A House for Mr. Biswas is a chronicle of socio-political changes vis-à-vis Trinidad society. Discuss with examples from the text.
The descendent of East Indian indentured servants, Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was born August 17, 1932, in Chaguanas, Trinidad. His father, Seepersad Naipaul (1906-53), was a journalist and an aspiring writer whose literary ambitions spread to his sons Vidiadhar and Shiva. A bright student, Vidiadhar Naipaul gained admission to Queen’s Royal College—one of just four secondary schools on the island—and in 1948 won a coveted government-sponsored scholarship to study abroad. He entered University College at Oxford in England as a literature student in 1950, graduated in 1953, and began working for the British Broadcasting Corporation, hosting the program Caribbean Voices. He also wrote for the New Statesman literary journal and published his first novel, The Mystic Masseur, in 1957. Two novels followed, earning him a reputation as a formidable new novelist, but it was with the publication of A House for Mr. Biswas in 1961 that Naipaul’s work achieved masterpiece status. Not part of the colonial ruling establishment, nor of the native culture, the protagonist is an East Indian in Trinidad, an ethnic outsider searching for a sense of self and place. Through this protagonist, the novel focuses on a displaced people reinventing themselves in a foreign and often inhospitable land.
Events in History at the Time of The Novel
From indentured servant to twentieth-century minority
Trinidad’s cultural and ethnic melange stems from its 500-year history of conquest and foreign occupation. Originally the home of Amerindian peoples, the island was sighted in 1498 by Admiral Christopher Columbus, who claimed it for Spain. With the Spanish came thousands of European settlers and African slaves to develop the colony, driving out native peoples and dramatically transforming the landscape. By the 1790s the immigrant population, mainly French Catholics settlers and African slaves, had wholly displaced the indigenous peoples, outnumbering them by a factor of 16 to 1.
By this time sugar had become “king,” and plantations dominated the island and economy. Lured by the lucrative trade, the British seized control of the West Indian colony in 1797. A wave of British settlers followed the Spanish and French, while African slaves continued to comprise the bulk of the workforce. In 1834, slaves in the British Empire were emancipated, and indentured servants from another of Britain’s colonies, India, were brought to Trinidad as replacements. From 1838 to 1917 some 144,000 East Indians moved to Trinidad under a policy of unrestricted immigration to support the sugar industry. Typically indentured for five years, East Indians received land grants at the expiration of their contracts or after ten years of residence—often in place of return passage to India—in the interest of keeping a low-wage workforce on the island. Approximately one-third of the servants returned to India, while the majority stayed and established shops, opened businesses, and farmed sugar on their newly acquired land.
Because of its colonial heritage and legacy of slavery and indentured servitude, twentieth-century Trinidad lacked a unified national cultural identity. White Europeans dominated the government and upper classes, yet people of African or East Indian descent comprised 80 percent of the population. Racism and discrimination were rampant in society, with the inhabitants strictly divided along economic and color lines.
Whites in the Caribbean did not fully accept the changing reality of the new post-slavery conditions … [and] as long as sugar remained “king,” all social goals were subordinated to boosting production. Little positive incentive was given to develop the arts, to inculcate a sense of national identity that was faithful to the plurality of the peoples.
What emerged in place of a national identity were two strong “minority” communities who shared only their rejection of European culture and who openly clashed with each other. While white elites remained at the top of society, East Indians and the descendants of African slaves were forced to compete for the same meager allotments of land and opportunities. Put in this competitive position, they showed a general distrust for each other and segregated themselves socially. The two communities adapted differently: while the descendants of African slaves, whose ancestors had come from diverse regions, created their own new culture in Trinidad, East Indians held firmly to old Asian traditions, showing a steadfast refusal to assimilate or change cultural patterns that impressed many of the African descendants as arrogance. Tensions festered and at times flared. The sight of East Indians cheering India’s cricket team over that of the West Indies was enough to nearly start a “war”.
The sense of displacement and lack of a national community in Trinidad are key concerns in A House for Mr. Biswas, as they were for Naipaul personally. Both Mr. Biswas and Naipaul seek identity—a “home”—a sense of place and self that did not readily exist for East Indians in Trinidad at the time. In the novel Mr. Biswas marvels that Pastor, an African who makes his living filling out forms for illiterates outside the county courthouse, has discovered and assumed his role in society. “Even Pastor, for all his grumbling, had found his place,” Mr. Biswas notes. Upon this revelation, Mr. Biswas “Perceived that the starts of apprehension he felt at the sight of every person in the street did not come from fear at all; only from regret, envy, despair” (Naipaul, A House for Mr. Biswas). As an East Indian colonial in a British colony, Mr. Biswas is physically in one place and culturally in another, and so struggles to find his identity.
Exile off Main Street
As a consequence of immigrating as servants, East Indians were “at the bottom of the social scale” in Trinidad Their dark skin, comparable to that of the African slave, only intensified their lowly status. According to Trinidad’s first black prime minister, Eric Williams (1956-81), West Indians’ “concern with colour and lightness of skin was almost an obsession” during the first part of the twentieth century.
The legacy of slavery and servitude had long-term effects on living conditions and social interaction in Trinidad. Division existed not only between Europeans and their Asian and African counterparts, but also within Trinidad’s Asian and African communities, of which no segment was more removed or outcast than the East Indians. Physically they were separated because they lived in rural Trinidad. East Indians made up just 4 percent of the population of Trinidad’s chief town, the Port of Spain, before 1917, although they comprised approximately 40 percent of the total population. Socially they were barred because of their distinct cultural and low-status farm labor.
The living and working conditions of East Indians in Trinidad further isolated them. The 25-cent wage of indenture was tantamount to slavery (a full 43 cents below the recommended minimum wage in 1919). Poverty was widespread, with nearly 20 percent of the population filing for poor relief in 1911 and their numbers surging annually. Through the 1940s, malnutrition soared—80 percent of the rural, mostly East Indian population in 1920 was infested with hookworms. Meanwhile, wages, instead of rising with inflation, dropped annually through 1935.
Compounding the poverty, housing was scarce. Just 48,000 houses existed on the island in 1911, which together with an additional 45,000 barrack rooms (former slave quarters) had to provide shelter for the bulk of Trinidad’s 300,000 inhabitants. As evidenced in the novel, dozens of East Indians lived in a single dwelling or squatted in ramshackle squatter’s cabins erected illegally on others’ property, as Mr. Biswas’s mother and many aunts and uncles do in the novel. Ideally the East Indian household sheltered one nuclear family or one extended family (traditionally a mother, father, unmarried children, and married sons with their wives and children), with the family sharing “a common kitchen” and “family purse”. But the complications of life in Trinidad, including the dearth of dwelling places, often interfered with realizing the ideal. The acute housing problem among East Indians helps explain why home ownership is an all-consuming passion for Mr. Biswas in the novel (as does Biswas’s search for individual identity).