The novel begins: “Ten weeks before he died, Mr Mohun Biswas, a journalist of Sikkim Street, St James, Port of Spain, was sacked.” He was 46 and sick for some time; his family was penniless, unable to pay the debt on their house. His children could not help out: the two older ones were studying abroad and the two younger ones still in school.
The reader first meets Mr Biswas through his tragic end. He seems to die with nothing—no job, no money, no support—yet it later becomes clear that this apparent destitution was in fact a great accomplishment for Mr Biswas (and especially his children’s education).
Mr Biswas’s wife, Shama, would have previously asked her family, the Tulsis, for help. Instead, she proposed that they sell potatoes; Mr Biswas replied that he might sell his car. They agreed that “we’ll manage” and never spoke of these plans again. Mr Biswas did not want to defy Shama, whom he had come to trust and respect; he was proud of her loyalty to their family.
Shama’s loyalties seem to have switched from her own family to Mr Biswas and their children. Although the turbulence of their past is apparent, their relationship seems like Mr Biswas’s greatest source of support and solace at the end of his life.
He was more proud of his house, despite its mortgage. He especially appreciated “the audacity” of being able to control his own space; during the rest of his life he always lived in crowded quarters with strangers or the Tulsis. He had finally won a house on a half-lot of land, “his own portion of the earth.” It was well-known in town, the two-story “huge and squat” construction of a solicitor’s clerk who, as a hobby, used his position and contacts to build houses out of old American Army camps “with little professional help.”
Even though Mr Biswas’s ownership is in many respects incomplete, he nevertheless experiences the independence from the Tulsi family and sovereignty over his household that prove his central anxieties in the rest of the book. Even though he gets cheated in the process, his ability to purchase property also reflects his victorious rise into the middle class.
The design was shoddy—doors were missing, only the kitchen and bathroom were cool enough for comfort during the day, and the uneven staircase was clearly an afterthought. Mr Biswas paid 5,500 dollars for it; although he built two houses (really “crude wooden things”) in the countryside, he simply assumed that concrete made the house “new and modern,” so bought it on impulse before even visiting during the daytime hours. There were cheaper but older houses in town, and many lots were crowded with houses that were also crowded with families. Mr Biswas’s living room was like an advertisement: “What a change from the Tulsi house!”
Mr Biswas bought the house simply because of its external appearance and the social value that this purchase represented for him. In the chapters to follow, he continually focuses on the quality of others’ homes, but after buying his own home for the wrong reasons, he seems to discover that space and privacy are actually the house’s greatest benefit. This contrasts with the communal, joint households where most Indo-Trinidadian characters live and suggests that, to an extent, Mr Biswas has shed a “traditional” way of life for a modern one.
The solicitor’s clerk lived in each house with his mother while he began to build the next—Mr Biswas found this touching because he neglected his own mother (Bipti), who died “in great poverty.” In his refined English, the clerk claimed that he was sad to leave the house, but had to because his mother could not climb the steps. Shama never visited the house and refused to opine on it—Mr Biswas thought this was because she did not want to leave her family.
Mr Biswas’s concern for privacy and independence contrasts with his sentimentality toward his mother. It is no coincidence that the narration turns immediately to Mr Biswas’s wife, Shama, for his disappointment in her lack of ambition and concern for all things domestic closely parallels his frustrations with his own mother.
Indeed, the Tulsis gossiped to no end about Mr Biswas’s plans. Shama’s niece Sunti “didn’t hide her amusement,” and Biswas, who always had contempt for her, shouted back that she should go tend the goats—which he invented just to irritate her—before turning back to Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.
Mr Biswas’s animosity for the Tulsis is immediately clear, as are his literary predilections. This is ironic, for Marcus Aurelius wrote extensively about how to temper the emotions, accept challenges, and stand strong in the face of adversity—all of which Mr Biswas clearly does not do.
As soon as they bought the house, Mr Biswas and his family began to see its flaws, like the perilous staircase and the broken doors and windows. However, they avoided talking about their disappointment and quickly got used to it.
Mr Biswas does manage to echo Aurelius by accepting his house’s myriad faults; as throughout the book, silence is the closest he and his family get to reconciliation or acceptance.
The first time Mr Biswas returned from the hospital, the house was put in order for him. It was “a welcoming world, a new, ready-made world” that reminded him of his achievements and surprised him all over again.
Mr Biswas sees the house as a reflection of his own capacities and accomplishments, conveniently forgetting that his wife and children are the ones who actually put the house in order. His pride in bringing a new world into being reflects his investment in Western capitalist notions of individual success.
One thing that surprised Mr Biswas was the kitchen safe, which he bought unfinished after his marriage and painted over and over through the years—in 1938, he also painted his typewriter, which he bought during his “brief, happy, hopeful” early years in journalism. And there were the hatrack and the bookcase, the diningtable and the upstairs bed to which Mr Biswas could no longer climb—“but bigger than them all was the house, his house.” It would have been terrible had Mr Biswas died without it, “amid the squalor” of the Tulsis, without even trying to claim some “portion of the earth” as his own, “as one had been born, unnecessary and unaccommodated.”
The objects Mr Biswas has accumulated serve to archive his past, reminding him of his gradual rise toward the greatest object of all: his house. They also stand for the relationships that he cultivated and also cultivated him. This is why his belongings justify his sense of belonging—his feeling that the world finally accommodates and needs him, and that he has made something of himself. Instead of living with his family or the Tulsis, who paid him little attention and would never yield to his desires, he makes as clean a break as possible and finds objects that he can control and shape to his will.