A House for Mr Biswas

A House for Mr Biswas

A House for Mr Biswas Part 2, Chapter 6 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The Port of Spain house filled with Tulsis and festivities unparalleled since Owad’s departure. The evening before Owad’s arrival, Mrs Tulsi was ecstatic, and the sisters decided to stay up all night, cooking and celebrating. Visitors arrived in the morning, but Mr Biswas was frustrated to hear that the pundit took his copy of the Guardian. They drove to the port, where the ship was approaching and the Tulsis were astonished to see Seth nearby, wearing a cheap suit and fidgeting uncomfortably before lighting a cigarette and being told by an official to put it out.
After their slow descent into warring, self-interested factions, the Tulsis suddenly return to their old communal unity with Mrs Tulsi at the helm. Mr Biswas, as always, feels ostracized and indistinct in this atmosphere—but nobody is as ostracized as Seth, whose motives for coming to the port are unclear. His fall from grace is obvious in his distance from the family, outward anxiety, and inadequate dress.
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As the ship came in, the Tulsis saw Owad “wearing a suit they had never known,” with “a Robert Taylor moustache” and much larger than before in every way, such that “if he wasn’t tall he would have looked gross.” He walked off the boat and joined his family in crying. He kissed his mother, Mrs Tulsi, shook Shekhar’s hand, and embraced the sisters before moving onto the brothers-in-law. When he shook Mr Biswas’s hand, he “suddenly grew distant” because Seth was approaching. It immediately became clear to everyone that “Owad was the new head of the family;” he rejected Seth’s hand, dropped Mr Biswas’s, and left to seek out his baggage. He returned after Seth walked away.
Owad is immediately foreign to the family, ugly, off-putting, and distinctly British. He addresses his family from his closest to most distant relations, so Mr Biswas’s turn at the end signifies that they may not continue as amicably as before. Seth, the family’s old patriarch, may be coming to assert his power or merely to wish Owad well; regardless, Owad establishes that he has usurped Seth’s role and formally ostracizes him. After this overt rejection, Seth is never seen again.
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The Sentinel’s photographer took a picture of Owad, and a young reporter approached to take notes; overwhelmed by the whole emotional scene, Mr Biswas got in his car and drove around the island for some time before returning home to find Owad asleep and the rest of the family celebrating outside.
The photographer and reporter have Mr Biswas’s first job from the Sentinel, and Owad’s newsworthiness confirms that his return is as important for the rest of Trinidad as it is for the Tulsis, who celebrate him even while he is fast asleep.
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Immediately, Anand, Savi, and Myna approached Mr Biswas with tales of “Owad’s adventures in England”—his rescue efforts during the war, his emergency surgeries on famous people, even a seat in Parliament as a result. The family idolized him, mimicking his tastes—and especially his hatred for “all Indians from India,” who astonishingly “looked down on colonial Indians” in return. As Anand started parroting Owad’s reverence for the Soviet Union, Mr Biswas decided to go to sleep and marveled at Owad’s greatness.
Even Mr Biswas’s children are so taken by Owad that they begin parroting stories that seem impossibly outlandish; he immediately imposes his colonial prejudices and ostensibly wise European political theory on them all. It is unclear whether anything he says is the truth; he may have become veritably British, or he may have just learned to imitate the British better than any native Trinidadians can.
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For the next week, the festivities continued and everyone would gather to hear Owad tell stories about politics in England and Russia. Mr Biswas proclaimed that Russian names sounded strange, and Owad started passing around the Soviet Constitution, which included the line, “he who does not work shall not eat.” He also said that in Russia, they grow different colors of cotton and plant their rice by shooting it out of airplanes. Everyone could find their vocation—even the women—although Mr Biswas’s job was simply to “pick the pieces up” after people were devastated by capitalism. But Owad praised Mr Biswas for nevertheless truly being “a journalist, a writer, a man of letters.” (In Russia, the government would give him a house and set him free to write.)
Owad cannot stand anyone criticizing his insistence on Europe’s superiority; there is no discussion of why Trinidad lacks the same resources as England and Russia. The principle that “he who does not work shall not eat” points to Mr Biswas’s early days in Hanuman House, when he gratuitously took from the family and refused to work in return. While Owad criticizes Mr Biswas’s admittedly menial bureaucratic job, he fairly sees that the protagonist has already found—and abandoned—his true vocation as a journalist, the only job he found valuable for reasons beyond his salary, and promises the attractive fantasy that in Russia, Mr Biswas might win recognition and esteem for his creative expression alone.
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By the week’s end, all the Tulsis adopted Owad’s Communism and also his views on sports, artists, and writers. But “while they waited for the revolution, life had to be lived.” Owad started working at the Colonial Hospital, looking after Mrs Tulsi (who “improved spectacularly”), and reading his English medical journals. The whole family started visiting him for free medical care, and as the house’s leader, he declared that education was not the only thing worth pursuing in the house: “everyone had something to offer,” for in Russia peasants were valued too, and soon the family started swimming, boating, and playing ping-pong.
As Owad mimics Europeans, the Tulsis begin shamelessly mimicking him; “the revolution” points to not only his cherished proletarian revolution but also the way his return has seized power within the Tulsi family. Of course, by giving everyone free medical care and encouraging the athletic ones among them, he begins to put his Communist principles into action, but Russia is so distant from Trinidad that it is practically one of the fictional worlds from Mr Biswas’s novels.
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When Shekhar and Dorothy came to visit, the sisters held Owad’s accomplishments against theirs—but Owad nevertheless grew close to Dorothy despite refusing her attempts to set him up with her cousin (who, he complained, was educated in Canada). He spent less and less time in the house but continued telling his stories to anyone who would listen, and everyone felt a special personal connection with him.
Even though Owad and Shekhar’s lives are both defined by their pursuit of Western values over Hindu ones, the family’s residual disdain for Dorothy leads them to idolize Owad and denigrate his brother. Owad’s colonial bias—against Canada, of all places—not only reproduces the hierarchy imposed by British rule but also seems to conflict with his Communist insistence on equality.
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On Sundays, all the siblings would visit the house—the sisters mingled while the brothers played bridge. One morning, Shekhar and Owad argued about modern art, and Anand thought it would be funny to scatter the matches they were betting and proclaim, “Portrait by Picasso.” Although Owad hated Picasso, he did not appreciate Anand’s joke and suggested he might “look in the mirror if you want to see a portrait by Picasso.” Everyone laughed but “Anand felt betrayed,” ridiculed despite eagerly agreeing with Owad on everything. Anand apologized; Owad accused him of “conceited selfishness and egocentricity.” They were partners in the game, and Anand started playing horribly, losing it for them. Owad blamed him, Anand cried, Owad slapped him in the face, and the whole family watched them fight in silence before dispersing.
By refusing to laugh at Anand’s lighthearted joke, Owad reveals his vulnerability. Owad is so attached to his newfound preeminence among the Tulsis that he seems threatened by Anand’s wit and feels the need to put him down. Of course, among the Tulsis, Anand is the best positioned to follow in Owad’s footsteps and study outside Trinidad. Here, Anand painfully learns that Owad takes everyone’s loyalty for granted, but it is Owad who ironically accuses Anand of being selfish and egotistical—Owad certainly seems to be projecting his own pretentiousness onto his young nephew.
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Anand visited Mr Biswas, who was calculating travel expenses in a rare jovial mood, and demanded to move out. Anand refused to eat lunch or visit the sea with the family, and his three sisters joined him briefly. Shama asked him to apologize but he refused, and then he walked downstairs, waited for Owad the verandah, and apologized solemnly before returning to his mother and again refusing to eat (until everyone else finished dinner).
As in his childhood (and Mr Biswas’s early life), Anand responds to conflict by withdrawing and sulking; while Mr Biswas is too blinded by his own joy to recognize his son’s distress, Shama is too concerned with maintaining order among the family to recognize Anand’s mistreatment.
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Mr Biswas got home from his evening walk and could not sleep because of the dining room light; he asked Shama and Anand to block it with cardboard, but they failed, and he grew furious—at which point the light promptly went out, and he went to bed. But soon, chatter started up again downstairs and Mr Biswas yelled out, which started a shouting match between him and Owad, which Mrs Tulsi interrupted by telling Mr Biswas to “go to hell.” Eventually, Owad declared that he could not stand “what I’ve come back to” and walked out of the house. Mr Biswas declared, “Communism, like charity, should begin at home.” Govind burst into his room in a rage, then he and Mrs Tulsi argued over who was giving the other notice that he was to move out. The house grew silent and everyone fell asleep.
Mr Biswas loses his final battle for the house that was once briefly his. Owad cannot stand the challenge to his ego and eventually ends up shunning the whole family as a result of this minor argument. While Mr Biswas’s ego is comparably inflated, he is also indirectly standing up for Anand. After their tensions reach a boiling point and Owad walks out, his declaration that “communism, like charity, should begin at home” is his crowning achievement in his lifelong war against the Tulsis; he points out Owad’s hypocrisy and critiques the Tulsis’ bizarre disconnect from the world beyond their family.
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In the morning, everyone was uneasy, avoiding one another before learning that Owad had gone for holiday to Tobago. Mr Biswas was anxious and afraid; he felt especially bad for Shama, whom all the sisters blamed for his actions. At school, Anand quickly switched to deriding Owad’s Communist and literary heroes.
Surprisingly, Mr Biswas now recognizes the damage he has caused and even takes Shama’s feelings into account; the fact that the sisters blame Shama shows that she has grown closer to her husband than the other Tulsis.
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Mulling over deleted words from one of his earliest articles (“that conundrum—the housing question—”), Mr Biswas went to a downtown café and asked friends and acquaintances about houses for rent. Someone mentioned a man named Billy who swindled prospective renters out of their money, and Mr Biswas wanted to leave—but he was too drunk to drive, and it was too rainy outside to go anywhere. A man he knew to be a solicitor’s clerk tapped him on the shoulder, said it was much easier to buy a house those days, and bought him a drink. The solicitor’s clerk said that had gone through the same thing.
Mr Biswas again lives his life through writing, but this time the words are his own. His acquaintances’ mention of the swindling Billy foreshadows the solicitor’s clerk who is about to scam Mr Biswas in a similar way. Mr Biswas’s vulnerability to charm, attention, and flattery leads him into yet another confidence trick, and the events set out in the prologue set off on their inexorable course.
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Over lunch, the solicitor’s clerk explained his situation: he and his mother were living in a two-story house in the neighborhood of St James, but she was too old to climb the stairs (which “strain the heart”), so they needed to move. He could only afford to move elsewhere with his mother if someone bought their current house, which had “all modern conveniences and full and immediate vacant possession.” Mr Biswas agreed to visit even though he knew he only had 800 dollars.
The solicitor’s clerk foreshadows Mr Biswas’s future—he too gets a heart condition and can no longer climb the stairs. From the prologue, the reader already knows that Mr Biswas will end up buying this house and drowning his family in debt; although most of the novel proceeded spontaneously, fate now seems to have set in.
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As the rain continued to pour, the solicitor’s clerk took Mr Biswas to Sikkim Street in St James and pulled up in front of the house; Mr Biswas immediately noticed its height, walls, and white trim, and “knew that the house was not for him.” He was enchanted with the clerk’s courteous mother but felt deceptive, as whenever he went out in his suit and elegant car. It was worse because the house was “so desirable, so inaccessible.” He had tea and a cigarette, took in the house’s modern and polished interior, and followed the clerk upstairs to see the luxurious bathroom and bedrooms. “Just for a moment he thought of the house as his own,” but he quickly gave up and returned downstairs, hoping the house would be inaccessibly expensive.
The reader knows that water indicates bad luck for Mr Biswas—which he seems to always forget—and so it multiplies the sense of impending doom and dramatic irony in this scene. Although he immediately recognizes that the house is too sophisticated for his budget, Mr Biswas’s greatest weakness is so often his attraction to unachievable excess and penchant for impossible fantasies. Visiting the deceptive house in his own deceptive suit, Mr Biswas allows himself to start believing that he might properly belong there.
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The solicitor’s clerk said the house was “not bad for six thousand” and quickly lowered the price to 5,500 dollars; Mr Biswas thought of a French story about a woman stuck in debt and despaired at her plight. He said he would “think about it” and, on his way home, could not have imagined that the house would “become familiar and even boring” in his five remaining years of life.
Although he rationally understands the horrible risks of debt, Mr Biswas is flattered, not put off, by the clerk’s suspicious and immediate price drop. The two dimensions of his social striving pull him in opposite directions: one says that debt will destroy everything he has worked for, and the other says that the house is precisely what he has always worked for.
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Mr Biswas returned home with a headache and fell asleep; the narrator laments that, had Mr Biswas seen the house under different conditions and walked around it to see its “absurd shape,” incomplete roof, and shoddy staircase, he might have understood its imperfections. But “he had only a picture of a house cosy in the rain, with a polished floor, and an old lady who baked cakes in the kitchen.” With everything happening so fast, 5,500 dollars started to seem “less inaccessible.”
As when he married Shama or jumped on a random bus to Port of Spain, Mr Biswas begins to ignore his conscience and lean toward impulse instead, banking on hope and feeling proud to have found an opportunity that is obviously too good to be true. Of course, this time the reader already knows that luck will not be on his side.
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The next evening, Mr Biswas awoke to Shama announcing a guest outside: it was “a respectably dressed Negro of the artisan class” who wanted to buy his house in Shorthills and gut it for materials. The visitor gave Mr Biswas 400 dollars. While 800 dollars “are petty savings,” 1,200 dollars means “real money;” Mr Biswas put a deposit on the house the next day and even remembered to request an official stamped receipt. Shama cried when he told her, and when their niece Suniti criticized him, he told her to go look after her goats (which he made up to annoy her).
With no warning or expectation, Mr Biswas suddenly has thousands rather than hundreds in his bank account. This cosmetic difference, insignificant in relation to the house’s full price of nearly 6,000 dollars, nevertheless inflates his ego and leads him to make bad financial decisions over Shama’s protests and other criticisms from the family. All the while, he believes he is being prudent by getting the stamped receipts whose absence defrauded him at The Chase.
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Mr Biswas and Shama argued about the house and, although he began to worry, “he lacked the courage to go back yet found the energy to go ahead.” He decided to visit Tara and Ajodha; his aunt was excited for him to finally leave the Tulsis, and his uncle loaned him the money “as a petty business transaction” at eight percent interest over five years. After eating with them, he drove away and realized he was now indebted and deceiving Ajodha about his unpaid car loans and inability to pay back the house on his civil servant’s salary.
Although Tara continues to show affection and concern, Ajodha never breaks out of his business mindset and insists on profiting what should be aid to his nephew. Meanwhile, Mr Biswas sees that he is doing precisely what he most feared just a few pages ago, but prefers as always to maintain his pride and defer consequences into the uncertain, foreboding future in order to get one closer to his fantasy in the present.
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Mr Biswas could have rescinded his offer when the family visited the house that Friday, although Shama refused to get out of the car and was “overcome by anger and dread.” The children were charmed by the solicitor’s clerk’s mother and the house’s luxurious furnishings—in the dark, they too missed “the crudity of the construction.” They were thrilled to have “something so new, so clean, so modern, so polished.”
When he has an opportunity to deliberate about action, Mr Biswas insists on suppressing his conscience and blindly following his impulses instead; because he has financial control over his family, there is nothing Shama can do to stop him, even though she understands the gravity of his mistake.
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When Owad returned from Tobago, Mrs Tulsi grew tearful, spinning “a lengthy tale of injustice, neglect and ingratitude” for her daughters. However, she failed to win Owad’s attention, and “almost as suddenly as it had started, talk of the revolution ended.”
Mrs Tulsi’s sob story seems much like Mr Biswas’s own self-indulgent laments about his fate and bad luck—or, perhaps, the novel itself.
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