A House for Mr Biswas


V. S. Naipaul

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on A House for Mr Biswas can help.

A House for Mr Biswas Summary

A House for Mr Biswas follows the titular character from his unlucky birth in rural Trinidad, through his repeated displacement, unsatisfying marriage to Shama Tulsi, lackluster parenthood, and financial missteps in his quest for a house, to his death in the city of Port of Spain at the age of 46. Throughout his life, the romantic and insatiable Mr Biswas, who is prone to pride, disappointment, irrational optimism, and despair, dreams of finding financial stability and a house for his family. When he finally buys the house he always wanted, it turns out to be a scam—the house is ill-constructed and nearly uninhabitable, and Mr Biswas is unable to pay his mortgage. His health declines, he gets laid off from the Sentinel, and he dies in a heart attack.

In the prologue, Mr Biswas’s tale begins where it ends, with his firing, debt, and beautiful but crumbling house, which he bought after one nighttime visit that strategically hid its flaws. Still, it was a much better place to die than the Tulsis’ house full of relatives. Although Mr Biswas passed away with little more than the mortgaged house, at least he didn’t die “as one had been born, unnecessary and unaccommodated.”

Indeed, Mr Biswas’s birth was decidedly unlucky: at midnight, the most inauspicious of hours, he came out “six-fingered, and born in the wrong way.” Pundit Sitaram warned that he would be a lecher, spendthrift, and liar; that he would lead to his parents’ ruin; and that he should stay away from trees and water. He receives the name Mohun, but the narrator insists on calling him Mr Biswas even from his earliest days. His father, Raghu, was a miserly sugarcane worker who buried his earnings in jars underground and superstitiously insisted on staying home from work whenever Mr Biswas sneezed. While his elder brothers Pratap and Prasad joined their father in the cane fields, Mr Biswas was too sickly and weak to work, until his neighbor Dhari needed someone to look after his new calf. While he was busy gazing at a shallow stream one day, the calf wandered off and drowned; too afraid to tell anyone, Mr Biswas hid under his father’s bed until the whole village assembled at the lake, and Raghu began diving for the missing animal and boy. He pulled up the dead calf but drowned while looking for Mr Biswas just as the protagonist arrived on the scene. With the neighbors hunting through the family’s garden at night, looking for Raghu’s buried jars of money, Mr Biswas’s mother Bipti decided to sell the land and move to her sister Tara’s house in the town of Pagotes.

In Pagotes, Mr Biswas was fortunate enough to go to school, where he learned to read from the authoritarian teacher Lal and began a friendship with a local boy, Alec, who taught him to draw letters exquisitely. After getting kicked out of his pundit apprenticeship with Jairam and his job at a rumshop with Tara’s brother-in-law, Bhandat, Mr Biswas decided to work with Alec painting signs. Mr Biswas’s sign-painting took him to the Tulsis’ magnificent Hanuman House in the town of Arwacas, where an intimidating man named Seth hired him to paint signs in the Tulsi Store. Mr Biswas immediately fell in love with one of the Tulsi daughters, a girl of sixteen named Shama, and wrote her a love note. However, Mrs Tulsi intercepted his note and, to his surprise, promptly offered him Shama’s hand in marriage. He accepted the offer and immediately regretted his decision, but nevertheless moved into an upstairs room at Hanuman House, where dozens of family members cohabited in a tenuous but relative harmony. Mr Biswas immediately hated his new surroundings, antagonized as many Tulsis as possible—including Shama; Shama’s sister Chinta; Chinta’s husband, Govind; a devout and orthodox brother-in-law named Hari; and Mrs Tulsi’s two studious sons, whom she paid special attention and he disparagingly nicknamed “the two gods.” After spitting and throwing his food onto Owad, the “younger god,” Mr Biswas received a hearty beating from Govind and an order to leave the house immediately.

After his eviction, Mr Biswas went to a remote village called The Chase to run a new store the Tulsis had purchased there. Shama initially resented him for trying to “paddle [his] own canoe” and landing them in a tiny house in the middle of nowhere. However, they began to find some common ground, and she soon became pregnant—their daughter Savi was born soon thereafter. But business was turning sour at The Chase, especially given Mr Biswas’s willingness to sell to the townspeople on credit. Eventually, Mr Biswas lost all his savings when a local stick-fighting thug, Mungroo, sued him for damaging his credit. With his whole family—Shama, Savi, and his new son, Anand—at Hanuman House, and his sense of isolation at The Chase growing, Mr Biswas began to cherish the community he found among the Tulsis in Arwacas and let Seth talk him into “insuranburning” (insuring-and-burning down) the store at The Chase.

Mr Biswas’s next destination was Green Vale, an estate near Arwacas where he worked overseeing workers under Seth. He found his work tedious and his home life, in a tiny room in a shared barracks, exceedingly miserable—his only solace lay in reading the newspapers that the resident before him decided to use as wallpaper, and he began dreaming of building his own house behind a grove of trees nearby. He unsuccessfully fought to “claim” Savi from Hanuman House and then, after a nervous breakdown that culminated in his attacking Shama, turned his attention to Anand, who agreed to stay. He had already invested all his money in constructing a rudimentary house from reclaimed materials with the help of a local builder, Mr George Maclean; while there, the father and son quickly found a shared affinity for literature, philosophy, and science experiments. But soon thereafter, after Mr Biswas’s puppy Tarzan showed up dead on their doorstep, a severe lightning storm tore the house to pieces, leaving Mr Biswas again without a home. The Tulsi brothers-in-law brought him and Anand back to Hanuman House, where he recovered and began to feel “safe and even a little adventurous,” perhaps for the first time in his life. Although he was finally united with all his children—including two new daughters, Myna and the infant Kamla—Mr Biswas walked out of the house with a small suitcase and no idea where to go.

Mr Biswas jumped haphazardly onto a bus to Port of Spain, where he stayed with his sister Dehuti and her husband Ramchand in their ramshackle house on the periphery of the city. He stumbled into the office of the Sentinel, a newspaper where an old friend from Arwacas worked for some time. Although it took him a day of unpaid sign-painting to convince Mr Burnett, the editor, to give him a shot at reporting, Mr Biswas landed himself an unpaid “month’s trial.” His initial stories about dead babies were uninspiring, but after “DADDY COMES HOME IN A COFFIN,” Mr Burnett was impressed and Mr Biswas became a full-time reporter. Mr Biswas’s family agreed to move to Port of Spain, and Mrs Tulsi offered Mr Biswas’s family the spare rooms in her vacant house there for only eight dollars a month.

Soon, a “new régime” took over the Sentinel: Mr Biswas was no longer allowed to write sensational reports, but now was called to “REPORT NOT DISTORT.” Management assigned him to cover cricket matches and court cases, always in bare-bones detail, and fired Mr Burnett. With Mr Biswas increasingly miserable, his children began reconnecting with their family in the countryside—first with Tara and her husband Ajodha, and later with the Tulsis at Hanuman House.

Because of fights with Seth, the Tulsis abruptly decided to leave Hanuman House for an estate at Shorthills in the North of Trinidad, and Mr Biswas’s family got kicked out of Mrs Tulsis’s house in Port of Spain. Once again, Mr Biswas came to live with the Tulsis, although this time he found it rather inoffensive, particularly because Mrs Tulsi was aging and indifferent. However, the glorious estate began falling into deeper and deeper disrepair, threatening the family’s survival. Eventually, Mr Biswas was forced out of the house after being accused of stealing. He promptly had his own house built nearby; unfortunately, the family’s attempt to burn the brush surrounding the new house led them to burn the house down instead.

Luckily, however, Mrs Tulsi’s home in Port of Spain was again available, and Mr Biswas moved back there with Govind, Chinta, their children, all the Tuttles, and a widow named Basdai. The three brothers-in-law quarreled endlessly but indirectly, and Govind and W.C. Tuttle both grew rich working for the Americans who built military bases and oil infrastructure in Trinidad during World War II. Mr Biswas started writing a column for the Sentinel’s “Deserving Destitutes Fund”—he visited poor Trinidadians and picked one every day to win a sum of money—before losing his mother Bipti and grieving deeply for the love and connection he felt he never shared with her. Anand became one of his school’s star pupils, beating his cousin Vidiadhar in their rivalry by winning an exhibition scholarship to the local college.

When Anand started college, Mr Biswas found a new job conducting surveys for the Community Welfare Department under the ambitious and beautiful Miss Logie. Just as he began to feel like the most prominent of the house’s brothers-in-law, Mr Biswas learned that W.C. Tuttle bought his own house across town and Mrs Tulsi was moving back in preparation for Owad’s return from England.

When Owad arrived, he quickly took control of the family, winning everyone’s attention and reverence for his endless stories about medical adventures and politics in England and Russia. He soon alienated and angered Anand and Mr Biswas, and Mrs Tulsi forced the Biswases to move out. One day, a solicitor’s clerk told Mr Biswas about a house he was trying to sell—the same house where the protagonist died in the Prologue. Mr Biswas talked himself into buying it and borrowed more than four thousand dollars from Ajodha to make the purchase. He moved his family into the new house, only to discover that it was shoddily constructed by the solicitor’s clerk himself and much worse than comparably priced houses in the neighborhood.

The epilogue summarizes the last five years of Mr Biswas’s life: Anand and Savi went abroad for college, Mr Biswas finally grew to respect Shama’s rationality, and he suffered two heart attacks that left him hospitalized and sedentary. Savi returned from university and found a job that paid far more than he ever made, and the adamantly secular Mr Biswas wondered, “How can you not believe in God after this?” He died shortly thereafter; family from all around Trinidad attended his cremation and then went back to their respective homes.