A House for Mr Biswas

A House for Mr Biswas

A House for Mr Biswas Part 2, Chapter 3 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The Tulsis never thought of themselves as settled in Trinidad, which was merely “a stage in the journey that had begun when Pundit Tulsi left India.” They talked about going elsewhere or returning, but Mr Biswas could not imagine them doing so. However, when Shama went to Hanuman House to report what Seth had done in Port of Spain, in fact the Tulsis “had decided to move on” to a new estate in the mountains of Trinidad’s north at Shorthills. Christmas shopping was stunted by the war and Seth was already at war with the family, having decided to stay in Arwacas, although Mr Biswas could not figure out precisely why. The families’ children did not speak, and only Padma ever visited Hanuman House. Two of the Tulsis’ cane fields burned, and the family thought Seth might be trying to orchestrate a takeover.
Just like Mr Biswas’s insistence that various unsatisfying stages of his life would only be temporary, the Tulsis always have their eyes set on escaping to somewhere they might really belong but therefore struggle to live meaningfully in the present. The move to Shorthills gives them something of a fresh start but only crudely substitutes for their dream of returning to India; they appear to be fleeing dwindling profits and Seth’s hunger for power, like Pundit Tulsi fled some mysterious threat two generations before.
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People talked most of all about the new estate: its glorious house, facilities, trees, and surroundings. Mr Biswas was skeptical, especially of the talk about horses and sheep, and his children were apprehensive about moving to Shorthills. Shama was incredibly morose about the whole conflict, defining their Christmas with her insistence on acting exactly as Mrs Tulsi always did. Sisters passed through their house, and when she occasionally visited Shorthills, she would do nothing but cry upon her return.
While Mr Biswas usually eagerly admires beautiful houses, he instantly rejects the Tulsis’ enthusiasm about their new estate. Now that the family is accustomed to the city, a move to the country seems like a demotion in its status and a threat to its comfort. While the Tulsis used to offer Shama sanctuary from her insufferable husband, now the situation seems reversed.
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Mrs Tulsi was much better, no longer sick and now engrossed in her task of coordinating the family’s relocation. She even tried to convince Mr Biswas to move with them, and eventually he agreed to at least visit the estate. She promised that the buses were always on time—theirs was late and empty—and, deep into the hills, a valley opened, dotted with occasional houses and huts. From the last bus stop they walked along a gulley, and Mr Biswas began to notice the beautiful flowers and cocoa trees he was promised. They came to the house, which was hidden behind an enormous saman tree on “Christopher Columbus Road.”
Mrs Tulsi’s illnesses and moods parallel her sense of obligation to her family; when she has to prepare Owad for the future or relocate the family, she eagerly retakes control and restores the Tulsis to order. Mrs Tulsi’s tour of Shorthills is again a calculated performance. Whereas Mr Biswas’s previous rural homes were banal village huts, the Shorthills estate is much more remote but also considerably more extravagant; its location on “Christopher Columbus Road” points to the island’s colonial history and Shorthills’ wild, unexplored surroundings.
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Despite all Shama’s descriptions, the house still astonished Mr Biswas: it was a two-story construction partway up a hill, surrounded by lush plant life and flanked by a cricket field and swimming pool, both out of use. He and Mrs Tulsi walked up the driveway and the steps that made him “feel regal,” ascending to the painted timber house. The whole scene “was an enchantment,” but Mr Biswas decided it was “time to go home.” Mrs Tulsi replied, “Isn’t this your home now?”
Mr Biswas is captivated by the house’s “regal” colonial architecture and amenities. In this sense, the Shorthills estate is a metaphor for how colonial subjects won sovereignty over their land and retook the infrastructure of colonial governance during the mid-twentieth century; Trinidad’s situation is unique in part because virtually none of its inhabitants were indigenous to the island.
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The Tulsis moved out of Arwacas, renting out their land and store, selling one of their rental tenements in Port of Spain and raising the rent on the house Mr Biswas and Shama were living in. Shorthills’s people were of mixed race, “a closed, distinctive community” that spoke a mixture of English and French and enjoyed wandering around the Tulsis’ estate until they moved in.
Whereas communities elsewhere in Trinidad are usually divided on ethnic lines throughout the novel, Shorthills’s residents are mixed and heterogeneous, shaped as much by the French colonialism of the 1700s as the British rule of the 1800s and 1900s.
Themes
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When Mr Biswas moved to Shorthills, he felt there were more Tulsis than ever before. He and Shama moved into one of the six rooms upstairs, and across the hall lived a new brother-in-law who immediately found Mr Biswas distasteful—when his son bragged to Anand about his books, which were all by W.C. Tuttle, Mr Biswas called them “trash,” and Anand agreed. A few days later, the man (whom Mr Biswas later began to refer to as W.C. Tuttle) confronted him.
Even though individual Tulsis come and go, the family’s collective life changes little over time—the sister and their families are still homogeneous members of a growing crowd. He looks down on the new brother-in-law for his cheap and unsophisticated taste in literature, despite their shared interest in it (as with Owad).
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Waiting for the promised fixes and improvements to the house, everybody started dismantling trees and building temples, and Anand decided to convince the kids to start scraping off the house’s paint in an effort to get the Tulsis to buy a fresh coat. Mr Biswas barely cared about these improvements, since his job gave him some distance from the Tulsis, and he was busy plundering fruit from the estate’s trees to sell to vendors in Port of Spain.
The estate begins to deteriorate as various Tulsis use it for their own self-interest, taking whatever they want and neglecting the impact their actions have on the family as a whole; as the family loses the common values, purposes, and income stream that used to unite it, it fractures more and more.
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Soon, the pool was filled in, and a tent for wedding guests was built on top, as “a whole wave of Shama’s nieces was to be married off.” Everyone immediately turned their attention to the seven weddings, after which seven fewer women lived in the house, and everyone resumed waiting for the needed repairs.
Even though the Tulsi women are the family’s core unit, they are still considered property to be married off rather than individuals worthy of self-determination—the seven nameless nieces’ marriages are inconsequential and routine.
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“Scraggy, bare, bewildered sheep” wandered onto the estate, which became increasingly overgrown and “began to look abandoned” now that Mrs Tulsi was too busy being ill to direct things. Govind destroyed the cricket pavilion to build a shed for cows (including one owned, of all people, by Shama). Occupied entirely with beating these cows, he mostly withdrew from family life. Along with “the reader of W.C. Tuttle,” he started cutting down the trees and sending the fruit to Port of Spain. The children helped pick fruit and pull weeds. Without plumbing, “some lesser husbands” constructed a latrine outside and others planted new seedlings.
Without Mrs Tulsi’s authority, the family and estate descend further into chaos, which points metaphorically to the risks Naipaul sees in the devolution of power from colonial empires to the people they subjugated for centuries. The house’s sources of beauty and pleasure—the cricket pavilion and fruit trees—are quickly and unnecessarily dismantled. At Shorthills, the Tulsis seem less like a harmonious family than a village.
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“The man Mr Biswas now thought of as W.C. Tuttle” cut open a pumpkin, dismantled the old electricity plant and decided to build a furniture factory in its place. To build the furniture, he hired a blacksmith from his home village, “a Negro called Théophile,” who built misshapen and flawed benches, tables, and other furniture pieces, which W.C. Tuttle promised would look well-constructed with varnish. When they moved some of his furniture in and realized it was unusable, “Théophile was dismissed to his village, and there was no further talk about the furniture factory.”
Mr Biswas does care enough about his new brother-in-law to even find out his real name; this so-called W.C. Tuttle’s ill-conceived and destructive furniture factory recalls Mr Biswas’s obsessive cataloguing of his own furniture whenever he moves, and its misshapen products highlight the emptiness of the Tulsis’ belonging at Shorthills.
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W.C. Tuttle’s next project was buying a lorry and hiring it to the American army, which wanted to build a post in the mountains. The widows thought to build a shack and try to sell them Coca Cola and snacks, and then got a liquor license and hoped to sell them rum, but nobody ever stopped (although one lorry did crash into the shack).
Trinidad’s takeover by American military forces is essentially a new form of colonialism: while it provides economic opportunities to Trinidadians (seen here by Govind’s lorry), the Americans have little interest in interacting with them (as they ignore the widows).
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Despite this all, Mr Biswas remained detached, happy that he was paying nothing for rent or food, and could see his savings increase with every paycheck. “He continued to plunder” amidst the house’s chaos. It turned out that W.C. Tuttle was selling whole trees and Govind whole lorry loads of fruit, and Mr Biswas felt ridiculous for his pride at selling a half dozen oranges at a time. They only found out about the missing trees because the estate’s overseer—who came with the estate and had nothing to do—finally mentioned it.
For the first time, Mr Biswas finds an adequate balance of comfort and independence at Shorthills: whereas he caused much of the family’s drama in the past, now he seems entirely immune to it. While he thought he was taking advantage of the estate’s resources, he failed to realize how egregiously the other brothers-in-law were willing to exploit them.
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Finally, the villagers decided to fight the Tulsis, filling up the morning bus to Port of Spain before their children had a chance. They simply did not go to school for awhile, but W.C. Tuttle finally decided to take them himself, although they needed to get to school by 5:30 in the morning so he could have the lorry to the Americans by 6:00. They arrived before dawn and played around until the caretaker let them into the school at 6:00. They ate their lunches hours early and, again because of the Americans, could never get home before 8:00 in the evening unless they left just after lunch for the Shorthills bus.
The Tulsis’ presence in Shorthills is an uncomfortable imposition on the area’s poorer residents; even though they are replacing the previous French settlers, their takeover of the valley is its own form of colonialism. Crucially, the villagers cut off the Tulsis’ link to the city, on which they still rely after their move to the countryside; W.C. Tuttle’s workaround ends up almost entirely alienating the children from the place where they live.
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Mostly, the children just walked in the direction of Shorthills, singing songs at Mrs Tulsi’s suggestion, until they encountered a bus with space for them. Eventually, one of the men bought a car, which was prone to breakdowns and often did not even make it. After awhile, the Tulsis abandoned the car, preferring to let the children play on it in the yard. Then, “another car was bought” to replace the first. With these difficulties getting to school, poorly defined sleeping arrangements, and yard work on weekends, the children had a horrible time living at Shorthills and began fighting amongst themselves during the week.
While the children at Hanuman House shared the family’s common areas and resources more or less harmoniously and received support and direction from their parents, in Shorthills they cleave off into their own mini-society, separate from the adults, with their own conflicts and divisions. The family’s halfhearted efforts to make do with what they can find continue to multiply rather than resolve their problems.
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Anand disliked his “weak” sisters. Myna had “a bad bladder,” and the young Kamla started sleepwalking. Savi became a source of humiliation for the family after botching a singing performance at school and trying to teach other children how to draw maps. Due to his sense of satire, “Anand was among the strong,” although his satire led him to hatred, of others and himself. One morning, he laughed when Savi’s hand got stuck in the car door, and Mr Biswas decided he was done with Shorthills.
Anand’s role has inverted from his earlier years: while he used to be weak and embarrassing to the family, now he enforces the taboo against weakness, which hinges most of all on the children’s social status among their peers. His sardonic attitude begins to resemble his father’s and actually betrays an inner weakness of character—a fear of vulnerability.
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But first, “a number of deaths occurred.” First was Sharma, the son-in-law who drove the kids to school; he fell off a branch, and his widow wailed for days. However everyone forgot him after W.C. Tuttle took over driving. Later, Anand found Hari and his wife sitting gloomily at the dining table and recited a poem about a dead soldier to try and cheer them up; Hari died soon thereafter and it turned out that he knew he was sick for some time. W.C. Tuttle took over his funeral rites, too, but nobody could fully replace Hari’s role as the household pundit, and a number of the men ended up sharing puja duty. News of Padma’s death in Arwacas came a couple weeks later, and this frightened everyone in the house, especially because she died so far away. All the sisters set off to Arwacas for the funeral ceremony.
This series of deaths actually draws the fragmented family back together, much like they previously rallied around their disdain for Mr Biswas. Hari and Padma, in particular, play irreplaceable roles in the Tulsi family; without Hari, the family lacks a religious leader and compromises its orthodoxy; other than being the family’s second-in-command after Mrs Tulsi, Padma mediated between the family that owned the businesses and her increasingly power-hungry husband, Seth, who managed and then began taking over them.
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When the women returned from Arwacas, they revealed that Seth’s new property was an enormous grocery store, and they feared that he planned to use the revenue from it to buy Hanuman House. So many people dreamt of Padma that night that they decided her spirit must have visited Shorthills. More stories of Padma sightings followed, with the Tulsis finding various messages in her appearances, most of which alleged that Seth killed her and led the sisters to curse him. Meanwhile, Mrs Tulsi still did not leave her room. Two of the sheep died, too, and the gully began eroding away.
Seth seems to want more than the family’s business revenues: he threatens its foundations by trying to buy out Hanuman House and win power over Mrs Tulsi. Again, he stages a conflict between Mrs Tulsi’s traditional but matriarchal power over family and his own desire for a paternalistic Western power over it, which parallels Mr Biswas’s. The eroding gully begins to literally divide the Tulsis’ new estate from the outside world.
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Govind and W.C. Tuttle pursued other business opportunities: taxi-driving and opening a quarry, respectively. The widows started a chicken farm and planted maize to feed the animals, but ended up eating it themselves after the chickens either ran away or got eaten by predators. From her room, Mrs Tulsi directed everyone to start eating bamboo shoots (nobody could figure out which part of bamboo was the shoot), then to drink homemade bush leaf infusion instead of tea, “find vegetable substitutes,” and finally try eating bird nests. The widows started eating some of the cakes W.C. Tuttle had hidden for the cows, and the family invented various other new kinds of food.
Like W.C. Tuttle’s lorry, Govind’s taxi is only profitable because of the Americans. The widows are particularly desperate at Shorthills because, now that the family is no longer pooling resources, they have to fight social and family norms in order to survive. Although Mrs Tulsi clearly wants to save the family money, her demands for culinary corner-cutting also reveal her increasingly arbitrary and ineffective rule over the house.
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Mrs Tulsi coordinated the manufacture of various products, from cups and plates to mattresses and cushions. The women who were lucky enough to have husbands fed their children in secret; in the meantime, the widows’ children roasted a sheep in the woods, which infuriated W.C. Tuttle. He and Mr Biswas made their wives cook separately from the rest; Mr Biswas decided that gospo juice must be some sort of remedy and made his kids drink it every morning until the tree collapsed. Following this tree, the rest of the cricket field eroded away in the rains and the bushes continued to creep up on the house. The widows worked tirelessly, withstanding hateful messages from Seth and doing their best to build a bridge across the gully that was now a gorge. But Mr Biswas could not convince Shama to move, even though she was alienated from her sisters.
The family also begins producing goods for itself; after selling others’ products in their store at profit for years, the Tulsis are now forced to become producers themselves in order to make ends meet. Their path is the opposite of Mr Biswas’s rise from a family of impoverished laborers to one of comfortable property owners and work in an industry entirely divorced from the means of subsistence. The widows’ children even eat meat, which is extraordinarily taboo for the religious Tulsis; while Tuttle seems to resent this for religious reasons, Mr Biswas looks down on their poverty and desperation, which prove his own superior status.
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Later, Chinta declared that eighty dollars were missing from her room, and both the theft and the degree of her wealth surprised everyone. She spent days searching for the thief, cursing people and ultimately holding a “Bible-and-key-trial” that proved everyone but Mr Biswas innocent. All the sisters became immediately suspicious of him and his family, and his daughters pleaded for them to move away.
Despite the family’s adamant frugality, it turns out that Chinta was hoarding money the whole time; and for the umpteenth time, Mr Biswas is ostracized purely by accident, during his period of greatest harmony with the Tulsis.
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Mr Biswas found a spot that was “isolated, unused and full of possibilities,” hidden behind a bush on a hill near the estate. In less than a month, he had exactly the house he wanted to build in Green Vale: two bedrooms, a drawingroom, and a verandah, mounted on cement pillars, with a corrugated iron roof and glass windows. He spent almost all his savings, but “his ambition had remained steady,” although it appeared “idyllic and absurd” now. Transport was exceedingly difficult, and he spent the last of his money on a Slumberking bed. The unpainted house appeared not “to invite habitation so much as decay.”
Although Mr Biswas could have easily moved his family back to Port of Spain, he sees a new opportunity to pursue his dream of building a house. Whereas the Green Vale house never lived up to his plans, this one follows them exactly and goes up almost overnight. But his independent spot in the forest cuts him off from the Tulsis and, more importantly, even further from his job and his children’s school in Port of Spain. His house seems poised to fade into disrepair just like the Shorthills estate.
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Shama did not want to move and hoped the house would not be finished—so did the children, who would have preferred to return to Port of Spain. They felt imprisoned in the middle of nowhere, with no source of enjoyment and a dark, dangerous landscape around them.
The children, too, feel more isolation than peace at Shorthills; even though their new house undeniably belongs to them, they feel out of place there and would rather reintegrate into the city’s complex social networks.
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One night, Anand discovered Savi’s birth certificate—listing her real name, Basso, and Mr Biswas’s name for her, Lakshmi—alongside various photographs of the Tulsis and his mother’s terse letters from a George V. in England. He gazed out on the sunset; when Shama realized that he had looked through the door later, she announced that a thief had come in their house.
Anand is, as it were, stealing knowledge. Shama’s letters to George V. remind Anand and the reader of the Tulsis’ previous proximity to colonial power but also suggest that she may have had romantic options beside the arranged marriage her conservative family pushed upon her.
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Mr Biswas sent for Bipti to visit. Her feelings about the new house were unclear, and since his children had lost their ability to speak Hindi, they could barely communicate with her. To Mr Biswas’s surprise, Shama treated Bipti respectfully, and he never forgot the image of his mother helping to clear the brush. The children were excited to burn the land to make a path to the road. Mr Biswas prepared the land in a way he thought strategic, by building “nests” in various places around the house, and then lit each nest without paying attention to his children’s cries about the heat. Only one of the nests actually caught on fire, and the flame proceeded meekly from there. “Do it yourself,” he told the children. They doused the leaves and set them all alight, stopped the fire at night and retreated inside to do their homework.
Because the children are educated in British colonial schools, they can only speak English and lose the ability to connect with their grandmother; this shows how far Mr Biswas’s family has come in two generations but also demonstrates how the necessary tools for economic mobility in a colony can force people to sacrifice their own cultures. Conversely, Shama’s respect for Bipti falls perfectly in line with Hindu culture. For the first time, his entire family seems unified and complete, which gives him an unforgettable sense of belonging and purpose. His meticulous preparations for the fire are foolish, and for once he willingly cedes control of his home to his children, who appear to efficiently do what he could not.
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Anand dreamed that he was in the bus to school and his sisters were standing above him, shaking him—which they were, because the fire had grown to encircle the house. Mr Biswas told the children to beat the fire back, and they walked to the road. Anand and Savi left the crying Myna and Kamla and repeated “Rama Rama” as they walked down the road through the darkness, finally reaching the Tulsis’ rudimentary bridge across the gorge and still “alert for the smell of snakes.”
Like Mr Biswas’s store at the Chase and house in Green Vale, his new house in Shorthills, where he again found a temporary independence from the Tulsis and sense of belonging with his family, immediately burns down. Whether the culprit is fate or Mr Biswas’s own incompetence (and now, his children’s), the world seems to be conspiring against him, which makes his ultimate success in the days before his death all the more remarkable.
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Savi and Anand “heard a heavy breathing,” which turned out to be a mule following them, and walked up the stairs to try and get inside, but nobody heard their calls—which were much quieter than they thought. Mrs Tulsi finally found them, believing them to be Hari and Padma’s departed spirits, and when they informed the family of the fire, everyone was overjoyed.
Savi and Anand almost fail to contact the Tulsis; their growing distance nearly becomes a complete disconnect. Nevertheless, the Tulsis are delighted that Mr Biswas’s house has burned down, since it will force him, Shama, and the children to become dependent on them once again.
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The Tulsis marched over to Mr Biswas’s house and worked together to beat the fire back, which “became a celebration.” Mr Biswas insisted that “everything under control”; they found burnt eggs and a dead snake, and in the morning, the house was “in a charred and smoking desolation.” Villagers flocked to the house, and Mr Biswas offered them charcoal; the ash that blew throughout the village was, he insisted, “best thing for the land […] best sort of fertilizer.”
Even though they had just ostracized him, the Tulsis come to Mr Biswas’s rescue; their support in his moment of crisis yet again affirms their commitment to him. Ultimately, Mr Biswas still refuses to admit his error and proudly (and absurdly) insists that burning down his house was a good thing.
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