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ISSN: 0974-892X


January, 2007



Sumitra Kukreti

Exile and Alienation in V. S. Naipaul’s A House For Mr. Biswas

V. S. Naipaul, the noble laureate of 2001, is a literary giant revered all over the world. Out of the twenty-seven fiction and non fiction works, his fame primarily rests on A House for Mr. Biswas, a fiction with autographical nature. Most of Naipaul’s works revolve around the theme of “displacement and exile” (Nagrajan). His choice of themes basically refers to his states of mind. The oft repeated themes of alienation and exile, in fact, reflects the nomadic feelings of V.S.Naipaul, who, despite his long stay of twenty seven years at Wiltshire Cottage in London, feels himself an alien and an outsider there. Even his long stay and professional success failed to motivate him to establish an emotional bond with the country of his adoption. His remark clearly reflects this : “London is my metropolitan center; it is my commercial center and yet I know that it is a kind of Limbo and that I am a refugee in the sense that I am always peripheral. One’s concerns are not the concerns of the local people” (Joshi 84). The feeling of being an outsider makes him embittered and alienated throughout his life.

              Naipaul’s writings and interviews have always focused on the loneliness, sense of exile and alienation, the perpetual disturbance, the hollow in his heart. Though Indian by origin, he was born and brought up in Trinidad. He grew up in “multicultural society of Trinidad, peopled by migrants from four continents. He was part of a joint Hindu family with its rigid, clannish, and suffocating atmosphere. He was an alien in the midst of other aliens” (Chakroberty). Later he migrated to England, but he could not find himself attached to anyplace. He feels that he is “eternally an outsider—an Indian in the West Indies, a West Indian in England, and as described by men –nomadic intellectual in the non descript third world” (Nagrajan).

A House for Mr. Biswas delineates with the theme of exile and alienation in detail. Through his protagonist, Naipaul tries to communicate the painful and traumatic experiences of an immigrant. The indefinite article “A” used in the title  A House for Mr. Biswas indicates intensity of his desire to belong somewhere, to feel at home, to get rid of alienation. The theme of A House for Mr. Biswas is modeled on his father Seepersad Naipaul and it depicts his poignant struggle to become a writer. Naipaul who himself referred to his father as a ‘failure’ narrates the tale of an outsider in an alien country.

Alienation refers to:

            An extraordinary variety of psycho-social disorders, including loss of self, anxiety states, anomie, despair, depersonalization, rootlessness, apathy, social disorganization, powerlessness, meaninglessness, isolation, pessimism, and the loss of belief or values” (Townsend 12-13).

             Thus loneliness is the feeling of being separated from others and alienation is the very process of experiencing the feeling of loneliness. All these elements are present in the life of Mohun  Biswas—the chief protagonist in  A House for Mr. Biswas who strives hard to obtain self-identity and sense  of belongingness.

             Constant separation from the family fills Mohun Biswas with the sense of loneliness and alienation. Social acceptance and recognition are necessary for the sense of security, but Mohun Biswas never had either of these. His marginalization started with his birth. He was born in reverse position and had six fingers in his hand and due to these signs; Pundit Sitaram who made his horoscope predicted that he would be a spendthrift and a lecher with an unlucky sneeze. He also predicted that Mohun would be responsible for the death of his parents, that he would “eat up his father and mother”(12), and warned that his father should not see his face until twenty-one days of his birth. Later in his life, he was often reminded of this prediction made by Pundit, and it always increased the bitterness that already pervaded his heart and made him feel more miserable. It further aggravated his sense of loneliness. While he was only a boy, his brothers, Pratap and Prasad used to enjoy themselves by roaming around in the village, swimming into the ponds and rivers while he was compelled to stay at home, where the only option for him was to play with his sister Dehuti. Thus he was alienated even from his family.  Often he used to crave to see the outside world, to roam freely like others. But for him “life was unpleasant only because the Pundit had forbidden him to go near ponds and rivers” (18). After the death of his father he was admitted to a school but here he was regularly flogged by his teacher Mr. Lal, who once  “ordered him to write I AM AN ASS on the blackboard” (46). Thus the constant humiliation and physical and mental abuse casted negative impact on his personality and gradually he developed a kind of animosity towards people and became more isolated and lonely. After studying here for six years, Biswas was sent to Pundit Jairam to learn religious scriptures and to get training for the profession of a pundit. His sense of self- respect got hurt when he was flogged and ill treated by Pundit Jairam.  While expelling him from his house, Pundit Jairam spoke in a very harsh and cruel manner “You will never make a pundit. I was talking the other day to Sitaram who read your horoscope. You killed your father. I do not want you to do that to me” (55).

            Mohun Biswas’ chance marriage to Shama made him a son-in-law of Tulsis. It was a large, very large joint family. Here he was expected to merge his personal identity with Tulsis in exchange to food and shelter that he receives. But this was not an easy task for him. He felt trapped. His instant reaction “ now he was married. Nothing in the world except death could change that,” (92)  explain his mental state.  The joint family of Tulsis, with its at least two hundred members used to live under one roof. By the virtue of his marriage with Shama, Biswas automatically became a member of this family. Immediately after his marriage he realized that this marriage would not give him any happiness. Under the influence of this belief, he could not develop healthy marital relationship with his wife Shama, even when he was a newly married groom, “following his policy of caution, he had not attempted to establish any relation with her” (92). Later he returned to his house in Pagots. Then his aunt Tara visited Hanuman house and after her return, Biswas asked her whether she liked Shama, her reply that  it was none of her business to decide that, hurt Mr. Biswas, for it “emphasized his loneliness” (103). Later, on the same evening, as he peddled towards Hanuman House, he was so unhappy that  “ he wondered how many nights he would spend behind the closed façade of Hanuman House” (103). As he had no other option he returned to Hanuman House but here everybody except Shama was a stranger to him and often he would feel depressed as “it was a strain, living in a house full of people and talking to one person alone” (107) Thus all these incidents made Biswas feel more and more lonely.  While all other Tulsi son-in-laws have accepted this situation, throughout his life Biswas made serious efforts to revolt against it. Their differences of opinion and ideology created wide gap between them and he used to feel himself all alone in that large family—even Shama, his wife, would not share his problems. The indifference of Shama intensified his alienation. Once, when he was brutally beaten by Govind, in the presence of Shama, she neither tried to intervene nor consoled him after the incident, rather “she maintained her martyr’s attitude throughout…”(138) From her appearances and gestures she made him to feel guilty, as if only he was responsible for the entire episode. Had he just one person, just one person to whom he could reveal his heart, he might have felt less isolated. But he was destined to suffer in isolation.

           Mr. Biswas’ only desire was to live according to the desire of his heart but he had neither money, nor job, so he felt enormous pressure on him “to become a Tulsi” (99), to merge his identity into the Tulsidom. Yet with his unflinching spirit, he somehow managed his calm and even the worst circumstances could not break him down. Every effort of Mr. Biswas to become self -dependent was curbed down mercilessly. When he revealed his heart to Govind, another son-in-law that he would like to earn for himself, “to paddle his own canoe” (108), he immediately revealed it to Seth and it antagonized everybody in the family against him. Seth rebuked him in the presence of everybody:

            We want somebody 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 peddler. It runs in the family.’ Seth said, ‘They tell me your father was a great diver. But where has all these peddling got you so far? (112)

                   He was criticized and humiliated publicly but nobody tried to defend him and naturally he felt that in the entire Tulsi family, he had not a single soul to sympathize with him.

Biswas was then, compelled to work at the estate at Green Vale. Away from his family it was a kind of exile for Mohun Biswas who had to stay here in the company of antagonized labourers. Here he remained in such a pathetic condition that at times he undergoes a strange mindset and once at the time of this fury, when his wife Shama sent a message that she was bringing the children there for a few days , he immediately indulged in all kinds of  negative thoughts. Naipaul describes it in a poignant manner:

Mr Biswas waited for them with dread. On the day they were to arrive he began to wish for some accident that would prevent their coming. But he knew there would be no accident. If anything was to happen he had to act. He decided that he had to get rid of Anand and Savi and himself, in such a way that the children would never know who had killed them. All morning he was possessed of visions in which he cutlasses, poisioned, strangled, burned, Anand and Savi; so that even before they came his relationship with them had been perverted. About Myna and Shama he didn’t care; he did not wish to kill them (284-85).

Later, during his stay with Anand he tells him “I am not your father. God is your father…. I am just somebody. Nobody at all. I am just a man you know.” (291) It explains the turbulent mental condition Biswas was passing through. He found himself totally incapable to establish any emotional bond with his family members and that further intensified his alienation.

             This gradually separated him from others even from Shama. Biswas stayed in the Tulsi house for quite a long period yet he felt himself all alone, trapped and confined in one room. Here he remained alienated throughout his stay, often his wife Shama found him muttering that he was “ ‘trapped’ in a ‘hole’. ‘Trap’, she heard him say over and over. ‘That’s what your family do to me. Trap me in this hole’” (232)

           As he is unable to confide on anybody, his inability to establish relation with other members of the family made him more isolated. The members of the Tulsi clan were dull, the Tulsidom is “founded on a system of classic slavery, food and security are bartered for independence,” (Chakroberty 47).  somehow Biswas could not adjust with it. At the Hanuman house his status was that of a total stranger as “ he was troublesome and disloyal, and could not be trusted. He was weak and therefore contemptible” (104).

            Thus all the time while he remained at Hanuman House he received only “aggrieved and aggressive stares” (151). If he had to accommodate with the rules of Hanuman House it “would be to stoop to the state of a slave.” Therefore he resists it with all his power. He struggles up to the last to “release himself from the clutches of a stifling and suffocating world, symbolized by Hanuman  House” (Chakroberty 46).  He remained a stranger even till the end.

             It was his sense of alienation that motivated him to search for a house.  House was a great need in his life, as it becomes a symbol of personal identity, solace, self -respect and independence, the elements he was deprived of throughout his life. Ultimately when he purchased a house at Sikkim Street, it brought an end to his constant struggle. This house, though heavily loaned, yet here he was not at the mercy of anybody, rather he was his own master. He experienced the sense of belongingness for the first time in his life. It evoked sense of security in him and strengthened his decaying relationship with the family. Here, he “found himself in his own house, on his own half lot of land, his own portion of earth”(2).  It was an end of his exile and alienation, now he was perfectly at peace and at last died gracefully in his own house.




Chakroberty, Santosh. Alienation and Home: a Study of A House for Mr
Biswas, V.S.Naipaul: Critical Essays. ed. M.K.Ray. New Delhi, Atlantic Publishers & Distributors, 2005.

Joshi, Chandra B. Very Much My Father’s Book. Autobiographical Element
in A House for Mr. Biswas.  V.S.Naipaul: An Anthology of Recent Criticism. ed. Purabi Panwar. Delhi: Pencraft, 2003.

Nagrajan, M.S. Home and Exile. The Hindu, May 5, 2002

Naipaul, V.S. A House for Mr. Biswas. Great Britain: Picador, 2002). All
textual references are from this edition.

Townsend, Peter. Isolation, Loneliness and the Hold on Life, Men Alone :

Alienation in Modern Society, ed. Eric and Mary Josephson, Laurel Edition. New York: Dell Publishing House, 1962