bed. He watched Shama “closely, with suspicion, hatred and nausea,” never speaking to her directly.
Although Mr Biswas has been lamenting his isolation and inability to connect with others, when he has the option to interact with his family, Mr Biswas deliberately isolates himself even further.
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One morning, Shama checked Mr Biswas for fever—he had none and hated that her hands smelled of vegetables. She asked if there was “something on [his] mind,” and he said there were “lots of little black clouds.” They argued and he started relishing it before recoiling out of fear and realizing that “he was dying” because of his family. He yelled at them to “get out!” and never come back inside the room or touch him.
Mr Biswas’s depression and rage are not discontinuous with his prior self; so far, this argument is just a more extreme version of his daily conflicts with Shama. He enjoys it because he feels powerful and can blame his disappointments on his family instead of himself.
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Shama stood in front of the door; Mr Biswas opened the window, and he screamed and cried as he tried to push himself through it. With Tarzan, Savi, and Anand right below him, he tried to kick Shama and struck her in the stomach. Women from the barracks came to help Shama, and one of them, who “had often been beaten and had witnessed many wife-beatings,” told the family to pack up and go.
Mr Biswas again crosses the line to physical abuse but a community again intervenes on Shama’s behalf—the disturbing frequency of domestic violence at Green Vale reflects how entrenched male domination seems to be in Trinidad, but the women form a community of support around shared oppression.
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As his family packed, for some reason, Mr Biswas insisted that Anand stay. Anand pet Tarzan in silence, while each of his parents asked him to go with them; when Mr Biswas held out a box of crayons, Anand said he would stay, and then nothing more. Holding Myna, Shama walked to the road with Savi. Mr Biswas offered to give the crayons to Anand, who refused. When Mr Biswas asked why Anand chose to say, he replied, “because they was going to leave you alone.” They barely spoke for the rest of the day.
Like the rest of his occasional decisive actions, Mr Biswas’s insistence that Anand stay is as inexplicable to the world as to himself. Likely, he tacitly recognizes that he needs company, support, and belonging but is too afraid to admit it and so pushes his family away rather than seek their love. Anand, on the other hand, seems to immediately recognize this conundrum, due precisely to the same traits Mr Biswas previously considered weak and effeminate.
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After Shama left, Mr Biswas reverted from fatigue to restlessness and turmoil. Anand spent one day in the fields with his father but then decided to stay home with Tarzan and the toys Mr Biswas made him, and the father and son drew pictures together at night. Mr Biswas taught Anand about God (the boy’s true father), gravity, and “people called Coppernickus and Galilyo.” On Saturday, Seth could not convince Anand to go home. At times, thinking he had ague (a fever), Mr Biswas made Anand recite hymns in Hindi, which he did in a fright. But Mr Biswas’s science lessons seemed to compensate for the boy’s suffering.
Mr Biswas begins to bond with his son over art, philosophy, science, and literature; he has finally found not only an outlet for his intellectual interests, but also a way to meaningfully influence his son, a source of esteem and authority within his family, and the genuine care from another person he had always sought and seldom found (besides occasionally in Tara). This is a crucial moment in the lives of Mr Biswas and Anand, both of whom turn wholeheartedly to intellectual pursuits in the coming chapters.
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For “many reasons,” Mr Biswas left the barracks for his house’s lone finished room. He hated the noise of the others living in the barracks and wondered whether he might find a better mindset starting the new year in his new house. While “he feared solitude more than people,” he felt comfortable moving because he had Anand. He cleaned the small room, although the asphalt snakes were stuck on the floor, and almost completely filled it with his furniture. While it was inconvenient to lack a kitchen and return to the barracks for water and the latrine, “the incompleteness of the house didn’t depress him.”
Mr Biswas’s inexplicable decisive action—asking Anand to stay—in turn led him to take subsequent, calculated actions like moving to and cleaning the house, as well as admitting his desire for connection with others. While the house is scarcely comfortable or completely functional, it still represents Mr Biswas’s partially fulfilled desire to establish an independent space for himself and, now, bring his family there with him.
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Mr Biswas dreamed frequently of the asphalt snakes, and he jumped screaming from his bed one night after one actually fell on him. He cut them all down, but they grew again, and he started feeling sick. He wrapped himself in his flour sack sheets, rocked in his chair, accidentally crushing Tarzan’s tail. He made Anand repeat “Rama Rama Sita Rama” and asked whether the boy wanted to leave—which was “the most oppressive of all his fears.”
Some of Mr Biswas’s irrational fears from the past—his dreams about asphalt snakes and his rumination about whether his rocking-chair could crush him—are indirectly fulfilled here. These bad omens in turn suggest that his “most oppressive” fear might soon be realized.
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One afternoon, two men approached Anand in the yard and brought him with them to the road, claiming to be “digging for treasure” They started puling pennies out of the gravel while they waited for Mr Biswas to return. When Anand claimed that the driver was “not my father really,” the men sent him away, then almost took the cents he found on the road and tried to beat him when he refused—but Anand threatened to tell Mr Biswas, and they let him go. Anand ran home and told Mr Biswas that the fat man, Dinnoo, “was trying to thief my money.” The other man claimed that Seth promised them work, but Mr Biswas sent them away.
To Anand, Mr Biswas was “not my father really” because Mr Biswas had previously emphasized that God was the boy’s true father; still, the workers still fear Mr Biswas’s power as the estate driver and accordingly back down. Their claim to be “digging for treasure” eerily recalls the neighbors’ search for Raghu’s buried money during Mr Biswas’s childhood. By successfully handling the situation here, Mr Biswas symbolically protects his family in a way his mother never could.
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One morning, Anand got up—earlier than Mr Biswas, as usual—and, with a blank expression and quivering mouth, showed his father Tarzan’s dead body on the staircase. The dog’s neck and stomach were cut open; Anand screamed that he wanted to leave, and Mr Biswas promised to take him to Hanuman House the next day. Filled with anxiety at the prospect of isolation, he was trying to buy time. Both forgot the dog, Mr Biswas because of the “deeper pain” of his son’s imminent departure and Anand because he wanted to go immediately.
Although the narrator never explicitly says so, Tarzan’s death was clearly intentional, most likely a threat by the laborers; Mr Biswas appears poised to get pushed out of yet another home, and his greatest fear—that Anand would leave—comes true. Of course, he continues to prioritize his own anxiety about isolation over his son’s trauma and desire to leave.
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Mr Biswas buried Tarzan in the yard. The sky darkened, with thunderstorms looming by four in the afternoon and no time to take Anand back that day. They cooked and listened to the rain; Mr Biswas said that Anand would have to return the colored pencils if he wanted to go back to Hanuman House; the boy did not want them, and Mr Biswas tried unsuccessfully to convince him to keep them.
The environment works in Mr Biswas’s favor, ensuring that Anand cannot yet return to Hanuman House. Mr Biswas tries to crudely manipulate his son into staying, which suggests that he neither fully understands nor can reciprocate the genuine concern that led Anand to stay with him in Green Vale.
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“The real rain” followed a roaring wind and struck the leaky roof so loudly that Mr Biswas and Anand could not hear one another. The water flowed down to the road, lightning lit up the sky, and the thunder was frightening. Anand found his father “writing with his finger on his head” in bed, then played with a winged ant, since he was “still officially annoyed.”
The worsening rain is comforting until it becomes threatening; it makes it feel as though whole world is violently conspiring against Mr Biswas, his house, and his son. Although in absurd fashion, Mr Biswas returns to writing for comfort.
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The rain suddenly lightened, and Mr Biswas repeated “Rama Rama Sita Rama” in bed. “A fresh cycle” of heavy rains began, and Anand noticed that the room was full of winged ants falling from the ceiling and biting black ants crawling on the walls. Mr Biswas kept asking, “you see them?” and Anand opened the door to see two men taking shelter under huge leaves outside. The biting ants carried the winged ants’ bodies away; Mr Biswas took the cutlass and Anand the walking-stick. They said “Rama Rama Sita Rama” together, then Mr Biswas started cursing people from his past (mostly the Tulsis) before the rain slowed, Anand opened the door, and the men were gone.
The war between the red and black ants points bluntly to the threat posed by the men outside, whom Mr Biswas and Anand cannot evade in the downpours. Nevertheless, the danger proves to be more imagined than real. The impersonal threat of thunder and rain reminds Mr Biswas of all the particular people who have wronged him throughout his life; his impulse to curse the Tulsis here contrasts ironically with the entire next chapter.
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The heavy rain returned, and Anand started killing the ants with the walking-stick until one bit his hand—they were climbing up the stick, so he threw it away. The roof shook and lighting struck the house, breaking the window, extinguishing the oil lamp, lighting everything up, and leading Anand to shriek. The rain and wind came inside, blowing open the door and sending the room into disarray. Anand saw a man outside, holding a lamp and a cutlass “like a miracle.” The man, Ramakhilawan, who lived in the barracks, cried “my poor little calf!” as he came inside, pulled on the window (which the wind slammed shut), and relighted the oil lamp.
Water remains unlucky for Mr Biswas, just as in his childhood. The exclamation “My poor little calf!” is a clear allusion to the calf Mr Biswas was supposed to guard but let drown in his childhood; Ramakhilawan seems to be acting out what Mr Biswas failed to do before his father died trying to save him. It is also notable that a subordinate who worked for him rescues Mr Biswas; in his times of need, Mr Biswas continues to find unlikely saviors.
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