Span: Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 34-35, 1992-93
Edited by Vijay Mishra

The Colonised Subject's Multiple and Transversal Struggle for Selfhood: The Case of A House for Mr Biswas

Razif Bin Bahari

The construction of the colony makes an epistemological intervention in, and displacement of, the construction of the colonized subject's identity. The strategy of constructing the exemplars of personhood that Ralph Singh resorts to in The Mimic Men is essentially that of a form of inauthenticity which was clearly seen to be culturally, politically and socially constructed by the various mechanisms of colonial domination and subordination that organize the colonised subject's daily life, and which then turns into a kind of inward experience, through which most of his political and social life is negotiated. The inscription of the colonised subject into this symbolic structure as a 'split-self', subjects him/her, as Homi Bhabha has it, to "an apparatus of power which contains, in both senses of the word, an 'other' knowledge - a knowledge that is arrested and fetishistic and circulates through colonial discourse as that limited form of otherness, that fixed form of difference ... called the stereotype."1 However, the illusory nature of ideological interpellation, which was always supposed to be the thing that is disallowed to the subject, is precisely that which constitutes the colonized subject; though, we might add, with a caveat: that they do not necessarily occupy the same social space. The colonized subject is actually well aware of his or her inauthenticity, and the struggle for selfhood which s/he is caught up in, demonstrates clearly, as we shall see, an articulation from, or constituted within the realities of 'social death' , dispossession, displacement and exploitation linked to questions of slavery, indenture, migration, diaspora refugees and the colonial past, in the moment of disjunction, in the complex moment of articulation of different temporalities - political, discursive, and historical conditions. In what follows, I will try to trace and analyse how this struggle (as a strategy of psychic, social and political survival) is constituted in A House for Mr Biswas, and how that struggle has brought on alienation and escape - sometimes as disavowal, sometimes as recognition; as the self grapples with the modes of domination and is made aware that identity is itself conflictual and constituted in a differential way.

Accounts of the above novel customarily foreground a symbolic struggle between two orders - the traditional Hindu and the imperialist West - in the context of a colonised and deracinated people. This formulation however, omits to mention the integral similarities that characterize the two orders. The Tulsi household is ruled by a matriarch alongside "a large, moustached, overpowering man" (p.24). Incorporated within its organizational structure are a pundit and a coconut-seller, allegorical figures for the Church and the proletariat; and a bewildering host of daughters who serve to perpetuate the system through the dual functions of childbearing and the transmission of received values. This picture of Mrs Tulsi as an Indian Victoria is completed by the fact that the backyard of the Tulsi home, Hanuman House, has been christened "Ceylon". A parallel here could be made with the story of the Ramayana, the great Indic text. Lanka is the abode of the demon king in the Ramayana. And Hanuman is Rama's trusted servant who helps find Sita, Rama's wife, abducted by Ravana, the demon king. The parallel then becomes clear: there is analogously a dual referent here: (a) Ceylon = the narrative of the Epic text; and (b) Ceylon = the power of the coloniser, the latter through the victory of Rama over Ravana is also a re-play of the history of India's first colonisers, the Aryans.

This parody of empire (in the 'space' of Hanuman House) appears to suggest that subjection is by no means the exclusive practice of alien invaders. The docility and utility of the elements within the system are ensured through a brand of surveillance which is both mutual and overt. Each element in this household of countless prying eyes assiduously asserts its loyalty to the established hierarchy through productive and ritualistic activity whilst watching its co-workers for signs of deviation from the prescribed norm.

The system is not so much geared towards the maximization of profits as it is to the continuation of tradition and communal "harmony" in the face of larger social change. This latter figures as the rationale for the general servility to the Tulsi discourse (as distinct from a strict adherence to orthodox Hindu doctrine), perceived as it is by the minnows to be the only means to stability and security. Hence, a picture of the Virgin Mary hangs over the doorway of the house; and Christmas is celebrated without a murmur of dissent even from Hari the pundit. There are, as always, strictly circumscribed rules to this festivity. Displays of individuality are forbidden, as the following incident makes clear. The family responds to Biswas' doll-house gift to his daughter Savi - bought with a month's pay - by imposing excommunicatory silence upon his wife Shama and the children. Capitulation and genuflection ineluctably arrives with Shama destroying the house (but it is significant that Savi's first words to Biswas are, "They break it up." (p. 196). The mangled object is described in terms of a once living thing: "Its delicate parts were exposed and useless. Below the torn skin of paint . . . the hacked and splintered wood was white and raw." (p. 197). The violence of the destruction and the analogy to the human body offers some indication of the intensity of the methods by which the subject is constituted. The physical violence which might have in another age been visited upon the body of the dissenting subject is here ritualistically displaced - by that very subject itself - on to the offending object as the symbolic expression of penitence and, more importantly, of the reaffirmation of the dominant discourse. Physical abuse, actual or symbolic, operates primarily as a signifier of willing self-regulation (although, among other things, it may also signify self-righteous irony and even pure entertainment).2 When Mrs Tulsi expresses disapproval at the doll-house the Tulsi sisters immediately signal the closing of ranks with a stylized chorus of threats to the children who continue to show interest in the object: "I will peel your backside"; "I will break every bone in your body"; "I will make you heavy with welts" (p. 195). True knowledge - in this instance of the taboo object - may be inscribed upon the subject only through the display of surplus power or its inverse: either through an ostentatious brutality or an exaggerated self-debasement, as when the sisters compete to outdo one another in performing menial tasks for the newly-returned Owad (p. 493-4). The basis of the intense physicality of this discourse - such that the subject is seen transmitting the very modalities of power by which it is suppressed - lies in the fact that meaning is seen to emanate directly from the tangible presence of the leader.3 Power, or truth, dwells in the immediacy (and intimacy) of utterance or the spoken word; the corollary being that obedience to the truth is evidenced through the fundamental signifying mechanisms of the body. The oracular is therefore a closed system, self-referential and apparently lacking in a vocabulary of self-analysis.

It is only too easy to read off in terms of nineteenth century realist fiction Biswas' demystification of this order as the individual's triumph over a stultifying culture. It is one thing to argue that Biswas rebels against the constraints of the Tulsi order, but quite another to claim that he is properly cognizant of the imaginary Western ideals of "dignity" and "freedom". History is the issue here, and the knowledge with which history inscribes the colonised subject.

And here I think a very important apercu is Dipesh Chakrabarty's statement in which he employs the notion of "subalternity" to problematize the idea of "Indians" representing themselves in history. He propounds that it derives its interest precisely from the fact that one can only articulate subaltern subject positions in the entelechy of a Eurocentric notion of "history". Employing Marx's conception of the split of the modern individual into "public" and "private" notions of selfhood (heralded, as it is, by European imperialism's introduction of the modern state and the idea of the nation into India) - which have existed in contestation, alliance, and miscegenation with other narratives of self and communality that do not look to the state/citizen bind as the ultimate construction of sociality - he goes on to say that "these other constructions of self and community, while documentable in themselves, will never enjoy the privilege of providing the metanarratives or teleologies . . . of [Indian] histories. This is so partly because these narratives often themselves bespeak an antihistorical consciousness; that is, they entail subject positions and configurations of memory that challenge and undermine the subject that speaks in the name of history. 'History' is precisely the site where the struggle goes on to appropriate, on behalf of the modern [the hyperreal Europe], these other collocations of memory."4 An apposite scrutiny of the histories of diaspora refugees, the postcolonial histories of the Caribbean indentured subjects, at this juncture, would give us a basis in understanding the cultural experience of those forms of displacement and exploitation and how we could renegotiate the rubrics for the recognition of the self for the postcolonial subject in the interstitial matrices of 'western' appropriation and construction of the ideas of progress, social transformation, the myth of the nation and, most of all, historical universalism. Vijay Mishra's numerous essays on what he terms the "Girmit ideology" inflect the anxiety of members of an Indian diaspora so dramatically wrenched from its Indian centre and provide an opportunity for mapping the relations between the political, cultural, existential and chronological experience of Naipaul's texts (set as they are in the colonial historical situation) and the problems of signification, identification and their areas of complexity.5 The "Girmit ideology", as contradistinctive to the conceptual antinomy of "mimicry" as an illusory form of ideological interpellation, as the scene of fetishism that repeats and reactivates the phantasy of pure origin, thus producing a certain subjectivity, or, more accurately, making possible certain subjectifying practices, came about as a result of the indentured labourers of the Indian diaspora's anxiety to remain unified in the face of deracination, disenfranchisement and fragmentation. "Though internally ruptured and empirically elusive, this 'Girmit ideology' unites the experience of indentured labourers of the Indian diaspora, from Natal to Fiji, from Mauritius to Trinidad. Like any ideology, however, its strength lay precisely in its capacity to falsify reality and project itself unwittingly, though appealingly, as an imaginary set of beliefs which nevertheless is invoked as a point of reference for purposes of (spurious) legitimation. The Indian fragment. . .constructed imaginary belief systems for its own self-authentication, self-generation and legitimation. But the Indians themselves were essentially a fragment which had been forcefully wrenched from its centre."6 It was Naipaul, according to Mishra "who gave form and language to the Girmit ideology; it was Naipaul who gave the Indian diaspora a distinctive discourse and a consciousness."7 The symbolic structure within which Naipaul's own narrative as with Mr Biswas' struggle for self-identity takes place, I contend, subjects them - as we recapitulate Bhabha - to "an apparatus of power which contains, in both senses of the word, an 'other' knowledge - a knowledge that is arrested and fetishistic and circulates through colonial discourse as that limited form of otherness, that fixed form of difference. . .called the stereotype."8 Bhabha reads the stereotypes of colonial discourse in terms of and as fetishism - that is to say, as a splitting of the subject, forming of multiple and contradictory beliefs in the drama of recognition and disavowal of racial/cultural difference and simultaneously as the fantasy of a pure origin and wholeness which is always threatened by division - a division which is, I might add, made complicated by the "falsification", the "false consciousness" of the girmit phantasmagoria and the diasporic Indian's concomitant fragmentation of psyche. History, after all, as we have mentioned earlier, becomes a force and agent of stultification, of 'ossification' and 'fossilization' when cultures allow themselves to indulge in delusory reconstructions of the past, and it was this morass that the Indians of the Indian diaspora ensnared themselves in when they wrought a nostalgic past upon the realities of the present.

Biswas' struggles between the torpor of a decaying culture consanguineous to a failed millenial quest and the void of a colonial society predicated and sustained as the subject of fantasy and romance - the fantasy of originality and difference, romance of a life "elsewhere" - exemplify the colonised subject's transversal struggle for selfhood, constantly engaged in interpreting the past and actively negotiating the claims of contending (but unequal) traditions. Biswas' attacks on the contradictions of the Tulsi discourse - which, with its out-of-date Hinduism, epitomises decay, disintegration, and dereliction emblemetic of the "Girmit ideology" Mishra speaks of - is in striking contrast to his uncritical acceptance of the platitudes of Victorian self-help books:

Mr Biswas saw himself in many Samuel Smiles heroes: he was young, he was poor, and he fancied he was struggling. But there always came a point when resemblance ceased. The heroes had rigid ambitions and lived in countries where ambitions could be pursued and had a meaning. He had no ambition, and in this hot land, apart from opening a shop or buying a motorbus, what could he do? What could he invent? (p. 71)

In Lacanian terms, the "imaginary" is the domain which seeks identity or resemblance. There is no mistaking that in his search for a stable notion of the self Biswas likens himself to this ideal of purposeful individuals who determine their own destiny. His wistful recognition of his "difference" is founded, ironically enough, on an inability to register the crucial paradigm of the colonial text. For the statement, the heroes "lived in a land where ambition could be pursued", one might read: "that other land of plenitude is naturally suffused with everything that Trinidad, just as naturally, lacks". And in a phrase of stunning fatuity - "in this hot land. . .what could he do?" - the history of imperialism is reduced to the effects of an unpleasant meteorological detail. The Althusserian redefinition of ideology as the imaginary representation of the subject's relationship to his real conditions of existence is apropos to this discussion, accurately describing Biswas' subjection to a discourse more sophisticated (and pernicious) than any snare the Tulsis' might have set an unsuspecting interloper.9

Despite the overwhelming physical evidence to the contrary, Biswas identifies with the benevolent universe of Victorian fiction, and waits "for the world to yield its sweetness and romance" (p.73). He draws "imaginary scenes: snow-covered mountains and fir trees, red-hulled yachts in a blue sea below a clear sky, roads winding between well-kept forests to green mountains in the distance." (p. 251). The riotous juxtaposition of colour is in jarring contrast to the unnatural staticity of composition and the tone of a universe that was formed complete and perfect. It is the repression of History or the "real" that is at stake here, the dream of an elsewhere free from ideology. The tension between the real which cannot be denied and the desperate fantasy of the subject who - moulded by the discourse of colonialism - cannot but imagine his relation to the world in illusory terms is a central preoccupation of the narrative. Biswas' search for an essence, and an existence of individual freedom is thwarted repeatedly by a socio-economic order that refuses to recognize him or his capabilities, relegating him instead to functions that emphasize the larger reification of the society. In the isolation of Green Vale, now working as an overseer, Biswas believes it possible to assert himself over and against the disappointments of an intransigent reality. The house he sets about to have built becomes his metaphor for this notion of selfhood. It is a metaphor based upon the fiction of solipsistic essentialism, that by repudiating the codes of both the social (i.e., his family and his relationship to the Tulsis) and the economic (his relationship as overseer to both Seth and the labourers within the residual structure of the colonial system of indentured labour), he will become "free". His gradual mental degeneration is caused by the realization that his identity is determined by none other than the discourse into which he is locked by these factors. Beyond the pale is the void of the "darkness that filled his head" (p. 240), the hollow knowledge that his formulation of the world has been based on a profound, irremediable misrecognition. The warped fantasy of dismemberment by which Biswas's fantasy is attended ("I am not whole"), where household objects are perceived as implements of torture, finds its culmination in a revulsion towards physicality that significantly forms a parallel to the technology of the body of the Tulsi order.10 The throwing away of the chipped tooth, and the kicking of the pregnant Shama's belly in response to her sexual advances both figure as gestures of feeble resistance to the investment of the human body and its parts with the inescapable logic by which power-knowledge herds the subject into its matrix of domination.

There is a narrative silence as regards the underlying cause of Biswas' breakdown. In contrast to the Tulsis who are presented as functioning in unthinking collectivism within a "visible" ideology, Biswas' failure at Green Vale is described almost exclusively in psychological (i.e. ahistorical) terms - as if his disease were the result of his "character" and its properties. This narrative double-standard, whereby the actual workings of history are suppressed by the dubious closure of the completeness of Biswas' recovery, finds an analogy in the tension between the drive to describe his life in terms of a romance quest and the representation of movement determined by extraneous factors typified by a lack of direction and the endless redoubling of incident. It is a condition that arises from a fundamental question of existence, as to whether or not history is linear and teleological. The narrative paradigms of A House for Mr Biswas - implicitly authorized by the tradition of European liberalism - insist upon this being the case: that the discourse of the West and its cult of individual is, for all its failings, the only way forward. Hence, while the authority of history is summoned forth when a culture is adjudged "regressive" - witness the Tulsis - it must needs be elided, as in Biswas' alienation, when it threatens to rupture the discourse of colonial promise.

Not surprisingly therefore, the narrative favours the trope of romance quest over that of aimless wandering, despite the latter being the dominant, if not obsessive, episodic framework of the novel. This wish-fulfilling device does not arise from a merely arbitrary prioritizing of capitalist historiography, but out of a desperate need to infuse the (individual) state of colonial subjugation with meaning and, for want of a better word, hope. Proof that the narrative does not assume uncritically that the one is a precondition for the other is demonstrated by the abundance of internal dialogue and argument. The novel is openly dialogical in that discourses antagonistic to the narrative paradigms are repeatedly foregrounded, offering the means by which one might attempt to imagine alternative histories. Pankaj Rai's Hindu reformist group, which Biswas joins, attempts to combine progressive Western attitudes with the communal stability provided by the Indian social network. There is also the communism that Owad, fresh from his experience of Europe, preaches as a solution to the poverty of the under-developed world.11 Although the instigators of both alternatives are dismissed as fraudulent (the narrative does, after all, have a stake in the matter) the traces of both discourses remain structurally inscribed among the paths not taken. The best instance of an attempted reinvention of history comes in "The Shorthills Adventure" chapter. The beleaguered Tulsis see this move into the country as an assertion of the traditional values in an increasingly hostile climate of socio-economic change. The sisters describe the land in terms of a tropical paradise, the home of a plenitude where the ideals of communal living may be established without any need for capitalistic exploitation:

The land itself was a wonder. The saman trees had lianas so strong and supple that one could swing on them. All day the immortelle trees dropped their red and yellow bird-shaped flowers through which one could whistle like a bird. Cocoa trees grew in the shade of the immortelles, coffee in the shade of the cocoa, and the hills were covered with tonka bean. Fruit trees, mango, orange, avocado pear, were so plentiful as to seem wild. . . The sisters spoke of the hills, the sweet springs and hidden waterfalls with all the excitement of people who had known only the hot, open plain, the flat acres of sugarcane and the muddy ricelands. Even if one didn't have a way with land, as they did, even if one did nothing, life could be rich at Shorthills. (p. 354)

Again, this seems another fantastic identification with a dream landscape, and Biswas, perceptive of the folly of others, is quick to point this out to Shama. But the beauty and potential of the place actually exceeds the description above, as a surprised Biswas discovers upon his first visit there. The pristine feel of the forest also carries within it a sense of history. Biswas responds to a signpost marked "Christopher Columbus Road" by imagining "the other race of Indians moving about this road before the world grew dark for them." It is perhaps the novel's only explicit reference to the colonial past, a passing allusion to a process at the final stage of which Biswas is situated. But here Biswas' imagination is fixed solely on the romantic aspect of his racial namesakes; he valorizes the landscape poetically, and sees in it the possibility of a new life distinct from "the barren, concrete and timber Port of Spain."

Whereas Biswas' reverie is playful, Mrs Tulsi's vision comes equipped with a programme. "Just the place for a temple," she whispers meaningfully, at one point in her survey of the land. Her dream of a new Tulsi civilization at Shorthills based upon an unlikely blend of primitive communism and the pre-existing practice of orthodox Hinduism eventually comes to grief in internal division and a wholesale despoilation of the land carried out by mutinous family members. The failure of this attempt to take history into their own hands parallels the events leading to Biswas' mental breakdown at Green Vale. Both episodes founder on a metaphoric, or literally analogous, identification with the object of desire. In the movement of the Tulsis from one abode to the next, the inverted resemblance to Biswas is in their opposite desire for a return to the Indian ways of time immemorial; they do not realise that deracination implies difference, that their objectives are not sustained by the social sanction which is the essential precondition for the success of cultural reassertion.

Articulation is the issue here. While the dominant trope remains that of metaphor, a trope implicitly endorsed by the discourses of both imperialism and native orthodoxy, the will of the subjected unconscious finds itself confounded at every turn. The novel itself favours this trope, constantly seeking to contain the undesirable proliferation of meanings by strategic condensations - synopses of events past or future which are then expanded upon leisurely by the narrative. The best example of this occurs in the "Prologue" where a summary of Biswas' life in several lines is then taken over by a narrative which expands on this over several hundred pages. At significant moments however, at points in which the burden of containment becomes unsatisfactory or unsustainable, the narrative slides into a mode where meaning cannot be traced back to a definable point of origin or being to a notion of essence. This is a state commensurate with the trope of metonymy, where words or signs reflect their overdetermination, constitutionally unable to subsume themselves within the univocal mythmaking of the dominant discourse. Here, in an evocative description of the making of fighting sticks, is an example of it:

Designs were cut into the bark of the poui, which was then roasted in a bonfire; the burnt bark was peeled off, leaving the design burnt into the white wood. There was no scent as pleasant as that of barely roasted poui: faint, yet so lasting it seemed to come from afar, from some immeasurable depth captive within the wood: as faint as the scent of the pouis Raghu roasted in the village like this, in a yard like this, in a bonfire like this: bringing sensations, not pictures, of an evening meal being cooked over a fire that shone on a mud wall and kept out the night, of cool, new, unused mornings, of rain muffled on a thatched roof and warmth below it: sensations as faint as the scent of the poui itself, but sadly evanescent, refusing to be seized or to be translated into a concrete memory. (p. 156)

The operative words here function on apparent contradictions: "faint" is juxtaposed with "lasting"; the scent comes from "afar", but it emanates from "within" the wood. The description then marks the shift from its impressionistic register to the precise detail of Biswas' childhood village with the paradoxical repetition of "faint". The congruence claimed through physical detail between the latter and the present village (note the rhetorical cumulation of "like this") is suddenly undermined with the phrase "bringing sensations, not pictures", as the identification slides into the uncertainty and indeterminacy of representation. For the sensations are not necessarily those of Biswas any longer, referring in all probability to a past beyond that of Raghu's hut, to an inarticulable area imprinted collectively as the ancestral or racial unconscious. The words "come from afar" and "some immeasurable depth within" call attention to themselves here, signifying a spatial sweep of dual determination, into the outer and the inner universe. One translation (or transformation, as regards of dominant narrative tropes) that has been given concrete expression is the centrality of metonymy to the instituting of historical difference or specificity.

The education that Biswas is exposed to as a child is disembodied learning of the kind that finds no relevance to his daily experience. He learns to recite the Lord's Prayer in Hindi, makes notes, "which he never seriously believed", on geysers, rift valleys, and so forth. In a perfect example of metaphoric identification, he is taught to visualise an "oasis" as "four or five date trees around a narrow pool of water" (p. 42). A telling moment of unconscious rebellion against this state apparatus comes a few pages later when Biswas indulges his gift for fanciful lettering while he should be answering test-questions; he is punished by being told to write "I am an ass" on the blackboard. Biswas outlines this in "stylish, contemptuous letters", drawing attention to the materiality of the words rather than the reality they are meant to reflect. It is an act of symbolic usurpation, heralding the displacement of the signified by the signifier. Like the memory evoked by the poui sticks, language, or representation, cannot be translated into a reality that can be seized. These are precisely the connotations that language or signs take on during Biswas' period as sign-writer. In painting garish signs for shopowners who seek to outdo each other, he creates emblems that, while being intrinsically meaningful, ultimately embody nothing more than a deferral of content to an indeterminate elsewhere which may not be encompassed by the presence of the shop or even within the social entity. Biswas paints "Santa Clauses and holly and berries and snow-capped letters; which quickly blistered in the blazing sun." The referent here is not necessarily reducible to the West, as in Biswas' Smilesean fantasies. Rather, they function in much the same way that present day Christmas signs in the tropics do, absorbed within the vagaries of a larger historical disjunction that are not so much Chakrabarty's "hyperreal Europe" (after Baudrillard) as part of the unclear boundaries of colonial contradiction.

Like the owners for whom Biswas paints the signs, sign-writing is part of the discourse of desire: "A chance encounter had led him to sign-writing. Sign-writing had taken him to Hanuman House and the Tulsis. Sign-writing found him a place on the Sentinel. " (p. 291). The deflections that arise in his various language-related capacities (now as sign-writer and later as journalist) parallel the shift from house to house, and the search for the elusive coherence and meaning that attainment of the latter will bestow upon his life. The centrality of language to Biswas' condition is a fact seldom noted. His witty attacks on the Tulsis, for instance, are among the best things in the novel, but they are not merely diverting: these outbursts are belied by, on the one hand, a desperate desire for recognition, and on the other, the fear that independence will result in isolation, isolation of the type that does indeed lead to madness. The language of humour here carries its own secret intensities and urgencies, implicitly admitting to itself that much vaunted rebellions may also be veiled pleas for help. At Green Vale, in the period leading to his breakdown, the grotesques of Dickens give him comfort, and he reads The Hunchback of Notre Dame.12 None of this arises from self-pity, but out of a need to rationalize his personal and circumstantial limitations. It is the same need that is at the source of his one heartfelt piece of writing, addressed to his dead mother, which he reads to a Port of Spain literary group:

He wrote of a journey he had made a long time before. He was hungry; she gave him food. He had nowhere to go; she welcomed him. The writing excited, relieved him. . The poem written, his selfconsciousness violated, he was whole again. (436-7)

It is a falsification of the essential details of the incident upon which it is based, where Bipti had greeted him with a resignation that virtually amounted to coldness.13 In making his peace with the past through art, Biswas believes himself to have become "whole" again. At Green Vale, Biswas' declaration of not being whole was accompanied by a disintegration that led to insanity. Language as a means of negotiating the "real", of finding imaginary resolutions to contradictions that cannot, by definition, disappear; language here operates as an act of deferral, essential to the retention of sanity.

True release however, comes when Biswas finds a job as a journalist on the Trinidad Sentinel. Under the tutelage of his editor Biswas begins to compose pieces whose tone and content are closer to the realm of the imagination than they are to the sober veracity of conventional journalism. Through language Biswas manages a partial, though unacknowledged, refutation of his earlier resignation to being condemned to a life of unfulfilling labour "in this hot land". With articles such as "I am Trinidad's Most Evil Man" he demonstrates by analogy how mystery, humour and romance may be restored, albeit ironically, to the native landscape without the need for legitimizing recourse to Western models of representation. In a period when the growing forces of national consciousness were beginning to realize the importance of print-capitalism to their cause, Biswas appropriates the language of the master to celebrate difference, emphasizing the bizarre and the picaresque with a gusto that borders on the anarchic. He also takes to satirizing the school texts of his son, Anand; and although he assumes an ostensibly conservative stance - "They are not teaching as they used to when I was a boy" - it is clear that the jibe is directed at the universalizing policies that have informed educational practices from his own day to the present:

"Readers by Captain Cutteridge! Listen to this. Page sixty-five, lesson nineteen. Some of our Animal Friends." He read in a mincing voice: 'What should we do without our animal friends? The cow and the goat give us milk and we eat their flesh when they are killed.' Your hear the savage?" (p. 307)

Biswas', and the paper's, mischief, salutary though it is, is without a cause. When Biswas plays the Scarlet Pimpernel, he doles out dollar tokens for a principle no higher than that he has been identified as the man from the Sentinel. It is questionable whether this is preferable to the climate of sanctimonious philanthropy that is established by the new regime at the sacking of the paper's editor. Initially playing out the role of the Pimpernel, Biswas revels in the fantasy of being a force that cannot be contained by authority, a force whose freedom is corroborated by the correspondingly exhibitionist accounts of its exploits in print. The arbitrariness of this power is then replaced by its inverse: he is relegated to the position of the hack who merely investigates and ascertains cases of genuine poverty, having no part in the workings of the Deserving Destitutes Fund. While the disgruntled Biswas is right to label the new newspaper "a capitalist rag" for its nonpolitical (and self-serving) solutions to the widespread exploitation which is structurally inherent in the social system, there remains little to mitigate the utter irrelevance of the Pimpernel to the issue of poverty and its alleviation.14

This is of course to read against the grain of a narrative which silently gives unqualified support to Biswas as the unfettered, if not irresponsible, reporter. The crude question which begs to be asked is this: where, between the discrete "liberation" of Biswas and the improvement of the lot of the masses, does the narrative locate itself? While there is little doubt that the omniscient narrator apparently models himself on the self-assured voice of Victorian realism with its confident formulations of the micro- and macrocosmic relationships of the "organic" community in the context of a quintessentially bourgeois notion of progress (Bleak House and Middlemarch being prime examples here), it becomes obvious upon examination that the differences outnumber the similarities.15 One observation will suffice to illustrate this point. The society here is portrayed as fragmented , without either cohesion or a sense of "purpose", two failings which will reveal the spiritual void at its centre with the onset of independence. Built on slavery and indentured labour, and governed by policies of racial division, it is the colonial administration that holds together this "manufactured society". This is the central narrative paradigm of A House for Mr Biswas; the dismissive tone towards the broken social entity leaves little question as to where the loyalties of the narrative lie.

Indeed, Biswas' (and his son's) triumph seems the only thing of importance to the narrative. For all its obfuscations on the topic, the novel serves as a vindication of the philosophy of Victorian self-help, purporting to demonstrate that the "little man" can rise out of the morass of social disadvantage to shape his own destiny. Unlike the protagonists of Victorian fiction, however, Biswas does not desire acceptance into the social fabric; it is not normalization that he seeks but escape from his inherited cultures, Indian and Trinidadian. Neither is it an accident that the patently autobiographical short stories he obsessively rewrites are invariably entitled Escape. Significantly however, the narrative lapses into implausibility when it commits itself to showing the origins of his individuality and his ability to formulate views alien both in content and tone to the social consciousness. When his older brother tells of a donkey he has bought, the young Biswas, erstwhile village boy who now lives off the charity of relatives, evinces disdain: " the buying of a donkey seemed to him an act of pure comedy". (p. 45) It is ludicrous reaction which is nonetheless integral to establishing Biswas' "difference" from those around him. This narrative slip, or contradiction, reveals the gap upon which the credibility of the novel is founded - that the gentle reader overlooks these sleight of hand in the sanctifying name of liberal humanism; it is a moment of silent appeal to a sympathetic Western audience to see only the heartwarming account of a lone man's triumph over a philistine society to become just like "us".

An alternative reading might foreground the strategic containment, or management, of facts that are requisite to the representation of Biswas' achievement as the monumental affair it is so often made out to be. An instance of this, apart from that already highlighted above, is seen with Ramchand, Biswas' ostracized brother-in-law, who achieves at least as much as the latter despite being deprived of all communal support. But Ramchand's aspirations, as with those of all the other figures in the novel, are given little, if any, consideration; this is a point which will be discussed shortly. Returning to the question of the Biswas' relation to the narrative, the following passage may prove significant. It begins with the narrator's remarks:

Pratap and Prasad were already married, Pratap to a tall, handsome woman who was bearing a child every eighteen months, Prasad to a woman of appalling ugliness who was mercifully barren.

"You musn't say things like that," Bipti said. She could still irritate him by taking everything he said seriously. (p. 71)

Who does Bipti address, the narrator, Biswas, or both? The momentary coalescing of the sensibilities of author and subject suggests a narrative investment of hitherto unimagined intensity. Homi Bhabha, invoking Freud, has this to say on the question of "narrative intention and control":

The structure of primal fantasy is characterized by the absence of subjectivization; and subject's presence in the scene may split, shift, slide, move from the first to the third person, be the actor and the observer all at once.16

Bhabha refers solely to Biswas' self-delusions as an exemplification of the metonymy of desire. But there is another kind of shift from first to third person, where "objective" narration breaks down into a direct identification with its subject, and its subject's desire. These subtle lapses, appearing in various forms, occur often enough to warrant an extra-textual reading. Naipaul has written that, among all his novels, this is the one "closest" to him, admitting also that it has an autobiographical basis with his father, Seepersad Naipaul, as the original from which Biswas is drawn.17 Certain tentative parallels may be established between Biswas' ambitions and his creator's own professional anxieties. In an essay entitled "London", written during the composition of A House for Mr Biswas, the young Naipaul complains obliquely about two things, that his merits as a writer have not been properly recognised by his English audience, and that London, despite the freedom it affords, leaves him feeling isolated and depressed, cut off from "communal pleasures".18 Recognition and alienation; both Naipaul and the character he creates out of this anxiety are informed by an awareness of "escape" as a double-edged sword. This goes some way to accounting for the intensity of the narrative investment in Biswas, for the vindication of Naipaul's claim to artistic worth is entirely dependent upon Biswas' - and by extension, the novel's - success.

This is precisely why Biswas cannot be allowed to fail. The consequence of this narrative loading is manifested in the figuring of history in terms of the individual, to the exclusion of almost all else. Although this may seem a tiresome repetition of a point already made on the previous page, what is being revealed here is nothing less than the secret motivations of the author. The novel is to a degree Naipaul's wish-fulfillment writ large; the oppression of Biswas (and his son, Anand, who is Naipaul's fictional self) by an unjust society is among the emotive means by which Naipaul's outright denunciation of the "herd" and his exaltation of the strong individual are legitimated. And, of course, the larger issue which presides over and gives (circular) validation to this stance is his own decision to abandon country and culture to forge in the smithy of his soul, not the uncreated conscience of his race, but the ineffable image of the self. Undoubtedly, the imbroglio of the splitting individual - and by extension, too, that of the colonial subject's - that Naipaul seeks to reconstruct within the text is inextricably linked with an attempt at self-preservation and the establishment of his self as a living totality amidst the unsettling experiences of exile, cultural displacement, marginalization, migration, diaspora and questions of slavery, indenture, the colonial past and so on. Yet, given his solidarity with the dominant Western imperial ideologies, with his tendency to read the histories of postcolonial Third World societies in terms of a lack, an absence, or an incompleteness that translates into "inadequacy", Naipaul has a predilection to portray the nondescript masses in the postcolonial diaspora as peoples with a seeming lack of imagination, debilitated by the dependent nature of a primitive psyche.

Hence, various methods are deployed to suppress the voice of (already silent) masses, one of them being generalization. Here, in yet another instance of the narrative echoing Biswas, the "character" of Shama and, by implication, all Indian women, is given unproblematic definition: "For there was no doubt that this was what Shama expected from life: to be taken through every stage, to fulfil every function, to have her share of the established emotions. . . 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." (p. 144) There was always, in other words, room in the novel for characters who embody, on behalf of the native, the theme of "inadequacy" or "backwardness." Nevertheless, the dialogical quality of the novel which was mentioned earlier rises to the fore again here, openly disputing the truth of the above passage. The reader is made aware that Shama takes personal pride in having topped her class in arithmetic; that the letters she wrote her Northumbrian pen-pal were read out to the class as models of good prose; and in the trip they make to the seaside with Miss Logie, she expresses startlingly strong views on "the new constitution, federation, immigration, India, the future of Hinduism, the education of women." (p. 454) Interestingly, these examples occur as asides, without any relevance to the overall narrative structure. However, although the repleteness of inconsequential detail infuses the novel with the amusing verisimilitude and the wonderful exuberance that are such important components of its affirmative humour, it nonetheless constitutes a serious threat to the univocal objectives of the novel.

Why does the narrative raise such recalcitrant problems for itself? The need for "detail", which is the issue here, is symptomatic of a larger difficulty which will be examined through an extract from this exemplary passage:

The kitchen safe. That was more than twenty years old. Shortly after his marriage he had bought it, white and new, from the carpenter at Arwacas, the netting unpainted, the wood still odorous; then, and for some time afterwards, sawdust stuck to your hand when you passed it along the shelves. In 1938, when the Pope died and the Sentinel came out with a black border, he had come across a tin of large yellow paint and painted everything yellow, even the typewriter. . . And why, except that it had moved everywhere with them had they kept the hatrack, its glass now leprous, most of its hooks broken, its woodwork ugly with painting-over?. . . And the dining-table. . . And the Slumberking bed. . . And the glass-cabinet. . .

But bigger than them all was the house, his house. (p. 12)

This passage occurs in the Prologue, giving an inventory of possessions of which repeated mention will be made in the remainder of the novel. Although it is ostensibly presented as a summary, the presentation of facts are subordinated to the leisurely, conversational register: sense-impressions, historical incident, reflection, and personal encounters are what give shape and representational value to this passage. The objects are offered as signposts, tangible symbols - the house being the central metaphor - by which the significance of events to come may be definitively grasped. Yet as the narrative will clarify, the objects are actually submerged, reduced to insignificance, within the mass of detail and incident surrounding each event that is referred to here. This is the paradox revealed - that history is most conveniently formulated through the grasping of the tangible, that the buying of the house represents, and encapsulates, the independence of Biswas; or, analogously, that the storming of the Bastille encapsulates the French Revolution. But the counter-impulse necessitates - and here the paradox reveals itself - the immersion of the realist imagination in that history, aware that veracity and validation may be conferred only through a summoning of other details. Each detail here generates its own field of signification, collectively spilling into an excess of divergent meaning that resists the closure which the master-impulse so desires as the fulfillment of its ideological programmatic.

Tempting though it is to conclude this paper on a nicely sophisticated note of post-structuralist pluralism, the stark realities of the Third World require us to read the history of this land in spirit that honours the monumental achievement of this novel, notwithstanding the questionability of its underlying assumptions. This might be done by making a more consequent statement based upon the observations of the previous paragraph, rejecting the notion of an endless play of meanings for a formulation that is engaged in a direct interrogation of the wider ramifications of discourse. I shall begin with a lengthy quote from a passage describing Biswas' experiences as the investigator for the Deserving Destitutes Fund:

The Sentinel could not have chosen a better way of terrifying Mr Biswas, of reviving his dread of the sack, illness or sudden disaster. Day after day he visited the mutilated, the defeated, the futile and the insane living in conditions not far removed from his own: in suffocating rotting wooden kennels, in sheds of box-board, canvas and tin, in dark and sweating concrete caverns. Day after day he visited the eastern sections of the city where the narrow houses pressed their scabbed and blistered facades together and hid the horrors that lay behind them: the constricted, undrained backyards, coated with green slime, in the perpetual shadow of adjacent houses and the tall rubble-stone fences against which additional sheds had been built: yards choked with flimsy cooking sheds, crowded fowl-coops of wire-netting, bleaching stones spread with sour washing: smell overloaded septic tanks: horrors increased by the litters of children, most of them illegitimate, with navels projecting inches out of their bellies, as though they had been delivered in haste and disgust. . . Day after day he came upon people so broken, so listless, it would have required the devotion of a lifetime to restore them. But he could only lift his trouser turn-ups, pick his way through the mud and slime, investigate, write, move on. (p. 398)

Note how the first sentence attempts to absorb the horror of the scene within Biswas' own fears: this sentence, and the eventual "living in conditions not far removed from his own" both seek to contain the independent terms on which the poverty ought to be evaluated by indicating Biswas' own affinities - through madness and financial lack - with these discards of society. Hence, the narrative shocking of the reader is attended by a desire for approval; approval of Biswas' unceasing struggle to rise above the mire into which he has been cast through no fault of his own. However - again this occurs through the scrupulous attention to detail - the narrative protestations begin to unravel as the people and their surroundings assume an autonomous energy which make it clear that Biswas is the visitor, and that their situation is far worse than anything he has ever experienced. The paradox seen above manifests itself again: the objective of this interlude is to demonstrate the greatness inherent in Biswas' ability to perceive and attain more than that which is afforded by the social consciousness, that, grasped in the context of this history of deprivation and degradation, the buying of the house is a Herculean achievement. However, the details invoked begin to call attention to themselves, plainly refusing to make way for the genuflection vis-ˆ-vis Biswas that the narrative calls for. Not surprisingly, unable to address the questions that it has inadvertently raised, the narrative, like Biswas, retreats with all the grace it can muster - it lifts up its "trouser turn-ups" and "moves on". Speaking in a slightly different context, Fredric Jameson's observations on the symbolic text (as distinct from the imaginary text) is pertinent to these concluding remarks:

"Symbolic texts" - entertain a far more difficult and implacable conception of the fully realized fantasy: one which is not to be satisfied by the easy solutions of an "unrealistic" omnipotence or the immediacy of a gratification that then needs no narrative trajectory in the first place, but which on the contrary seeks to endow itself with the utmost representable density and to posit the most elaborate and systematic difficulties and obstacles, in order the more surely to overcome them, just as a philosopher imagines in advance the objections his triumphant argumentation will be summoned up to confute.

It then sometimes happens that the objections are irrefutable, and that the wish-fulfilling imagination does its preparatory work so well that the wish, and desire itself, are confounded by the unanswerable resistance of the Real. 19

The search for the house results in the dredging up of the irrepressible aspects of the Real, or history. To employ a word favoured by Biswas, the imaginary resolution that arrives with the purchase of the Sikkim Street house smells too much of Escape, a point which leads us to Naipaul's denial, or at least contestation, of his colonial origins that remain hauntingly a part of him, and his complete and eventual embracing of the beauty and order of England, so characteristic of the self-division of the colonial subject - the double movement of recognition by which it both knows its ignoble "past" as the site of dis-order and yet moves away from this space in desiring a social and psychic "identification" that can only exist in the provenance of a universal Western civilization which for a long time and even now is being thought of positively only in the context of the negation of the Other.


1 Homi K. Bhabha (1983) "The Other Question," Screen, No. 24, p. 30.

2 The incidents referred to here occur on pages 139 and 178 respectively. [Page references refer to the Andre Deutsch edition, first published 1968, reprinted with Foreword, 1981.]

3 The utterances of Mrs Tulsi and later Owad, the former for traditionalism and the latter for communism, are both accepted unquestioningly by the other family members.

4 Dipesh Chakrabarty, "Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks for 'Indian' Pasts?", Representations, No. 37, (Winter 1992), pp. 10-11.

5 See for example Vijay Mishra (1977) "Indo-Fijian Fiction and the Girmit Ideology," reprinted in Chris Tiffin, ed., (1978) South Pacific Images, Brisbane: South Pacific Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies, pp. 53-67; (1990) "Little India," Meanjin, Vol. 49, No. 4, pp. 607-618; and (1991) "Satendra Nandan, The Wounded Sea," Span, No. 32, pp. 79-84, in which he talks about the imperatives of extraneous socio-historical situation, more specifically in relation to the ideological structures of the Indian diaspora and the "Girmit Ideology" - the "visions of a failed 'millennial' quest and the images of a distinctive indenture eschatology" - against which the works of Naipaul and other Caribbean (to be precise, Indo-Fijian) writers should be evaluated [Mishra (1977) "Indo-Fijian Fiction and the Girmit Ideology," p. 65].

6 Vijay Mishra (1991) "Satendra Nandan, The Wounded Sea," Span, No. 32, p. 80. A synoptic historiography of the socio-historical situation in the Caribbean is in order here if we are to recognise the historical conjuncture out of which the etymology of Mishra's "Girmit ideology" originate from and the epistemological import of such a cultural complex in a milieu where whole notion of a totalizable, organic cultural area is breaking up, where we can see how certain forms of antagonism and modus vivendi come to be constituted between the contextual culture (the indigenous or native culture), the transplanted culture and the imposed colonial culture. According to Sidney Mintz, "most of Caribbean history is black history; Europeans carried Africans to these little islands by the millions, to be used like animals to produce wealth. This process of enslavement and transport 'blackened' [sic] the islands, "africanized" them, so that their cultures and their peoples are to this day in good measure African in origin. But the Europeans also oppressed peoples of other physical types as enthusiastically as they oppressed Africans. . . Caribbean history is not only black history, but also yellow history, red history, brown history, and - not surprisingly - white history, so far as the testament of oppression is concerned." [Sidney Mintz (1974), Caribbean Transformation, Chicago: Aldine Publishing Co., p. 49] Speaking of the social context of Caribbean literature and history as discursive fields within which the work of Naipaul should be read against, Selwyn Cudjoe elucidates: "The arrival of the East Indians to the Caribbean in 1838 as indentured labourers added another dimension to the hegemonic dominance of the African cultural element, particularly in Guyana and Trinidad. Because they came to the Caribbean at a time when wage slavery had replaced physical slavery and when it was not in the immediate interest of the dominant colonial power to suppress their culture, the East Indians remained separate and distinct from the major African groups. As a result, the East Indians were able to preserve much of their customs and traditions. . . In 1917, at the end of indenture, the East Indians' attempt to maintain a separate identity was challenged severely." [Selwyn Cudjoe (1988) V.S. Naipaul: A Materialist Reading, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, p. 13] Suspicious of the colonial masters and the indigenous race, the Indians felt a need to be unified. They called themselves girmitiyas, "a Hindi neologism," according to Mishra, "coined from the term for the 'agreement' that the indentured labourers had to sign." This parochial, almost xenophobic, coalescence ostracised the East Indians from other Indians (notably merchant traders and other free Indian migrants). "Thus began the saga of indenture, or girmit, as it came to be known by the indentured labourers themselves. The 'agreement' that had to be signed, through a characteristic process of linguistic transformation, became girmit, the contract now representing an entire ethos, a legend, a tyranny, and, finally, a history and an ideology. . . The unified experience of indenture and the remarkable linguistic homogeneity that followed helped in the creation of a phenomenon to which [Mishra] gave the term 'Girmit ideology'. . ."[Mishra, "Satendra Nandan, The Wounded Sea," p. 79].

7 Vijay Mishra (1991) "Satendra Nandan, The Wounded Sea," Span, No. 32, p. 80.

8 Homi K. Bhabha (1983) "The Other Question," Screen, No. 24, p. 30.

9 Louis Althusser, "Ideology and the State", reprinted in Rice and Waugh, eds., Modern Literary Theory: A Reader, (London: Edward Arnold), pp. 54-7.

10 A House for Mr Biswas, p. 206.

11 Ibid., pp. 104-117 and the chapter entitled "The Revolution".

12 Ibid., p. 239.

13 Ibid., the original incident referred to in Biswas' piece is to be found on p. 60.

14 Ibid., p. 336.

15 Quite a number of critics have remarked upon the resemblance A House for Mr Biswas bears to the Victorian novel, among them Reed Way Dasenbrock, who argues that Naipaul's novel shares that "Dickensian largeness" (he is quoting Paul Theroux here) and exhibiting George Eliot's quality of moral concern for characters and large, almost symphonic approach to organization. He goes on to say that "the real reason A House for Mr Biswas is deeply Victorian in form and method is that Naipaul, like Dickens and Eliot, is narrating the great Victorian plot, in which a heroic individual emancipates himself (or herself) from the constraints of his (or herself) from the constraints of his (or her) inheritance and community. Mr Biswas is one with David Copperfield fighting his way out from the control of his horrid step-father, with Oliver Twist escaping the physical and spiritual bondage of the workhouse and of Fagin's gang, and with the more comfortable and more inward emancipation of Dorothea Brooke and Daniel Deronda. All of these protagonists move from a set of false values imposed by the community of a false family to their own freely chosen selfhood which finds expression in a new family, community and place of dwelling. And Naipaul extends this great Victorian plot to represent one man's emancipation from the cultural bondage of traditional non-Western societies, from the bondage of the past." (Reed Way Dasenbrock (1985) "Creating a Past: Achebe, Naipaul, Soyinka, Farah," Salmagundi, Nos. 68-69 (Fall 1985-Winter 1986), p. 321.

16 Homi Bhabha "Representation and the Colonial Text: A Critical Exploration of some Forms of Mimeticism", in Frank Gloversmith, ed., The Theory of Reading, (Brighton: The Harvester Press, 1984), p. 118.

17 Ibid., see "A Foreword to this Edition", p. 3.

18 Naipaul, "London", Times Literary Supplement, 15th August 1958. [The article is reprinted in R. Hamner Critical Perspectives on V.S. Naipaul, (London: Heinemann 1979).] Naipaul says in his Foreword that he began writing the novel in the latter half of 1957 (p. 4); the novel was published in 1961.

19 Fredric Jameson The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, (London and Cornell: Methuen 1981) , p. 183.

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