A House for Mr Biswas

A House for Mr Biswas Part 2, Chapter 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Mr Biswas was “released” from the Shorthills house after all the Tulsis’ transportation options deteriorated beyond repair, so he moved his family back to Mrs Tulsi’s newly-vacant house in Port of Spain. He put a “FOR RENT OR SALE” sign outside the Shorthills house. The Tuttles, Govind and Chinta’s family, and a widow named Basdai also came to Port of Spain; the Tuttles took most of the house, Govind and Chinta had a room but spent much of their money on expensive suits, and Basdai moved into the servant room, leaving two rooms for Mr Biswas and his family.
Despite their attempt to make do in the country, Mr Biswas and his family have resolutely become city people and are relieved to return to their previous comfort there. Unlike in the past, the Port of Spain house has now become a microcosm of the Tulsi family, complete with its politics and infringement on Mr Biswas’s privacy. Having spent all his money on the ill-fated Shorthills home, he is again penniless and indirectly dependent on Mrs Tulsi.
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In Port of Spain, W.C. Tuttle played a gramophone incessantly and quarreled silently with Govind over parking space; Basdai started mediating the family’s arguments. Despite his brahmanic ways, “W.C. Tuttle was all for modernity,” filling his house with elegant furniture that inevitably caused more arguments still. One day, Shama ordered a glass cabinet that promptly broke on the front steps and “became another of her possessions which were regarded as jokes.”
The Biswases and Tuttles compete to show off their wealth and status by purchasing more and more expensive furniture, but the Biswases ultimately recognize this exercise as conspicuous and pointless. While most of the characters in this book are forced to choose between tradition and modernity, W.C. Tuttle makes do with both.
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Realizing that they could rely less and less on the Tulsis, the widows at Shorthills started sending their children to live with Basdai. The overpopulated house and quarreling children quickly infuriated Mr Biswas and his children, leading them all to various ailments, as Mrs Tulsi started sending in her friends’ children from Arwacas, too. Unable to bear the house, Mr Biswas spent as much time as possible hiding away in the office.
With the Tulsis’ hierarchy disintegrating, the widows realize that their children no longer have a guarantee of belonging and support in the world, but must instead fight for their survival; the colonial schools in Port of Spain are, of course, their best chance, and the house overflows much like the city in this time period, when people from the countryside flood in seeking opportunities.
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Shama revealed that the family was again unable to live off Mr Biswas’s salary, even though he was spending his days interviewing rural farmers who “treated him as an incredibly superior being” even though they were buying land, building mansions, and sending their children abroad to college. Govind and W.C. Tuttle continued to provide transport for the Americans and started growing wealthy. For the first time, Mr Biswas started telling his children about his own childhood, and especially the buried treasure and oil that he never got to capitalize on—he blamed everyone imaginable and wished for another job, even if it meant he had to work for the Americans. Shama mocked Mr Biswas, saying he was too unfit to do manual labor.
Despite Mr Biswas’s relative success in employment, the changes in Trinidad’s economic landscape due to World War II and the Americans’ entrance means that service and labor jobs, which formerly set people up for lives of poverty, were suddenly (albeit briefly) in great demand. While Mr Biswas loves reporting for its social esteem, he continues to find recognition most of all in Trinidad’s least educated rural areas, while the luster of American money wins attention in Port of Spain.
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News even spread to Anand’s school, where he was shamed for admitting Mr Biswas’s lower-paying job, and the fact that he called his parents “Bap and Mai” and not “Mummy and Daddy,” like Vidiadhar.
American influence has even transformed the British colonial schools—details like one’s names for one’s parents become status symbols.
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Mr Biswas knew he would never leave the paper, and as it started losing readers, it appointed him the investigator for its new Deserving Destitutes Fund. He began visiting “the mutilated, the defeated, the futile and the insane” in their dilapidated houses. He imagined that he might qualify, too. People sometimes accused him of exploiting them, stole his bicycle parts, and accosted him for money (which he started to carry around and charged the paper as a business expense). Soon, he learned to “distinguish the applications of the fraudulent.” Because his superiors at the paper never interfered with him, he had absolute discretion over the fund and gained “responsibility and power.” To his delight, people even offered him bribes (which he refused out of distrust). He did, however, take a cheap dining table from one of them, which ate up the last remaining free space in his room.
Mr Biswas’s new assignment hearkens back to his own destitute childhood, although his silence about this speaks volumes about his picture of his own class status. Although the “Deserving Destitutes Fund” appears to be a sort of charity, it also sensationalizes and exploits the stories of the people it covers. Mr Biswas does not value his work for the social good he performs, but rather because it gives him “responsibility and power” over others. Indeed, he more often distrusts and despises than pities or empathizes with his Destitutes. In a sense, he becomes the inverse of his beloved Samuel Smiles, visiting the poor to give handouts rather than preach hard work.
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One day, Shama woke Mr Biswas with the news that “some people” were visiting—he worried that they might be eager Destitutes. In fact, it was the Shorthills widows, who were wondering if he might be able to write them into his column, but he felt he had to refuse—they were family, and they were clearly not destitute enough. Soon, Bhandat also sent him a request, and Mr Biswas went to his disgusting tenement surrounded by smelly factories. Bhandat gave him a revolting kiss, and Mr Biswas recoiled, afraid and ashamed, before trying to explain that Bhandat was not destitute enough and realizing that he had fallen deaf. Bhandat’s mistress brought him tea, which he spilled on the bed, and he flew into a rage, yelling at her in Hindi (which she did not understand). Mr Biswas rushed home and read “his unfinished Escape stories” on the latrine.
Although Ajodha and Seth have long found great financial success by mixing business and family, Mr Biswas realizes that he cannot do so at his prestigious institutional job; there is a qualitative difference between these small businesses and Mr Biswas’s work, which requires greater accountability due to his role in the public eye and journalism’s ethical codes. While Ajodha and Seth undeniably make more money than him, this is one important sense in which Mr Biswas’s job is more prestigious and serves ends beyond self-interest. His encounter with the desperate Bhandat evokes one of the most uncertain and unsafe periods of his life.
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Mr Biswas started taking his children to Pagotes on Sundays, and quickly struck up “an easy, relaxing relationship” with Jagdat: although they did not particularly get along or care what one another had to say, they would smoke and drink together in order to break Ajodha’s rules (and the law that closed rumshops on Sunday morning). They would always get drunk, then take one of Ajodha’s vehicles to the beach or river, although Jagdat was an “acute” drunk driver and always managed to sober up immediately upon returning to Ajodha’s house. At their lunches, Ajodha would complain about his business problems and request Mr Biswas’s help.
Unlike his friendships with Alec or Owad, Mr Biswas’s relationship with Jagdat is purely out of convenience. Jagdat seems stuck in adolescence, obsessed with defying Ajodha like an angsty teenager and convinced that he does not belong in his uncle’s house yet has nowhere to go—much like Mr Biswas in the recent past, when he lived at Hanuman House. Ajodha begins to see Mr Biswas as a trustworthy confidant, despite his nephew’s lack of interest in his business.
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Shama and the children soon realized what Mr Biswas was up to, and they were often left alone to contemplate the house’s atmosphere of tension and conflict. One day, when Anand asked Ajodha to donate to his fund for Polish refugee children, Ajodha was insulted and replied, “who collecting for you?” Gradually, the family stopped visiting Pagotes.
Ajodha does not merely combine business and family; rather, to him, business comprises everything, and the prospect of charity is so offensive that it leads him to complicate family ties. He exemplifies capitalism’s most ruthless, individualistic strain.
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Back in Port of Spain, Chinta and Govind were singing the Ramayana to drown out the sound of W.C. Tuttle’s gramophone. After hours of this, when Mr Biswas would bang on their doors to quiet them down, Govind occasionally shouted insults back through the door. Indeed, Govind “had become the terror of the house.” His face became contorted and he gained weight; when he wasn’t singing the Ramayana, he took to threatening people at random; whenever he set his sights on Mr Biswas, the two men’s children would fight in turn downstairs.
This war of noises quite openly stages a conflict between tradition and modernity: Govind and Chinta’s sacred Ramayana and W.C. Tuttle’s shiny, extravagant gramophone playing Western music. Inexplicably, Govind becomes far more menacing than Mr Biswas ever was at Hanuman House, comparable only to Bhandat. Seizing power through force, Govind is not unlike the Americans in Trinidad.
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W.C. Tuttle was “a useful ally” in these fights, in part because, like Mr Biswas, he saw the Tulsis as “barbarians.” In fact, he saw himself as the guardian of brahmin purity and Western civilization alike, and his only fight with Mr Biswas was the quarrel about possessions, which the latter “lost by default” when he ran out of space for anything more. Their next major conflict was “the picture war;” Mr Biswas discovered he liked framing pictures, and W.C. Tuttle started posting dozens of pictures of himself, and a few of his family, all around his section of the house.
W.C. Tuttle and Mr Biswas, despite their opposed literary tastes, both see themselves as superior to the conformist, unthinking Tulsis. Curiously, Tuttle wants to stand for the highest forms of both tradition and modernity, and it is unclear whether this reflects the absurdity of his personality (like his endless self-portraits) or the genuine possibility of hybrid cultural practices in the wake of colonialism.
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Govind was unfazed by the other goings-on in the house and kept up his threats, which led “the readers and learners” to hope he might die in a car crash—he won a driver’s safety award instead. But soon, he started taking out all his anger on Chinta, whom he beat often and mercilessly. This led the family to respect Chinta, who gained “a matriarchal dignity” from the beatings.
Govind’s pattern of domestic violence recalls Mr Biswas’s occasional abuse of Shama; tragically, it goes unchecked because of his formal authority, although it proves Chinta’s authority in the family and home. Govind, the former cheery coconut-seller, has transformed in precisely the opposite way as Mr Biswas.
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Chinta and Govind’s son Vidiadhar began a rivalry with Anand at school, where they were both in the exhibition class. One day, they ran into one another while they were getting their milk at the Dairies and refused to talk—Anand was delighted that Vidiadhar did not know how to order properly. They both thought the other cut them in line, so they never spoke again until adulthood. Their siblings started arguing over who had read more books.
Anand and Vidiadhar’s cold war in the exhibition class imitates the continuous conflict between their fathers; at the Dairies, they conspicuously consume foods that symbolize intellect and social class but are unwilling to partake in these together or equally, obsessed with proving their (and their family’s) dominance.
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Meanwhile, “Anand lived a life of pure work,” taking private lessons before and after school and doing homework whenever he was not in lessons. So did the rest of the exhibition class, although they all pretended they had other interests and parroted their fathers’ opinions on horseracing or films. One day, he wanted to go to the theater after school instead of doing his homework and managed to convince Shama to give him the requisite change.
Like their curriculum, the boys’ social life at school is about memorizing information and showing off knowledge; it is a social performance based on imitating their fathers’ authority and never a genuine pursuit of intellectual curiosity. Anand’s hard work—the Samuel Smiles ideal, which Mr Biswas has never lived—leaves him miserable and exhausted.
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Anand brought Mr Biswas to the London Theatre, where a mob pushed them through the entrance, and they realized they were short money for the tickets—there were no half-price tickets on Mondays—and both insisted that the other should go inside with their lone ticket. Mr Biswas went inside; Anand ran home and lay in bed, Shama yelled at him, and Mr Biswas inexplicably walked inside shortly after, writing in his Collins Clear-Type Shakespeare book that he would buy Anand a bicycle if he won the exhibition. The next morning, Mr Biswas awoke in an anxious fit before sunrise, and Anand told his schoolmates that he “hated [the film] so much I left it before it began.”
Feeling out of place in the crowd at the provocatively-named London Theatre and realizing that they literally could not both get places inside, Mr Biswas and Anand both bail on the movie. It is unclear what precisely inspires Mr Biswas to promise Anand a bicycle, but he is likely trying to reward Anand for his hard work or offer him another version of the status he sought by seeking out the movie. Of course, Anand’s wit saves him in his peers’ eyes.
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On the Saturday morning of the exhibition exam, Anand crammed while Vidiadhar did puja; the family gave each boy various accessories and pens, good-luck charms and fresh formal clothes. The boys and their fathers chatted outside the school—the others noticed the “H” on Govind’s license plate, which revealed that his car was a taxi; seeking to save face, Anand forced the anxious Mr Biswas to leave. After the three-hour exam and the ceremonious collection of papers, Vidiadhar looked delighted and proud, but Anand was “dejected, exhausted and irritable.” He and Mr Biswas went to the Dairies, which he did not enjoy, and returned for the afternoon session of the exam. Mr Biswas worried about Anand’s scribblings on the question papers.
Vidiadhar’s religious preparations and Anand’s industrious studying reveal that their rivalry is not just personal or familial, but also represents a perennial conflict between Hindu tradition and Western modernity. Although the exam is all that matters, Vidiadhar and Anand are both anxious about appearances before the test; Govind’s licence plate shows that he provides rather than enjoys luxury, and Mr Biswas’s concern over the test breaks the boys’ taboo against acting cool and disinterested.
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That night, when Anand returned home from watching a football match with his classmates, he was sure he had failed the exam—he realized he forgot to answer the easy question on homonyms and synonyms that he was saving for last. The Biswas children despaired; Govind and Chinta’s rejoiced at Vidiadhar’s apparent success, despite his lack of private lessons. The next Monday, all the boys had similar tales of disastrous mistakes.
It seems that the underdog has prevailed: Vidiadhar appears to have won the war for himself, his family, and his parents’ traditional ways. Anand’s mistake had nothing to do with his knowledge and everything to do with his overconfidence, perhaps inherited from his father.
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At home, Mr Biswas produced a letter from an English judge who had read his Sentinel articles and wanted him to join a literary club. He went on Friday evenings, when the rest of the widows from Shorthills came to Port of Spain. Mr Biswas felt “a little out of his depth” at the club, but at least he drank well. He needed to read a work of his own and started another short story—but, as usual, never finished it, for news came that his mother, Bipti, had died.
Mr Biswas is delighted to hear that his secret lifelong desire to use writing as a means of expression (rather than merely for communication) has been recognized and validated by a British authority on the matter. In a curious reversal of traditional gender roles, he goes to the club for leisure while the widows focus on making money for themselves.
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Mr Biswas brought Shama and the children to Pratap’s house, where he was surprised at the huge crowd of relatives he had never met. He felt jealousy, not grief. Shama dutifully wept, Dehuti grasped at the other mourners’ clothes in a sort of penance for her illegitimate marriage, and Ramchand helped plan the funeral arrangements. Mr Biswas glanced at Bipti’s body and then wandered around, wishing he could be alone, feeling that he had lost something from the past and resenting his wife and children as “alien affectations.”
Mr Biswas had scarcely seen his mother in her final years and suddenly feels as out of place amidst his own extended family, just as he always had among the Tulsis—but he still blames the Tulsis for estranging him from his real biological family. Dehuti, too, tried to make peace with her failure as a daughter even as Ramchand faced no consequences for their taboo marriage.
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At home, Mr Biswas withdrew from his family and began writing incessantly. Shama tried to comfort him and finally learned he was writing to Doctor Rameshwar, who signed Bipti’s death certificate after cursing and berating the family. Realizing his family would offer him comfort and support rather than ridicule and shame, he began drafting and redrafting the letter with Anand’s help, turning it into “a broad philosophical essay on the nature of man” that quoted liberally from Shakespeare, the New Testament, and the Bhagavad Gita.
In a time of emotional turmoil, Mr Biswas again turns to writing, and an agent of the colonial government again interrupts the family’s usual traditions in order to insist on an official certificate. Mr Biswas deliberately combines references from the West and East and finally opens his writing up to his family. In processing his despair at his mother’s death, perhaps he has learned to appreciate the family he does have.
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Mr Biswas still felt the pain of having failed to know, honor, or love Bipti; soon, he started another letter, this time addressed to her, remembering her clearing the brush in Shorthills and welcoming him home in his childhood. He felt that “he was whole again” and read his letter to the Friday literary group. During his reading he grew emotional and then ashamed; he came home and was “noisily sick” in the latrine outside.
After processing his anger, Mr Biswas addresses his guilt and regret in his letter to his mother; although he never produces fiction to read at his literary group, he indubitably finds the capacity for authentic literary expression that has so long eluded him.
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Mr Biswas and Shama decided that, regardless of his examination results, Anand must go to college—for one, Vidiadhar was already studying college subjects—but worried about how to find the money. One day, as Mr Biswas tried to catch up on his Destitutes column at the office, a reporter brought him the exhibition results: Anand was third in all of Trinidad; he won the scholarship. Mr Biswas gloated for the rest of the day.
Despite his insistence that he must have failed the exam, Anand wins the scholarship and gets to access educational opportunities his father could never even dream of; this actually happened to the author, who likely never would have been able to write this book without his scholarships to school in Trinidad and then to a university in England.
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In fact, seven of the twelve scholarships went to boys from Anand’s school; everyone was surprised that the overall winner was “a Negro boy of astonishing size” from the same school, who seldom crammed and preferred to brag about his sexual exploits with older women. All twelve boys assembled for a photograph and spent the rest of the day wandering around town, taunting “copulating couples” in the gardens and visiting the college they would attend the next term.
The victorious and unnamed “Negro boy” at once embodies and shatters racist stereotypes about black Trinidadians—while he is more concerned with sex and pranks than his future, he nevertheless gets to have it all. Anand’s own future is suddenly full of anticipation and promise; unlike his father, he is in a position to pursue whatever vocation he desires.
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Soon thereafter, the Tuttle children stepped up their own studying, and Vidiadhar was demoralized to learn that he did not even pass the exam. Distraught, Chinta stopped feeding Vidiadhar and started threatening everyone in the household. The Tuttles asked Anand to tutor them and gave him “the only presents he had for winning the exhibition”—a dollar and an “unreadable” W.C. Tuttle book. Nobody mentioned the bicycle, and the school did not even deliver its promised prize: both were blamed on the war. Despite the scarcity, Christmastime was still busy and cheerful. Best of all, the maligned Doctor Rameshwar returned Mr Biswas’s letter to his office, and Mr Biswas compiled his booklet of Twelve Open Letters.
While the distraught Anand won the scholarship, the overly confident Vidiadhar failed his exam, which reflected badly on his whole family and changed the house’s social dynamics entirely. Unsurprisingly, Mr Biswas fails to deliver the promised bicycle despite his enthusiastic support for Anand; like his house, it is a financially untenable fantasy. The Biswases manage to fulfill some of their central aspirations—Anand’s education and Mr Biswas’s publication—and their gaiety easily outweighs their lack of Christmas presents.
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