For the past fortnight my professional life has focussed on the emergency in Haiti, but my imagination has concentrated on another part of the Caribbean: the island of Trinidad, the setting for VS Naipaul’s classic novel “A House for Mr Biswas”.
Mr Biswas (his first name, Mohun, is barely used) is born into great poverty, the son of an indentured labourer who came from India to work on the sugarcane plantations. Mr Biswas accidentally marries into a large, wealthy but squalid landowning family, the Tulsis, who see in him another son-in-law who can work on the family’s estates. Early 20th century Trinidad is poor, and Naipaul’s men and women live narrow, constrained lives. Even in this milieu the Tulsis are quite awful. Their house is dirty, the food bad, the family run as a dictatorship by the sickly Mrs Tulsi and her brother-in-law Seth. They marry off the girl children without a care for happiness or compatibility. These girls grow into mothers who boast how hard they beat their children, whilst the husbands work away on the estates, looking forward to Friday night in the rumshop. The capital Port of Spain, only a few hours distant, is another world. Mr Biswas rebels against all this. He rails against his in-laws and offends their traditional Hindu sensibility. Accidentally literate, he reads cheap detective novels and Marcus Aurelius. He escapes the sugarcane fields and the rice paddies and moves to the big city, where he becomes a journalist on the Trinidad Sentinel. And most importantly he attempts – several times - to build his own house.
Mr Biswas is a fool but he is a modern man trying, and failing, to assert himself in the face of poverty and narrow-mindedness. As Mr Biswas gets older we see Trinidad start to open out. The extended Tulsi clan disintegrates into nuclear families, and they discover personal ambition and a thirst for education. Mr Biswas’ children go abroad on scholarships and Mr Biswas himself finally buys a house.
“A House for Mr Biswas” is a personal book, not a political one, however we see a country taking its first steps in independence and attempting to drag itself out of poverty, and what this means for the men and women caught up in these changes.
Modern Trinidad and Tobago is not a desperately poor country – only 4% of its population lives below the poverty line, and over 70% of the population own a phone. Mr Biswas’ wife Shama is barely literate but today virtually all the island’s girls and boys can read and write. Things have moved on. Hearing the terrible stories from Haiti, and other impoverished nations, sometimes it’s easy to feel that nothing ever changes. Thinking about the life of Mr Biswas – journalist, joker, house-builder – dispels that feeling.