Mr Biswas’s struggle for freedom is largely a struggle for freedom from the Tulsi family he impulsively marries into. Unlike the fairly modern relatives he grows up with, the Tulsis are orthodox Hindus, which infuriates Mr Biswas to no end—particularly because their home life is orchestrated and controlled by women. Accordingly, Mr Biswas’s quest for a house arises in large part from sense of emasculation amidst the Tulsis. His desire for a house also reflects a desire to exert authority over his family, which he conceives in terms of the nuclear unit of a couple and their children rather than the traditional joint-family unit in which siblings live together, supporting their parents and children. Mr Biswas’s insistence on authority leads him to treat his wife with ceaseless and profound cruelty; nevertheless, while he is by no means a feminist figure, by the end of the book, he achieves this authority and finally stops taking women’s emotional labor for granted, beginning to recognize their support and contributions to his life.
The Tulsis’ orthodox Hinduism at once oppresses the family’s women by restricting their roles to domestic labor and supports them within the circumscribed sphere of the home. The status of Tulsi women depends largely on their marriages; this is why Mrs Tulsi is willing to marry her daughters to men of whatever occupation and disposition so long as they come from the right Hindu caste—including Mr Biswas, whose part-time job as a transient sign-painter does not dissuade her from letting him marry Shama. Tulsi women are both powerless outside the home because their traditional marriages bar them from doing much outside the house but supported and connected inside the home because the women form Hanuman House’s core social unit.
Mr Biswas is continually frustrated that nobody pays him the attention he believes he deserves and he carries no weight in the household’s decisions or community. Indeed, nobody seems to notice when he comes and goes, and he feels emasculated because, while women’s status is formally dependent on having husbands, in the house the husbands’ status depends on their wives. While everyone fears Seth, for instance, his power is derivative of his wife Padma’s and his esteem in Mrs Tulsi’s eyes; the sisters eventually turn against him, but never against her. Similarly, Mr Biswas attempts early on to befriend his brothers-in-law but gives up after they report his complaints about the family to Mrs Tulsi; they are loyal to the family’s women and not to one another.
Mr Biswas accordingly sees his quest to break free of the Tulsis and win economic independence as a referendum on his masculinity. At Hanuman House, his inability to contribute economically reflects his failure as a man—and everyone tells him so. For a long while, while living in The Chase and Green Vale, he also became an absent father, seldom visiting or thinking about his children at Hanuman House except during occasional campaigns to “claim” them from the Tulsis—he is, for instance, he is not even allowed to name his own child. Instead, Seth and Hari choose Savi’s name—and those of the rest of his children—which infuriates Mr Biswas, who feels like his paternal role has been usurped. Mr Biswas feels emasculated primarily because of how his family treats him and longs for nothing more than the opportunity to seize control of his family’s life from the Tulsi women. His “tyranny” over his family in Port of Spain demonstrates his success in transitioning from the traditional Hindu world, where men’s labor determines a family’s resources and social standing but women control the household, to a then-modern nuclear family where women are generally still confined to domestic labor yet also lack decision-making power in the home.
After Mr Biswas moves his family out of Hanuman House, he finally gains the paternal authority he sought for so long; in a city of nuclear families without the strict gender divisions of traditional Hinduism, women have a greater, but still limited, freedom to control their own economic destinies through work. For instance, Mr Biswas is astonished that his boss at the Community Welfare Department, Miss Logie, is a woman; Shama takes over his bookkeeping and ensures that the family does not go bankrupt; and ultimately Savi returns to Trinidad in the Epilogue, poised to save the family financially with her well-paying job. While he disdained women’s power in Hanuman House, Mr Biswas begins to respect women’s power in the economy: he looks up to Miss Logie and fears her judgment and, most astonishingly, even finds a limited respect for his wife, Shama, in the novel’s closing pages. He appreciates her loyalty (despite his decades of abuse), her sober judgment in encouraging him not to buy the house (although it is too late), and her eagerness in taking care of the house while he is in the hospital (if only because this domestic labor proves to him that he is the true head of the household). He also comes to finally respect his own mother, Bipti, in Shorthills, when he discovers that Shama respects her, and she helps clear the yard of debris; this redeeming moment overwhelms all of his previous disdain for her resignation and passivity, and it later leads him to mourn her death deeply.
A House for Mr Biswas contains little explicit critical analysis of gender, but Mr Biswas’s sense of domination by women—and inability to acknowledge how they support and sustain him throughout the book—defines his feelings of suffocation and powerlessness among the Tulsis. Reflecting the gender norms of the late 1950s (the book was published in 1961), Mr Biswas yearns for a Western nuclear family in which women would still lack many opportunities outside the home but also lose the power inside the home—the very power that allows the Tulsi women to retain some independence and autonomy. While Mr Biswas’s textbook transition from tradition to modernity brings his family into a world where his daughter can have an education and career, this transition does not constitute a clean break from women’s oppression into (even relative) women’s liberation. Despite their absolute lack of power over where they live, the Tulsi women have relative power over how they live in the home, and so Mr Biswas’s fate demonstrates the resiliency of the patriarchy and complicates the conventional assumption that orthodoxy confines while modernity frees.
Gender and Family ThemeTracker
Gender and Family Quotes in A House for Mr Biswas
How terrible it would have been, at this time, to be without it: to have died among the Tulsis, amid the squalor of that large, disintegrating and indifferent family; to have left Shama and the children among them, in one room; worse, to have lived without even attempting to lay claim to one’s portion of the earth; to have lived and died as one had been born, unnecessary and unaccommodated.
How often did Mr Biswas regret his weakness, his inarticulateness, that evening! How often did he try to make events appear grander, more planned and less absurd than they were!
And the most absurd feature of that evening was to come. When he had left Hanuman House and was cycling back to Pagotes, he actually felt elated! In the large, musty hall with the sooty kitchen at one end, the furniture-choked landing on one side, and the dark, cobwebbed loft on the other, he had been overpowered and frightened by Seth and Mrs Tulsi and all the Tulsi women and children; they were strange and had appeared too strong; he wanted nothing so much then as to be free of that house. But now the elation he felt was not that of relief. He felt he had been involved in large events. He felt he had achieved status.
When her feet began to swell, Mr Biswas wanted to say, “Well, you are complete and normal now. Everything is going as it should. You are just like your sisters.” For there was no doubt that this was what Shama expected from life: to be taken through every stage, to fulfill every function, to have her share of the established emotions: joy at birth or marriage, distress during illness and hardship, grief at a death. Life, to be full, had to be this established pattern of sensation. Grief and joy, both equally awaited, were one. For Shama and her sisters and women like them, ambition, if the word could be used, was a series of negatives: not to be unmarried, not to be childless, not to be an undutiful daughter, sister, wife, mother, widow.
He comprehended the city whole; he did not isolate the individual, see the man behind the desk or counter, behind the pushcart or the steering-wheel of the bus; he saw only the activity, felt the call to the senses, and knew that below it all there was an excitement, which was hidden, but waiting to be grasped.
DADDY COMES HOME IN A COFFIN
U.S. Explorer’s Last Journey
by M. Biswas
Somewhere in America in a neat little red-roofed cottage four children ask their mother every day, “Mummy, when is Daddy coming home?”
Less than a year ago Daddy—George Elmer Edman, the celebrated traveller and explorer—left home to explore the Amazon.
Well, I have news for you, kiddies.
Daddy is on his way home.
Yesterday he passed through Trinidad. In a coffin.
Mr Biswas had never thought of Tulsi property as belonging to any particular person. Everything, the land at Green Vale, the shop at The Chase, belonged simply to the House. But the lorries were Seth’s.
He had found a site such as he always wanted, isolated, unused, and full of possibilities. It was some way from the estate house, on a low hill buried in bush and well back from the road. The house was begun and, unblessed, completed in less than a month.
It was now that he began to speak to his children of his childhood. He told them of the hut, the men digging in the garden at night; he told them of the oil that was later found on the land. What fortune might have been theirs, if only his father had not died, if only he had stuck to the land like his brothers, if he had not gone to Pagotes, not become a sign-writer, not gone to Hanuman House, not married! If only so many things had not happened!
Mr Biswas went past Dehuti to look at the body. Then he did not wish to see it again. But always, as he wandered about the yard among the mourners, he was aware of the body. He was oppressed by a sense of loss: not of present loss, but of something missed in the past. He would have liked to be alone, to commune with this feeling. But time was short, and always there was the sight of Shama and the children, alien growths, alien affections, which fed on him and called him away from that part of him which yet remained purely himself, that part which had for long been submerged and was now to disappear.
It sickened him that he had fallen into Mrs Tulsi’s trap and shown himself grateful to her. She was keeping him, like her daughters, within her reach. And he was in her power, as he had been ever since he had gone to the Tulsi Store and seen Shama behind the counter.
[Mr Biswas] turned the long room into an office. In this room, where the lotuses still bloomed on the wall, he had lived with Shama. Through the Demerara window he had tried to spit on Owad and flung the plateful of food on him. In this room he had been beaten by Govind, had kicked Bell’s Standard Elocutionist and given it the dent on the cover. Here, claimed by no one, he had reflected on the unreality of his life, and had wished to make a mark on the wall as proof of his existence. Now he needed no such proof. Relationships had been created where none existed; he stood at their centre. In that very unreality had lain freedom. Now he was encumbered, and it was at Hanuman House that he tried to forget the encumbrance: the children, the scattered furniture, the dark tenement room, and Shama, as helpless as he was and now, what he had longed for, dependent on him.
One of the first stories Mr. Biswas had written for the Sentinel had been about a dead explorer. The Sentinel was then a boisterous paper and he had written a grotesque story, which he had often later regretted. He had tried to lessen his guilt by thinking that the explorer’s relations were unlikely to read the Sentinel. He had also said that when his own death was reported he would like the headline to be ROVING REPORTER PASSES ON. But the Sentinel had changed, and the headline he got was JOURNALIST DIES SUDDENLY. No other paper carried the news. An announcement came over twice on re-diffusion sets all over the island. But that was paid for.