In this time of a global pandemic, Arts & Letters has been on the lookout for new reading materials that speak to the new (ab)normal. At times though, there is no better respite than a dip into any passage of a real classic. As it happens, Arts and Letters has received special permission from the V.S. Naipaul Estate, courtesy of Lady Nadira Naipaul, to run an excerpt from the Nobel Laureate’s magnum opus, A House for Mr Biswas. Sir Vidia's last public appearance occurred at Dhaka Lit Fest and this reprint in part pays homage to that remarkable visit back in 2016 when many others were so reluctant to come out here. This brief excerpt (from Ch. 3 of Part One) showcases all the traits of a great master – pith, wit, pathos – that gave his writing such enduring appeal. Happy reading:
Late one afternoon Shama came up with food for Mr Biswas and said, ‘Uncle want to see you.’ Uncle was Seth.
‘Uncle want to see me? Man, go back and tell Uncle that if he want to see me, he must come up here.’
Shama grew serious. ‘What you been doing and saying? You getting everybody against you. You don't mind. But what about me? You can't give me anything and you want to prevent everybody else from doing anything for me. Is all right for you to say that you going to pack up and leave. But you know that is only talk. What you got?’
‘I ain't got a damned thing. But I not going down to see Uncle. I not at his beck and call, like everybody else in this house.’
‘Go down and tell him so yourself. You talking like a man, go down and behave like one.’
‘I not going down.’
Shama cried, and in the end Mr Biswas put on his trousers. As he went down the stairs his courage began to leave him, and he had to tell himself that he was a free man and could leave the house whenever he wished. In the hall, to his shame, he heard himself saying, ‘Yes, Uncle?’
Seth was fixing a cigarette in his long ivory holder, an exquisiteness which no longer seemed an affectation to Mr Biswas. It no longer contrasted with his rough estate clothes and rough, unshaved, moustached face; it had become part of his appearance. Mr Biswas, concentrating on the delicate activity of Seth's thick, bruised fingers, could feel that the hall was full. But no one was raising his voice; the whispers, the sounds of eating, the muted and seemingly distant scuffles, amounted to silence.
‘Mohun,’ Seth said at last, ‘how long you been living here?’
‘Two months, Uncle.’ And he couldn't help noticing how much he sounded like Govind.
Mrs Tulsi was there, sitting on a bench at the long table. Unusually, the two gods, unsmiling boys, were there, sitting together in the sugarsack hammock, their feet on the floor. Sisters were feeding husbands at the other end of the table. Sisters and their children were thick about the black entrance to the kitchen.
‘You been eating well?’
In Seth’s presence Mr Biswas felt diminished. Everything about Seth was overpowering: his calm manner, his smooth grey hair, his ivory holder, his hard swollen forearms: after he spoke he stroked them, and looked at the hairs springing back into their original posture.
‘Eating well?’ Mr Biswas thought about the miserable meals, the risings of his belly, the cravings which were seldom satisfied. ‘Yes. I been eating well.’
‘You know who provide all the food you been eating?’
Mr Biswas didn't answer.
Seth laughed, took the cigarette holder out of his mouth and coughed, from a deep chest. ‘This is a helluva man. When a man is married he shouldn't expect other people to feed him. In fact, he should be feeding his wife. When I got married you think I did want Mai mother to feed me?’
Mrs Tulsi rubbed her braceleted arms on the pitchpine table and shook her head.
The gods were grave.
‘And yet I hear that you not happy here.’
‘I didn’t tell anybody anything about not being happy here.’
‘I is the Big Boss, eh? And Mai is the old queen and the old hen. And these boys is the two gods, eh?’
The gods became stern.
Looking away from Seth, and causing a dozen or more faces instantly to turn away, Mr Biswas saw Govind among eaters at the far end of the table, going at his food in his smiling savage way, apparently indifferent to the inquisition, while C, bowed and veiled, stood dutifully over him.
‘Eh?’ For the first time there was impatience in Seth's voice, and, to show his displeasure, he began talking Hindi. ‘This is gratitude. You come here, penniless, a stranger. We take you in, we give you one of our daughters, we feed you, we give you a place to sleep in. You refuse to help in the store, you refuse to help on the estate. All right. But then to turn around and insult us!’
Mr Biswas had never thought of it like that. He said, ‘I sorry.’
Mrs Tulsi said, ‘How can anyone be sorry for something he thinks?’
Seth pointed to the eaters at the end of the table. ‘What names have you given to those, eh?’ The eaters, not looking up, ate with greater concentration.
Mr Biswas said nothing.
‘Oh, you haven't given them names. It's only to me and Mai and the two boys that you have given names?’
Mrs Tulsi said, ‘How can anyone be sorry–’
Seth interrupted her. ‘So we want someone to work on the estate. Is nice to keep these things in the family. And what you say? You want to paddle your own canoe. Look at him!’ Seth said to the hall. ‘Biswas the paddler.’
The children smiled; the sisters pulled their veils over their foreheads; their husbands ate and frowned; the gods in the hammock, rocking very slowly with their feet on the floor, glowered at the staircase landing.
‘It runs in the family,’ Seth said, ‘They tell me your father was a great diver. But where has all your paddling got you so far?’
Mr Biswas said, ‘Is just that I don't know anything about estate work.’
‘Oho! Is because you can read and write that you don’t want to get dirt on your hands, eh? Look at my hands.’ He showed nails that were corrugated, warped and surprisingly short. The hairy backs of his hands were scratched and discoloured; the palms were hardened, worn smooth in some places, torn in others. ‘You think I can't read and write? I can read and write better than the whole lot of them.’ He waved one hand to indicate the sisters, their husbands, their children; he held the other palm open towards the gods in the hammock, to indicate that they were excepted. There was amusement in his eyes now, and he opened his mouth on either side of the cigarette holder to laugh. ‘What about these boys here, Mohun? The gods.’
The younger god furrowed his brow, opened his eyes wider and wider until they were expressionless, and attempted to set his small, plump-lipped mouth.
‘You think they can’t read and write too?’
‘See them in the store,’ Mrs Tulsi said. ‘Reading and selling. Reading and eating and selling. Reading and eating and counting money. They are not afraid of getting their hands dirty.’
Not with money, Mr Biswas told her mentally.
The younger god got up from the hammock and said, ‘If he don't want to take the job on the estate, that is his business. It serve you right, Ma. You choose your son-in-laws and they treat you exactly how you deserve.’
‘Sit down, Owad,’ Mrs Tulsi said. She turned to Seth. ‘This boy has a terrible temper.’
‘I don't blame him,’ Seth said. ‘These paddlers go away, paddling their own canoe – that is how it is, eh, Biswas? – and as soon as trouble start they will be running back here. Seth is just here for people to insult, the same people, mark you, who he trying to help. I don’t mind. But that don’t mean I can't see why the boy shouldn't mind.’
The younger god frowned even more. ‘Is not because my father dead that people who eating my mother food should feel that they could call she a hen. I want Biswas to apologize to Ma.’
‘Apologize-ologize,’ Mrs Tulsi said. ‘It wouldn’t make any difference. I don't see how anyone can be sorry for something he feels.’
There is, in some weak people who feel their own weakness and resent it, a certain mechanism which, operating suddenly and without conscious direction, releases them from final humiliation. Mr Biswas, who had up till then been viewing his blasphemies as acts of the blackest ingratitude, now abruptly lost his temper.
‘The whole pack of you could go to hell!’ he shouted. ‘I not going to apologize to one of the damn lot of you.’
Astonishment and even apprehension appeared on their faces. He noted this for a lucid moment, turned and ran up the stairs to the long room, where he began to pack with unnecessary energy.
‘You don’t care what mess you get other people in, eh?’
It was Shama, standing in the doorway, barefooted, veil low over her forehead, looking as frightened as on that morning in the store.
‘Family! Family!’ Mr Biswas said, stuffing clothes and books – Self Help, Bell’s Standard Elocutionist, the seven volumes of Hawkins’ Electrical Guide – into a cardboard box whose top flaps bore the circular impressions of tins of condensed milk. ‘I not staying here a minute longer. Having that damn little boy talk to me like that! He does talk to all your brother-in-laws like that?’
He packed with such energy that he was soon finished. But his anger had begun to cool and he reflected that by leaving the house again so soon he would be behaving absurdly, like a newly-married girl. He waited for Shama to say something that would rekindle his anger. She remained silent.
‘Before I go,’ he said, unpacking and re-packing the condensed milk case, ‘I want you to tell the Big Boss – because it is clear that he is the big bull in the family – I want you to go and tell him that he ain't pay me for the signs I do in the store.’
‘Why you don’t go and tell him yourself?’ Shama was now angry and near to tears.
He tried to see himself asking Seth for money. He couldn’t. ‘You and all,’ he said, ‘don’t start provoking me. You think I want to talk to that man? You know him for a long time. He is like a second father to you. You must ask him.’
‘And suppose he ask for what you owe him?’
‘I would give you straight back to him.’
‘You owe him more than he owe you.’
‘He owe me more than I owe him.’
They reduced it to a plain argument, which not only killed what remained of his anger, but even left him exhilarated, though a little puzzled as to what he should do next.
Before he could decide, C and Padma, Seth's wife, came without knocking into the room. C was crying. Padma begged Mr Biswas, for the sake of family unity and the family name, not to do anything in a temper.
He became very offended, turned his back to Padma and C and walked heavily up and down the small room.
With the arrival of the women Shama's attitude changed. She ceased to be irritated and suppliant and instead looked martyred. She sat stiffly on a low bench, thumb under her chin, elbow on her knee, and opened her eyes until they were as wide and empty as the younger god’s had been a few minutes before in the hall.
‘Don’t go, brother,’ C sobbed. ‘Your sister is begging you.’ She tried to grab his ankles.
He skipped away and looked puzzled.
C, sobbing, noticed his puzzlement and elucidated: ‘Chinta is begging you.’ She mentioned her own name to indicate the depth of her unhappiness and the sincerity of her plea; and she began to wail.
By coming up to plead with him Chinta had as good as confessed that it was her husband Govind who had reported Mr Biswas's blasphemies to Seth; she was also claiming that Govind had triumphed. Mr Biswas knew that when husbands quarrelled it was the duty of the wife of the victorious husband to placate the defeated husband and the duty of the wife of the defeated husband not to display anger, but skilfully to suggest that her unhappiness was due, in equal measure, to both husbands. Shama, following Chinta's arrival, had cast herself as the defeated wife and was making a commendable first attempt at this difficult role.
There was no means of protesting at this subtle humiliation. Up to that moment Mr Biswas had never felt that he had enemies. People were simply indifferent to him. But now an enemy, the enemy, had declared itself. And he resolved not to run away.
(Reprinted with permission)