Order and Chaos in Colonial Trinidad: V. S. Naipaul's Novel "A House for Mr Biswas"

Thesis (M.A.), 2004

66 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. East Indians in Trinidad: A Brief History

3. The Tulsis
3.1 The Order of Tulsidom
3.1.1 Ritual Religious Rituals Secular Rituals
3.2 Changes
3.2.1 The Weakening of Inherited Notions: The Example of Caste
3.2.2 The Decline of the East

4. M. Biswas, Outsider
4.1 Biswas's Familial Background
4.1.1 The Veil of Memory
4.1.2 Behind the Veil
4.2 In Search of His Bearings
4.2.1 A Second Chance, or: Can't the Tulsis Be a Substitute Family?
4.2.2 Religion
4.2.3 The Role of Education School Literature
4.2.4 Journalism
4.2.5 'When Huts of Mud and Grass Are Pulled Down They Leave No Trace': A House for Mr Biswas

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

At the firm of André Deutsch, which has published all of his books in England, Naipaul's editor, Diana Athill, says: "He's such a fusspot! If you change so much as an inverted comma, he'll spot it and change it back." Once she recalls, the prize catch nearly got away. Hurt by what he thought was an unsympathetic response at Deutsch to his 1975 novel, Guerrillas, Naipaul signed on with a new publisher. Then he saw that publisher's catalog with a blurb hailing him as a "West Indian writer." He immediately canceled the contract and came back to Deutsch. "I've been breaking away from that tag all my life," says Naipaul. "'West Indian' is a political word. It's all the things I reject. It's not me."[1]

Nothing could better illustrate what makes up Naipaul than this little anecdote. It is all there: His obstinacy, his hunger for appreciation and respect, his unwillingness to compromise, his meticulous obsession with detail, his preoccupation with questions of self and identity, his reluctance to let himself be labelled.

To get a grasp of Naipaul and his work, it is imperative to know something about his background, and, although a fictional variation, his first major novel, A House for Mr Biswas, gives perhaps the most profound account of it. Here Naipaul devises a version of his own father's short life as a West Indian of East Indian descent in colonial Trinidad.

There might hardly be any situation further removed from the experience of a 21st century Central European. Yet the ostensible obstacle might in the end prove beneficial. A remote observer is obliged to acquire a knowledge of the historical and sociological background of the novel a West Indian insider would take for granted – and leave unquestioned. Lack of personal involvement at best results in an awareness of the political delicacy of the matter in question, and his very remoteness might serve to make the foreigner impartial. It remains true that "readers of Naipaul are at a disadvantage without a clear understanding of not only the general West Indian scene but also the East Indian segment of that society."[2] An objective of this paper is thus defined: To attempt an insight into the singular Caribbean East Indian West Indian surroundings so crucial in forming Naipaul's – and Mr Biswas's – character.

In order to gain this insight, it is arguable not if, but to what extent anthropological and historical sources have to be consulted. It is a Naipaulian peculiarity that, renowned novelist though he is, his greatest gifts are not invention or imagination but precise observation and impeccable honesty. His publications so far include almost as many non-fictional as fictional works. The dividing line is not always easy to draw, an anthropological reading of A House for Mr Biswas thus not particularly daring. In some respects it might be even more reliable than ethnographic studies.

Fiction may serve as ethnography in its own right and as a source of hypotheses, and [...] it should also be considered a part of reflexive socio-cultural reality. [...] The novel [ A House for Mr Biswas ] also has definite ethnographic virtues which the monographs lack; for example, it depicts ruralurban links, aspects of ethnic relations and unique details of family life, which are important factors for an understanding of change and continuity of life in Indo-Trinidadian villages during the postwar years. We should also remember that Mr Biswas was written by an author who was in many ways more familiar with Trinidadian society than Morton Klass and the Niehoffs [influential anthropologists whose studies of East Indians' social life in Trinidad were published about the same time as A House for Mr Biswas ] could possibly have been.[3]

The novel thus already supplies the reader with a lot of the background information he or she needs to understand it. Secondary sources had better be drawn on to an extent that promotes an understanding without getting in its way; stereotype is always near, whether a novel is read entirely without any theory (which of course is impossible) or with too much of one.

Dealing with a novel the subject matter of which is a colonial's struggle for order, independence and self-assertion, critics – and Western critics at that! – must be extremely careful to avoid falling into one of two traps. On the one hand, there is what one might call a continuance of the imperialist condescension. At the core of this world view lies the conviction that there are superior and inferior cultures, the former acting as benefactors, whose moral obligation it is to look after the latter magnanimously, to give guidance and support from an elevated position. A clear-cut distinction is made between 'us' and 'them', and there can be no doubt as to who has the right, if not the duty, to rule and supervise. With regard to the West Indies,

this close supervision of the life of the immigrant [the colonised] was due in part, especially in the early years, to a desire to protect a helpless, and largely ignorant, worker in a strange country. Lord Harris [Governor of Trinidad from 1846] expressed the official view that 'they [East Indian and African immigrant labourers in Trinidad] are not, neither coolies nor Africans, fit to be placed in a position which the labourers of civilised countries may at once occupy. They must be treated like children and wayward ones too; the former from their habits of religion; the latter, from the utterly savage state in which they arrive.'[4]

While it is true that there should be a major difference in approach between a 21st century critic and a 19th century colonialist, some critics are even today tempted to adopt, consciously or unconsciously, the colonialists' underlying attitude. In the case of A House for Mr Biswas, this would put the protagonist and his whole colonial surroundings beyond all serious examination. Taking up this perspective, the possibly Western reader-critic, detached from Biswas's toil and from a presumably safe distance, would at best be in a position to lean back and enjoy the comedy with benevolent paternalism. At worst, the novel – as indeed Naipaul's complete works – would be of little concern to him. Regardless of morality, he would in any case deprive himself of the pleasure of discovering Biswas's – and Naipaul's – relevance to all of us.[5]

The second and possibly even more alluring pitfall could be described as "the easy way out". Since, with the increase of political awareness, the imperialist perspective has gone a little out of fashion, some critics now tend to throw out the baby with the bath water. First World Whites may thus hope to gain absolution by self-castigation; the goodies become the baddies and vice versa. For them, there is nothing in between imperialist aggressors and colonial victims.

Non-White critics from post-colonial countries often arrive at the same conclusion, albeit from an opposite starting point. To them, Naipaul is a denigrator of his own background. "Of Naipaul, Said has commented, 'The most attractive and immoral move however has been Naipaul's who has allowed himself quite consciously to be turned into a witness for the Western prosecution. There are others like him who specialize in the thesis of what one of them has called self-inflicted wounds, which is to say that we 'non-Whites' are the cause of all our problems, not the overly maligned imperialists.'"[6] This obvious political rhetoric is directed against an opponent who refuses to let himself be instrumentalised. Naipaul's approach to writing is not political in that he has, in his own words, "no unifying theory of things. To me situations and people are always specific, always of themselves. That is why one travels and writes: to find out. To work in the other way would be to know the answers before one knew the problems. That is a recognized way of working, I know, especially if one is a political or religious or racial missionary. But I would have found it hard."[7]

Both the unique appeal of Naipaul's work and the greatest challenge for the recipient result from this fact: that the author defies classification and does not fit into either category. His gaze is incorruptible; "When the behavior of the people and the degeneration of the land is what he can't abide, Naipaul will speak plainly about it whether it offends people or not".[8] This incorruptible gaze has been mistaken for cold detachment where indeed it is 'merely' the utmost honesty. Reproaching Naipaul with political agitation would be totally misjudging his way of working. It is only in the process of writing that he tries to get to terms with the shortcomings of his environment – by meticulously recording what he sees. Naipaul himself traces his compulsion to become a writer back to the necessity "to impose order on the world, to seek patterns, to tell myself – this is what happens when people are strong; this is what happens when people are weak. I had to find that degree of intellectual comfort, or I would have gone mad."[9] Especially in the early stages of his career, readers are invited to accompany him in his search for patterns but cannot expect anything like a theory; tying up the loose ends is what makes up the appeal of reading Naipaul. "In writing my first four or five books [...] I was simply recording my reactions to the world; I hadn't come to any conclusion about it."[10]

Coming to conclusions while avoiding the pitfalls of paternalism on the one hand and stifling political correctness on the other is a delicate task. Here the Naipaulian approach presents itself as the most appropriate, which entails first of all careful observation. To quote Naipaul, with a twist: That is why one reads: to find out.

Such dialectic categories as order and chaos involve the danger of falling for stereotypes. Nothing would be more convenient than drawing a neat and tidy dividing line. Put order on one side, put chaos, as the opposed force, on the other, and see where you can place people and events. It is not that easy; Naipaul is not that easy – which complicates a neat interpretation. However, it is worth one's while to take up the challenge. The very fact that there is no either-or, no black and white in Naipaul's writing – which has brought him scathing criticism – is what makes reading him so rewarding.

Order and chaos are the two extremes between which Mr Biswas's life takes place. Yet the ideal is unattainable and its counterpart just as imaginary and non-existent. Mr Biswas, on his quest for orientation, draws on a reservoir of possibilities, the patterns of which will be examined, after a short historical introduction, in the following. A distinction will be made between the rules according to which his in-laws, the Tulsis, organise their lives – their traditional values constitute the background Biswas tries to distance himself from – and Biswas himself, whose character, besides the alternatives of orientation he tries out, will be explored thereafter.

2. East Indians in Trinidad: A Brief History

The European discovery of the Americas marked the outset of huge transformations in the New World. Those fundamental changes were mainly due to distinctively economic interest on behalf of the European invaders. Because of their fertility, the West Indies became attractive to the colonial powers even before their mineral and petroleum resources had been discovered[11].

Among the Caribbean islands, Trinidad takes up a somewhat special position. In Trinidad, European colonisation commenced rather late; monopolised for Europe by Christopher Columbus in 1498, it was not until 1592 that the Spaniards founded their first permanent settlement on the island, and little expansion was to take place in the subsequent two centuries. When Spain had finally become aware that Trinidad belonged to the least developed colonies, plans were made to transform it into a profitable slave colony comparable to the other West Indies. Due to lack of Spanish capital, the French – in times of the Spanish-French alliance – started sending colonists in 1777. The new settlers, most of whom were glad to turn their backs on France in the turmoil of the French Revolution, not only brought capital, but also slaves and sugar cane. By 1793, sugar cane was by far the primary agricultural produce; by 1798 the population had exploded from an estimated 2,000 to more than 18,000.

In the aftermath of the war between Spain and Britain and in compliance with the regulations of the Treaty of Amiens, Trinidad became British in 1802. While the Spanish legislative system was maintained, papers continued to appear in French; the seed for the multicultural society Trinidad was to become had already been sown.

Under British rule, the sugar trade began to flourish. The steadily rising demand of labour was satisfied by the import of African slaves, who soon formed the largest ethnic group on the island. However, back in England, the political development away from the slave trade that was to lead to the abolition of slavery altogether had already started. The resistance of the leading classes, though driven by an existential fear – the events of the French Revolution gave headwords like liberty and equality an ominous sound – was dwindling. A resolution in favour of the abolition of the slave trade passed both British Houses in 1807.

After the victory of 1807, members of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade turned to the question of slavery itself. The trade was illegal so that new supplies of slaves could not be taken to the West Indies, but after the mass of slave transportation across the Atlantic in the eighteenth century there was a large creole slave population in the West Indies. The abolitionists therefore soon turned their attention to the conditions of existing slavery.[12]

A development had been set off that was to be advanced by both economic and humanitarian considerations; what ensued was "ein langsamer, aber stetiger Meinungswandel, dessen Abschluß die Emanzipation der Sklaven am 1. August 1838 sein sollte."[13]

After the abolition of slavery, labour shortage became an increasing problem; European immigration rates were not nearly high enough to meet the needs. "In certain colonies, such as Trinidad, British Guiana and Jamaica, there was land laying idle. [...] In every colony there was at least some idle land of this sort."[14] Nor was there sufficient influx of labour from nearby regions. Within a period of 37 years – between 1835 and 1872 – less than 12.000 Free Africans moved to Trinidad from other West Indian islands;[15] most of the ex-slaves "had already made their position clear by seeking an independent livelihood; some of them would not have worked on the estates whatever wages were offered, because they wanted to break away completely from the work they had been forced to do during slavery."[16]

After unsuccessful attempts to import Chinese labour – the Chinese were regarded by their employers as unfitted for the strenuous work –, plantation owners turned their attention to Mauritius, also a British colony which largely depended on the sugar trade, where similar problems had had to be faced. Here East Indian labourers seemed to get along so well that East Indian immigration seemed to present itself as a solution for the West Indian labour shortage. In Trinidad, East Indian immigration commenced in 1845 and lasted until 1917 when, due to increasing political pressure from India, it was abolished and eventually prohibited.

The Indians were not technically slaves when they arrived in Trinidad, but the conditions were not that far from slavery. A system of 'indentureship' was devised, whereby

in general, the immigrant had to give five years' service from the day he was allotted to an estate [...]. He could be called upon to work every day, except Sundays and holidays, at cultivating the soil or at the sugar factory. [...] When he had served five years, the immigrant was usually free to change his employer. The earliest ordinances and laws provided for a free return passage for immigrants at the end of five years' residence, not even necessarily at work on an estate, but after 1854, only when an immigrant had lived ten years in one West Indian colony did he become entitled to a return passage. After 1895, in British Guiana, he had to pay part of the cost, a quarter until 1898 and after that, a half. Only the destitute and the disabled continued to get free passages back to India if they wanted them.[17]

The history of the multicultural societies in the West Indies is of course far more involved, but this outline may serve to account for the presence of the two still largest ethnic groups in the Caribbean and thus in Trinidad: descendants of African slaves and descendants of East Indian indentured workers. The latter group is of interest in this work, and an examination of Mr Biswas's in-laws may exemplify the patterns along which the East Indian community operates.

3. The Tulsis

3.1 The Order of Tulsidom

In order to understand the Tulsi way of life and the way they see themselves, one has to take into account an important historical detail.

The 150 years of Indian experience in Trinidad can be roughly divided into three periods though it must be kept in mind that time scales tend to cordon off phenomena that span more than a single period. During the 'indenture period' (1845-1917) conditions on the plantations were not conducive to the perpetuation of Indian culture. Immigrants were indiscriminately housed together regardless of caste, plantation managers took little or no account of traditional domestic authority patterns, a severe sex imbalance freed the few available Indian women from traditional constraints of subordination and seclusion, and so on. Polyandry, intercaste marriage and common-law unions were fairly common.

It was during the 'interwar period' (1918-1940) that the East Indians may have possibly reconstituted some features of their ancient heritage. The majority of ex-indentured Indians elected to remain in Trinidad (rather than return to India) where most of them settled in rural villages as farmers and laborers. The limited duration of Indian servitude (indentures were for five years), the isolation of Indians in rural communities [...] and the 'composite memory of things past' are some of the explanations suggested for the reactivation of Indian culture. The levelling out of the sex ratio, investment in land, and successes in petty trades facilitated the reemergence of some form of patriarchal authority and extended family households. Rural settlement patterns and customary marriage procedures aided the reactivation of caste endogamy and locality exogamy. Even so, often what emerged were the bits and pieces of culture that became integrated with aspects of the local social structure into a new totality.[18]

It is for the most part during the interwar period, and thus in an interval of 'Hindu revival', that the events in A House for Mr Biswas take place. This accounts for both the Tulsis' attempt to re-install Hinduism with a vengeance – after all, the older generation have witnessed its sudden decline in what must have been the traumatic experience of being robbed of their roots – and the fact that orthodox Hinduism has already been pervaded with external influences. The Tulsis reclaim their roots, but they cannot undo the fact that they have already been gnawed at. The fear of becoming infiltrated by beliefs and attitudes which constitute potential risks to their community makes them move up even closer.

Everything which made the Indian alien in the society gave him strength. [...] His religion gave him values which were not the white values of the rest of the community, and preserved him from self-contempt; he never lost pride in his origins. More important than religion was his family organization, an enclosing self-sufficient world absorbed with its quarrels and jealousies, as difficult for the outsider to penetrate as for one of its members to escape. It protected and imprisoned, a static world, awaiting decay.[19]

"Among the tumbledown timber-and-corrugated-iron buildings in the High Street at Arwacas, Hanuman House stood like an alien white fortress."[20] There is an air of authority about the Tulsi clan which is nurtured by their East Indian descent and a diffuse notion of being – or having been – something special. "The deference paid Pundit Tulsi in his native district had followed him to Trinidad and now that he was dead attached to his family" (81). Stuck in the middle between India, the old home, and Trinidad, the new one, the Tulsis obstinately cling to what they associate with being Indian. Half unwilling, half unable to adopt new ways and adapt to a rapidly changing environment, they create their own hermetic world, a version of India they try to "unroll like a carpet on the flat land"[21] ; the world outside their gates is excluded. Naipaul remembers his childhood in his grandmother's house (the Hanuman House of the novel) and the self-imposed isolation:

So as a child I had this sense of two worlds, the world outside that tall corrugated-iron gate, and the world at home - or, at any rate, the world of my grandmother's house. It was a remnant of our caste sense, the thing that excluded and shut out. In Trinidad, where as new arrivals we were a disadvantaged community, that excluding idea was a kind of protection; it enabled us – for the time being, and only for the time being – to live in our own way and according to our own rules, to live in our own fading India. It made for an extraordinary self-centredness. We looked inwards; we lived out our days; the world outside existed in a kind of darkness; we inquired about nothing.[22]

The traditional values the Tulsis hold in awe find expression in the familial organisation of the clan and their religion; religious ceremony is observed with the eagerness of people who see their purity and, at length, their identity endangered by creole surroundings. Religion and religious rites serve to create a sense of identity within the family while at the same time constituting a means to make oneself unassailable against outsiders. "Little was really known about this family; outsiders were admitted to Hanuman House only for religious celebrations" (81).

Mr Biswas's ticket of admission, first into the Tulsi store, later into the family, is his being of the proper ethnicity, faith and caste. His initial awe is soon replaced by disappointment, though; once inside, the spell is instantly broken, and what seemed intimidating almost immediately loses its spell. "The Tulsi Store was disappointing. The façade that promised such an amplitude of space concealed a building which was trapezoid in plan and not deep [...] and the shop abounded in awkward, empty, cob-webbed corners" (82). The façade is what matters to the Tulsis, and they take pains to keep it up, trying to give the impression of a firm, functioning, orthodox and ordered extended East Indian family.

The family is governed by Mrs Tulsi, the patriarch's widow, in union with Seth, her brother-in-law. This constellation, "the untraditional organization of Hanuman House, where married daughters lived with their mother" (365), which might at first seem unusual, is a special case, however not a peculiarity unique to the Tulsis and in itself already an indication of change. Hardly imaginable only decades earlier, let alone back in India,

a situation developed in Trinidad in which a widowed matriarch would succeed fully to her late husband's position. In India, a widow would become subject to her married sons but in Trinidad, the authority of the patriarch very often lasted after his own death for as long as the wife lived, particularly in landed families. For these reasons, the tyranny of the sas [mother-in-law] actually stood for the household power of the patriarch himself.[23]

Where possible, though, i. e. where the economic situation of the prospective son-in-law permits it, the old ways are adhered to. "There were daughters who had, in the Tulsi marriage lottery, drawn husbands with money and position; these daughters followed the Hindu custom of living with their husband's families, and formed no part of the Tulsi organization" (97). The fact that the family is headed by a woman does thus not make the Tulsis especially unorthodox.

3.1.1 Ritual Religious Rituals

Most of the recurrent patterns of the Tulsi family order can be summarised under one generic term: ritual. One of the main functions of rituals is that they serve to create and uphold a sense of identity and community; they are shared by the group members only, thereby defining the group. The more diverse a society, the stronger the incentive for respective groups to dissociate themselves via rituals. In an environment that is perceived as alien, indifferent or even hostile, the impulse to face the demands of life conjointly is especially powerful. It is not surprising that rituals play an important role among the Tulsis, who have never ceased to see themselves as expatriates.

For Trinidad Hindus, religious ritual is the main link back to India. By adhering to ancient Hindu rites, they celebrate their roots. The repetitive actions of the rituals are supposed to point beyond themselves to a transcendent reality; this transcendence however has suffered somewhat from the inevitable adjustments that had to be made to meet the altered circumstances.

More recently, pujas are often relatively brief affairs. According to the ritual texts [...] imported from India and used by pundits in Trinidad – the course of an entire puja should consist of sets of offerings made separately to a long series of deities. In Trinidad this has become much condensed, as one pundit explains:

Puja in detail is a' elaborate t'ing. But in Trinidad we have it confine' to de shortes' amount a' time. If you do dese t'ing separate, separate, separate, puja go take a whole day, ya' understan'? So we put dem all togedda. De same amount a' time you will take to do one, we do five.

Many Hindus now become impatient if a pundit takes too long performing puja rites.[24]

Within the Tulsi family, the man for such occasions is Hari, one of Biswas's brothers-in-law and a prime example of Naipaul's parodistic talent. The disparity between the conceived dignity of his role as the family pundit and Hari's actual deficient self respectively the triteness of his ritual activities gives rise to a great deal of comedy. He combines everything that Biswas rejects and thus spurs his ironic bent; feared for his lengthy visits to the latrine, Hari becomes simply "the constipated holy man" (120).

Hari represents Hinduism and thus the basis of Tulsidom. Whenever the opportunity arises for him to perform his ritual, it equals a reinforcement of Tulsi self-assurance. On the one hand Biswas experiences the family gathering on the occasion of the shop blessing ceremony he has reluctantly agreed to as a chaotic mess, on the other hand he feels left out, sensing the strength of a family solidarity he himself has never savoured. He is painfully reminded both of his own loneliness and his impotence to provide Shama with anything even close to the emotional stability she derives from her background.

For the last three days, since the arrival of her sisters, Shama had become a Tulsi and a stranger again. Now she was unapproachable. The ceremony in the tent was about to begin and she sat in front of Hari, listening to his instructions with bowed head. Her hair was still wet from her ritual bath and she was dressed in white from top to toe. She looked like someone waiting to be sacrificed and Mr Biswas thought he could detect pleasure in the curve of her back. Her status, like Hari's, was only temporary; but while the ceremony lasted, it was paramount. (152)

A great deal of the pleasure Shama has in going through the ritual results from the sense of order it gives her. She is reassured of the existence and strength of her roots, familial and religious; that she herself temporarily gains an importance she otherwise lacks is pleasant but secondary.

His function as a representative of Hindu faith renders Hari the perfect example of the loss of transcendence in religious practice. The religious rites he performs amount to little more than a stylised sequence of well-rehearsed manoeuvres. On the occasion of the second house blessing in Green Vale, Mr Maclean, the carpenter, reveals what he really expects from Hindu ceremonies.

Hari came early, neither interested nor antagonistic, just constipatedly apathetic. He came in normal clothes, with his pundit's gear in a small cardboard suitcase. He bathed at one of the barrels behind the barracks, changed into a dhoti in Mr Biswas's room and went to the site with a brass jar, some mango leaves and other equipment.

Mr Maclean had got Edgar to clean out a hole. In his thin voice Hari whined out the prayers. Whining, he sprinkled water into the hole with a mango leaf and dropped a penny and some other things wrapped in another mango leaf. Throughout the ceremony Mr Maclean stood up reverentially, his hat off.

Then Hari went back to the barracks, changed into trousers and shirt, and was off.

Mr Maclean looked surprised. 'That is all?' he asked. 'No sharing-out of anything – food and thing – as other Indians does do?' (257)

Maclean reduces the traditional rites to curious procedures one has to endure before food is shared out – and thus discloses that they have lost any abstract significance. The fact that he is not a Hindu does not necessarily mean that his assessment is erroneous; with equal justification one could see in him the child pointing to the emperor's nakedness. Secular Rituals

Religious rites are not the only form of ritual in the Tulsi family. Ritualisation permeates their lives and rituals work not only as a protective shield against an alien outside world, but also in that they help to maintain structure, order and hierarchies within the family. In this respect, they act as a kind of universal means of communication. Once those complex choreographies have started off, they gather momentum in such a way that talk – indeed thought – becomes unnecessary. Everyone knows how to behave "without being told" (127); everyone habitually falls in line and assumes their individual role.

Mrs Tulsi often fainted. Whenever this happened a complex ritual was at once set in motion. One daughter was despatched to get the Rose Room ready, and Mrs Tulsi was taken there by other daughters working under the direction of Padma, Seth's wife. If, as often happened, Padma was ill herself, Sushila took her place. Sushila's position in the family was unique. She was a widowed daughter whose only child had died. Because of her suffering she was respected, but though she gave herself the airs of authority her status was undefined, at times appearing as high as Mrs Tulsi's, at times lower than Miss Blackie's. It was only during Mrs Tulsi's illnesses that anyone could be sure of Sushila's power.

In the Rose Room, then, after a faint, one daughter fanned Mrs Tulsi; two massaged her smooth, shining and surprisingly firm legs; one soaked bay rum into her loosened hair and massaged her forehead. The other daughters stood by, ready to carry out the instructions of Padma or Sushila. The gods were often there as well, looking grimly on. When the massage and the bay rum-soaking was over Mrs Tulsi turned on her stomach and asked the younger god to walk on her, from the soles of her feet to her shoulders. (126 f.)

Those ceremonies are staged whenever the desired order is perceived to be in danger; Mrs Tulsi in this way asserts her role as leader of the pack. It is no wonder that Biswas, who has provoked the spectacle, refuses to budge. In his effort to break free from Tulsi rule, he makes it a matter of principle to undermine expectations. "He was expected to become a Tulsi. — At once he rebelled" (97); "He was expected to stay in the hall and show all the signs of contrition and unease. [...] — Mr Biswas didn't go to the hall" (127).

Another historic incident that permits an insight into the mechanisms of ritualisation serves to exemplify the communicative aspect of rituals and their function as substitute actions. Sumati, one of his sisters-in-law, vents her rage at Biswas on her son, conveying with each blow the message she wants to get across and its consignee: "' This will teach you not to meddle with things that don't belong to you. This will teach you not to provoke people who don't make any allowances for children. [...] And this will teach you not to let big people make your clothes dirty.' [...] The beating had ceased to be a simple punishment and had become a ritual" (154). Biswas not only decodes the message, he also understands the broader function of the demonstration. "'Is just a form of showing-off,' Mr Biswas said. He had seen enough of these beatings to know that later it would be said admiringly, 'Sumati beats her children really well'; and that the sisters would say to their children, 'Do you want to be beaten the way Sumati beat her son that day at The Chase?'" (155). A precedent has been established; Sumati has earned herself the epithet "the flogger" (294).


[1] Charles Michener: "The Dark Visions of V. S. Naipaul", pp. 63-74 in: Jussawalla, Feroza (ed.), Conversations with V. S. Naipaul. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997, p. 67 f. Emphases, unless indicated otherwise, are always those of the original texts.

[2] Dolly Zulakha Hassan: V. S. Naipaul and the West Indies. New York: Peter Lang, 1989, p. xiii.

[3] Thomas Hylland Eriksen: "The author as anthropologist: Some West Indian lessons about the relevance of fiction for anthropology", in: Archetti, Eduardo P. (ed.), Exploring the Written. Scandinavian University Press, 1994; quoted from http://folk.uio.no/geirthe/Authoranthrop.html.

[4] F. R. Augier, S. C. Gordon, D. G. Hall, M. Reckord: The Making of the West Indies. Trinidad and Jamaica: Longman Caribbean, 1960, p. 207.

[5] "Ein Reiseschriftsteller - mich interessiert das nicht, das ist nicht mein Fach," was Marcel Reich-Ranicki's response when he learned that Naipaul had been awarded the Nobel prize in 2001 (cf. http://www.zeit.de/archiv/2001/42/200142_pressebrief_1012.xml). Even if the remark was meant to refer to Naipaul's later travelogues rather than his early novels, this is nevertheless a case in point. Reich-Ranicki reveals that he has not read Naipaul, at least not closely enough to detect his universal relevance.

[6] Feroza Jussawalla: "Introduction", pp. ix-xvii in: Jussawalla 1997, p. xi f.

[7] V. S. Naipaul: The Writer and the World: Essays. Edited by Pankaj Mishra. London: Picador, 2002, p. 503.

[8] Feroza Jussawalla: "Introduction" (cf. footnote 6), p. xii.

[9] Adrian Rowe-Evans: "V. S. Naipaul: A Transition Interview", pp. 24-36 in: Jussawalla 1997, p. 32.

[10] Ibid., p. 25.

[11] Dates and events are taken from Augier et al. 1960 and Hanns-Georg Löber: Persönlichkeit und Kultur auf Trinidad: Ein Vergleich zwischen Afrikanern und Indern. Saarbrücken: Verlag der ssip-Schriften, 1976.

[12] Augier et al. 1960, p. 152.

[13] Löber 1976, p. 46.

[14] Augier et al. 1960, p. 186.

[15] Cf. Löber 1976, p. 90.

[16] Augier et al. 1960, p. 192 f.

[17] Ibid., p. 204 f.

[18] Christine Barrow: Family in the Caribbean: Themes and Perspectives. Kingston and Oxford, 1996, p. 376 f.

[19] V. S. Naipaul: The Middle Passage. London: André Deutsch, 1962, p. 81 f.

[20] V. S. Naipaul: A House for Mr Biswas. London: Penguin, 1992 (11961). In the following, page numbers for references to this novel will be given in parentheses.

[21] V. S. Naipaul in his Nobel lecture, cf. http://nobelprize.org/literature/laureates/2001/naipaul-lecture-e.html.

[22] Ibid.

[23] M. Agrosino: "Sexual Politics in the East Indian Family in Trinidad", Caribbean Studies 16:1 (1976), pp. 44-46, reprinted on pp. 383-396 in Barrow 1996, p. 391.

[24] Steven Vertovec: Hindu Trinidad: Religion, Ethnicity and Socio-Economic Change. London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1992, p. 175.

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Order and Chaos in Colonial Trinidad: V. S. Naipaul's Novel "A House for Mr Biswas"
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Dietrich Arlart (Author), 2004, Order and Chaos in Colonial Trinidad: V. S. Naipaul's Novel "A House for Mr Biswas", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/40522


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