"Naipaul has constructed a marvelous prose epic that matches the best nineteenth-century novels for richness of comic insight and final, tragic power." – Newsweek – Review

A gripping masterpiece, hailed as one of the 20th century's finest novels

A HOUSE FOR MR BISWAS is V.S. Naipaul's unforgettable third novel. Born the "wrong way" and thrust into a world that greeted him with little more than a bad omen, Mohun Biswas has spent his 46 years of life striving for independence. But his determined efforts have met only with calamity. Shuttled from one residence to another after the drowning of his father, Mr Biswas yearns for a place he can call home. He marries into the domineering Tulsi family, on whom he becomes indignantly dependent, but rebels and takes on a succession of occupations in an arduous struggle to weaken their hold over him and purchase a house of his own. Heartrending and darkly comic, A HOUSE FOR MR BISWAS masterfully evokes a man's quest for autonomy against the backdrop of post-colonial Trinidad.

Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul

A House for Mr. Biswas


Ten weeks before he died, Mr. Mohun Biswas, a journalist of Sikkim Street, St. James, Port of Spain, was sacked. He had been ill for some time. In less than a year he had spent more than nine weeks at the Colonial Hospital and convalesced at home for even longer. When the doctor advised him to take a complete rest the Trinidad Sentinel had no choice. It gave Mr. Biswas three months’ notice and continued, up to the time of his death, to supply him every morning with a free copy of the paper.

Mr. Biswas was forty-six, and had four children. He had no money. His wife Shama had no money. On the house in Sikkim Street Mr. Biswas owed, and had been owing for four years, three thousand dollars. The interest on this, at eight per cent, came to twenty dollars a month; the ground rent was ten dollars. Two children were at school. The two older children, on whom Mr. Biswas might have depended, were both abroad on scholarships.

It gave Mr. Biswas some satisfaction that in the circumstances Shama did not run straight off to her mother to beg for help. Ten years before that would have been her first thought. Now she tried to comfort Mr. Biswas, and devised plans on her own.

“Potatoes,” she said. “We can start selling potatoes. The price around here is eight cents a pound. If we buy at five and sell at seven-”

“Trust the Tulsi bad blood,” Mr. Biswas said. “I know that the pack of you Tulsis are financial geniuses. But have a good look around and count the number of people selling potatoes. Better to sell the old car.”

“No. Not the car. Don’t worry. We’ll manage.”

“Yes,” Mr. Biswas said irritably. “We’ll manage.”

No more was heard of the potatoes, and Mr. Biswas never threatened again to sell the car. He didn’t now care to do anything against his wife’s wishes. He had grown to accept her judgement and to respect her optimism. He trusted her. Since they had moved to the house Shama had learned a new loyalty, to him and to their children; away from her mother and sisters, she was able to express this without shame, and to Mr. Biswas this was a triumph almost as big as the acquiring of his own house.

He thought of the house as his own, though for years it had been irretrievably mortgaged. And during these months of illness and despair he was struck again and again by the wonder of being in his own house, the audacity of it: to walk in through his own front gate, to bar entry to whoever he wished, to close his doors and windows every night, to hear no noises except those of his family, to wander freely from room to room and about his yard, instead of being condemned, as before, to retire the moment he got home to the crowded room in one or the other of Mrs. Tulsi’s houses, crowded with Shama’s sisters, their husbands, their children. As a boy he had moved from one house of strangers to another; and since his marriage he felt he had lived nowhere but in the houses of the Tulsis, at Hanuman House in Arwacas, in the decaying wooden house at Shorthills, in the clumsy concrete house in Port of Spain. And now at the end he found himself in his own house, on his own half-lot of land, his own portion of the earth. That he should have been responsible for this seemed to him, in these last months, stupendous.

The house could be seen from two or three streets away and was known all over St. James. It was like a huge and squat sentry-box: tall, square, two-storeyed, with a pyramidal roof of corrugated iron. It had been designed and built by a solicitor’s clerk who built houses in his spare time. The solicitor’s clerk had many contacts. He bought land which the City Council had announced was not for sale; he persuaded estate owners to split whole lots into half-lots; he bought lots of barely reclaimed swamp land near Mucurapo and got permission to build on them. On whole lots or three-quarter-lots he built one-storey houses, twenty feet by twenty-six, which could pass unnoticed; on half-lots he built two-storey houses, twenty feet by thirteen, which were distinctive. All his houses were assembled mainly from frames from the dismantled American Army camps at Docksite, Pompeii Savannah and Fort Read. The frames did not always match, but they enabled the solicitor’s clerk to pursue his hobby with little professional help.

On the ground floor of Mr. Biswas’s two-storey house the solicitor’s clerk had put a tiny kitchen in one corner; the remaining L-shaped space, unbroken, served as drawingroom and diningroom. Between the kitchen and the diningroom there was a doorway but no door. Upstairs, just above the kitchen, the clerk had constructed a concrete room which contained a toilet bowl, a wash-basin and a shower; because of the shower this room was perpetually wet. The remaining L-shaped space was broken up into a bedroom, a verandah, a bedroom. Because the house faced west and had no protection from the sun, in the afternoon only two rooms were comfortably habitable: the kitchen downstairs and the wet bathroom-and-lavatory upstairs.

In his original design the solicitor’s clerk seemed to have forgotten the need for a staircase to link both floors, and what he had provided had the appearance of an afterthought. Doorways had been punched in the eastern wall and a rough wooden staircase-heavy planks on an uneven frame with one warped unpainted banister, the whole covered with a sloping roof of corrugated iron-hung precariously at the back of the house, in striking contrast with the white-pointed brickwork of the front, the white woodwork and the frosted glass of doors and windows.

For this house Mr. Biswas had paid five thousand five hundred dollars.

Mr. Biswas had built two houses of his own and spent much time looking at houses. Yet he was inexperienced. The houses he had built had been crude wooden things in the country, not much better than huts. And during his search for a house he had always assumed new and modern concrete houses, bright with paint, to be beyond him; and he had looked at few. So when he was faced with one which was accessible, with a solid, respectable, modern front, he was immediately dazzled. He had never visited the house when the afternoon sun was on it. He had first gone one afternoon when it was raining, and the next time, when he had taken the children, it was evening.

Of course there were houses to be bought for two thousand and three thousand dollars, on a whole lot, in rising parts of the city. But these houses were old and decaying, with no fences and no conveniences of any sort. Often on one lot there was a conglomeration of two or three miserable houses, with every room of every house let to a separate family who couldn’t legally be got out. What a change from those backyards, overrun with chickens and children, to the drawing-room of the solicitor’s clerk who, coatless, tieless and in slippers, looked relaxed and comfortable in his morris chair, while the heavy red curtains, reflecting on the polished floor, made the scene as cosy and rich as something in an advertisement! What a change from the Tulsi house!

The solicitor’s clerk lived in every house he built. While he lived in the house in Sikkim Street he was building another a discreet distance away, at Morvant. He had never married, and lived with his widowed mother, a gracious woman who gave Mr. Biswas tea and cakes which she had baked herself. Between mother and son there was much affection, and this touched Mr. Biswas, whose own mother, neglected by himself, had died five years before in great poverty.

“I can’t tell you how sad it make me to leave this house,” the solicitor’s clerk said, and Mr. Biswas noted that though the man spoke dialect he was obviously educated and used dialect and an exaggerated accent only to express frankness and cordiality. “Really for my mother’s sake, man. That is the onliest reason why I have to move. The old queen can’t manage the steps.” He nodded towards the back of the house, where the staircase was masked by heavy red curtains. “Heart, you see. Could pass away any day.”

Shama had disapproved from the first and never gone to see the house. When Mr. Biswas asked her, “Well, what you think?” Shama said, “Think? Me? Since when you start thinking that I could think anything? If I am not good enough to go and see your house, I don’t see how I could be good enough to say what I think.”

“Ah!” Mr. Biswas said. “Swelling up. Vexed. I bet you would be saying something different if it was your mother who was spending some of her dirty money to buy this house.”

Shama sighed.

“Eh? You could only be happy if we just keep on living with your mother and the rest of your big, happy family. Eh?”

“I don’t think anything. You have the money, you want to buy house, and I don’t have to think anything.”

The news that Mr. Biswas was negotiating for a house of his own had gone around Shama’s family. Suniti, a niece of twenty-seven, married, with two children, and abandoned for long periods by her husband, a handsome idler who looked after the railway buildings at Pokima Halt where trains stopped twice a day, Suniti said to Shama, “I hear that you come like a big-shot, Aunt.” She didn’t hide her amusement. “Buying house and thing.”

“Yes, child,” Shama said, in her martyr’s way.

The exchange took place on the back steps and reached the ears of Mr. Biswas, lying in pants and vest on the Slumberking bed in the room which contained most of the possessions he had gathered after forty-one years. He had carried on a war with Suniti ever since she was a child, but his contempt had never been able to quell her sarcasm. “Shama,” he shouted, “tell that girl to go back and help that worthless husband of hers to look after their goats at Pokima Halt.”

The goats were an invention of Mr. Biswas which never failed to irritate Suniti. “Goats!” she said to the yard, and sucked her teeth. “Well, some people at least have goats. Which is more than I could say for some other people.”

“Tcha!” Mr. Biswas said softly; and, refusing to be drawn into an argument with Suniti, he turned on his side and continued to read the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.

The very day the house was bought they began to see flaws in it. The staircase was dangerous; the upper floor sagged; there was no back door; most of the windows didn’t close; one door could not open; the celotex panels under the eaves had fallen out and left gaps between which bats could enter the attic. They discussed these things as calmly as they could and took care not to express their disappointment openly. And it was astonishing how quickly this disappointment had faded, how quickly they had accommodated themselves to every peculiarity and awkwardness of the house. And once that had happened their eyes ceased to be critical, and the house became simply their house.

When Mr. Biswas came back from the hospital for the first time, he found that the house had been prepared for him. The small garden had been made tidy, the downstairs walls distempered. The Prefect motorcar was in the garage, driven there weeks before from the Sentinel office by a friend. The hospital had been a void. He had stepped from that into a welcoming world, a new, ready-made world. He could not quite believe that he had made that world. He could not see why he should have a place in it. And everything by which he was surrounded was examined and rediscovered, with pleasure, surprise, disbelief. Every relationship, every possession.

The kitchen safe. That was more than twenty years old. Shortly after his marriage he had bought it, white and new, from the carpenter at Arwacas, the netting unpainted, the wood still odorous; then, and for some time afterwards, sawdust stuck to your hand when you passed it along the shelves. How often he had stained and varnished it! And painted it too. Patches of the netting were clogged, and varnish and paint had made a thick uneven skin on the woodwork. And in what colours he had painted it! Blue and green and even black. In 1938, the week the Pope died and the Sentinel came out with a black border, he had come across a large tin of yellow paint and painted everything yellow, even the typewriter. That had been acquired when, at the age of thirty-three, he had decided to become rich by writing for American and English magazines; a brief, happy, hopeful period. The typewriter had remained idle and yellow, and its colour had long since ceased to startle. And why, except that it had moved everywhere with them and they regarded it as one of their possessions, had they kept the hatrack, its glass now leprous, most of its hooks broken, its woodwork ugly with painting-over? The bookcase had been made at Shorthills by an out-of-work blacksmith who had been employed by the Tulsis as a cabinet-maker; he revealed his skill in his original craft in every bit of wood he had fashioned, every joint he had made, every ornament he had attempted. And the diningtable: bought cheaply from a Deserving Destitute who had got some money from the Sentinel’s Deserving Destitutes Fund and wished to show his gratitude to Mr. Biswas. And the Slumberking bed, where he could no longer sleep because it was upstairs and he had been forbidden to climb steps. And the glass cabinet: bought to please Shama, still dainty, and still practically empty. And the morris suite: the last acquisition, it had belonged to the solicitor’s clerk and had been left by him as a gift. And in the garage outside, the Prefect.

But bigger than them all was the house, his house.

How terrible it would have been, at this time, to be without it: to have died among the Tulsis, amid the squalor of that large, disintegrating and indifferent family; to have left Shama and the children among them, in one room; worse, to have lived without even attempting to lay claim to one’s portion of the earth; to have lived and died as one had been born, unnecessary and unaccommodated.

Part One

1. Pastoral

Shortly before he was born there had been another quarrel between Mr. Biswas’s mother Bipti and his father Raghu, and Bipti had taken her three children and walked all the way in the hot sun to the village where her mother Bissoondaye lived. There Bipti had cried and told the old story of Raghu’s miserliness: how he kept a check on every cent he gave her, counted every biscuit in the tin, and how he would walk ten miles rather than pay a cart a penny.

Bipti’s father, futile with asthma, propped himself up on his string bed and said, as he always did on unhappy occasions, “Fate. There is nothing we can do about it.”

No one paid him any attention. Fate had brought him from India to the sugar-estate, aged him quickly and left him to die in a crumbling mud hut in the swamplands; yet he spoke of Fate often and affectionately, as though, merely by surviving, he had been particularly favoured.

While the old man talked on, Bissoondaye sent for the midwife, made a meal for Bipti’s children and prepared beds for them. When the midwife came the children were asleep. Some time later they were awakened by the screams of Mr. Biswas and the shrieks of the midwife.

“What is it?” the old man asked. “Boy or girl?”

“Boy, boy,” the midwife cried. “But what sort of boy? Six-fingered, and born in the wrong way.”

The old man groaned and Bissoondaye said, “I knew it. There is no luck for me.”

At once, though it was night and the way was lonely, she left the hut and walked to the next village, where there was a hedge of cactus. She brought back leaves of cactus, cut them into strips and hung a strip over every door, every window, every aperture through which an evil spirit might enter the hut.

But the midwife said, “Whatever you do, this boy will eat up his own mother and father.”

The next morning, when in the bright light it seemed that all evil spirits had surely left the earth, the pundit came, a small, thin man with a sharp satirical face and a dismissing manner. Bissoondaye seated him on the string bed, from which the old man had been turned out, and told him what had happened.

“Hm. Born in the wrong way. At midnight, you said. “

Bissoondaye had no means of telling the time, but both she and the midwife had assumed that it was midnight, the inauspicious hour.

Abruptly, as Bissoondaye sat before him with bowed and covered head, the pundit brightened, “Oh, well. It doesn’t matter. There are always ways and means of getting over these unhappy things.” He undid his red bundle and took out his astrological almanac, a sheaf of loose thick leaves, long and narrow, between boards. The leaves were brown with age and their musty smell was mixed with that of the red and ochre sandalwood paste that had been spattered on them. The pundit lifted a leaf, read a little, wet his forefinger on his tongue and lifted another leaf.

At last he said, “First of all, the features of this unfortunate boy. He will have good teeth but they will be rather wide, and there will be spaces between them. I suppose you know what that means. The boy will be a lecher and a spendthrift. Possibly a liar as well. It is hard to be sure about those gaps between the teeth. They might mean only one of those things or they might mean all three.”

“What about the six fingers, pundit?”

“That’s a shocking sign, of course. The only thing I can advise is to keep him away from trees and water. Particularly water.”

“Never bath him?”

“I don’t mean exactly that.” He raised his right hand, bunched the fingers and, with his head on one side, said slowly, “One has to interpret what the book says.” He tapped the wobbly almanac with his left hand. “And when the book says water, I think it means water in its natural form.”

“Natural form.”

“Natural form,” the pundit repeated, but uncertainly. “I mean,” he said quickly, and with some annoyance, “keep him away from rivers and ponds. And of course the sea. And another thing,” He added with satisfaction. “He will have an unlucky sneeze.” He began to pack the long leaves of his almanac. “Much of the evil this boy will undoubtedly bring will be mitigated if his father is forbidden to see him for twenty-one days.”

“That will be easy,” Bissoondaye said, speaking with emotion for the first time.

“On the twenty-first day the father must see the boy. But not in the flesh.”

“In a mirror, pundit?”

“I would consider that ill-advised. Use a brass plate. Scour it well.”

“Of course.”

“You must fill this brass plate with coconut oil-which, by the way, you must make yourself from coconuts you have collected with your own hands-and in the reflection on this oil the father must see his son’s face.” He tied the almanac together and rolled it in the red cotton wrapper which was also spattered with sandalwood paste. “I believe that is all.”

“We forgot one thing, punditji. The name.”

“I can’t help you completely there. But it seems to me that a perfectly safe prefix would be Mo. It is up to you to think of something to add to that.”

“Oh, punditji, you must help me. I can only think of hun.”

The pundit was surprised and genuinely pleased. “But that is excellent. Excellent. Mohun. I couldn’t have chosen better myself. For Mohun, as you know, means the beloved, and was the name given by the milkmaids to Lord Krishna.” His eyes softened at the thought of the legend and for a moment he appeared to forget Bissoondaye and Mr. Biswas.

From the knot at the end of her veil Bissoondaye took out a florin and offered it to the pundit, mumbling her regret that she could not give more. The pundit said that she had done her best and was not to worry. In fact he was pleased; he had expected less.

Mr. Biswas lost his sixth finger before he was nine days old. It simply came off one night and Bipti had an unpleasant turn when, shaking out the sheets one morning, she saw this tiny finger tumble to the ground. Bissoondaye thought this an excellent sign and buried the finger behind the cowpen at the back of the house, not far from where she had buried Mr. Biswas’s navel-string.

In the days that followed Mr. Biswas was treated with attention and respect. His brothers and sisters were slapped if they disturbed his sleep, and the flexibility of his limbs was regarded as a matter of importance. Morning and evening he was massaged with coconut oil. All his joints were exercised; his arms and legs were folded diagonally across his red shining body; the big toe of his right foot was made to touch his left shoulder, the big toe of his left foot was made to touch his right shoulder, and both toes were made to touch his nose; finally, all his limbs were bunched together over his belly and then, with a clap and a laugh, released.

Mr. Biswas responded well to these exercises, and Bissoondaye became so confident that she decided to have a celebration on the ninth day. She invited people from the village and fed them. The pundit came and was unexpectedly gracious, though his manner suggested that but for his intervention there would have been no celebration at all. Jhagru, the barber, brought his drum, and Selochan did the Shiva dance in the cowpen, his body smeared all over with ash.

There was an unpleasant moment when Raghu, Mr. Biswas’s father, appeared. He had walked; his dhoti and jacket were sweated and dusty. “Well, this is very nice,” he said. “Celebrating. And where is the father?”

“Leave this house at once,” Bissoondaye said, coming out of the kitchen at the side. “Father! What sort of father do you call yourself, when you drive your wife away every time she gets heavy-footed?”

“That is none of your business,” Raghu said. “Where is my son?”

“Go ahead. God has paid you back for your boasting and your meanness. Go and see your son. He will eat you up. Six-fingered, born in the wrong way. Go in and see him. He has an unlucky sneeze as well.”

Raghu halted. “Unlucky sneeze?”

“I have warned you. You can only see him on the twenty-first day. If you do anything stupid now the responsibility will be yours.”

From his string bed the old man muttered abuse at Raghu. “Shameless, wicked. When I see the behaviour of this man I begin to feel that the Black Age has come.”

The subsequent quarrel and threats cleared the air. Raghu confessed he had been in the wrong and had already suffered much for it. Bipti said she was willing to go back to him. And he agreed to come again on the twenty-first day.

To prepare for that day Bissoondaye began collecting dry coconuts. She husked them, grated the kernels and set about extracting the oil the pundit had prescribed. It was a long job of boiling and skimming and boiling again, and it was surprising how many coconuts it took to make a little oil. But the oil was ready in time, and Raghu came, neatly dressed, his hair plastered flat and shining, his moustache trimmed, and he was very correct as he took off his hat and went into the dark inner room of the hut which smelled warmly of oil and old thatch. He held his hat on the right side of his face and looked down into the oil in the brass plate. Mr. Biswas, hidden from his father by the hat, and well wrapped from head to foot, was held face downwards over the oil. He didn’t like it; he furrowed his forehead, shut his eyes tight and bawled. The oil rippled, clear amber, broke up the reflection of Mr. Biswas’s face, already distorted with rage, and the viewing was over.

A few days later Bipti and her children returned home. And there Mr. Biswas’s importance steadily diminished. The time came when even the daily massage ceased.

But he still carried weight. They never forgot that he was an unlucky child and that his sneeze was particularly unlucky. Mr. Biswas caught cold easily and in the rainy season threatened his family with destitution. If, before Raghu left for the sugar-estate, Mr. Biswas sneezed, Raghu remained at home, worked on his vegetable garden in the morning and spent the afternoon making walking-sticks and sabots, or carving designs on the hafts of cutlasses and the heads of walking-sticks. His favourite design was a pair of Wellingtons; he had never owned Wellingtons but had seen them on the overseer. Whatever he did, Raghu never left the house. Even so, minor mishaps often followed Mr. Biswas’s sneeze: threepence lost in the shopping, the breaking of a bottle, the upsetting of a dish. Once Mr. Biswas sneezed on three mornings in succession.

“This boy will eat up his family in truth,” Raghu said.

One morning, just after Raghu had crossed the gutter that ran between the road and his yard, he suddenly stopped. Mr. Biswas had sneezed. Bipti ran out and said, “It doesn’t matter. He sneezed when you were already on the road.”

“But I heard him. Distinctly.”

Bipti persuaded him to go to work. About an hour or two later, while she was cleaning the rice for the midday meal, she heard shouts from the road and went out to find Raghu lying in an ox-cart, his right leg swathed in bloody bandages. He was groaning, not from pain, but from anger. The man who had brought him refused to help him into the yard: Mr. Biswas’s sneeze was too well known. Raghu had to limp in leaning on Bipti’s shoulder.

“This boy will make us all paupers,” Raghu said.

He spoke from a deep fear. Though he saved and made himself and his family go without many things, he never ceased to feel that destitution was very nearly upon him. The more he hoarded, the more he felt he had to waste and to lose, and the more careful he became.

Every Saturday he lined up with the other labourers outside the estate office to collect his pay. The overseer sat at a little table, on which his khaki cork hat rested, wasteful of space, but a symbol of wealth. On his left sat the Indian clerk, important, stern, precise, with small neat hands that wrote small neat figures in black ink and red ink in the tall ledger. As the clerk entered figures and called out names and amounts in his high, precise voice, the overseer selected coins from the columns of silver and the heaps of copper in front of him, and with greater deliberation extracted notes from the blue one-dollar stacks, the smaller red two-dollar stack and the very shallow green five-dollar stack. Few labourers earned five dollars a week; the notes were there to pay those who were collecting their wives’ or husbands’ wages as well as their own. Around the overseer’s cork hat, and seeming to guard it, there were stiffblue paper bags, neatly serrated at the top, printed with large figures, and standing upright from the weight of coin inside them. Clean round perforations gave glimpses of the coin and, Raghu had been told, allowed it to breathe.

These bags fascinated Raghu. He had managed to get a few and after many months and a little cheating-turning a shilling into twelve pennies, for example-he had filled them. Thereafter he had never been able to stop. No one, not even Bipti, knew where he hid these bags; but the word had got around that he buried his money and was possibly the richest man in the village. Such talk alarmed Raghu and, to counter it, he increased his austerities.

Mr. Biswas grew. The limbs that had been massaged and oiled twice a day now remained dusty and muddy and unwashed for days. The malnutrition that had given him the sixth finger of misfortune pursued him now with eczema and sores that swelled and burst and scabbed and burst again, until they stank; his ankles and knees and wrists and elbows were in particular afflicted, and the sores left marks like vaccination scars. Malnutrition gave him the shallowest of chests, the thinnest of limbs; it stunted his growth and gave him a soft rising belly. And yet, perceptibly, he grew. He was never aware of being hungry. It never bothered him that he didn’t go to school. Life was unpleasant only because the pundit had forbidden him to go near ponds and rivers. Raghu was an excellent swimmer and Bipti wished him to train Mr. Biswas’s brothers. So every Sunday morning Raghu took Pratap and Prasad to swim in a stream not far off, and Mr. Biswas stayed at home, to be bathed by Bipti and have all his sores ripped open by her strong rubbing with the blue soap. But in an hour or two the redness and rawness of the sores had faded, scabs were beginning to form, and Mr. Biswas was happy again. He played at house with his sister Dehuti. They mixed yellow earth with water and made mud fireplaces; they cooked a few grains of rice in empty condensed milk tins; and, using the tops of tins as baking-stones, they made rotis.

In these amusements Prasad and Pratap took no part. Nine and eleven respectively, they were past such frivolities, and had already begun to work, joyfully cooperating with the estates in breaking the law about the employment of children. They had developed adult mannerisms. They spoke with blades of grass between their teeth; they drank noisily and sighed, passing the back of their hands across their mouths; they ate enormous quantities of rice, patted their bellies and belched; and every Saturday they stood up in line to draw their pay. Their job was to look after the buffaloes that drew the cane-carts. The buffaloes’ pleasance was a muddy, cloyingly sweet pool not far from the factory; here, with a dozen other thin-limbed boys, noisy, happy, over-energetic and with a full sense of their importance, Pratap and Prasad moved all day in the mud among the buffaloes. When they came home their legs were caked with the buffalo mud which, on drying, had turned white, so that they looked like the trees in fire-stations and police-stations which are washed with white lime up to the middle of their trunks.

Much as he wanted to, it was unlikely that Mr. Biswas would have joined his brothers at the buffalo pond when he was of age. There was the pundit’s ruling against water; and though it could be argued that mud was not water, and though an accident there might have removed the source of Raghu’s anxiety, neither Raghu nor Bipti would have done anything against the pundit’s advice. In another two or three years, when he could be trusted with a sickle, Mr. Biswas would be made to join the boys and girls of the grass-gang. Between them and the buffalo boys there were constant disputes, and there was no doubt who were superior. The buffalo boys, with their leggings of white mud, tickling the buffaloes and beating them with sticks, shouting at them and controlling them, exercised power. Whereas the children of the grass-gang, walking briskly along the road single file, their heads practically hidden by tall, wide bundles of wet grass, hardly able to see, and, because of the weight on their heads and the grass over their faces, unable to make more than slurred, brief replies to taunts, were easy objects of ridicule.

And it was to be the grass-gang for Mr. Biswas. Later he would move to the cane fields, to weed and clean and plant and reap; he would be paid by the task and his tasks would be measured out by a driver with a long bamboo rod. And there he would remain. He would never become a driver or a weigher because he wouldn’t be able to read. Perhaps, after many years, he might save enough to rent or buy a few acres where he would plant his own canes, which he would sell to the estate at a price fixed by them. But he would achieve this only if he had the strength and optimism of his brother Pratap. For that was what Pratap did. And Pratap, illiterate all his days, was to become richer than Mr. Biswas; he was to have a house of his own, a large, strong, well-built house, years before Mr. Biswas.

But Mr. Biswas never went to work on the estates. Events which were to occur presently led him away from that. They did not lead him to riches, but made it possible for him to console himself in later life with the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, while he rested on the Slumberking bed in the one room which contained most of his possessions.

Dhari, the next-door neighbour, bought a cow in calf, and when the calf was born, Dhari, whose wife went out to work and who had no children of his own, offered Mr. Biswas the job of taking water to the calf during the day, at a penny a week. Raghu and Bipti were pleased.

Mr. Biswas loved the calf, for its big head that looked so insecurely attached to its slender body, for its knobbly shaky legs, its big sad eyes and pink stupid nose. He liked to watch the calf tugging fiercely and sloppily at its mother’s udders, its thin legs splayed out, its head almost hidden under its mother’s belly. And he did more than take water to the calf. He took it for walks across damp fields of razor grass and along the rutted lanes between the cane fields, anxious to feed it with grass of many sorts and unable to understand why the calf resented being led from one place to another.

It was on one of these walks that Mr. Biswas discovered the stream. It could not be here that Raghu brought Pratap and Prasad to swim: it was too shallow. But it was certainly here that Bipti and Dehuti came on Sunday afternoons to do the washing and returned with their fingers white and pinched. Between clumps of bamboo the stream ran over smooth stones of many sizes and colours, the cool sound of water blending with the rustle of the sharp leaves, the creaks of the tall bamboos when they swayed and their groans when they rubbed against one another.

Mr. Biswas stood in the stream and looked down. The swift movement of the water and the noise made him forget its shallowness, the stones felt slippery, and in a panic he scrambled up to the bank and looked at the water, now harmless again, while the calf stood idle and unhappy beside him, not caring for bamboo leaves.

He continued to go to the forbidden stream. Its delights seemed endless. In a small eddy, dark in the shadow of the bank, he came upon a school of small black fish matching their background so well that they might easily have been mistaken for weeds. He lay down on the bamboo leaves and stretched out a hand slowly, but as soon as his fingers touched the water, the fish, with a wriggle and flick, were away. After that, when he saw the fish, he did not try to catch them. He would watch them and then drop things on the water. A dry bamboo leaf might cause a slight tremor among the fish; a bamboo twig might frighten them more; but if he remained still after that and dropped nothing the fish would become calm again. Then he would spit. Though he couldn’t spit as well as his brother Pratap who, with casual violence, could make his spit resound wherever it fell, it pleased Mr. Biswas to see his spit circling slowly above the black fish before being carried away into the main stream. Fishing he sometimes tried, with a thin bamboo rod, a length of string, a bent pin and no bait. The fish didn’t bite; but if he wiggled the string violently they became frightened. When he had gazed at the fish long enough he dropped a stick into the water; it was good then to see the whole school instantly streaking away.

Then one day Mr. Biswas lost the calf. He had forgotten it, watching the fish. And when, after dropping the stick and scattering the fish, he remembered the calf, it had gone. He hunted for it along the banks and in the adjoining fields. He went back to the field where Dhari had left the calf that morning. The iron piquet, its head squashed and shiny from repeated poundings, was there, but no rope was attached to it, no calf. He spent a long time searching, in fields full of tall weeds with fluffy heads, in the gutters, like neat red gashes, between the fields, and among the sugarcane. He called for it, mooing softly so as not to attract the attention of people.

Abruptly, he decided that the calf was lost for good; that the calf was anyway able to look after itself and would somehow make its way back to its mother in Dhari’s yard. In the meantime the best thing for him to do would be to hide until the calf was found, or perhaps forgotten. It was getting late and he decided that the best place for him to hide would be at home.

The afternoon was almost over. In the west the sky was gold and smoke. Most of the villagers were back from work, and Mr. Biswas had to make his way home with caution, keeping close to hedges and sometimes hiding in gutters. Unseen, he came right up to the back boundary of their lot. On a stand between the hut and the cowpen he saw Bipti washing enamel, brass and tin dishes with ashes and water. He hid behind the hibiscus hedge. Pratap and Prasad came, blades of grass between their teeth, their close-fitting felt hats damp with sweat, their faces scorched by the sun and stained with sweat, their legs cased in white mud. Pratap threw a length of white cotton around his dirty trousers and undressed with expert adult modesty before using the calabash to throw water over himself from the big black oil barrel. Prasad stood on a board and began scraping the white mud off his legs.

Bipti said, “You boys will have to go and get some wood before it gets dark.”

Prasad lost his temper; and, as though by scraping off the white mud he had lost the composure of adulthood, he flung his hat to the ground and cried like a child, “Why do you ask me now? Why do you ask me every day? I am not going.”

Raghu came to the back, an unfinished walking-stick in one hand and in the other a smoking wire with which he had been burning patterns into the stick. “Listen, boy,” Raghu said. “Don’t feel that because you are earning money you are a man. Do what your mother asks. And go quickly, before I use this stick on you, even though it is unfinished.” He smiled at his joke.

Mr. Biswas became uneasy.

Prasad, still raging, picked up his hat, and he and Pratap went away to the front of the house.

Bipti took her dishes to the kitchen in the front verandah, where Dehuti would be helping with the evening meal. Raghu went back to his bonfire at the front. Mr. Biswas slipped through the hibiscus fence, crossed the narrow, shallow gutter, grey-black and squelchy with the ashy water from the washing-up stand and the muddy water from Pratap’s bath, and made his way to the small back verandah where there was a table, the only piece of carpenter-built furniture in the hut. From the verandah he went into his father’s room, passed under the valance of the bed-planks resting on upright logs sunk into the earth floor-and prepared to wait.

It was a long wait but he endured it without discomfort. Below the bed the smell of old cloth, dust and old thatch combined into one overpoweringly musty smell. Idly, to pass the time, he tried to disentangle one smell from the other, while his ears picked up the sounds in and around the hut. They were remote and dramatic. He heard the boys return and throw down the dry wood they had brought. Prasad still raged, Raghu warned, Bipti coaxed. Then all at once Mr. Biswas became alert.

“Ey, Raghu?” He recognized Dhari’s voice. “Where is that youngest son of yours?”

“Mohun? Bipti, where is Mohun?”

“With Dhari’s calf, I suppose.”

“Well, he isn’t,” Dhari said.

“Prasad!” Bipti called. “Pratap! Dehuti! Have you seen Mohun?”

“No, mai.”

“No, mai.”

“No, mai.”

“No, mai. No, mai. No, mai,” Raghu said. “What the hell do you think it is? Go and look for him.”

“Oh God!” Prasad cried.

“And you too, Dhari. It was your idea, getting Mohun to look after the calf. I hold you responsible.”

“The magistrate will have something else to say,” Dhari said. “A calf is a calf, and for one who is not as rich as yourself-”

“I am sure nothing has happened,” Bipti said, “Mohun knows he mustn’t go near water.”

Mr. Biswas was startled by a sound of wailing. It came from Dhari. “Water, water. Oh, the unlucky boy. Not content with eating up his mother and father, he is eating me up as well. Water! Oh, Mohun’s mother, what you have said?”

“Water?” Raghu sounded puzzled.

“The pond, the pond,” Dhari wailed, and Mr. Biswas heard him shouting to the neighbours, “Raghu’s son has drowned my calf in the pond. A nice calf. My first calf. My only calf

Quickly a chattering crowd gathered. Many of them had been to the pond that afternoon; quite a number had seen a calf wandering about, and one or two had even seen a boy.

“Nonsense!” Raghu said. “You are a pack of liars. The boy doesn’t go near water.” He paused and added, “The pundit especially forbade him to go near water in its natural form.”

Lakhan the carter said, “But this is a fine man. He doesn’t seem to care whether his son is drowned or not.”

“How do you know what he thinks?” Bipti said.

“Leave him, leave him,” Raghu said, in an injured, forgiving tone. “Mohun is my son. And if I don’t care whether he is drowned or not, that is my business.”

“What about my calf?” Dhari said.

“I don’t care about your calf. Pratap! Prasad! Dehuti! Have you seen your brother?”

“No, father.”

“No, father.”

“No, father.”

“I will go and dive for him,” Lakhan said.

“You are very anxious to show off,” Raghu said.

“Oh!” Bipti cried. “Stop this bickering-ickering and let us go to look for the boy.”

“Mohun is my son,” Raghu said. “And if anybody is going to dive for him, it will be me. And I pray to God, Dhari, that when I get to the bottom of that pond I find your wretched calf.”

“Witnesses!” Dhari said. “You are all my witnesses. Those words will have to be repeated in court.”

“To the pond! To the pond!” the villagers said, and the news was shouted to those just arriving: “Raghu is going to dive for his son in the pond.”

Mr. Biswas, under his father’s bed, had listened at first with pleasure, then with apprehension. Raghu came into the room, breathing heavily and swearing at the village. Mr. Biswas heard him undress and shout for Bipti to come and rub him down with coconut oil. She came and rubbed him down and they both left the room. From the road chatter and the sound of footsteps rose, and slowly faded.

Mr. Biswas came out from under the bed and was dismayed to find that the hut was dark. In the next room someone began to cry. He went to the doorway and looked. It was Dehuti. From the nail on the wall she had taken down his shirt and two vests and was pressing them to her face.

“Sister,” he whispered.

She heard and saw, and her sobs turned to screams.

Mr. Biswas didn’t know what to do. “It’s all right, it’s all right,” he said, but the words were useless, and he went back to his father’s room. Just in time, for at that moment Sadhu, the very old man who lived two houses away, came and asked what was wrong, his words whistling through the gaps in his teeth.

Dehuti continued to scream. Mr. Biswas put his hands into his trouser pockets and, through the holes in them, pressed his fingers on his thighs.

Sadhu led Dehuti away.

Outside, from an unknown direction, a frog honked, then made a sucking, bubbling noise. The crickets were already chirping. Mr. Biswas was alone in the dark hut, and frightened.

The pond lay in swampland. Weeds grew all over its surface and from a distance it appeared to be no more than a shallow depression. In fact it was full of abrupt depths and the villagers liked to think that these were immeasurable. There were no trees or hills around, so that though the sun had gone, the sky remained high and light. The villagers stood silently around the safe edge of the pond. The frogs honked and the poor-me-one bird began to say the mournful words that gave it its name. The mosquitoes were already active; from time to time a villager slapped his arm or lifted a leg and slapped that.

Lakhan the carter said, “He’s been down there too long.”

Bipti frowned.

Before Lakhan could take off his shirt Raghu broke the surface, puffed out his cheeks, spat out a long thin arc of water and took deep resounding breaths. The water rolled off his oiled skin, but his moustache had collapsed over his upper lip and his hair fell in a fringe over his forehead. Lakhan gave him a hand up. “I believe there is something down there,” Raghu said. “But it is very dark.”

Far away the low trees were black against the fading sky; the orange streaks of sunset were smudged with grey, as if by dirty thumbs.

Bipti said, “Let Lakhan dive.”

Someone else said, “Leave it till tomorrow.”

“Till tomorrow?” Raghu said. “And poison the water for everybody?”

Lakhan said, “I will go.”

Raghu, panting, shook his head. “My son. My duty.”

“And my calf,” Dhari said.

Raghu ignored him. He ran his hands through his hair, puffed out his cheeks, put his hands to his sides and belched. In a moment he was in the water again. The pond didn’t permit stylish diving; Raghu merely let himself down. The water broke and rippled. The gleam it got from the sky was fading. While they waited a cool wind came down from the hills to the north; between the shaking weeds the water shimmered like sequins.

Lakhan said, “He’s coming up now. I believe he’s got something.”

They knew what it was from Dhari’s cry. Then Bipti began to scream, and Pratap and Prasad and all the women, while the men helped to lift the calf to the bank. One of its sides was green with slime; its thin limbs were ringed with vinelike weeds, still fresh and thick and green. Raghu sat on the bank, looking down between his legs at the dark water.

Lakhan said, “Let me go down now and look for the boy.”

“Yes, man,” Bipti pleaded. “Let him go.”

Raghu remained where he was, breathing deeply, his dhoti clinging to his skin. Then he was in the water and the villagers were silent again. They waited, looking at the calf, looking at the pond.

Lakhan said, “Something has happened.”

A woman said, “No stupid talk now, Lakhan. Raghu is a great diver.”

“I know, I know,” Lakhan said. “But he’s been diving too long.”

Then they were all still. Someone had sneezed.

They turned to see Mr. Biswas standing some distance away in the gloom, the toe of one foot scratching the ankle of the other.

Lakhan was in the pond. Pratap and Prasad rushed to hustle Mr. Biswas away.

“That boy!” Dhari said. “He has murdered my calf and now he has eaten up his own father.”

Lakhan brought up Raghu unconscious. They rolled him on the damp grass and pumped water out of his mouth and through his nostrils. But it was too late.

“Messages,” Bipti kept on saying. “We must send messages.” And messages were taken everywhere by willing and excited villagers. The most important message went to Bipti’s sister Tara at Pagotes. Tara was a person of standing. It was her fate to be childless, but it was also her fate to have married a man who had, at one bound, freed himself from the land and acquired wealth; already he owned a rumshop and a dry goods shop, and he had been one of the first in Trinidad to buy a motorcar.

Tara came and at once took control. Her arms were encased from wrist to elbow with silver bangles which she had often recommended to Bipti: “They are not very pretty, but one clout from this arm will settle any attacker.” She also wore earrings and a nakphul, a “nose-flower”. She had a solid gold yoke around her neck and thick silver bracelets on her ankles. In spite of all her jewellery she was energetic and capable, and had adopted her husband’s commanding manner. She left the mourning to Bipti and arranged everything else. She had brought her own pundit, whom she continually harangued; she instructed Pratap how to behave during the ceremonies; and she had even brought a photographer.

She urged Prasad, Dehuti and Mr. Biswas to behave with dignity and to keep out of the way, and she ordered Dehuti to see that Mr. Biswas was properly dressed. As the baby of the family Mr. Biswas was treated by the mourners with honour and sympathy, though this was touched with a little dread. Embarrassed by their attentions, he moved about the hut and yard, thinking he could detect a new, raw smell in the air. There was also a strange taste in his mouth; he had never eaten meat, but now he felt he had eaten raw white flesh; nauseating saliva rose continually at the back of his throat and he had to keep on spitting, until Tara said, “What’s the matter with you? Are you pregnant?”

Bipti was bathed. Her hair, still wet, was neatly parted and the parting filled with red henna. Then the henna was scooped out and the parting filled with charcoal dust. She was now a widow forever. Tara gave a short scream and at her signal the other women began to wail. On Bipti’s wet black hair there were still spots of henna, like drops of blood.

Cremation was forbidden and Raghu was to be buried. He lay in a coffin in the bedroom, dressed in his finest dhoti, jacket and turban, his beads around his neck and down his jacket. The coffin was strewed with marigolds which matched his turban. Pratap, the eldest son, did the last rites, walking round the coffin.

“Photo now,” Tara said. “Quick. Get them all together. For the last time.”

The photographer, who had been smoking under the mango tree, went into the hut and said, “Too dark.”

The men became interested and gave advice while the women wailed.

“Take it outside. Lean it against the mango tree.”

“Light a lamp.”

“It couldn’t be too dark.”

“What do you know? You’ve never had your photo taken. Now, what I suggest-”

The photographer, of mixed Chinese, Negro and European blood, did not understand what was being said. In the end he and some of the men took the coffin out to the verandah and stood it against the wall.

“Careful! Don’t let him fall out.”

“Goodness. All the marigolds have dropped out.”

“Leave them,” the photographer said in English. “Is a nice little touch. Flowers on the ground.” He set up his tripod in the yard, just under the ragged eaves of thatch, and put his head under the black cloth.

Tara roused Bipti from her grief, arranged Bipti’s hair and veil, and dried Bipti’s eyes.

“Five people all together,” the photographer said to Tara. “Hard to know just how to arrange them. It look to me that it would have to be two one side and three the other side. You sure you want all five?”

Tara was firm.

The photographer sucked his teeth, but not at Tara. “Look, look. Why nobody ain’t put anything to chock up the coffin and prevent it from slipping?”

Tara had that attended to.

The photographer said, “All right then. Mother and biggest son on either side. Next to mother, young boy and young girl. Next to big son, smaller son.”

There was more advice from the men.

“Make them look at the coffin.”

“At the mother.”

“At the youngest boy.”

The photographer settled the matter by telling Tara, “Tell them to look at me.”

Tara translated, and the photographer went under his cloth. Almost immediately he came out again. “How about making the mother and the biggest boy put their hands on the edge of the coffin?”

This was done and the photographer went back under his cloth.

“Wait!” Tara cried, running out from the hut with a fresh garland of marigolds. She hung it around Raghu’s neck and said to the photographer in English, “All right. Draw your photo now.”

Mr. Biswas never owned a copy of the photograph and he did not see it until 1937, when it made its appearance, framed in passepartout, on the wall of the drawingroom of Tara’s fine new house at Pagotes, a little lost among many other photographs of funeral groups, many oval portraits with blurred edges of more dead friends and relations, and coloured prints of the English countryside. The photograph had faded to the lightest brown and was partially defaced by the large heliotrope stamp of the photographer, still bright, and his smudged sprawling signature in soft black pencil. Mr. Biswas was astonished at his own smallness. The scabs of sores and the marks of eczema showed clearly on his knobbly knees and along his very thin arms and legs. Everyone in the photograph had unnaturally large, staring eyes which seemed to have been outlined in black.

Tara was right when she said that the photograph was to be a record of the family all together for the last time. For in a few days Mr. Biswas and Bipti, Pratap and Prasad and Dehuti had left Parrot Trace and the family split up for good.

It began on the evening of the funeral.

Tara said, “Bipti, you must give me Dehuti.”

Bipti had been hoping that Tara would make the suggestion. In four or five years Dehuti would have to be married and it was better that she should be given to Tara. She would learn manners, acquire graces and, with a dowry from Tara, might even make a good match.

“If you are going to have someone,” Tara said, “it is better to have one of your own family. That is what I always say. I don’t want strangers poking their noses into my kitchen and bedroom.”

Bipti agreed that it was better to have servants from one’s own family. And Pratap and Prasad and even Mr. Biswas, who had not been asked, nodded, as though the problem of servants was one they had given much thought.

Dehuti looked down at the floor, shook her long hair and mumbled a few words which meant that she was far too small to be consulted, but was very pleased.

“Get her new clothes,” Tara said, fingering the georgette skirt and satin petticoat Dehuti had worn for the funeral. “Get her some jewels.” She put a thumb and finger around Dehuti’s wrist, lifted her face, and turned up the lobe of her ear. “Earrings. Good thing you had them pierced, Bipti. She won’t need these sticks now.” In the holes in her lobe Dehuti wore pieces of the thin hard spine of the blades of the coconut branch. Tara playfully pulled Dehuti’s nose. “Nakphul too. You would like a nose-flower?”

Dehuti smiled shyly, not looking up.

“Well,” Tara said, “fashions are changing all the time these days. I am just oldfashioned, that is all.” She stroked her gold nose-flower. “It is expensive to be oldfashioned.”

“She will satisfy you,” Bipti said. “Raghu had no money. But he trained his children well. Training, piety-”

“Quite,” Tara said. “The time for crying is over, Bipti. How much money did Raghu leave you?”

“Nothing. I don’t know.”

“What do you mean? Are you trying to keep secrets from me? Everyone in the village knows that Raghu had a lot of money. I am sure he has left you enough to start a nice little business.”

Pratap sucked his teeth. “He was a miser, that one. He used to hide his money.”

Tara said, “Is this the training and piety your father gave you?”

They searched. They pulled out Raghu’s box from under the bed and looked for false bottoms; at Bipti’s suggestion they looked for any joint that might reveal a hiding-place in the timber itself. They poked the sooty thatch and ran their hands over the rafters; they tapped the earth floor and the bamboo-and-mud walls; they examined Raghu’s walking-sticks, taking out the ferrules, Raghu’s only extravagance; they dismanded the bed and uprooted the logs on which it stood. They found nothing.

Bipti said, “I don’t suppose he had any money really.”

“You are a fool,” Tara said, and it was in this mood of annoyance that she ordered Bipti to pack Dehuti’s bundle and took Dehuti away.

Because no cooking could be done at their house, they ate at Sadhu’s. The food was unsalted and as soon as he began to chew, Mr. Biswas felt he was eating raw flesh and the nauseous saliva filled his mouth again. He hurried outside to empty his mouth and clean it, but the taste remained. And Mr. Biswas screamed when, back at the hut, Bipti put him to bed and threw Raghu’s blanket over him. The blanket was hairy and prickly; it seemed to be the source of the raw, fresh smell he had been smelling all day. Bipti let him scream until he was tired and fell asleep in the yellow, wavering light of the oil lamp which left the corners in darkness. She watched the wick burn lower and lower until she heard the snores of Pratap, who snored like a big man, and the heavy breathing of Mr. Biswas and Prasad. She slept only fitfully herself. It was quiet inside the hut, but outside the noises were loud and continuous: mosquitoes, bats, frogs, crickets, the poor-me-one. If the cricket missed a chirp the effect was disturbing and she awoke.

She was awakened from a light sleep by a new noise. At first she couldn’t be sure. But the nearness of the noise and its erratic sequence disturbed her. It was a noise she heard every day but now, isolated in the night, it was hard to place. It came again: a thud, a pause, a prolonged snapping, then a series of gentler thuds. And it came again. Then there was another noise, of bottles breaking, muffled, as though the bottles were full. And she knew the noises came from her garden. Someone was stumbling among the bottles Raghu had buried neck downwards around the flower-beds.

She roused Prasad and Pratap.

Mr. Biswas, awaking to hushed talk and a room of dancing shadows, closed his eyes to keep out the danger; at once, as on the day before, everything became dramatic and remote.

Pratap gave walking-sticks to Prasad and Bipti. Carefully he unbolted the small window, then pushed it out with sudden vigour.

The garden was lit up by a hurricane lamp. A man was working a fork into the ground among the bottle-borders.

“Dhari!” Bipti called.

Dhari didn’t look up or reply. He went on forking, rocking the implement in the earth, tearing the roots that kept the earth firm.


He began to sing a wedding song.

“The cutlass!” Pratap said. “Give me the cutlass.”

“O God! No, no,” Bipti said.

“I’ll go out and beat him like a snake,” Pratap said, his voice rising out of control. “Prasad? Mai?”

“Close the window,” Bipti said.

The singing stopped and Dhari said, “Yes, close the window and go to sleep. I am here to look after you.”

Violently Bipti pulled the small window to, bolted it and kept her hand on the bolt.

The digging and the breaking bottles continued. Dhari sang:

In your daily tasks be resolute.

Fear no one, and trust in God.

“Dhari isn’t in this alone,” Bipti said. “Don’t provoke him.” Then, as though it not only belittled Dhari’s behaviour but gave protection to them all, she added, “He is only after your father’s money. Let him look.”

Mr. Biswas and Prasad were soon asleep again. Bipti and Pratap remained up until they had heard the last of Dhari’s songs and his fork no longer dug into the earth and broke bottles. They did not speak. Only, once, Bipti said, “Your father always warned me about the people of this village.”

Pratap and Prasad awoke when it was still dark, as they always did. They did not talk about what had happened and Bipti insisted that they should go to the buffalo pond as usual. As soon as it was light she went out to the garden. The flower-beds had been dug up; dew lay on the upturned earth which partially buried uprooted plants, already limp and quailing. The vegetable patch had not been forked, but tomato plants had been cut down, stakes broken and pumpkins slashed.

“Oh, wife of Raghu!” a man called from the road, and she saw Dhari jump across the gutter.

Absently, he picked a dew-wet leaf from the hibiscus shrub, crushed it in his palm, put it in his mouth and came towards her, chewing.

Her anger rose. “Get out! At once! Do you call yourself a man? You are a shameless vagabond. Shameless and cowardly.”

He walked past her, past the hut, to the garden. Chewing, he considered the damage. He was in his working clothes, his cutlass in its black leather sheath at his waist, his enamel food-carrier in one hand, his calabash of water hanging from his shoulder.

“Oh, wife of Raghu, what have they done?”

“I hope you found something to make you happy, Dhari.”

He shrugged, looking down at the ruined flower-beds. “They will keep on looking, maharajin.”

“Everybody knows you lost your calf. But that was an accident. What about-”

“Yes, yes. My calf. Accident.”

“I will remember you for this, Dhari. And Raghu’s sons won’t forget you either.”

“He was a great diver.”

“Savage! Get out!”

“Willingly.” He spat out the hibiscus leaf on to a flowerbed. “I just wanted to tell you that these wicked men will come again. Why don’t you help them, maharajin?”

There was no one Bipti could ask for help. She distrusted the police, and Raghu had no friends. Moreover, she didn’t know who might be in league with Dhari.

That night they gathered all Raghu’s sticks and cutlasses and waited. Mr. Biswas closed his eyes and listened, but as the hours passed he found it hard to remain alert.

He was awakened by whispers and movement in the hut. Far away, it seemed, someone was singing a slow, sad wedding song. Bipti and Prasad were standing. Cutlass in hand, Pratap moved in a frenzy between the window and the door, so swiftly that the flame of the oil lamp blew this way and that, and once, with a plopping sound, disappeared. The room sank into darkness. A moment later the flame returned, rescuing them.

The singing drew nearer, and when it was almost upon them they heard, mingled with it, chatter and soft laughter.

Bipti unbolted the window, pushed it open a crack, and saw the garden ablaze with lanterns.

“Three of them,” she whispered. “Lakhan, Dhari, Oumadh.”

Pratap pushed Bipti aside, flung the window wide open and screamed, “Get out! Get out! I will kill you all.”

“Shh,” Bipti said, pulling Pratap away and trying to close the window.

“Raghu’s son,” a man said from the garden.

“Don’t sh me,” Pratap screamed, turning on Bipti. Tears came to his eyes and his voice broke into sobs. “I will kill them all.”

“Noisy little fellow,” another man said.

“I will come back and kill you all,” Pratap shouted. “I promise you.”

Bipti took him in her arms and comforted him, like a child, and in the same gentle, unalarmed voice said, “Prasad, close the window. And go to sleep.”

“Yes, son.” They recognized Dhari’s voice. “Go to sleep. We will be here every night now to look after you.”

Prasad closed the window, but the noise stayed with them: song, talk, and unhurried sounds of fork and spade. Bipti sat and stared at the door, next to which, on the ground, Pratap sat, a cutlass beside him, its haft carved into a pair of Wellingtons. He was motionless. His tears had gone, but his eyes were red, and the lids swollen.

In the end Bipti sold the hut and the land to Dhari, and she and Mr. Biswas moved to Pagotes. There they lived on Tara’s bounty, though not with Tara, but with some of Tara’s husband’s dependent relations in a back trace far from the Main Road. Pratap and Prasad were sent to a distant relation at Felicity, in the heart of the sugar-estates; they were already broken into estate work and were too old to learn anything else.

And so Mr. Biswas came to leave the only house to which he had some right. For the next thirty-five years he was to be a wanderer with no place he could call his own, with no family except that which he was to attempt to create out of the engulfing world of the Tulsis. For with his mother’s parents dead, his father dead, his brothers on the estate at Felicity, Dehuti as a servant in Tara’s house, and himself rapidly growing away from Bipti who, broken, became increasingly useless and impenetrable, it seemed to him that he was really quite alone.

2. Before the Tulsis

Mr. Biswas could never afterwards say exactly where his father’s hut had stood or where Dhari and the others had dug. He never knew whether anyone found Raghu’s money. It could not have been much, since Raghu earned so little. But the ground did yield treasure. For this was in South Trinidad and the land Bipti had sold so cheaply to Dhari was later found to be rich with oil. And when Mr. Biswas was working on a feature article for the magazine section of the Sunday Sentinel -RALEIGH’S DREAM COMES TRUE, said the headline, “But the Gold is Black. Only the Earth is Yellow. Only the Bush Green”-when Mr. Biswas looked for the place where he had spent his early years he saw nothing but oil derricks and grimy pumps, see-sawing, see-sawing, endlessly, surrounded by red No Smoking notices. His grandparents’ house had also disappeared, and when huts of mud and grass are pulled down they leave no trace. His navel-string, buried on that inauspicious night, and his sixth finger, buried not long after, had turned to dust. The pond had been drained and the whole swamp region was now a garden city of white wooden bungalows with red roofs, cisterns on tall stilts, and neat gardens. The stream where he had watched the black fish had been dammed, diverted into a reservoir, and its winding, irregular bed covered by straight lawns, streets and drives. The world carried no witness to Mr. Biswas’s birth and early years.

As he found at Pagotes.

“How old you is, boy?” Lai, the teacher at the Canadian Mission school, asked, his small hairy hands fussing with the cylindrical ruler on his roll-book.

Mr. Biswas shrugged and shifted from one bare foot to the other.

“How you people want to get on, eh?” Lai had been converted to Presbyterianism from a low Hindu caste and held all unconverted Hindus in contempt. As part of this contempt he spoke to them in broken English. “Tomorrow I want you to bring your buth certificate. You hear?”

“Buth suttificate?” Bipti echoed the English words. “I don’t have any.”

“Don’t have any, eh?” Lai said the next day. “You people don’t even know how to born, it look like.”

But they agreed on a plausible date, Lai completed his roll-book record, and Bipti went to consult Tara.

Tara took Bipti to a solicitor whose office was a tiny wooden shed standing lopsided on eight unfashioned logs. The distemper on its walls had turned to dust. A sign, obviously painted by the man himself, said that F. Z. Ghany was a solicitor, conveyancer and a commissioner of oaths. He didn’t look like all that, sitting on a broken kitchen chair at the door of his shed, bending forward, picking his teeth with a matchstick, his tie hanging perpendicular. Large dusty books were piled on the dusty floor, and on the kitchen table at his back there was a sheet of green blotting-paper, also dusty, on which there was a highly decorated metal contraption which looked like a toy version of the merry-go-round Mr. Biswas had seen in the playground at St. Joseph on the way to Pagotes. From this toy merry-go-round hung two rubber stamps, and directly below them there was a purple-stained tin. F. Z. Ghany carried the rest of his office equipment in his shirt pocket; it was stiff with pens, pencils, sheets of paper and envelopes. He needed to be able to carry his equipment about; he opened the Pagotes office only on market day, Wednesday; he had other offices, open on other market days, at Tunapuna, Arima, St. Joseph and Tacarigua. “Just give me three or four dog-case or cuss-case every day,” he used to say, “and I all right, you hear.”

Seeing the group of three walking Indians file across the plank over the gutter, F. Z. Ghany got up, spat out the matchstick and greeted them with good-humoured scorn. “Maharajin, maharajin, and little boy.” He made most of his money from Hindus but, as a Muslim, distrusted them.

They climbed the two steps into his office. It became full. Ghany liked it that way; it attracted customers. He took the chair behind the table, sat on it, and left his clients standing.

Tara began to explain about Mr. Biswas. She grew prolix, encouraged by the quizzical look on Ghany’s heavy dissipated face.

During one of Tara’s pauses Bipti said, “Buth suttificate.”

“Oh!” Ghany said, his manner changing. “Certificate of buth.” It was a familiar problem. He looked legal and said, “Affidavit. When did the buth take place?”

Bipti told Tara in Hindi, “I can’t really say. But Pundit Sitaram should know. He cast Mohun’s horoscope the day after he was born.”

“I don’t know what you see in that man, Bipti. He doesn’t know anything.”

Ghany could follow their conversation. He disliked the way Indian women had of using Hindi as a secret language in public places, and asked impatiently, “Date of buth?”

“Eighth of June,” Bipti said to Tara. “It must be that.”

“All right,” Ghany said. “Eighth of June. Who to tell you no?” Smiling, he put a hand to the drawer of his table and pulled it this way and that before it came out. He took out a sheet of foolscap, tore it in half, put back one half into the drawer, pushed the drawer this way and that to close it, put the half-sheet on the dusty blotting-paper, stamped his name on it and prepared to write. “Name of boy?”

“Mohun,” Tara said.

Mr. Biswas became shy. He passed his tongue above his upper lip and tried to make it touch the knobby tip of his nose.

“Surname?” Ghany asked.

“Biswas,” Tara said.

“Nice Hindu name.” He asked more questions, and wrote. When he was finished, Bipti made her mark and Tara, with great deliberation and much dancing of the pen above the paper, signed her name. F. Z. Ghany struggled with the drawer once more, took out the other half-sheet, stamped his name on it, wrote, and then had everybody sign again.

Mr. Biswas was now leaning forward against one of the dusty walls, his feet pushed far back. He was spitting carefully, trying to let his spittle hang down to the floor without breaking.

F. Z. Ghany hung up his name stamp and took down the date stamp. He turned some ratchets, banged hard on the almost dry purple pad and banged hard on the paper. Two lengths of rubber fell apart. “Blasted thing bust,” he said, and examined it without annoyance. He explained, “You could print the year all right, because you move that only once a year. But the dates and the months, man, you spinning them round all the time.” He took up the length of rubber and looked at them thoughtfully. “Here, give them to the boy. Play with them.” He wrote the date with one of his pens and said, “All right, leave everything to me now. Expensive business, affidavits. Stamps and thing, you know. Ten dollars in all.”

Bipti fumbled with the knot at the end of her veil and Tara paid.

“Any more children without certificate of buth?”

“Three,” Bipti said.

“Bring them,” Ghany said. “Bring all of them. Any market day. Next week? Is better to straighten these things right away, you know.”

In this way official notice was taken of Mr. Biswas’s existence, and he entered the new world.

Ought oughts are ought,

Ought twos are ought.

The chanting of the children pleased Lai. He believed in thoroughness, discipline and what he delighted to call stick-to-it-iveness, virtues he felt unconverted Hindus particularly lacked.

One twos are two,

Two twos are four.

“Stop!” Lai cried, waving his tamarind rod. “Biswas, ought twos are how much?”


“Come up here. You, Ramguli, ought twos are how much?”


“Come up. That boy with a shirt that looks like one of his mother bodice. How much?”


“Come up.” He held the rod at both ends and bent it back and forth quickly. The sleeves of his jacket fell down past dirty cuffs and thin wrists black with hair. The jacket was brown but had turned saffron where it had been soaked by Lai’s sweat. For all the time he went to school, Mr. Biswas never saw Lai wearing any other jacket.

“Ramguli, go back to your desk. All right, the two of you. All-you decide now how much ought twos is?”

“Ought,” they whimpered together.

“Yes, ought twos are ought. You did tell me two.” He caught hold of Mr. Biswas, pulled his trousers tight across his bottom, and began to apply the tamarind rod, saying as he beat, “Ought twos are ought. Ought oughts are ought. One twos are two.”

Mr. Biswas, released, went crying back to his desk.

“And now you. Before we talk about anything, tell me where you get that bodice from?”

With its flaming red colour and leg-of-mutton sleeves it was obviously a bodice and had, without comment, been recognized as such by the boys, most of whom wore garments not originally designed for them.

“Where you get it from?”

“My sister-in-law.”

“And you thank her?”

There was no reply.

“Anyway, when you see your sister-in-law, I want you to give her a message. I want you”-and here Lai seized the boy and started to use the tamarind rod-“I want you to tell her that ought twos don’t make four. I want you to tell her that ought oughts are ought, ought twos are ought, one twos are two, and two twos are four.”

Mr. Biswas was taught other things. He learned to say the Lord’s Prayer in Hindi from the King George V Hindi Reader, and he learned many English poems by heart from the Royal Reader. At Lai’s dictation he made copious notes, which he never seriously believed, about geysers, rift valleys, watersheds, currents, the Gulf Stream, and a number of deserts. He learned about oases, which Lai taught him to pronounce “osis”, and ever afterwards an oasis meant for him nothing more than four or five date trees around a narrow pool of fresh water, surrounded for unending miles by white sand and hot sun. He learned about igloos. In arithmetic he got as far as simple interest and learned to turn dollars and cents into pounds, shilling and pence. The history Lai taught he regarded as simply a school subject, a discipline, as unreal as the geography; and it was from the boy in the red bodice that he first heard, with disbelief, about the Great War.

With this boy, whose name was Alec, Mr. Biswas became friendly. The colours of Alec’s clothes were a continual surprise, and one day he scandalized the school by peeing blue, a clear, light turquoise. To excited inquiry Alec replied, “I don’t know, boy. I suppose is because I is a Portuguese or something.” And for days he gave solemn demonstrations which filled most boys with disgust at their race.

It was to Mr. Biswas that Alec first revealed his secret, and one morning recess, after Alec had given his demonstration, Mr. Biswas dramatically unbuttoned and gave his. There was a clamour and Alec was forced to take out the bottle of Dodd’s Kidney Pills. In no time the bottle was empty, except for some half a dozen pills which Alec said he had to keep. The pills, like the red bodice, belonged to his sister-in-law. “I don’t know what she going to do when she find out,” Alec said, and to those boys who still begged, he said, “Buy your own. The drugstore full of them.” And many of them did buy their own, and for a week the school’s urinals ran turquoise; and the druggist attributed the sudden rise in sales to the success of the Dodd’s Kidney Pills Almanac which, in addition to jokes, carried story after story of the rapid cures the pills had effected on Trinidadians, all of whom had written the makers profusely grateful letters of the utmost articulateness, and been photographed.

With Alec Mr. Biswas laid six-inch nails on the railway track at the back of the Main Road and had them flattened to make knives and bayonets. Together they went to Pagotes River and smoked their first cigarettes. They tore off their shirt buttons, exchanged them for marbles and with these Alec won more, struggling continually to repair the depredations of Lai, who considered the game low and had forbidden it in the school grounds. They sat at the same desk, talked, were flogged and separated, but always came together again.

And it was through this association that Mr. Biswas discovered his gift for lettering. When Alec tired of doing inaccurate erotic drawings he designed letters. Mr. Biswas imitated these with pleasure and growing success. During an arithmetic test one day, finding himself with an astronomical number of hours in answer to a problem about cisterns, he wrote CANCELLED very neatly across the page and became absorbed in blocking the letters and shadowing them. When the period was over he had done nothing else.

Lai, who had noted Mr. Biswas’s industry with approval, flew into a rage. “Ah! Sign-painter. Come up.”

He didn’t flog Mr. Biswas. He ordered him to write I AM AN ASS on the blackboard. Mr. Biswas outlined stylish, contemptuous letters, and the class tittered approvingly. Lai, racing about the classroom, waving his tamarind rod for silence, brushed Mr. Biswas’s elbow and a stroke was spoilt. Mr. Biswas turned this into an additional decoration which pleased him and impressed the class. It was too late for Lai to flog Mr. Biswas or order him to clean the blackboard. Angrily he pushed him away, and Mr. Biswas went back to his desk, smiling, a hero.

Mr. Biswas went to Lai’s school for nearly six years and for all that time he was friendly with Alec. Yet he knew little about Alec’s home life. Alec never spoke about his mother or father and Mr. Biswas knew only that he lived with his sister-in-law, the owner of the red bodice, an unphotographed user of Dodd’s Kidney Pills, and, according to Alec, a great beater. Mr. Biswas never saw this woman. He never went to Alec’s home and Alec never came to his. There was a tacit agreement between them that they would keep their homes secret.

It would have pained Mr. Biswas if anyone from the school saw where he lived, in one room of a mud hut in the back trace. He was not happy there and even after five years considered it a temporary arrangement. Most of the people in the hut remained strangers, and his relations with.Bipti were unsatisfying because she was shy of showing him affection in a house of strangers. More and more, too, she bewailed her Fate; when she did this he felt useless and dispirited and, instead of comforting her, went out to look for Alec. Occasionally she had ineffectual fits of temper, quarrelled with Tara and muttered for days, threatening, whenever there was anyone to hear, that she would leave and get a job with the road-gang, where women were needed to carry stones in baskets on their heads. Continually, when he was with her, Mr. Biswas had to struggle against anger and depression.

At Christmas Pratap and Prasad came from Felicity, grown men now, with moustaches; in their best clothes, their pressed khaki trousers, unpolished brown shoes, blue shirts buttoned at the collar, and brown hats, they too were like strangers. Their hands were as hard as their rough, sunburnt faces, and they had little to say. When Pratap, with many self-deprecating sighs, half-laughs and pauses which enabled him to deliver a short sentence in easy instalments without in any way damaging its structure, when Pratap told about the donkey he had bought and the current lengths of tasks, Mr. Biswas was not really interested. The buying of a donkey seemed to him an act of pure comedy, and it was hard to believe that the dour Pratap was the frantic boy who had rushed about the room in the hut threatening to kill the men in the garden.

As for Dehuti, he hardly saw her, though she lived close, at Tara’s. He seldom went there except when Tara’s husband, prompted by Tara, held a religious ceremony and needed Brahmins to feed. Then Mr. Biswas was treated with honour; stripped of his ragged trousers and shirt, and in a clean dhoti, he became a different person, and he never thought it unseemly that the person who served him so deferentially with food should be his own sister. In Tara’s house he was respected as a Brahmin and pampered; yet as soon as the ceremony was over and he had taken his gift of money and cloth and left, he became once more only a labourer’s child -father’s occupation: labourer was the entry in the birth certificate F. Z. Ghany had sent-living with a penniless mother in one room of a mud hut. And throughout life his position was like that. As one of the Tulsi sons-in-law and as a journalist he found himself among people with money and sometimes with graces; with them his manner was unforcedly easy and he could summon up luxurious instincts; but always, at the end, he returned to his crowded, shabby room.

Tara’s husband, Ajodha, was a thin man with a thin, petulant face which could express benignity rather than warmth, and Mr. Biswas was not comfortable with him. Ajodha could read but thought it more dignified to be read to, and Mr. Biswas was sometimes called to the house to read, for a penny, a newspaper column of which Ajodha was particularly fond. This was a syndicated American column called That Body of Yours which dealt every day with a different danger to the human body. Ajodha listened with gravity, concern, alarm. It puzzled Mr. Biswas that he should subject himself to this torment, and it amazed him that the writer, Dr. Samuel S. Pitkin, could keep the column going with such regularity. But the doctor never flagged; twenty years later the column was still going, Ajodha had not lost his taste for it, and occasionally Mr. Biswas’s son read it to him, for six cents.

So, whenever Mr. Biswas was in Tara’s house, it was as a Brahmin or a reader, with a status distinct from Dehuti’s, and he had little opportunity of speaking to her.

Bipti had a specific worry about her children: neither Pratap nor Prasad nor Dehuti was married. She had no plans for Mr. Biswas, since he was still young and she assumed that the education he was receiving was provision and protection enough. But Tara thought otherwise. And just when Mr. Biswas was beginning to do stocks and shares, transactions as unreal to Lai as they were to him, and was learning “Bingen on the Rhine” from Bell’s Standard Elocutionist for the visit of the school inspector, he was taken out of school by Tara and told that he was going to be made a pundit.

It was only when his possessions were being bundled that he discovered he still had the school’s copy of the Standard Elocutionist. It was too late to return it, and he never did. Wherever he went the book went with him, and ended in the blacksmith-built bookcase in the house at Sikkim Street.

For eight months, in a bare, spacious, unpainted wooden house smelling of blue soap and incense, its floors white and smooth from constant scrubbing, its cleanliness and sanctity maintained by regulations awkward to everyone except himself, Pundit Jairam taught Mr. Biswas Hindi, introduced him to the more important scriptures and instructed him in various ceremonies. Morning and evening, under the pundit’s eye, Mr. Biswas did the puja for the pundit’s household.

Jairam’s children had all been married and he lived alone with his wife, a crushed, hard-working woman whose only duty now was to look after Jairam and his house. She didn’t complain. Among Hindus Jairam was respected for his knowledge. He also held scandalous views which, while being dismissed as contentious, had nevertheless brought him much popularity. He believed in God, fervently, but claimed it was not necessary for a Hindu to do so. He attacked the custom some families had of putting up a flag after a religious ceremony; but his own front garden was a veritable grove of bamboo poles with red and white pennants in varying stages of decay. He ate no meat but spoke against vegetarianism: when Lord Rama went hunting, did they think it was just for the sport?

He was also working on a Hindi commentary on the Ramayana, and parts of this commentary were dictated to Mr. Biswas to extend his own knowledge of the language. So that Mr. Biswas could see and learn, Jairam took him on his rounds; and wherever he went with the pundit Mr. Biswas, invested with the sacred thread and all the other badges of caste, found himself, as in Tara’s house, the object of regard. It was his duty on these occasions to do the mechanical side of Jairam’s offices. He took around the brass plate with the lighted camphor; the devout dropped a coin on the plate, brushed the flame with their fingers and took their fingers to their forehead. He took around the consecrated sweetened milk with strips of the tulsi leaf floating on its surface, and doled it out a teaspoonful at a time. When the ceremonies were over and the feeding of Brahmins began, he was seated next to Pundit Jairam; and when Jairam had eaten and belched and asked for more and eaten again it was Mr. Biswas who mixed the bicarbonate of soda for him. Afterwards Mr. Biswas went to the shrine, a platform of earth decorated with flour and planted with small banana trees, and pillaged it for the coins that had been offered, hunting carefully everywhere, showing no respect for the burnt offerings or anything else. The coins, dusted with flour or earth or ash, wet with holy water or warm from the sacred fire, he took to Pundit Jairam, who might then be engaged in some philosophical disputation. Jairam would wave Mr. Biswas away without looking at him. As soon as they got home, however, Jairam asked for the money, counted it, and felt Mr. Biswas all over to make sure he hadn’t kept anything back. Mr. Biswas also had to bring home all the gifts Jairam received, usually lengths of cotton, but sometimes cumbersome bundles of fruit and vegetables.

One particularly large gift was a bunch of Gros Michel bananas. They came to Jairam green and were hung in the large kitchen to ripen. In time the green became lighter, spotted, and soft yellow patches appeared. Rapidly the yellow spread and deepened, and the spots became brown and rich. The smell of ripening banana, overcoming the astringent smell of the glutinous sap from the banana stem, filled the house, leaving Jairam and his wife apparently indifferent, but rousing Mr. Biswas. He reasoned that the bananas would become ripe all at once, that Jairam and his wife could not possibly eat them all, and that many would grow rotten. He also reasoned a banana or two would not be missed. And one day, when Jairam was out and his wife away from the kitchen, Mr. Biswas picked two bananas and ate them. The gaps in the bunch startled him. They were more than noticeable; they offended the eye.

Jairam was no flogger. When he was in a rage he might box Mr. Biswas on the ear; but usually he was less intemperate. For a badly conducted puja, for instance, he might make Mr. Biswas learn a dozen couplets from the Ramayana by heart, confining him to the house until he had. All that day Mr. Biswas wondered what punishment the eating of the bananas would bring, while he copied out Sanskrit verses, which he couldn’t understand, on strips of cardboard, having revealed to Jairam his skill in lettering.

Jairam came late that evening and his wife fed him. Then, as was his habit every evening after he had eaten and rested, he walked heavily about the bare verandah, talking to himself, going over the arguments he had had that day. First he quoted the opposing view. Then he tested various replies of his own; his voice rose shrill at the end of the final version of the repartee, which he said over and over, breaking off to sing a snatch of a hymn. Mr. Biswas, lying on his sugarsack and floursack bed, listened. Jairam’s wife was washing up the dishes in the kitchen; the waste water ran down a bamboo spout to a gutter, where it fell noisily among the bushes.

Waiting, Mr. Biswas fell asleep. When he awoke it was morning and for a moment he had no fears. Then his error returned to him.

He had his bath in the yard, cut a hibiscus twig, crushed one end and cleaned his teeth with it, split the twig and scraped his tongue with the halves. Then he collected marigolds and zinnias and oleanders from the garden for the morning puja, and sat without religious fervour before the elaborate shrine. The smell of brass and stale sandalwood paste displeased him; it was a smell he was to recognize later in all temples, mosques and churches, and it was always disagreeable. Mechanically he cleaned the images, the lines and indentations of which were black or cream with old sandalwood paste; it was easier to clean the small smooth pebbles, whose significance had not yet been explained to him. At this stage Pundit Jairam usually came to see that he did not scamp the ritual, but this morning he did not come. Mr. Biswas chanted from the prescribed scriptures, applied fresh sandalwood paste to the images and smooth pebbles, decked them with fresh flowers, rang the bell and consecrated the offering of sweetened milk. With the sandalwood marks still wet and tickling on his forehead, he sought out Jairam to offer him some of the milk.

Jairam, bathed and dressed and fresh, was sitting against some pillows in one corner of the verandah, spectacles low down on his nose, a brown Hindi book on his lap. When the verandah shook below Mr. Biswas’s bare feet Jairam looked up and then down through his spectacles, and turned a page of his dingy book. Spectacles made him look older, abstracted and benign.

Mr. Biswas held the brass jar of milk toward him. “Baba.”

Jairam sat up, rearranged a pillow, held a cupped palm, touching the elbow of the outstretched arm with the fingers of his free hand. Mr. Biswas poured. Jairam brought the inside of his wrist against his forehead, blessed Mr. Biswas, threw the milk into his mouth, passed his wet palm through his thin grey hair, readjusted his spectacles and looked down again at his book.

Mr. Biswas went to his room, put on his workaday clothes and came out to breakfast. They ate in silence. Suddenly Jairam pushed his brass plate towards Mr. Biswas.

“Eat this.”

Mr. Biswas’s fingers, ploughing through some cabbage, stood still.

“Of course you won’t eat it. And I will tell you why. Because I have been eating from this plate.”

Mr. Biswas’s fingers, feeling dry and dirty, bent and straightened.


Jairam’s wife thumped out from the kitchen and stood between them, with her back to Mr. Biswas. He looked at the creases on the edge of her soles and saw that the soles were hard and dirty. This surprised him, because Soanie was always washing the floor and bathing herself.

“Go and bring the bananas.”

She pulled the veil over her forehead. “Don’t you think you had better forget it? It is such a small thing.”

“Small thing! A whole hand of bananas!”

She went to the kitchen and came back, cradling the bananas.

“Put them here, Soanie. Mohun, nobody else can touch these bananas now but yourself. When people, out of the goodness of their hearts, give me gifts, they are for you. Eh?” Then the edge went out of his voice and he became like the benign, expounding pundit he was in company. “We mustn’t waste, Mohun. I have told you that again and again. We mustn’t let these bananas get rotten. You must finish what you have begun. Start now.”

Mr. Biswas had been lulled by Jairam’s calm, even manner, and the abruptness of the command took him by surprise. He looked down at his plate and flexed his fingers, the tips of which were stuck with drying shreds of cabbage.

“Start now.”

Soanie stood in the doorway, blocking the light. Though it was bright day, the room, with bedrooms on one side and the low roof of the verandah on the other, was gloomy.

“Look. I have peeled one for you.”

The banana hovered in Jairam’s clean hand before Mr. Biswas’s face. He took it with his dirty fingers, bit and chewed. Surprisingly, it tasted. But the taste was so localized it gave no pleasure. He then discovered that chewing killed the taste, and chewed deliberately, not tasting, only listening to the loud squelchy sound that filled his head. He had never heard bananas eaten with so much noise.

Presently the banana was finished, except for the hard little cone buried at the heart of the banana skin, open like a huge and ugly forest flower.

“Look, Mohun. I have peeled you another.”

And while he ate that, Jairam slowly peeled another. And another, and another.

When he had eaten seven bananas, Mr. Biswas was sick, whereupon Soanie, silently crying, carried him to the back verandah. He didn’t cry, not from bravery: he was only bored and uncomfortable. Jairam rose at once and walked heavily to his room, suddenly in a great temper.

Mr. Biswas never ate another banana. That morning also marked the beginning of his stomach trouble; ever afterwards, whenever he was excited or depressed or angry his stomach swelled until it was taut with pain.

A more immediate result was that he became constipated. He could no longer relieve himself in the mornings and he was aware of the dishonour he did the gods by doing the puja unrelieved. The call came upon him at unpredictable times, and it was this which led to his departure from Jairam’s, and took him back to that other world he had entered at Pagotes, the world signified by Lai’s school and the effete rubber-stamps and dusty books of F. Z. Ghany.

One night he got up in a panic. The latrine was far from the house and to go there through the dark frightened him. He was frightened, too, to walk through the creaking wooden house, open locks, undo bolts and possibly waken Jairam who was fussy about his sleep and often flew into a rage even when awakened at a time he had fixed. Mr. Biswas decided to relieve himself in his room on one of his handkerchiefs. He had scores of these, made from the cotton given him at the ceremonies he attended with Jairam. When the time came to dispose of the handkerchief, he left his room and tiptoed, the floor creaking, through the open doorway to the enclosed verandah at the back. He carefully unbolted the Demerara window, which hung on hinges at the top, and, keeping the window open with his left hand, flung the handkerchief as far as he could with his right. But his hands were short, the window was heavy, there was too little space for him to manoeuvre, and he heard the handkerchief fall not far off.

Not staying to bolt the window, he hurried back to his bed where for a long time he stayed awake, repeatedly imagining that a fresh call was upon him. He had just fallen asleep, it seemed, when someone was shaking him. It was Soanie.

Jairam stood scowling in the doorway. “You are no Brahmin,” he said. “I take you into my house and show you every consideration. I do not ask for gratitude. But you are trying to destroy me. Go and look at your work.”

The handkerchief had fallen on Jairam’s cherished oleander tree. Never again could its flowers be used at the puja.

“You will never make a pundit,” Jairam said. “I was talking the other day to Sitaram, who read your horoscope. You killed your father. I am not going to let you destroy me. Sitaram particularly warned me to keep you away from trees. Go on, pack your bundle.”

The neighbours had heard and came out to watch Mr. Biswas as, in his dhoti, with his bundle slung on his shoulder, he walked through the village.

Bipti was not in a welcoming mood when Mr. Biswas, after walking and getting rides on carts, came back to Pagotes. He was tired, hungry and itching. He had expected her to welcome him with joy, to curse Jairam and promise that she would never allow him to be sent away again to strangers. But as soon as he entered the yard of the hut in the back trace he knew that he was wrong. She looked so depressed and indifferent, sitting in the sooty open kitchen with another of Ajodha’s poor relations, grinding maize; and it did not then surprise him that, instead of being pleased to see him, she was alarmed.

They kissed perfunctorily, and she began to ask questions. He thought her manner was harsh and saw her questions as attacks. His replies were sullen, defensive, angry. Her fury rose and she shouted at him. She said that he was ungrateful, that all her children were ungrateful and didn’t appreciate the trouble the rest of the world went to on their behalf. Then her rage spent itself and she became as understanding and protective as he hoped she would have been right at the beginning. But it was not sweet now. She poured water for him to wash his hands, sat him down on a low bench and gave him food-not hers to give, for this was the communal food of the house, to which she had contributed nothing but her labour in the cooking-and looked after him in the proper way. But she could not coax him out of his sullenness.

He did not see at the time how absurd and touching her behaviour was: welcoming him back to a hut that didn’t belong to her, giving him food that wasn’t hers. But the memory remained, and nearly thirty years later, when he was a member of a small literary group in Port of Spain, he wrote and read out a simple poem in blank verse about this meeting. The disappointment, his surliness, all the unpleasantness was ignored, and the circumstances improved to allegory: the journey, the welcome, the food, the shelter.

After the meal he learned that there was another reason for Bipti’s annoyance. Dehuti had run away with Tara’s yard boy, not only showing ingratitude to Tara and bringing disgrace to her, for the yard boy is the lowest of the low, but also depriving her at one blow of two trained servants.

“And it was Tara who wanted you to be a pundit,” Bipti said. “I don’t know what we are going to tell her.”

“Tell me about Dehuti,” he said.

Bipti had little to say. No one had been to see Dehuti; Tara had vowed never to mention her name again. Bipti spoke as if she herself deserved every reproach for Dehuti’s behaviour; and though she declared she could have nothing more to do with Dehuti, her manner suggested that she had to defend Dehuti not only against Tara’s anger, but also Mr. Biswas’s.

But he felt no anger or shame. When he asked about Dehuti he was only remembering the girl who pressed his dirty clothes to her face and wept when she thought her brother was dead.

Bipti sighed. “I don’t know what Tara is going to say now. You had better go and see her yourself

And Tara was not angry. True to her vow, she did not mention Dehuti. Ajodha, to whom Jairam had given only a hint of Mr. Biswas’s misdemeanour, laughed in his high-pitched, breathless way and tried to get Mr. Biswas to tell exactly what had happened. Mr. Biswas’s embarrassment delighted Ajodha and Tara, until he was laughing too; and then, in the cosy back verandah of Tara’s house-though it had mud walls it stood on proper pillars, had a neat thatched roof and wooden ledges on the half-walls, and was bright with pictures of Hindu gods-he told about the bananas, blusteringly at first, but when he noticed that Tara was giving him sympathy he saw his own injury very clearly, broke down and wept, and Tara held him to her bosom and dried his tears. So that the scene he had pictured as taking place with his mother took place with Tara.

Ajodha had bought a motorbus and opened a garage, and it was in the garage that Alec worked, no longer wearing red bodices or peeing blue, but doing mysterious greasy things. Grease blackened his hairy legs; grease had turned his white canvas shoes black; grease blackened his hands even beyond the wrist; grease made his short working trousers black and stiff. Yet he had the gift, which Mr. Biswas admired, of being able to hold a cigarette between greasy fingers and greasy lips without staining it. His lips still twisted easily and his small humorous eyes still squinted; but the cheeks had already sunk on his small square face and he now had a perpetual air of abstraction and debauch.

Mr. Biswas did not join Alec in the garage. Tara sent him to the rumshop. This had been Ajodha’s first business venture and had provided the money for some of his subsequent exploits. But, with Ajodha’s growing success, the importance of the rumshop had declined and it was now run by his brother Bhandat, about whom there were unpleasant rumours: Bhandat apparently drank, beat his wife and kept a mistress of another race.

Bipti, who had not been consulted, was very grateful to Tara. And Mr. Biswas was thrilled at the thought of earning money. He was not going to earn much. He was to live at the shop and be fed by Bhandat’s wife; he was to be given suits of clothes every now and then; and he was to get two dollars a month.

The rumshop was a long high building of simple design, flat to the ground, with a pitched roof of corrugated iron rising from concrete walls. Swing doors exposed only the wet floor of the shop and the feet of drinkers, and, in a land where all doors are wide open, gave a touch of vice to the building. The doors were needed, for many of the people who came past them meant to drink themselves into insensibility. At any time of the day there were people who had collapsed on the wet floor, men who looked older than they were, women too; useless people crying in corners, their anguish lost in the din and press of the standing drinkers who swallowed their rum at a gulp, made a face, hastily swallowed water, and bought more rum. There was swearing, boasting, threatening; fights, broken bottles, policemen; and steadily the coppers and the silver and the notes went into the greasy drawer below the shelves.

And every evening, when the shop was emptied, when the sleepers had been put outside and the broken bottles and glasses swept up, and the floor washed down-though no amount of water could get rid of the smell of raw rum-the drawer was pulled out and the Petromax gas lamp, taken down from the long wire hook that hung from the ceiling, was placed next to the drawer on the counter. The money was arranged in neat piles and Bhandat noted the day’s takings on a sheet of stiff brown paper, smooth on one side, rough on the other. Bhandat wrote on the smooth side with a soft pencil that smudged easily. The shop had thick edges of darkness; the smell of dirty boards and stale rum was sharp; and Bhandat made his calculation in whispers against the noise of the Petromax whose hiss, lost in the din of the evening, had now in the silence swollen into a roar.

Bhandat’s voice, even when low, was a whine with a querulous edge. He was a small man, with a nose as sharp as Ajodha’s and a face as thin; but this face could never express benignity; always it looked harassed and irritable, and more so than ever at the end of the evening. He was going bald and the curve of his forehead repeated the curve of his nose. His thin upper lip was heavily outlined and had two neat and equal bumps in the middle which pressed in a swollen way over the lower lip and practically hid it. While Bhandat calculated Mr. Biswas studied these bumps.

Bhandat made it clear that he regarded Mr. Biswas as Tara’s spy and distrusted him. And it was not long before Mr. Biswas realized that Bhandat was stealing, and that these feverish nightly calculations were meant to frustrate Tara’s weekly checks. He was not surprised or critical. Only, he was embarrassed by some of Bhandat’s methods.

“When these people have three or four drinks and want another,” Bhandat said, “don’t give them full measure.”

Mr. Biswas asked no questions.

Bhandat looked away and explained, “It is for their own good really.”

Mr. Biswas got to know when Bhandat felt he had given short measure often enough to risk pocketing the price of a drink. Bhandat stared straight at the man who had paid him, talked absurdly for a moment, then began to spin the coin. Whenever Mr. Biswas saw a coin rising and falling through the air he knew that it would eventually land in Bhandat’s pocket.

Directly afterwards Bhandat became as gay as he could with the customers, and suspicious and irritable with Mr. Biswas. “You,” he would say to Mr. Biswas. “What the hell are you looking at?” And sometimes he would say to people across the counter, “Look at him. Always smiling, eh? As though he is smarter than everybody else. Look at him.”

“Yes,” the drinkers said. “He is a real smart man. You better keep an eye on him, Bhandat.”

So to the drinkers Mr. Biswas became “smart man” or “smart boy”, someone who could be ridiculed.

He revenged himself by spitting in the rum when he bottled it, which he did early every morning. The rum was the same, but the prices and labels were different: “Indian Maiden”, “The White Cock”, “Parakeet”. Each brand had its adherents, and to Mr. Biswas this was a subsidiary revenge which gave a small but continuous pleasure.

The bottling-room was in the ancillary shop-buildings which formed a square about an unpaved yard. Bhandat lived with his family, and Mr. Biswas, in two rooms. When it was dry Bhandat’s wife cooked on the steps that led to one of these rooms; when it rained she cooked in a corrugated-iron shack, made by Bhandat during a period of sobriety and responsibility, in the yard. The other rooms were used as storerooms or were rented out to other families. The room in which Mr. Biswas slept had no window and was perpetually dark. His clothes hung on a nail on one wall; his books occupied a small amount of floor space; he slept with Bhandat’s two sons on a hard, smelly coconut fibre mattress on the floor. Every morning the mattress was rolled up, leaving a deposit of coarse fibre grit on the floor, and pushed under Bhandat’s fourposter in the adjacent room. When this was done Mr. Biswas felt he had no further claim to the room for the rest of the day.

On Sundays and on Thursday afternoons, when the shop was closed, he didn’t know where to go. Sometimes he went to the back trace to see his mother. He was giving her a dollar a month, but she continued to make him feel helpless and unhappy, and he preferred to seek out Alec. But Alec was now seldom to be found and Mr. Biswas often ended by going to Tara’s. In the back verandah there the bookcase had been unexpectedly filled with twenty tall black volumes of the Book of Comprehensive Knowledge. Ajodha had agreed to buy the books from an American travelling salesman; even before he had paid a deposit the books had been delivered, and then apparendy forgotten. The salesman never called again, no one asked to be paid, and Ajodha said happily that the company had gone bankrupt. He had no intention of reading the books, but they were a bargain; and when Mr. Biswas proved the books’ usefulness by coming week after week to read them, Ajodha was delighted.

Presently Mr. Biswas fell into a Sunday routine. He went to Tara’s in the middle of the morning, read for Ajodha all the That Body of Yours columns which had been cut out during the week, got his penny, was given lunch, and was then free to explore the Book of Comprehensive Knowledge. He read folk tales from various lands; he read, and quickly forgot, how chocolate, matches, ships, buttons and many other things were made; he read articles which answered, with drawings that looked pretty but didn’t really help, questions like: Why does ice make water cold? Why does fire burn? Why does sugar sweeten?

“You must get Bhandat’s boys to read these books too,” Ajodha said enthusiastically.

But Bhandat’s boys refused to be enticed. They were learning to smoke; they were full of scandalous and incredible revelations about sex; and at night, in whispers, they wove lurid sexual fantasies. Mr. Biswas had tried to contribute to these, but could never strike the correct note. He was either so tame or so ill-informed that they laughed, or so revolting that they threatened to tell. For weeks they tormented him with a particular indecency he had spoken until, in exasperation, he told them to go and tell and found, to his surprise, that he had put an end to their threats. And one night when he asked Bhandat’s eldest boy how he had come by all his knowledge about sex, the boy said, “Well, I have a mother, not so?”

Bhandat was spending more week-ends away from the shop. His sons talked openly of his mistress, at first with excitement and a little pride; later, when the rows between Bhandat and his wife grew more frequent, with fear. There were moments of shock and humiliation when Bhandat shouted obscenities which his sons casually whispered at night. The silence of Bhandat’s wife then was terrible. Occasionally things were thrown and the boys and Mr. Biswas burst out screaming. Bhandat’s wife would come, very calm, and try to quieten them. They wanted her to stay, but she always went back to Bhandat in the next room.

In the shop Bhandat was spinning more coins every day, and there were often scenes on Friday evening when Tara came to examine the accounts.

Then one week-end Mr. Biswas had the two rooms to himself. One of Ajodha’s relations died in another part of the island. The shop was not opened on Saturday and early that morning Bhandat and his family went to the funeral, with Ajodha and Tara. The empty rooms, usually oppressive, now held unlimited prospects of freedom and vice; but Mr. Biswas could think of nothing vicious and satisfying. He smoked but that gave little pleasure. And gradually the rooms lost their thrill. Alec had given up his job in the garage, or had been sacked, and was not in Pagotes; Tara’s house was closed; and Mr. Biswas did not want to go to the back trace. But the feeling of freedom and urgency remained. He walked aimlessly, along the main road and down side streets he had never taken. He stopped buses and went for short rides. He had innumerable soft drinks and hard cakes at roadside shacks. The afternoon wore on. Groups of men, their week’s work over, stood in week-end clothes at street corners, outside shops, around coconut-carts. As fatigue overcame him he began to long for the day to end, to relieve him of his freedom. He went back to the dark rooms tired, empty, miserable, yet still excited, still unwilling to sleep.

He awoke to find Bhandat standing over his mattress on the floor. Above red eyes Bhandat’s lids were swollen, the way they became after he had been drinking. Mr. Biswas had not expected anyone to return before evening; he had lost a whole day’s freedom.

“Come on. Stop pretending. Where have you put it?” The bumps on Bhandat’s top lip were quivering with anger.

“Put what?”

“Oh yes. Smart man. So you don’t know?” And Bhandat pulled Mr. Biswas off the mattress, grabbed him by the back of his trousers and lifted him to his toes. With this hold, widely known in Lai’s school as the policeman’s hold, Bhandat led Mr. Biswas to the next room. No one else was there; Bhandat’s wife and children had not come back from the funeral. A shirt hung on the back of a chair over a pair of neatly folded trousers. On the seat of the chair there were coins, keys and a number of crumpled dollar-notes.

“Last night I had twenty-six dollars in notes. This morning I have twenty-five. Eh?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t even know when you came in. I was sleeping all the time.”

“Sleeping. Yes, sleeping like the snake. With both eyes open. Big eyes and long tongue. Tongue wagging all the time to Tara and Ajodha. Do you think that has done you any good? You expect them to give you a pound and a crown for that?” He was shouting now, and pulling out his leather belt through the loops of his trousers. “Eh? You will tell them you stole my dollar?” He raised his arm and brought the belt down on Mr. Biswas’s head. Whenever the buckle struck a bone it made a sharp sound.

Suddenly Mr. Biswas howled. “O God! O God! My eye! My eye!”

Bhandat stopped.

Mr. Biswas had been cut on the cheek-bone and the blood had run below his eye.

“Get out, you nasty tale-carrying lout. Get out of here at once before I peel the skin off your back.” The bumps on Bhandat’s lip were trembling again and his arm, when he raised it, was quivering.

The sun had not risen and the back trace was still and empty when Mr. Biswas roused Bipti.

“Mohun! What has happened?”

“I fell down. Don’t ask me.”

“Come, tell me. What’s the matter?”

“Why do you keep on sending me to stay with other people?”

“Who beat you?” She pressed a finger under the cut on the cheek-bone and he winced. “Bhandat beat you?” She undid his shirt and saw the weals on his back. “He beat you? He beat you?”

She made him lie face down on the bed in her room, and, for the first time since he was a baby, rubbed his body down with oil. She gave him a cup of hot milk sweetened with brown sugar.

“I am never going back there,” Mr. Biswas said.

Instead of giving the consolation he expected, Bipti said, as though arguing with him, “Where will you go then?”

He became impatient. “You have never done a thing for me. You are a pauper.”

He had meant to hurt her, but she was not hurt. “It is my fate. I have had no luck with my children. And with you, Mohun, I have the least luck of all. Everything Sitaram said about you was true.”

“I have heard you and everybody else talking a lot about this Sitaram. What exactly did he say?”

“That you were going to be a spendthrift and a liar and that you were going to be lecherous.”

“Oh yes. Spendthrift with two dollars a month. Two whole dollars. Two hundred cents. Very heavy if you put that in a bag. And lecherous?”

“Leading a bad life. With women. But you are too small.”

“Bhandat’s children are more lecherous than me. And with their mother too.”

“Mohun!” Then Bipti said, “I don’t know what Tara is going to say.”

“Again! Why do you keep on caring what Tara says? I don’t want you to go and see Tara. I don’t want anything from her. And Ajodha can keep that body of his. Let Bhandat’s boys read to him. I am finished with that.”

But Bipti went to see Tara, and that afternoon Tara, still in her mourning clothes and her jewellery, fresh from her funeral duties and her struggles with the funeral photographer, came to the back trace.

“Poor Mohun,” Tara said. “He’s shameless, that Bhandat.”

“I am sure he stole the money himself,” Mr. Biswas said. “He’s got a lot of practice. He steals all the time. And I can always tell when he is stealing. He spins the coin.”

“Mohun!” Bipti said.

“He’s the lecher, spendthrift and liar. Not me.”


“And I know all about that other woman. His sons know about her too. They boast about it. He quarrels with his wife and beats her. I am not going back to that shop if he comes and asks me on bended knee.”

“I can’t see Bhandat doing that,” Tara said. “But he is sorry. The dollar wasn’t missing. It was at the bottom of his trouser pocket and he didn’t notice it.”

“He was too drunk, if you ask me.” Then the humiliation hurt afresh and he began to cry. “You see, Ma. I have no father to look after me and people can treat me how they want.”

Tara became coaxing.

Mr. Biswas, enjoying the coaxing and his misery, still spoke angrily. “Dehuti was quite right to run away from you. I am sure you treated her badly.”

By mentioning Dehuti’s name he had gone too far. Tara at once stiffened and, without saying more, left, her long skirt billowing about her, the silver bracelets on her arm clanking.

Bipti ran out after her to the yard. “You mustn’t mind the boy, Tara. He is young.”

“I don’t mind, Bipti.”

“Oh Mohun,” Bipti said, when she came back to the room, “you will reduce us all to pauperdom. You will see me spending the rest of my days in the Poor House.”

“I am going to get a job on my own. And I am going to get my own house too. I am finished with this.” He waved his aching arm about the mud walls and the low, sooty thatch.

On Monday morning he set about looking for a job. How did one look for a job? He supposed that one looked. He walked up and down the Main Road, looking.

He passed a tailor and tried to picture himself cutting khaki cloth, tacking, and operating a sewingmachine. He passed a barber and tried to picture himself stropping a razor; his mind wandered off to devise elaborate protections for his left thumb. But he didn’t like the tailor he saw, a fat man sulkily sewing in a dingy shop; and as for barbers, he had never liked those who cut his own hair; he thought too how it would disgust Pundit Jairam to learn that his former pupil had taken up barbering, a profession immemorially low. He walked on.

He had no wish to enter any of the shops he saw and ask for a job. So he imposed difficult conditions on himself. He tried, for example, to walk a certain distance in twenty paces, and interpreted failure as a bad sign. For a moment he was perversely tempted by an undertaker’s, a plain corrugated iron shed that made no concession to grief, smelling of new wood, fish-glue and french polish, with coffins lying on the floor among sawdust, shavings and unfashioned planks. Cheap coffins and raw wood stood in rows against one wall; expensive polished coffins rested on shelves; there were unfinished coffins around a work-bench and pieces of coffin everywhere else; in one corner there was a tottering stack of cheap toy coffins for babies. Mr. Biswas had often seen babies’ funerals; one in particular he remembered, where the coffin was carried under the arm of a man who rode slowly on a bicycle. “Get a job there,” he thought, “and help to bury Bhandat.” He passed dry goods shops-strange name: dry goods-and the rickety little rooms bulged with dry goods, things like pans and plates and bolts of cloth and cards of bright pins and boxes of thread and shirts on hangers and brand-new oil lamps and hammers and saws and clothes-pegs and everything else, the wreckage of a turbulent flood which appeared to have forced the doors of the shops open and left deposits of dry goods on tables and on the ground outside. The owners remained in their shops, lost in the gloom and wedged between dry goods. The assistants stood outside with pencils behind their ears or pencils tapping bill-pads with the funereally-coloured carbon paper peeping out from under the first sheet. Grocers’ shops, smelling damply of oil, sugar and salted fish. Vegetable stalls, damp but fresh, and smelling of earth. Grocers’ wives and children stood oily and confident behind counters. The women behind the vegetable stalls were old and correct with thin mournful faces; or they were young and plump with challenging and quarrelsome stares; with a big-eyed child or two hanging about behind the purple sweet potatoes to which dirt still clung; and babies in the background lying in condensed milk boxes. And all the time donkey-carts, horse-carts and ox-carts rumbled and jangled in the roadway, the heavy iron-rimmed wheels grating over gravel and sand and wobbling over the bumpy road. Continually long whips with knotted ends whistled and cracked, arousing brief enthusiasm in the animals. The men drivers sat on their carts; the boy drivers stood, shouting and whistling at their animals and their rivals; half a dozen races were always in progress.

Mr. Biswas returned to the back trace, his resolution shaken. “I am not going to take any job at all,” he told Bipti.

“Why don’t you go and make it up with Tara?”

“I don’t want to see Tara. I am going to kill myself

“That would be the best thing for you. And for me.”

“Good. Good. I don’t want any food.” And in a great rage he left the hut.

Anger gave him energy, and he determined to walk until he was tired. On the Main Road he took the other direction now and went past the office of F. Z. Ghany, dingier but still intact, closed because it wasn’t market day; past the same array of shops, it seemed, the same owners, the same goods, the same assistants; and it all filled him with the same depression.

Late in the afternoon, when he was some miles out of Pagotes, a slender young man with shining eyes and a thick shining moustache came up to Mr. Biswas and tapped him on the shoulder. He was embarrassed to recognize Ramchand, Tara’s delinquent yard boy, now Dehuti’s husband. He had sometimes seen him at Tara’s, but they had not spoken.

Ramchand, so far from showing embarrassment, behaved as though he had known Mr. Biswas well for years. He asked so many questions so quickly that Mr. Biswas had time only to nod. “How is everything? It is good to see you. And your mother? Well? Nice to hear. And the shop? A funny thing. You know Parakeet and Indian Maiden and The White Cock? I make that rum now. They are the same, you know.”

“I know.”

“No future working for Tara, I can tell you. As you know, I am working at this rum place now, and do you know how much I am getting? Come on. Guess.”

“Ten dollars.”

“Twelve. With a bonus every Christmas. And rum at the wholesale price into the bargain. Not bad, eh?”

Mr. Biswas was impressed.

“Dehuti talks about you all the time. At one time everybody thought you were drowned, remember?” Then, as though this knowledge had removed whatever unfamiliarity remained between them, Ramchand added, “Why don’t you come and see Dehuti? She was talking about you only last night.” He paused. “And perhaps you could eat something as well.”

Mr. Biswas noticed the pause. It reminded him that Ramchand was of a low caste; and though it was absurd in the Main Road to think that of a man earning twelve dollars a month in addition to bonuses and other advantages, Mr. Biswas was flattered that Ramchand looked upon him as someone to be flattered and conciliated. He agreed to go to see Dehuti. Ramchand, delighted, talked on, revealing much knowledge of other members of the family. He told Mr. Biswas that Ajodha’s finances were not as sound as they appeared, and that Tara was offending too many people. Tara may have vowed never to mention Ramchand’s name again; he appeared anxious to mention hers as often as possible.

Mr. Biswas had never questioned the deference shown him when he had gone to Tara’s to be fed as a Brahmin and on his rounds with Pundit Jairam. But he had never taken it seriously; he had thought of it as one of the rules of a game that was only occasionally played. When he got to Ramchand’s he thought it even more of a game. The hut indicated lowness in no way. The mud walls had been freshly whitewashed and decorated with blue and green and red palm-prints (Mr. Biswas recognized Ramchand’s broad palm and stubby fingers); the thatch was new and neat; the earth floor was high and had been packed hard; pictures from calendars were stuck on the walls, and in the verandah there was a hatrack. It was altogether less depressing than the crumbling, neglected hut in the back trace.

But it seemed that to Dehuti marriage had brought no joy. She was uneasy at being caught among her household possessions, and tried to hint that they had nothing to do with her. When Ramchand started to point out some attractive feature of the hut, she sucked her teeth and he desisted. Mr. Biswas couldn’t believe that Dehuti had ever spoken about him, as Ramchand had said. She hardly spoke, hardly looked at him. Without expression she brought out an ugly baby from an inner room, asleep, and showed it, suggesting at the same time that she had not brought it out to show it. She looked careworn and sulky, untouched by her husband’s bubbling desire to please. Yet in her unhurried way she did what she could to make Mr. Biswas welcome. He understood that she feared rebuff and the reports he might take back, and this made him uncomfortable.

Dehuti, never pretty, was now frankly ugly. Her Chinese eyes looked sleepy, the pupils without a light, the whites smudged. Her cheeks, red with pimples, bulged low and drooped around her mouth. Her lower lip projected, as though squashed out by the weight of her cheeks. She sat on a low bench, the back of her long skirt caught tightly between her calves and the backs of her thighs, the front draped over the knees. Mr. Biswas was surprised by her adulthood. It was the way she sat, knees apart, yet so decorously covered; he had associated that only with mature women. He tried to find in the woman the girl he had known. But seeing her growing needlessly impatient while Ramchand, at her instructions, lit the fire and prepared to boil the rice, Mr. Biswas felt that this sight of Dehuti had wiped out the old picture. This was a loss; it added to the unhappiness he had begun to feel as soon as he entered the hut.

Ramchand came from the kitchen and sank in the most relaxed way on to the earth floor. He stretched out one short-trousered leg and held his hands around his upright knee. The corrugations of his thick hair glinted with oil. He smiled at Mr. Biswas, smiled at the baby, smiled at Dehuti. He asked Mr. Biswas to read the writing on the calendar pictures and the Sunday school cards on the walls, and listened in pure pleasure while Mr. Biswas did so.

“You are going to be a great man,” Ramchand said. “A great man. Reading like that at your age. Used to hear you reading those things to Ajodha. Never known a healthier man in all my life. But one day he is going to fall really sick, let him watch out. He’s just asking for it. I feel sorry for him, to tell you the truth. I feel sorry for all these rich fellows.” It turned out that Ramchand felt sorry for many other people as well. “Pratap now. He’s got himself into a mess because of these donkeys he keeps on buying, heaven knows why. The last two died. Did you hear about it?” Mr. Biswas hadn’t, and Ramchand told of the bloody end of the donkeys; one had speared itself on a bamboo stake. He also spoke of Prasad and his search for a wife; with tolerant amusement he mentioned Bhandat and his mistress. He became increasingly avuncular; it was clear he thought his own condition perfect, and this perfection delighted him. “Not finished with these decorations,” he said, pointing to the walls. “Getting some more of those Sunday school pictures. Jesus and Mary. Eh, Dehuti?” Laughingly he flung the matchstick he had been chewing at the baby.

Dehuti closed her eyes in annoyance, puffed out her pimply cheeks a little more and turned her face away. The matchstick fell harmlessly on the baby.

“Making some improvements too,” Ramchand said. “Come.”

This time Dehuti did not suck her teeth. They went to the back and Mr. Biswas saw another room being added to the hut. Trimmed tree-branches had been buried in the earth; the rafters, of lesser boughs, were in place; between the uprights the bamboo had been plaited; the earth floor was raised but not yet packed. “Extra room,” Ramchand said. “When it is finished you can come and stay with us.”

Mr. Biswas’s depression deepened.

They went on a tour of the small hut, Ramchand pointing out the refinements he had added: shelves set in the mud walls, tables, chairs. Back in the verandah Ramchand pointed to the hatrack. There were eight hooks on it symmetrically arranged about a diamond-shaped glass. “That is the only thing here I didn’t make myself. Dehuti set her heart on it.” He slumped down on the floor again and flung the little ball of earth he had been rolling between his fingers at the baby.

Dehuti closed her eyes and pouted. “Me? I didn’t want it. I wish you would stop running round giving people the idea that I have modern ambitions.”

He laughed uneasily and scratched his bare leg; the nails left white marks.

“I have no hat to hang on a hatrack,” Dehuti said. “I don’t want a mirror to show me my ugly face.”

Ramchand scratched and winked at Mr. Biswas. “Ugly face? Ugly face?”

Dehuti said, “I don’t stand up in front of the hatrack combing my hair for hours. My hair is not pretty and curly enough.”

Ramchand accepted the compliment with a smile.

In the verandah, black and yellow in the light of the oil lamp, they sat down on low benches to eat. But although he was hungry, and although he knew that both Dehuti and Ramchand had much affection for him, Mr. Biswas found that his belly was beginning to rise and hurt, and he couldn’t eat. Their happiness, which he couldn’t share, had upset him. And it pained him more then to see Ramchand’s jumpy enthusiasm replaced by uncertainty. Dehuti’s sullen expression never changed; it was for just such a rebuff that she had been prepared.

He left soon after, promising to come back and see them one day, knowing that he wouldn’t, that the links between Dehuti and himself, never strong, had been broken, that from her too he had become separate. The desire to keep on looking for a job had left him. He supposed he had always known he would fall back on Tara for help. She liked him; Ajodha liked him. Perhaps he would apologize, and they would put him in the garage.

Then Alec reappeared in Pagotes, and there was no sign of engine grease on him. His hands and arms and face were spotted and streaked with paint of various colours, as were his long khaki trousers and white shirt, where each stain was rimmed with oil. When, at the end of a long, idle and uncertain week, Mr. Biswas saw him, Alec had a small tin of paint in one hand and a small brush in the other; he was standing on a ladder against a cafй in the Main Road and painting a sign, of which he had already achieved THE HUMMING BIRD CA.

Mr. Biswas was full of admiration.

“You like it, eh?” Alec came down the ladder, pulled out a large paint-spotted cloth from his back pocket and wiped his hands. “Got to shadow them. In two colours. Blue across, green down.”

“But that will spoil it, man.”

Alec spat out a cigarette that had burned down to his lips and gone dead. “It will look like a little carnival when I finish. But that is the way they want it.” He jerked his head contemptuously towards the proprietor of the Humming Bird Cafй who was leaning on his counter and looking at them suspiciously. The shelves at his back were half filled with bottles of aerated water. Flies buzzed about him, attracted by the sweat on his neck and those parts of his body exposed by his vest; flies with different tastes had settled on the coarse sugar on the rock cakes in his showcase.

To Alec Mr. Biswas explained his problem, and they talked for a while. Then they went into the tiny cafй and Alec bought two bottles of aerated water.

Alec said to the proprietor, “This is my assistant.”

The proprietor looked at Mr. Biswas. “How he so small?”

“Young firm,” Alec said. “Give youth a chance.”

“He could paint humming birds?”

“He want a lot of humming birds in the sign,” Alec explained to Mr. Biswas. “Hanging about and behind the lettering.”

“Like the Keskidee Cafй,” the proprietor said. “You see the sign he got?” He pointed obliquely across the road to another refreshment shack, and Mr. Biswas saw the sign. The letters were blocked in three colours and shadowed in three other colours. Keskidee birds stood on the K, perched on the D, hung from the C; on EE two keskidees billed.

Mr. Biswas couldn’t draw.

Alec said, “‘Course he could paint humming birds, if you really want them. The only thing is, it would look a little follow-fashion.”

“And too besides, it oldfashion,” Mr. Biswas said.

“I glad you say that,” Alec said. “Was what I been trying to tell him. The modern thing is to have lots of words. All the shops in Port of Spain have signs with nothing but words. Tell him.”

“What sort of words?” the proprietor said.

“Sweet drinks, cakes and ice,” Mr. Biswas said.

The proprietor shook his head.

“Beware of the dog,” Alec said.

“I ain’t got a dog.”

“Fresh fruits daily,” Alec went on. “Stick no bills by order.”

The proprietor shook his head.

“Trespassers will be prosecuted. Overseas visitors welcomed. If you don’t see what you require please ask. Our assistants will be pleased to help you with your inquiries.”

The proprietor was thinking.

“No hands wanted,” Alec said. “Come in and look around.”

The proprietor became alert. “Is exactly what I have to fight in this place.”

“Idlers keep out,” Mr. Biswas said.

“By order,” the proprietor said.

“Idlers keep out by order. A good sign,” Alec said. “This boy will do it for you in two twos.”

So Mr. Biswas became a sign-writer and wondered why he had never thought of using this gift before. With Alec’s help he worked on the cafй sign and to his delight and amazement it came out well enough to satisfy the proprietor. He had been used to designing letters with pen and pencil and was afraid that he would not be able to control a brush with paint. But he found that the brush, though flattening out disconcertingly at first, could be made to respond to the gentlest pressure; strokes were cleaner, curves truer. “Just turn the brush slowly in your fingers when you come to the curve,” Alec said; and curves held fewer problems after that. After IDLERS KEEP OUT BY ORDER he did more signs with Alec; his hand became surer, his strokes bolder, his feeling for letters finer. He thought R and S the most beautiful of Roman letters; no letter could express so many moods as R, without losing its beauty; and what could compare with the swing and rhythm of S? With a brush, large letters were easier than small, and he felt much satisfaction after he and Alec had covered long stretches of palings with signs for Pluko, which was good for the hair in various ways, and Anchor Cigarettes. There was some worry about the cigarette packet; they would have preferred to draw it closed, but the contractors wanted it open, condemning Mr. Biswas and Alec to draw not only the packet, but the silver foil, crumpled, and eight cigarettes, all marked ANCHOR, pulled out to varying lengths.

After a time he started to go again to Tara’s. She bore him no ill-will but he was disappointed to find that Ajodha no longer required him to read That Body of Yours. One of Bhandat’s sons now did that. Two things had happened in the rum-shop. Bhandat’s wife had died in childbirth, and Bhandat had left his sons and gone to live with his mistress in Port of Spain. The boys were taken in by Tara, who added Bhandat’s name to those never mentioned by her again. For years afterwards no one knew where or how Bhandat lived, though there were rumours that he lived in a slum in the city centre, surrounded by all sorts of quarrelling and disreputable people.

So Bhandat’s sons moved from the squalor of the rum-shop to the comfort of Tara’s house. It was a passage that Mr. Biswas had made often himself, and it was no surprise to him that the boys had soon settled in so well that Bhandat was forgotten and it was hard to think of his sons living anywhere else.

Mr. Biswas continued to paint signs. It was satisfying work, but it came irregularly. Alec wandered from district to district, sometimes working, sometimes not, and the partnership was spasmodic. There were many weeks when Mr. Biswas was out of work and could only read and design letters and practise his drawing. He learned to draw bottles, and in preparation for Christmas drew one Santa Claus after another until he had reduced it to a simple design in red, pink, white and black. Work, when it came, came in a rush. In September most shopkeepers said that they wanted no Christmas-signs nonsense that year. By December they had changed their minds, and Mr. Biswas worked late into the night doing Santa Clauses and holly and berries and snow-capped letters; the finished signs quickly blistered in the blazing sun. Occasionally there were inexplicable rashes of new signs, and a district was thronged for a fortnight or so with sign-writers, for no shopkeeper wished to employ a man who had been used by his rival. Every sign then was required to be more elaborate than the last, and for stretches the Main Road was dazzling with signs that were hard to read. Plainness was required only for the posters for Local Road Board Elections. Mr. Biswas did scores of these, many on cotton, which he had to stretch and pin to the mud wall of the verandah in the back trace. The paint leaked through and the wall became a blur of conflicting messages in different colours.

To satisfy the extravagant lettering tastes of his shopkeepers he scanned foreign magazines. From looking at magazines for their letters he began to read them for their stories, and during his long weeks of leisure he read such novels as he could find in the stalls of Pagotes. He read the novels of Hall Caine and Marie Corelli. They introduced him to intoxicating worlds. Descriptions of landscape and weather in particular excited him; they made him despair of finding romance in his own dull green land which the sun scorched every day; he never had much taste for westerns.

He became increasingly impatient at living in the back trace; and although his income, despite Christmas, elections and shopkeepers’ jealousies, was small and uncertain, he would have liked to risk moving. But Bipti, who had always talked of moving, now said she had lived there too long and did not want to be among strangers in her old age. “I leave here. One day you will get married, and where shall I be then?”

“I am never going to get married.” It was his usual threat, for Bipti had begun to say that she had only to see Mr. Biswas married and her life’s work would be complete. Pratap and Prasad were already married, Pratap to a tall, handsome woman who was bearing a child every eighteen months, Prasad to a woman of appalling ugliness who was mercifully barren.

“You mustn’t say things like that,” Bipti said. She could still irritate him by taking everything he said seriously.

“So what? You expect me to bring a wife here?” He walked about the cluttered room, always smelling now of paint and oil and turpentine, and kicked at the dusty brown piles of his magazines and books on the floor.

He stayed in the back trace and read Samuel Smiles. He had bought one of his books in the belief that it was a novel, and had become an addict. Samuel Smiles was as romantic and satisfying as any novelist, and Mr. Biswas saw himself in many Samuel Smiles heroes: he was young, he was poor, and he fancied he was struggling. But there always came a point when resemblance ceased. The heroes had rigid ambitions and lived in countries where ambitions could be pursued and had a meaning. He had no ambition, and in this hot land, apart from opening a shop or buying a motorbus, what could he do? What could he invent? Dutifully, however, he tried. He bought elementary manuals of science and read them; nothing happened; he only became addicted to elementary manuals of science. He bought the seven expensive volumes of Hawkins’ Electrical Guide, made rudimentary compasses, buzzers and doorbells, and learned to wind an armature. Beyond that he could not go. Experiments became more complex, and he didn’t know where in Trinidad he could find the equipment mentioned so casually by Hawkins. His interest in electrical matters died, and he contented himself with reading about the Samuel Smiles heroes in their magic land.

And yet there were moments when he could persuade himself that he lived in a land where romance was possible. When, for instance, he had to do a rush job and worked late into the night by the light of a gas lamp, excitement and the light transforming the hut; able then to forget that ordinary morning would come and the sign would hang over a cluttered little shop with its doors open on to a hot dusty road.

There were the days when he became a conductor on one of Ajodha’s buses which ran in competition with other buses on a route without fixed stops. He enjoyed the urgent motion and noisy rivalry, and endangered himself needlessly by hanging far out from the running-board to sing to people on the road, “Tunapuna, Naparima, Sangre Grande, Guayaguayare, Chacachacare, Mahatma Gandhi and back,” the glorious Amerindian names forming an imaginary route that took in the four corners of the island and one place, Chacachacare, across the sea.

And there were times when elusive Alec, with a face that hinted of debauch, came to Pagotes, spoke of pleasures and took Mr. Biswas to certain houses which terrified, then attracted, and finally only amused him. With Bhandat’s boys he also went; but they seemed to get most of their pleasure from the thought that they were being vicious.

And now too there were other occasions of excitement, unrelated to the excitements of books and magazines, unrelated to the visits to those houses: the glimpse of a face, a smile, a laugh. But his experiences had taken him beyond the stage when a girl was something of painful loveliness, and it was a marvel that any creature so soft and lovely could welcome the attentions of hard, ugly men; and few persons now held him. Some features always finally repelled, a tone of voice, a quality of skin, an over-sensuous hang of lip; one such lip had grown gross and obscene in a dream which left him feeling unclean. Love was something he was embarrassed to think about; the very word he mentioned seldom, and then as mockingly as Alec and Bhandat’s boys. But secretly he believed.

Alec, misunderstanding, said, “You worry too much. These things come when you least expect them.”

But he never ceased to worry. He no longer simply lived. He had begun to wait, not only for love, but for the world to yield its sweetness and romance. He deferred all his pleasure in life until that day. And it was in this mood of expectation that he went to Hanuman House at Arwacas, and saw Shama.

3. The Tulsis

Among the tumbledown timber- and-corrugated-iron buildings in the High Street at Arwacas, Hanuman House stood like an alien white fortress. The concrete walls looked as thick as they were, and when the narrow doors of the Tulsi Store on the ground floor were closed the House became bulky, impregnable and blank. The side walls were windowless, and on the upper two floors the windows were mere slits in the faзade. The balustrade which hedged the flat roof was crowned with a concrete statue of the benevolent monkey-god Hanuman. From the ground his whitewashed features could scarcely be distinguished and were, if anything, slightly sinister, for dust had settled on projections and the effect was that of a face lit up from below.

The Tulsis had some reputation among Hindus as a pious, conservative, landowning family. Other communities, who knew nothing of the Tulsis, had heard about Pundit Tulsi, the founder of the family. He had been one of the first to be killed in a motorcar accident and was the subject of an irreverent and extremely popular song. To many outsiders he was therefore only a creature of fiction. Among Hindus there were other rumours about Pundit Tulsi, some romantic, some scurrilous. The fortune he had made in Trinidad had not come from labouring and it remained a mystery why he had emigrated as a labourer. One or two emigrants, from criminal clans, had come to escape the law. One or two had come to escape the consequences of their families’ participation in the Mutiny. Pundit Tulsi belonged to neither class. His family still flourished in India-letters arrived regularly-and it was known that he had been of higher standing than most of the Indians who had come to Trinidad, nearly all of whom, like Raghu, like Ajodha, had lost touch with their families and wouldn’t have known in what province to find them. The deference paid Pundit Tulsi in his native district had followed him to Trinidad and now that he was dead attached to his family. Little was really known about this family; outsiders were admitted to Hanuman House only for certain religious celebrations.

Mr. Biswas went to Hanuman House to paint signs for the Tulsi Store, after a protracted interview with a large, moustached, overpowering man called Seth, Mrs. Tulsi’s brother-in-law. Seth had beaten down Mr. Biswas’s price and said that Mr. Biswas was getting the job only because he was an Indian; he had beaten it down a little further and said that Mr. Biswas could count himself lucky to be a Hindu; he had beaten it down yet further and said that signs were not really needed but were being commissioned from Mr. Biswas only because he was a Brahmin.

The Tulsi Store was disappointing. The faзade that promised such an amplitude of space concealed a building which was trapezoid in plan and not deep. There were no windows and light came only from the two narrow doors at the front and the single door at the back, which opened on to a covered courtyard. The walls, of uneven thickness, curved here and jutted there, and the shop abounded in awkward, empty, cobwebbed corners. Awkward, too, were the thick ugly columns, whose number dismayed Mr. Biswas because he had undertaken, among other things, to paint signs on all of them.

He began by decorating the top of the back wall with an enormous sign. This he illustrated meaninglessly with a drawing of Punch, who appeared incongruously gay and roguish in the austere shop where goods were stored rather than displayed and the assistants were grave and unenthusiastic.

These assistants, he had learned with surprise, were all members of the House. He could not therefore let his eyes rove as freely as usual among the unmarried girls. So, as circumspectly as he could, he studied them while he worked, and decided that the most attractive was a girl of about sixteen, whom the others called Shama. She was of medium height, slender but firm, with fine features, and though he disliked her voice, he was enchanted by her smile. So enchanted, that after a few days he would very much have liked to do the low and possibly dangerous thing of talking to her. The presence of her sisters and brothers-in-law deterred him, as well as the unpredictable and forbidding appearances of Seth, dressed more like a plantation overseer than a store manager. Still, he stared at her with growing frankness. When she found him out he looked away, became very busy with his brushes and shaped his lips as though he were whistling softly. In fact he couldn’t whistle; all he did was to expel air almost soundlessly through the lecherous gap in his top teeth.

When she had responded to his stares a few times he felt that a certain communion had been established between them; and, meeting Alec in Pagotes, where Alec was working in Ajodha’s garage once again, as a mechanic and a painter of buses and signs, Mr. Biswas said, “I got a girl in Arwacas.”

Alec was congratulatory. “Like I did say, these things come when you least expect them. What you was fussing so for?”

And a few days later Bhandat’s eldest boy said, “Mohun, I hear you got a girl at long last, man.” He was patronizing; it was well known that he was having an affair with a woman of another race by whom he had already had a child; he was proud both of the child and its illegitimacy.

The news of the girl at Arwacas spread and Mr. Biswas enjoyed some glory at Pagotes until Bhandat’s younger son, a prognathous, contemptuous boy, said, “I feel you lying like hell, you know.”

When Mr. Biswas went to Hanuman House the next day he had a note in his pocket, which he intended to give to Shama. She was busy all morning, but just before noon, when the store closed for lunch, there was a lull and her counter was free. He came down the ladder, whistling in his way. Unnecessarily, he began stacking and restacking his paint tins. Then, preoccupied and frowning, he walked about the store, looking for tins that were not there. He passed Shama’s counter and, without looking at her, placed the note under a bolt of cloth. The note was crumpled and slightly dirty and looked ineffectual. But she saw it. She looked away and smiled. It was not a smile of complicity or pleasure; it was a smile that told Mr. Biswas he had made a fool of himself. He felt exceedingly foolish, and wondered whether he shouldn’t take back his note and abandon Shama at once.

While he hesitated a fat Negro woman went to Shama’s counter and asked for flesh-coloured stockings, which were then enjoying some vogue in rural Trinidad.

Shama, still smiling, took down a box and held up a pair of black cotton stockings.

“Eh!” The woman’s gasp could be heard throughout the shop. “You playing with me? How the hell all-you get so fresh and conceited?” She began to curse. “Playing with me!” She pulled boxes and bolts of cloth off the counter and hurled them to the floor and every time something crashed she shouted, “Playing with me!” One of the Tulsi sons-in-law ran up to pacify her. She cuffed him back. “Where the old lady?” she called, and screamed, “Mai! Mai!” as though in great pain.

Shama had ceased to smile. Fright was plain on her face. Mr. Biswas had no desire to comfort her. She looked so much like a child now that he only became more ashamed of the note. The bolt of cloth which concealed it had been thrown to the ground, and the note was exposed, caught at the end of the brass yardstick that was screwed to the counter.

He moved towards the counter, but was driven back by the woman’s fat flailing arms.

Then silence fell on the shop. The woman’s arms became still. Through the back doorway, to the right of the counter, Mrs. Tulsi appeared. She was as laden as Tara with jewellery; she lacked Tara’s sprightliness but was statelier; her face, though not plump, was slack, as if unexercised.

Mr. Biswas moved back to his tins and brushes.

“Yes, ma’am, I want to see you.” The woman was breathless with anger. “I want to see you. I want you to beat that child, ma’am. I want you to beat that conceited, rude child of yours.”

“All right, miss. All right.” Mrs. Tulsi pressed her thin lips together repeatedly. “Tell me what happened.” She spoke English in a slow, precise way which surprised Mr. Biswas and filled him with apprehension. She was now behind the counter and her fingers which, like her face, were creased rather than wrinkled, rubbed along the brass yardstick. From time to time, while she listened, she pressed the corner of her veil over her moving lips.

Mr. Biswas, now busily cleaning brushes, wiping them dry, and putting soap in the bristle to keep it supple, was sure that Mrs. Tulsi was listening with only half a mind, that her eyes had been caught by the note: I love you and I want to talk to you.

Mrs. Tulsi spoke some abuse to Shama in Hindi, the obscenity of which startled Mr. Biswas. The woman looked pacified. Mrs. Tulsi promised to look further into the matter and gave the woman a pair of flesh-coloured stockings free. The woman began to retell her story. Mrs. Tulsi, treating the matter as closed, repeated that she was giving the stockings free. The woman went on unhurriedly to the end of the story. Then she walked slowly out of the shop, muttering, exaggeratedly swinging her large hips.

The note was in Mrs. Tulsi’s hand. She held it just above the counter, far from her eyes, and read it, patting her lips with her veil.

“Shama, that was a shameless thing to do.”

“I wasn’t thinking, Mai,” Shama said, and burst into tears, like a girl about to be flogged.

Mr. Biswas’s disenchantment was complete.

Mrs. Tulsi, holding her veil to her chin, nodded absently, still looking at the note.

Mr. Biswas slunk out of the store. He went to Mrs. Seeung’s, a large cafй in the High Street, and ordered a sardine roll and a bottle of aerated water. The sardines were dry, the onion offended him, and the bread had a crust that cut the inside of his lips. He drew comfort only from the thought that he had not signed the note and could deny writing it.

When he went back to the store he was determined to pretend that nothing had happened, determined never to look at Shama again. Carefully he prepared his brushes and set to work. He was relieved that no one showed an interest in him; and more relieved to find that Shama was not in the store that afternoon. With a light heart he outlined Punch’s dog on the irregular surface of the whitewashed column. Below the dog he ruled lines and sketched BARGAINS! BARGAINS! He painted the dog red, the first BARGAINS! black, the second blue. Moving a rung or two down the ladder he ruled more lines, and between these lines he detailed some of the bargains the Tulsi Store offered, in letters which he “cut out”, painting a section of the column red, leaving the letters cut out in the whitewash. Along the top and bottom of the red strip he left small circles of whitewash; these he gashed with one red stroke, to give the impression that a huge red plaque had been screwed on to the pillar; it was one of Alec’s devices. The work absorbed him all afternoon. Shama never appeared in the store, and for minutes he forgot about the morning’s happenings.

Just before four, when the store closed and Mr. Biswas stopped work, Seth came, looking as though he had spent the day in the fields. He wore muddy bluchers and a stained khaki topee; in the pocket of his sweated khaki shirt he carried a black notebook and an ivory cigarette holder. He went to Mr. Biswas and said, in a tone of gruff authority, “The old lady want to see you before you go.”

Mr. Biswas resented the tone, and was disturbed that Seth had spoken to him in English. Saying nothing, he came down the ladder and washed out his brushes, doing his soundless whistling while Seth stood over him. The front doors were bolted and barred and the Tulsi Store became dark and warm and protected.

He followed Seth through the back door to the damp, gloomy courtyard, where he had never been. Here the Tulsi Store felt even smaller: looking back he saw lifesize carvings of Hanuman, grotesquely coloured, on either side of the shop doorway. Across the courtyard there was a large, old, grey wooden house which he thought must be the original Tulsi house. He had never suspected its size from the store; and from the road it was almost hidden by the tall concrete building, to which it was connected by an unpainted, new-looking wooden bridge, which roofed the courtyard.

They climbed a short flight of cracked concrete steps into the hall of the wooden house. It was deserted. Seth left Mr. Biswas, saying he had to go and wash. It was a spacious hall, smelling of smoke and old wood. The pale green paint had grown dim and dingy and the timbers revealed the ravages of woodlice which left wood looking so new where it was rotten. Then Mr. Biswas had another surprise. Through the doorway at the far end he saw the kitchen. And the kitchen had mud walls. It was lower than the hall and appeared to be completely without light. The doorway gaped black; soot stained the wall about it and the ceiling just above; so that blackness seemed to fill the kitchen like a solid substance.

The most important piece of furniture in the hall was a long unvarnished pitchpine table, hard-grained and chipped. A hammock made from sugarsacks hung across one corner of the room. An old sewingmachine, a baby-chair and a black biscuit-drum occupied another corner. Scattered about were a number of unrelated chairs, stools and benches, one of which, low and carved with rough ornamentation from a solid block of cyp wood, still had the saffron colour which told that it had been used at a wedding ceremony. More elegant pieces-a dresser, a desk, a piano so buried among papers and baskets and other things that it was unlikely it was ever used-choked the staircase landing. On the other side of the hall there was a loft of curious construction. It was as if an enormous drawer had been pulled out of the top of the wall; the vacated space, dark and dusty, was crammed with all sorts of articles Mr. Biswas couldn’t distinguish.

He heard a creak on the staircase and saw a long white skirt and a long white petticoat dancing above silver-braceleted ankles. It was Mrs. Tulsi. She moved slowly; he knew from her face that she had spent the afternoon in bed. Without acknowledging his presence she sat on a bench and, as if already tired, rested her jewelled arms on the table. He saw that in one smooth ringed hand she was holding the note.

“You wrote this?”

He did his best to look puzzled. He stared hard at the note and stretched a hand to take it. Mrs. Tulsi pulled the note away and held it up.

“That? I didn’t write that. Why should I want to write that?”

“I only thought so because somebody saw you put it down.”

The silence outside was broken. The tall gate in the corrugated iron fence at the side of the courtyard banged repeatedly, and the courtyard was filled with the shuffle and chatter of the children back from school. They passed to the side of the house, under the gallery formed by the projecting loft. A child was crying; another explained why; a woman shouted for silence. From the kitchen came sounds of activity. At once the house felt peopled and full.

Seth came back to the hall, his bluchers resounding on the floor. He had washed and was without his topee; his damp hair, streaked with grey, was combed flat. He sat down across the table from Mrs. Tulsi and fitted a cigarette into his cigarette holder.

“What?” Mr. Biswas said. “Somebody saw me put that down?”

Seth laughed. “Nothing to be ashamed about.” He clenched his lips over the cigarette holder and opened the corners of his mouth to laugh.

Mr. Biswas was puzzled. It would have been more understandable if they had taken his word and asked him never to come to their house again.

“I believe I know your family,” Seth said.

In the gallery outside and in the kitchen there was now a continual commotion. A woman came out of the black doorway with a brass plate and a blue-rimmed enamel cup. She set them before Mrs. Tulsi and, without a word, without looking right or left, hurried back to the blackness of the kitchen. The cup contained milky tea, the plate roti and curried beans. Another woman brought similar food in an equally reverential way to Seth. Mr. Biswas recognized both women as Shama’s sisters; their dress and manner showed that they were married.

Mrs. Tulsi, scooping up some beans with a shovel of roti, said to Seth, “Better feed him?”

“Do you want to eat?” Seth spoke as though it would have been amusing if Mr. Biswas did want to eat.

Mr. Biswas disliked what he saw and shook his head.

“Pull up that chair and sit here,” Mrs. Tulsi said and, barely raising her voice, called, “C, bring a cup of tea for this person.”

“I know your family,” Seth repeated. “Who’s your father again?”

Mr. Biswas evaded the question. “I am the nephew of Ajodha. Pagotes.”

“Of course.” Expertly Seth ejected the cigarette from the holder to the floor and ground it with his bluchers, hissing smoke down from his nostrils and up from his mouth. “I know Ajodha. Sold him some land. Dhanku’s land,” he said, turning to Mrs. Tulsi.

“O yes.” Mrs. Tulsi continued to eat, lifting her armoured hand high above her plate.

C turned out to be the woman who had served Mrs. Tulsi. She resembled Shama but was shorter and sturdier and her features were less fine. Her veil was pulled decorously over her forehead, but when she brought Mr. Biswas his cup of tea she gave him a frank, unimpressed stare. He attempted to glare back but was too slow; she had already turned and was walking away briskly on light bare feet. He put the tall cup to his lips and took a slow, noisy draught, studying his reflection in the tea and wondering about Seth’s position in the family.

He put the cup down when he heard someone else come into the hall. This was a tall, slender, smiling man dressed in white. His face was sunburnt and his hands were rough. Breathlessly, with many sighs, laughs and swallows, he reported to Seth on various animals. He seemed anxious to appear tired and anxious to please. Seth looked pleased. C came from the kitchen again and followed the man upstairs; he was obviously her husband.

Mr. Biswas took another draught of tea, studied his reflection and wondered whether every couple had a room to themselves; he also wondered what sleeping arrangements were made for the children he heard shouting and squealing and being slapped (by mothers alone?) in the gallery outside, the children he saw peeping at him from the kitchen doorway before being dragged away by ringed hands.

“So you really do like the child?”

It was a moment or so before Mr. Biswas, behind his cup, realized that Mrs. Tulsi had addressed the question to him, and another moment before he knew who the child was.

He felt it would be graceless to say no. “Yes,” he said, “I like the child.”

Mrs. Tulsi chewed and said nothing.

Seth said: “I know Ajodha. You want me to go and see him?”

Incomprehension, surprise, then panic, overwhelmed Mr. Biswas. The child,” he said desperately. “What about the child?”

“What about her?” Seth said. “She is a good child. A little bit of reading and writing even.”

“A little bit of reading and writing-” Mr. Biswas echoed, trying to gain time.

Seth, chewing, his right hand working dexterously with roti and beans, made a dismissing gesture with his left hand. “Just a little bit. So much. Nothing to worry about. In two or three years she might even forget.” And he gave a little laugh. He wore false teeth which clacked every time he chewed.

“The child-” Mr. Biswas said.

Mrs. Tulsi stared at him.

“I mean,” said Mr. Biswas, “the child knows?”

“Nothing at all,” Seth said appeasingly.

“I mean,” said Mr. Biswas, “does the child like me?”

Mrs. Tulsi looked as though she couldn’t understand. Chewing, with lingering squelchy sounds, she raised Mr. Biswas’s note with her free hand and said, “What’s the matter? You don’t like the child?”

“Yes,” Mr. Biswas said helplessly. “I like the child.”

“That is the main thing,” Seth said. “We don’t want to force you to do anything. Are we forcing you?”

Mr. Biswas remained silent.

Seth gave another disparaging little laugh and poured tea into his mouth, holding the cup away from his lips, chewing and clacking between pours. “Eh, boy, are we forcing you?”

“No,” Mr. Biswas said. “You are not forcing me.”

“All right, then. What’s upsetting you?”

Mrs. Tulsi smiled at Mr. Biswas. “The poor boy is shy. I know.”

“I am not shy and I am not upset,” Mr. Biswas said, and the aggression in his voice so startled him that he continued softly, “It’s only that-well, it’s only that I have no money to start thinking about getting married.”

Mrs. Tulsi became as stern as he had seen her in the store that morning. “Why did you write this then?” She waved the note.

“Ach! Don’t worry with him,” Seth said. “No money! Ajodha’s family, and no money!”

Mr. Biswas thought it would be useless to explain.

Mrs. Tulsi became calmer. “If your father was worried about money, he wouldn’t have married at all.”

Seth nodded solemnly.

Mr. Biswas was puzzled by her use of the words “your father”. At first he had thought she was speaking to Seth alone, but then he saw that the statement had wider, alarming implications.

Faces of children and women peeped out from the kitchen doorway.

The world was too small, the Tulsi family too large. He felt trapped.

How often, in the years to come, at Hanuman House or in the house at Shorthills or in the house in Port of Spain, living in one room, with some of his children sleeping on the next bed, and Shama, the prankster, the server of black cotton stockings, sleeping downstairs with the other children, how often did Mr. Biswas regret his weakness, his inarticulateness, that evening! How often did he try to make events appear grander, more planned and less absurd than they were!

And the most absurd feature of that evening was to come. When he had left Hanuman House and was cycling back to Pagotes, he actually felt elated! In the large, musty hall with the sooty kitchen at one end, the furniture-choked landing on one side, and the dark, cobwebbed loft on the other, he had been overpowered and frightened by Seth and Mrs. Tulsi and all the Tulsi women and children; they were strange and had appeared too strong; he wanted nothing so much then as to be free of that house. But now the elation he felt was not that of relief. He felt he had been involved in large events. He felt he had achieved status.

His way lay along the County Road and the Eastern Main Road. Both were lined for stretches with houses that were ambitious, incomplete, unpainted, often skeletal, with wooden frames that had grown grey and mildewed while their owners lived in one or two imperfectly enclosed rooms. Through unfinished partitions, patched up with box-boards, tin and canvas, the family clothing could be seen hanging on lengths of string stretched across the inhabited rooms like bunting; no beds were to be seen, only a table and chair perhaps, and many boxes. Twice a day he cycled past these houses, but that evening he saw them as for the first time. From such failure, which until only that morning awaited him, he had by one stroke made himself exempt.

And when that evening Alec asked in his friendly mocking way, “How the girl, man?” Mr. Biswas said happily, “Well, I see the mother.”

Alec was stupefied. “The mother? But what the hell you gone and put yourself in?”

All Mr. Biswas’s dread returned, but he said, “Is all right. I got my eyes open. Good family, you know. Money. Acres and acres of land. No more sign-painting for me.”

Alec didn’t look reassured. “How you manage this so quick?”

“Well, I see this girl, you know. I see this girl and she was looking at me, and I was looking at she. So I give she a little of the old sweet talk and I see that she was liking me too. And, well, to cut a long story short, I ask to see the mother. Rich people, you know. Big house.”

But he was worried, and spent much time that evening wondering whether he should go back to Hanuman House. He began feeling that it was he who had acted, and was unwilling to believe that he had acted foolishly. And, after all, the girl was good-looking. And there would be a handsome dowry. Against this he could set only his fear, and a regret he could explain to no one: he would be losing romance forever, since there could be no romance at Hanuman House.

In the morning everything seemed so ordinary that both his fear and regret became unreal, and he saw no reason why he should behave unusually.

He went back to the Tulsi Store and painted a column.

He was invited to lunch in the hall, off lentils, spinach and a mound of rice on a brass plate. Flies buzzed on fresh food-stains all along the pitchpine table. He disliked the food and disliked eating off brass plates. Mrs. Tulsi, who was not eating herself, sat next to him, stared at his plate, brushed the flies away from it with one hand, and talked.

At one stage she directed his attention to a framed photograph on the wall below the loft. The photograph, blurred at the edges and in many other places, was of a moustached man in turban, jacket and dhoti, with beads around his neck, caste-marks on his forehead and an unfurled umbrella on the crook of his left arm. It was Pundit Tulsi.

“We never had a quarrel,” Mrs. Tulsi said. “Suppose I wanted to go to Port of Spain, and he didn’t. You think we’d quarrel about a thing like that? No. We would sit down and talk it over, and he would say, ‘All right, let us go.’ Or I would say, ‘All right, we won’t go.’ That’s the way we were, you know.”

She had grown almost maudlin, and Mr. Biswas was trying to appear solemn while chewing. He chewed slowly and wondered whether he shouldn’t stop altogether; but whenever he stopped eating Mrs. Tulsi stopped talking.

“This house,” Mrs. Tulsi said, blowing her nose, wiping her eyes with her veil and waving a hand in a fatigued way, “this house-he built it with his own hands. Those walls aren’t concrete, you know. Did you know that?”

Mr. Biswas went on eating.

“They looked like concrete to you, didn’t they?”

“Yes, they looked like concrete.”

“It looks like concrete to everybody. But everybody is wrong. Those walls are really made of clay bricks. Clay bricks,” she repeated, staring at Mr. Biswas’s plate and waiting for him to say something.

“Clay bricks!” he said. “I would never have thought that.”

“Clay bricks. And he made every brick himself. Right here. In Ceylon.”


“That is how we call the yard at the back. You haven’t seen it? Nice piece of ground. Lots of flower trees. He was a great one for flowers, you know. We still have the brick-factory and everything there as well. There’s a lot of people don’t know about this house. Ceylon. You’d better start getting to know these names.” She laughed and Mr. Biswas felt a little stab of fear. “And then,” she went on, “he was going to Port of Spain one day, to make arrangements to take us all back to India. Just for a trip, you know. And this car came and knocked him down, and he died, Died,” she repeated, and waited.

Mr. Biswas swallowed hurriedly and said, “That must have been a blow.”

“It was a blow. Only one daughter married. Two sons to educate. It was a blow. And we had no money, you know.”

This was news to Mr. Biswas. He hid his perturbation by looking down at his brass plate and chewing hard.

“And Seth says, and I agree with him, that with the father dead, one shouldn’t make too much fuss about marrying people off. You know”-she lifted her heavy braceleted arms and made a clumsy dancer’s gesture which amused her a good deal-“drums and dancing and big dowry. We don’t believe in that. We leave that to people who want to show off. You know the sort of people. Dressed up to kill all the time. Yet go and see where they come out from. You know those houses in the County Road. Half built. No furniture. No, we are not like that. Then, all this fuss about getting married was more suitable for oldfashioned people like myself. Not for you. Do you think it matters how people get married?”

“Not really.”

“You remind me a little of him.”

He followed her gaze to other photographs of Pundit Tulsi on the wall. There was one of him flanked by potted palms against the sunset of a photographer’s studio. In another photograph he stood, a small indistinct figure, under the arcade of Hanuman House, beyond the High Street that was empty except for a broken barrel which, because it was nearer the camera, stood out in clear detail. (How did they empty the street, Mr. Biswas wondered. Perhaps it was a Sunday morning, or perhaps they had roped the populace off.) There was another photograph of him behind the balustrade. In every photograph he carried the unfurled umbrella.

“He would have liked you,” Mrs. Tulsi said. “He would have been proud to know that you were going to marry one of his daughters. He wouldn’t have let things like your job or your money worry him. He always said that the only thing that mattered was the blood. I can just look at you and see that you come from good blood. A simple little ceremony at the registrar’s office is all that you need.”

And Mr. Biswas found that he had agreed.

At Hanuman House everything had appeared simple and reasonable. Outside, he was stunned. He had not had time to think about the problems marriage would bring. Now they seemed enormous. What would happen to his mother? Where would he live? He had no money and no job, for sign-writing, while good enough for a boy living with his mother, was hardly a secure profession for a married man. To get a house he would first have to get a job. He needed much time, but the Tulsis were giving him none at all, though they knew his circumstances. He assumed that they had decided to give more than a dowry, that they would help with a job or a house, or both. He would have liked to talk things over with Seth and Mrs. Tulsi; but they had become unapproachable as soon as notice had been given at the registrar’s.

There was no one in Pagotes he could talk to, for pure shame had kept him from telling Tara or Bipti or Alec that he was going to be married. At Hanuman House, in the press of daughters, sons-in-law and children, he began to feel lost, unimportant and even frightened. No one particularly noticed him. Sometimes, during the general feeding, he might be included; but as yet he had no wife to single him out for attention, to do the little services he saw Shama’s sisters doing for their husbands: the ready ladle, the queries, the formal concern. Shama he seldom saw, and when he did, she ostentatiously ignored him.

It never occurred to him that he might withdraw. He felt he had committed himself in every legal and moral way. And, telling Bipti one morning that he would be away for a short time on a job, he took some of his clothes and moved to Hanuman House. It was only half a lie: he could not believe that the events he was taking part in had any solidity, and could change him in any way. The days were too ordinary for that; nothing unusual could befall him. And shortly, he knew, he would return, unchanged, to the back trace. As a guarantee of that return, he left most of his clothes and all of his books in the hut; it was partly, too, to guarantee this return that he lied to Bipti.

After a brief ceremony at the registrar’s, as make-believe as a child’s game, with paper flowers in dissimilar vases on a straw-coloured, official-looking desk, Mr. Biswas and Shama were given part of a long room on the top floor of the wooden house.

And now he became cautious. Now he thought of escape. To leave the way clear for that he thought it important to avoid the final commitment. He didn’t embrace or touch her. He wouldn’t have known, besides, how to begin, with someone who had not spoken a word to him, and whom he still saw with the mocking smile she had given that morning in the store. Not wishing to be tempted, he didn’t look at her, and was relieved when she left the room. He spent the rest of that day imprisoned where he was, listening to the noises of the house.

Neither on that day nor on the following days did anyone speak to him of dowry, house or job; and he realized that there had been no discussions because Mrs. Tulsi and Seth didn’t see that there were any problems to discuss. The organization of the Tulsi house was simple. Mrs. Tulsi had only one servant, a Negro woman who was called Blackie by Seth and Mrs. Tulsi, and Miss Blackie by everyone else. Miss Blackie’s duties were vague. The daughters and their children swept and washed and cooked and served in the store. The husbands, under Seth’s supervision, worked on the Tulsi land, looked after the Tulsi animals, and served in the store. In return they were given food, shelter and a little money; their children were looked after; and they were treated with respect by people outside because they were connected with the Tulsi family. Their names were forgotten; they became Tulsis. 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.

Up to this time Mr. Biswas thought he had been especially favoured by the Tulsis. But when he came to see how the family disposed of its daughters, he wondered that Seth and Mrs. Tulsi had gone to such trouble on two consecutive days to make marriage attractive to him. They had married Shama to him simply because he was of the proper caste, just as they had married the daughter called.C to an illiterate coconut-seller.

Mr. Biswas had no money or position. He was expected to become a Tulsi.

At once he rebelled.

Pretending not to know what was expected of him, he finished the signs for the Tulsi Store and decided that the time had come to escape, with Shama or without her. It looked as though it would have to be without her. They still had not spoken; and, following his policy of caution, he had not attempted to establish any relations with her in the long room. He was convinced that she was a thorough Tulsi. And he was glad of his caution when she took to crying openly in the hall, surrounded by sisters, brothers-in-law, nephews and nieces, saying that Mr. Biswas had been married less than a fortnight but was already doing his best to break her heart and create trouble in the family.

In a tremendous temper Mr. Biswas began packing his brushes and clothes.

“Yes, take up your clothes and go,” Shama said. “You came to this house with nothing but a pair of cheap khaki trousers and a dirty old shirt.”

He left Hanuman House and went back to Pagotes.

He felt unchanged, unmarried. He had simply had a good fright, but had managed things well and escaped.

In Pagotes, however, he found that his marriage was not a secret. Bipti welcomed him with tears of joy. She said she had always known that he wouldn’t let her down. She had never said it, but she had always felt he would marry into a good family. She could now die happily. If she lived she had something to brighten her old age. Mr. Biswas must not reproach himself for his secrecy; he was not to worry about her at all; he had his own life to live.

And despite his protests she put on her best clothes and went to Arwacas the next day. She came back overwhelmed by the graciousness of Mrs. Tulsi, the diffidence of Shama and the splendour of Hanuman House.

She described a house he hardly knew. She spoke of a drawingroom with two tall thronelike mahogany chairs, potted palms and ferns in huge brass vases on marble topped tables, religious paintings, and many pieces of Hindu sculpture. She spoke of a prayer-room above that, which, with its slender columns, was like a temple: a low, cool, white room, empty except for the shrine in the centre.

She had seen only the upper floors of the concrete or rather, clay-brick, building. He didn’t tell her that that part of the house was reserved for visitors, Mrs. Tulsi, Seth and Mrs. Tulsi’s two younger sons. And he thought it better to keep silent about the old wooden house which the family called “the old barracks”.

He spent two days in hiding at the back trace, not caring to face Alec or Bhandat’s boys. On the third day he felt the need of greater comfort than Bipti could give, and that evening he went to Tara’s. He entered by the side gate. From the cowpen came a familiar early evening sound: the unhurried stir and rustle of cows in stalls laid with fresh straw. The back verandah outside Tara’s kitchen was warm with light. He heard the steady drone of someone reading aloud.

He found Ajodha rocking slowly, his head thrown back, frowning, his eyes closed, his eyelids palpitating with anguish while Bhandat’s younger boy read That Body of Yours.

Bhandat’s boy stopped reading when he saw Mr. Biswas. His eyes became bright with amusement and his prognathous smile was a sneer.

Ajodha opened his eyes and gave a shriek of malicious delight. “Married man!” he cried in English. “Married man!”

Mr. Biswas smiled and looked sheepish.

“Tara, Tara,” Ajodha called. “Come and look at your married nephew.”

She came out gravely from the kitchen, embraced Mr. Biswas and wept for so long that he began to feel, with sadness and a deep sense of loss, that he really was married, that in some irrevocable way he had changed. She undid the knot at the end of her veil and took out a twenty-dollar note. He objected for a little, then took it.

“Married man!” Ajodha cried again.

Tara took Mr. Biswas to the kitchen and gave him a meal. And while, in the verandah, Bhandat’s boy continued to read That Body of Yours, with the moths striking continually against the glass chimney of the oil lamp, she and Mr. Biswas talked. She could not keep the unhappiness and disappointment out of her face and voice, and this encouraged him to be bitter about the Tulsis.

“And what sort of dowry did they give you?” she asked.

“Dowry? They are not so oldfashioned. They didn’t give me a penny.”


He bit at a slice of pickled mango and nodded.

“It is a modern custom,” Tara said. “And like most modern customs, very economical.”

“They didn’t even pay me for the signs.”

“You didn’t ask?”

“Yes,” he lied. “But you don’t know those people.” He would have been ashamed to explain the organization of the Tulsi house, and to say that his signs were probably considered contributions to the family endeavour.

“You just leave this to me,” Tara said.

His heart sank. He had wanted her to declare that he was free, that he needn’t go back, that he could forget the Tulsis and Shama.

And he was no happier when she went to Hanuman House and came back with what she said was good news. He was not to live at Hanuman House forever; the Tulsis had decided to set him up as soon as possible in a shop in a village called The Chase.

He was married. Nothing now, except death, could change that.

“They told me that they only wanted to help you out,” Tara said. “They said you didn’t want any dowry or big wedding and they didn’t offer because it was a love match.” Reproach was in her voice.

“Love match!” Ajodha cried. “Rabidat, listen to that.” He punched Bhandat’s younger boy in the belly. “Love match!”

Rabidat gave his contemptuous smile.

Mr. Biswas looked angrily and accusingly at Rabidat. He held Rabidat, more than anyone else, responsible for his marriage and wanted to say it was Rabidat’s taunt which had made him write that note to Shama. Instead, ignoring Ajodha’s chuckles and shrieks, he said, “Love match? What love match? They are lying.”

In a disappointed, tired way Tara said, “They showed me a love letter.” She used the English word; it sounded vicious.

Ajodha shrieked again. “Love letter! Mohun!”

Bhandat’s boy continued to smile.

Their mood seemed to infect Tara. “Mrs. Tulsi told me that she believed you wanted to go on with your sign-writing and that Hanuman House was the best place to work from.” She had begun to smile. “Everything’s all right now, boy. You can go back to your wife.”

The stress she gave to the word “wife” wounded Mr. Biswas.

“You have got yourself into a real gum-pot,” she added, more sympathetically. “And I had such nice plans for you.”

“I wish you had told me,” he said, without irony.

“Go back and get your wife!” Ajodha said.

He paid no attention to Ajodha and asked Tara in English, “You like she?” Hindi was too intimate and tender.

Tara shrugged, to say that it was none of her business; and this hurt Mr. Biswas, for it emphasized his loneliness: Tara’s interest in Shama might have made everything more bearable. He thought he would show an equal unconcern. Lightly, smiling back at Ajodha, he asked Tara, “I suppose they vex with me now over there, eh?”

His tone angered her. “What’s the matter? Are you afraid of them already, like every other man in that place?”

“Afraid? No. You don’t know me.”

But it was some days before he could make up his mind to go back. He didn’t know what his rights were, didn’t believe in the shop at The Chase, and his plans were vague. Only, he doubted that he would return to the back trace, and when he packed, he packed everything, Bipti crying happily all the while. As he cycled past the unfinished, open houses on the County Road, he wondered how many nights he would spend behind the closed facade of Hanuman House.

“What?” Shama said in English. “You come back already? You tired catching crab in Pagotes?”

Despite the adventurousness and danger of his calling, the crab-catcher was considered the lowest of the low.

“I thought I would come and help all-you catch some here,” Mr. Biswas replied, and killed the giggles in the hall.

No other comment was made. He had expected to be met by silence, stares, hostility and perhaps a little fear. He got the stares; the noise continued; the fear was, of course, only a wild hope; and he couldn’t be sure of the hostility. The interest in his return was momentary and superficial. No one referred to his absence or return, not Seth, not Mrs. Tulsi, both of whom continued, as they had done even before he left, hardly to notice him. He heard nothing about the visits of Bipti and Tara. The house was too full, too busy; such events were insignificant because he mattered little to the house. His status there was now fixed. He was troublesome and disloyal, and could not be trusted. He was weak and therefore contemptible.

He had not expected to hear any more about the shop in The Chase. And he didn’t. He began to doubt that it existed. He went on with his sign-writing and spent as much time as he could out of the house. But he was unknown in Arwacas and jobs were scarce. Time hung heavily on his hands until he met an equally underemployed man called Misir, the Arwacas correspondent of the Trinidad Sentinel. They discussed jobs, Hinduism, India and their respective families.

Every afternoon Mr. Biswas had to prepare afresh for his return to Hanuman House, though once he had pushed open the tall gate at the side it was a short journey, across the courtyard, through the hall, up the steps, along the verandah, through the Book Room, to his share of the long room. There he stripped to pants and vest, lay down on his bedding and read, leaning on one elbow. His pants, made by Bipti from floursacks, were unfortunate. Despite many washings they were still bright with letters and even whole words; they went down to his knees and made him look smaller than he was. It was not long before the children got to know about these pants, but Mr. Biswas, refusing to yield to laughter, comments from the hall and Shama’s pleas, continued to parade them.

It was impossible to keep anything secret from the children. As soon as darkness fell beds were made for them in the Book Room and all along the verandah upstairs. As the evening wore on, more and more beds were unrolled and the old upstairs became choked with sleepers; sleepers filled the wooden bridge that connected the old upstairs with the concrete house. Beyond the bridge, called “the new room”, lay the seclusion and space of the drawingroom that had impressed Bipti. But even if that part of the house was not reserved for Seth, Mrs. Tulsi and her two sons, Mr. Biswas would not have cared to go there. It was a forbidding room, with its large brass pots and marble topped tables. There was nothing to sit on apart from the two chairs which Bipti had described as thronelike. And the room was made oppressive by the many statues of Hindu gods, heavy and ugly, which Pundit Tulsi had brought back from his Indian visits. “He must have bought them wholesale from some godshop,” Mr. Biswas told Shama later. Above that was the greater seclusion of the prayer-room, reached from the drawingroom by a staircase as steep as a ship’s companionway (a means of testing the faithful, or it might simply have been that Pundit Tulsi, like most builders in the island, got ideas as he went along). But in the prayer-room there was no furniture at all, the ground was of course sacred, and he found the smell of incense and sandalwood insupportable.

So, besieged by sleepers, he remained in the long room. His share of it was short and narrow: the long room, originally a verandah, had been enclosed and split up into bedrooms. He had Shama bring up his food there and he ate, squatting on his pants-clad haunches, his left hand squashed between his calf and the back of his thigh. At these times Shama was not the Shama he saw downstairs, the thorough Tulsi, the antagonist the family had assigned him. In many subtle ways, but mainly by her silence, she showed that Mr. Biswas, however grotesque, was hers and that she had to make do with what Fate had granted her. But there was as yet little friendliness between them. They spoke in English. She seldom asked about his work and he was cautious about revealing information which might later be used against him, although shame alone might have kept him from telling her what he earned.

And it was at these eating sessions that Mr. Biswas took his revenge on the Tulsis.

“How the little gods getting on today, eh?” he would ask.

He meant her brothers. The elder attended the Roman Catholic college in Port of Spain and came home every week-end; the younger was being coached to enter the college. At Hanuman House they were kept separate from the turbulence of the old upstairs. They worked in the drawing-room and slept in one of the bedrooms off it; these bedrooms were small and badly lighted, but their walls felt thick and their very gloom suggested richness and security. The brothers often did the puja in the prayer-room. Despite their age they were admitted into the councils of Seth and Mrs. Tulsi and their views were quoted with respect by sisters and brothers-in-law. To assist their scholarship, the best of the food was automatically set aside for them and they were given special brain-feeding meals, of fish in particular. When the brothers made public appearances they were always grave, and sometimes stern. Occasionally they served in the store, sitting near the cashbox, with open textbooks before them.

“How the gods, eh?”

Shama wouldn’t reply.

“And how the Big Boss getting on today?” That was Seth.

Shama wouldn’t reply.

“And how the old queen?” That was Mrs. Tulsi. “The old hen? The old cow?”

“Well, nobody didn’t ask you to get married into the family, you know.”

“Family? Family? This blasted fowlrun you calling family?”

And with that Mr. Biswas took his brass jar and went to the Demerara window, where he gargled loudly, indulging at the same time in vile abuse of the family, knowing that the gargling distorted his words. Then he spat the water down venomously to the yard below.

“Careful, man. The kitchen just down there.”

“I know that. I just hoping I spit on some of your family.”

“Well, you should be glad that nobody would bother to spit on yours.”

It was a strain, living in a house full of people and talking to one person alone, and after some weeks Mr. Biswas decided to look around for alliances. Relationships at Hanuman House were complex and as yet he understood only a few, but he had noted that two friendly sisters made two friendly husbands, and two friendly husbands made two friendly sisters. Friendly sisters exchanged stories of their husbands’ disabilities, the names of illnesses and remedies forcing such discussions to be in English.

“He got one backache these days.”

“You must use hartshorn. He did have backache too. He try Dodd’s Kidney Pills and Beecham’s and Carter’s Little Liver Pills and a hundred and one other little pills. But hartshorn did cure him.”

“He don’t like hartshorn. He prefer Sloan’s Liniment and Canadian Healing Oil.”

“And he don’t like Sloan’s Liniment.”

Friendly sisters sealed their friendship by being frank about the other’s children and even by flogging them on occasion. When the flogged child, unaware of the relationship between the mothers, complained, his mother would say, “Serve you right. I am glad your aunt is laying her hand on you. She will keep you straight.” And the mother of the beaten child would wait her turn to do some beating among the other’s children.

Between Shama and C there was a noticeable friendship and Mr. Biswas decided to make overtures to C’s husband, the former coconut-seller, whose name was Govind. He was tall and well-built and handsome, though in a conventional, unremarkable way. Mr. Biswas thought it unseemly that someone so well-made should have been a coconut-seller, and should now do manual work in the fields. And Mr. Biswas was pained to see Govind in the presence of Seth. His handsome face became weak in every way. His eyes became small and bright and restless; he stammered and swallowed and gave nervous little laughs. And afterwards, when, released, he sat down at the long pitchpine table to eat, he changed again. Talking loudly and breathlessly, snorting and sighing, he assaulted his food, as though anxious to show enthusiasm even in that activity, anxious to prove that hard work had given him an indiscriminate appetite, and anxious at the same time to proclaim that food didn’t matter to him.

Mr. Biswas thought of Govind as a fellow sufferer, but one who had surrendered to the Tulsis and been degraded. He had forgotten his own reputation as a buffoon and troublemaker, however, and found Govind wary of his approaches. On a few evenings Govind suffered himself to be led outside by Mr. Biswas. Sitting under the arcade, nervously swinging his long legs and smiling, sucking his teeth and exploring them with his jagged, dirt-stained fingernails, Govind didn’t appear at ease. There was little to talk about. Women, of course, could not be discussed, and Govind didn’t wish to discuss India or Hinduism. So Mr. Biswas could talk only of the Tulsis. He asked what it was like to work under Seth. Govind said it was all right. He asked what Govind thought of Mrs. Tulsi. She was all right. Her two sons were all right. Everybody was all right. So Mr. Biswas talked of jobs. Govind showed a little more interest.

“You should give up that sign-painting,” he said one evening, and Mr. Biswas was surprised and even slightly annoyed that Govind, of all people, should offer him advice, and so positively.

“They looking for good drivers on the estate,” Govind said.

“Give up sign-painting? And my independence? No, boy. My motto is: paddle your own canoe.” Mr. Biswas began to quote from the poem in Bell’s Standard Elocutionist.

“What about you? How much they paying you?”

“They paying me enough.”

“So you say. But those people are bloodsuckers, man. Rather than work for them, I would catch crab or sell coconut.”

At the mention of his former profession Govind gave a nervous laugh and swung his legs agitatedly.

“You wouldn’t see the little gods in the field, I bet.”

“Lil gods?”

Mr. Biswas explained. He explained a lot more. Govind, smiling, sucking his teeth and laughing from time to time, didn’t say anything.

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?”

“I sorry.”

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 1 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.

And having made his resolve, he felt he had already won. And, already a winner, he looked upon Chinta and Padma with charity. Chinta was sobbing to herself, dabbing at her eyes with her veil. He said to her, kindly, “Why your husband don’t take a job with the Gazette, eh? He is a born reporter.” This had no effect on the flow of tears from Chinta’s bright eyes. Shama still sat martyred and unmoving, eyes wide, knees apart, skirt draped over knees. “What the hell you playing you thinking, eh?” She didn’t hear. Padma continued to behave with fatigued dignity. He said nothing to her. She resembled Mrs. Tulsi but was fatter and looked older. Her sallow, unhealthy skin was oily, and she continually fanned herself, as though tormented by some inner heat. After her first plea she hadn’t looked at Mr. Biswas or spoken to him. She didn’t cry or look sadder than usual. She had come on too many of these missions for them to thrill her the way they still thrilled Chinta: there was not a man in the house with whom Seth had not quarrelled at some time or other. Padma simply came, made her plea, sat and looked unwell. She never, in the hall or elsewhere, expressed approval of Seth’s actions or disapproval of those of her nieces’ husbands; this won her much respect and made her a good peacemaker.

Sternly and impatiently Mr. Biswas said, “All right. All right. Dry your tears. I not going.”

Chinta gave a short loud sob; it marked the end of her tears.

“But just tell them not to provoke me, that’s all.”

Sighing, Padma rose, heavily and unhealthily; and without another word she and Chinta left the room.

Shama unstiffened. Her eyes narrowed a little, her fingers left her chin. She began to cry, silently, and her body underwent a relaxing, melting process which fascinated Mr. Biswas and infuriated him. Her arms seemed to grow rounder; her shoulders rounded and drooped; her back curved; her eyes softened until they were quite liquid with tears; her wrists rested on her knees as if broken; her hands flapped loose; her long fingers swung lifelessly, as if broken at every joint.

“Talk about bad blood,” Mr. Biswas said. “Talk about bad blood!”

Disappointed in Govind, Mr. Biswas began to find virtues in brothers-in-law he had disregarded. There was Hari, a tall, pale, quiet man who spent much time at the long table, working through mounds of rice in a slow, unenthusiastic but efficient way, watched over by his pregnant wife. He spent even more time in the latrine, and this made him feared. “They should ring a bell when Hari decide to go to the latrine,” Mr. Biswas told Shama, “just as how they ring a bell to tell people they cutting off the water.” It was generally accepted at Hanuman House that Hari was a sick man; his wife told with sorrow and pride of the terrifying diagnoses of various doctors. No man looked less suitable for work on the estate; it was hard to imagine that thin, gentle voice ordering labourers about, reproving the idle and shouting down the argumentative. He was in fact a pundit, by training and inclination, and never looked so happy as when he changed from estate clothes into a dhoti and sat in the verandah upstairs reading from some huge, ungainly Hindi book that rested on a stylishly carved Kashmiri bookrest. He did the puja when the gods were away and he still conducted occasional ceremonies for close friends. He offended no one and amused no one. He was obsessed with his illnesses, his food and his religious books.

Between his estate duties, his reading in the verandah and his visits to the latrine, Hari had little free time, and was open to approach only at the long table. But then conversation was not easy. Hari believed in chewing every mouthful forty times, and was a noisy and preoccupied eater.

Sitting next to Hari one evening, receiving a brief ruminant glance from him and a concerned stare from his wife, Mr. Biswas waited until Hari had champed and ground and squelched through a mouthful. Then he hurriedly asked, “What do you feel about the Aryans?”

He was speaking of the protestant Hindu missionaries who had come from India and were preaching that caste was unimportant, that Hinduism should accept converts, that idols should be abolished, that women should be educated, preaching against all the doctrines the orthodox Tulsis held dear.

“What do you feel about the Aryans?” Mr. Biswas asked.

“The Aryans?” Hari said, and started on another mouthful. His tone declared that it was a frivolous question raised by a mischievous person.

A look of anguish came over the face of Hari’s wife.

“Yes,” Mr. Biswas said, despairingly filling in the pause. “The Aryans.”

“I don’t think much about them.” Hari bit at a pepper, baring sharp little white teeth, like a rat’s, and surprising in such a tall and sluggish man. “I hear,” he went on, the merest hint of amusement and reproof in his voice, “that you have been doing a lot of thinking about them.”

Mr. Biswas was almost an Aryan convert.

It was Misir, the idle journalist, who had encouraged him to go to hear Pankaj Rai. “He is not one of those illiterate Trinidad pundits, you know,” Misir said. “Pankaj is a BA and a LLB into the bargain. The man is a real orator. A purist, man.” Mr. Biswas had not asked what a purist was, but the word, pronounced with reverence by Misir, appealed strongly to him, suggesting not only purity and fastidiousness, but also elegance and breeding.

He had an additional inducement: the meeting was to be held at the home of the Naths. The Naths owned land and a soap factory, and were the Tulsis’ most important rivals in Arwacas. Between Naths and Tulsis of all ages there was an enmity as established and unexamined as the enmity between Hindu and Muslim. The enmity had grown more acrimonious since the Naths had built a new house in the modern Port of Spain style.

Purist, Mr. Biswas thought, when he saw Pankaj Rai. The man is a purist. He was elegant in a long, black, close-fitting Indian coat; and when he shook Mr. Biswas by the hand Mr. Biswas surrendered to his graciousness, at the same time noting with satisfaction that Pankaj Rai was as short as himself and had an equally ugly nose. He also had unusually heavy, drooping eyelids which could make him look comic or sinister, benevolent or supercilious. They dropped a fraction of an inch and converted a smile into a faint but devastating sneer. This was particularly effective when he began to ridicule the practices of orthodox Hinduism. He spoke without flourish, and slowly, as if tasting the phrases beforehand, like a good purist; and it was a revelation to Mr. Biswas that words and phrases which by themselves were commonplace could be welded into sentences of such balance and beauty. He found he agreed with everything Pankaj Rai said: after thousands of years of religion idols were an insult to the human intelligence and to God; birth was unimportant; a man’s caste should be determined only by his actions.

After he had spoken Pankaj Rai distributed copies of his book, Reform the Only Way, and Mr. Biswas asked for his to be autographed. Pankaj Rai did more. He wrote Mr. Biswas’s name as well, describing him as a “dear friend”. Below this inscription Mr. Biswas wrote: “Presented to Mohun Biswas by his dear friend Pankaj Rai, BA LLB.”

He showed book and inscriptions to Shama when he got back to Hanuman House.

“Go ahead,” Shama said.

“Let me hear what you have against him. You people say you are high-caste. But you think Pankaj would call you that? Let me see. I wonder where Pankaj would place the Big Bull. Ha! With the cows. Make him a cowherd. No. That is a good job.” He remembered his own cowherd days. “Better make him a leather-worker, skinning dead animals. Yes, that’s it. The Big Bull is a member of the leather-worker caste. And what about the two gods? Where you think Pankaj would place them?”

“Just where you would place your brothers.”

“Road-sweeper? Little washerboys? Barber? Yes, little barbers. Pankaj would just look at them and feel that he want a trim. And what about your mother?” He paused. “Shama! It just hit me. Pankaj would say that your mother ain’t a Hindu at all! I mean, look at the facts. Marrying off her favourite daughter in a registry office. Sending the two little barbers to a Roman Catholic college. As soon as Pankaj see your mother he would start making the sign of the cross. Roman Catholic, that’s what she is!”

“Why don’t you shut your mouth?” Shama tried to sound amused, but he could tell that she was getting angry.

“Ro-man Cat-o-lic! Roman cat, the bitch. You think she could fool Pankaj? And here you have Pankaj bringing the woman a message of hope, saying that Hindus should take in converts and treat them like their own, saying that it is not necessary to be born a high-caste to be a high-caste. A message of hope, man. And what? Your mother running the man down, when she should be grateful like hell, kissing the man foot. Gratitude, eh?”

“I just hope this Pankaj Rai come to lift you out of this gum-pot you surely going to land yourself in. Go ahead.”


“Why you don’t wrap your little tail up and go to sleep?”

“Shama, we have another problem, girl. You think any good Hindu would get married to a Roman Catholic girl, if he was really a good Hindu? Shama, you know what? It look to me that your whole family is just one big low-caste bunch.”

“You should know. You married into it.”

“Married into it. Ha! You think that make me happy. I look as if I happy?”

“Why you should look as if you happy? It should make you miserable. Is the first time in your life you eating three square meals a day. It giving your stomach too much exercise, I should say.”

“Licking up my stomach, you mean. My biggest item of food and drink in this house is soda powder and water.”

He pressed his foot against the wall and with his big toe drew circles around one of the faded lotus decorations.

He intended to discuss the Aryans less flippantly with Hari. He imagined that Hari, like Pundit Jairam and many other pundits, would welcome disputation. But at the long table Hari remained cold, his wife looked aghast, and Mr. Biswas left him to his food.

When Hari had changed and was sitting in the verandah upstairs, humming from some holy book in his cheerless way, Mr. Biswas, piqued and anxious to provoke some reaction, brought out his copy of Reform the Only Way and showed it, drawing Hari’s attention to the inscriptions. Hari looked briefly at the book and said, “Mm.”

Having failed with Hari, Mr. Biswas decided that it would be prudent to withhold the message of hope from the other brothers-in-law, who were less intelligent and more temperamental.

About a week later Seth met Mr. Biswas in the hall and said, laughing, “How is your dear friend Pankaj Rai?”

“What you asking me for?” Mr. Biswas nearly always spoke English at Hanuman House, even when the other person spoke Hindi; it had become one of his principles. “Why you don’t ask Hari, the stargazer?”

“You know Rai nearly went to jail?”

“Some people would say anything.” But Mr. Biswas was disturbed by this news about the purist.

“These Aryans say all sorts of things about women,” Seth said. “And you know why? They want to lift them up to get on top of them. You know Rai was interfering with Nath’s daughter-in-law? So they asked him to leave. But a lot of other things left the house when he left.”

“But the man is a BA.”

“And LLB. I know. I wouldn’t trust an Aryan with my great-grandmother.”

“Is a trick. The man is a dear friend. A purist. Pankaj wouldn’t do a thing like that. You never hear him talk, that’s why.”

“Nath’s daughter-in-law heard, though. She didn’t like what she heard.”

“Scandal, scandal. Is just a piece of scandal you stick-in-the-mud Sanatanists dig up.”

“If I had my way,” Seth said, “I would cut the balls off all these Aryans. Have they converted you yet?”

“That is my own business.”

“I hear they have made some Creole converts. Brothers for you, Mohun!”

In the verandah Mr. Biswas saw Hari in dhoti, vest and beads, reading.

“Hello, pundit!” Mr. Biswas said.

Hari stared blankly at Mr. Biswas and returned to his book.

Mr. Biswas went past a door with glass panes of many colours into the Book Room. Here, along the length of one wall, was a bookcase choked with the religious literature Hari was working through. Few of the books were bound. Many were simply stacks of large loose brown-edged sheets which looked stained rather than printed. Each sheet carried partial impressions of the sheet above and the sheet below; the ink had turned russet; and each letter lay in a patch of oil.

Mr. Biswas turned and walked back to the verandah. He put his head around a brilliant blue pane and whispered loudly down the verandah to Hari, “Hello, Mr. God.”

Hari, humming, didn’t hear.

“I got a name for another one of your brother-in-laws,” he told Shama that evening, lying on his blanket, his right foot on his left knee, peeling off a broken nail from his big toe. “The constipated holy man.”

“Hari?” she said, and pulled herself up, realizing that she had begun to take part in the game.

He slapped his yellow, flabby calf and pushed his finger into the flesh. The calf yielded like sponge.

She pulled his hand away. “Don’t do that. I can’t bear to see you do that. You should be ashamed, a young man like you, being so soft.”

“That is all the bad food I eating in this place.” He was still holding her hand. “Well, as a matter of fact, I have quite a few names for him. The holy ghost. You like that?”


“And what about the two gods? It ever strike you that they look like two monkeys? So, you have one concrete monkey-god outside the house and two living ones inside. They could just call this place the monkey house and finish. Eh, monkey, bull, cow, hen. The place is like a blasted zoo, man.”

“And what about you? The barking puppy dog?”

“Man’s best friend.” He flung up his legs and his thin slack calves shook. With a push of his finger he kept the calves swinging.

“Stop doing that!”

By now Shama’s head was on his soft arm, and they were lying side by side.

Abandoning the brothers-in-law altogether, Mr. Biswas contented himself with the company of the Aryans at the Naths”. Pankaj Rai was no longer with them and no one was willing to talk about him. His place had been taken by a man who introduced himself as Shivlochan, BA (Professor). He was no purist. He spoke pompous Hindi and little English, and continually allowed himself to be bullied by Misir. Misir was keen on discussions and resolutions, and under his guidance they passed resolutions that education was important, that child marriage should be abolished, that young people should choose their own spouses.

Misir, who had suffered from his parents’ choice, said, “The present system is nothing more than cat-in-bag.”

(Mr. Biswas loved Misir’s phrases. “That is all your family do for you,” he said to Shama that evening. “Marry off the whole pack of you cat-in-bag.”

“Don’t think I don’t know where you picking up all that,” Shama said. “Go ahead.”)

“Look what I got,” Misir said, “from marrying cat-in-bag. What about you, Mohun? You happy about this cat-in-bag business?”

“As a matter of fact,” Mr. Biswas said, “I didn’t get married cat-in-bag. I did see the girl first.”

“You mean they let you see the child first?” Whatever remained of Misir’s orthodox instincts was clearly outraged.

“Well, she was just there, you know, in the shop, selling cloth and socks and ribbon. And I see her and then-”

“All the old confusion, eh?”

“Well, not exactly. Things just happen after that.”

“I didn’t know,” Misir said. “Well, you ask for what you get. Anyway, I think we could say we are against this early cat-in-bag marriage business.”

“We could say that,” Mr. Biswas said.

“Now, how are we going to put our ideas across to the masses?” Misir said, and Mr. Biswas noted that Misir’s manner was growing more and more like Pankaj Rai’s. “I suggest persuasion.”

“Peaceful persuasion,” Shivlochan said.

“Peaceful persuasion. Start like Mohammed. Start small. Start with your own family. Start with your own wife. Then move on. I want everybody here to go home this evening determined to pass the word on to his neighbours. And I promise you, my friends, that in no time Arwacas will become a stronghold of Aryanism.”

“Just a moment,” Mr. Biswas said. “Not so fast. Start with your own family? You don’t know my family. I think we better leave them out.”

“This is a helluva man,” Misir said. “You want to convert three hundred million Hindus and you let one backward little family of country bookies frighten you?”

“I telling you, man. You don’t know my family.”

“All right,” Misir said, a little of his bounce gone. “Now, supposing peaceful persuasion doesn’t work. Just supposing. What do you suggest, my friends? By what means can we bring about the conversion we so earnestly desire?” The last two sentences had occurred in one of Pankaj Rai’s speeches.

“By the sword,” Mr. Biswas said. “The only thing. Conversion by the sword.”

“That’s how I feel too,” Misir said.

“Just a minute, gentlemen,” Shivlochan, BA (Professor), said, rising. “You are rejecting the doctrine of non-violence. Do you realize that?”

“Rejecting it just for a short time,” Misir said impatiently. “Short short time.”

Shivlochan sat down.

“I think, then, that we could pass a resolution to the effect that peaceful persuasion should be followed by militant conversion. All right?”

“I think so,” Mr. Biswas said.

“I think this would make a good little story,” Misir said. “Going to telephone it in to the Sentinel straight away.”

On the country page of the Sentinel the next day there was an item, two inches high, about the proceedings of the Arwacas Aryan Association, the AAA. Mr. Biswas’s name was mentioned, as was his address.

He left an open and marked copy of the paper on the long table in the hall. And when that evening Shama came up as he was reading Reform the Only Way and said that Seth wanted to see him, Mr. Biswas didn’t argue. Whistling in his soundless way, he put on his trousers and ran down to face the family tribunal.

“I see you have got your name in the papers,” Seth said.

Mr. Biswas shrugged.

The gods swung slowly in the hammock, frowning.

“What are you trying to do? Disgrace the family? Here you have these boys trying to get on in the Catholic college. Do you believe this sort of thing is going to help them in any way?”

The gods looked injured.

“Jealous,” Mr. Biswas said. “Everybody just jealous.”

“What have you got for them to be jealous of?” Mrs. Tulsi asked.

The elder god got up, in tears. “I not going to remain sitting down in this hammock and have any-and-everybody in this house insulting me. Is your fault, Ma. Is your son-in-law. You just bring them in here to eat all the food my father money buy and then to insult your sons.”

It was a grave charge, and Mrs. Tulsi held the boy to her and embraced him and wiped away his tears with her veil.

“It’s all right, son,” Seth said. “I am still here to look after you.” He turned to Mr. Biswas. “All right,” he said in English. “You see what you cause. You want to get the family in trouble. You want to see them go to jail. They feeding you, but you want to see me and Mai go to jail. You want to see the two boys, who ain’t got no father, go through life without a education. All that is all right. This house is like a republic already.”

Sisters and brothers-in-law froze into attitudes of sullen penitence. Seth’s gratuitous remark about the republic was a rebuke to them all; it meant that Mr. Biswas’s behaviour was bringing discredit upon the other brothers-in-law.

“So,” Seth went on. “You want to see girl children educated and choosing their own husband, eh? The same sort of thing that your sister do.”

The sisters and their husbands relaxed.

Mr. Biswas said, “My sister better than anybody here, and better off too. And too besides, she living in a house a lot cleaner.”

Seth rested his elbow on the table and smoked sadly, looking down at his bluchers. “The Black Age,” he said softly in Hindi. “The Black Age has come at last. Sister, we have taken in a serpent. It is my fault. You must blame me.”

“I not asking to stay here, you know,” Mr. Biswas said. “I believe in the old ways too. You make me marry your daughter, you promise to do this and do that. So far I ain’t got nothing. The day you give me what you promise me, I gone.”

“So you want girl children learning to read and write and picking up boy-friends? You want to see them wearing short frocks?”

“I ain’t say a thing about short frocks. I talking about what you promise me.”

“Short frocks. And love letters. Love letters! Remember the love letter you write Shama?”

Shama giggled. The sisters and their husbands, more at ease now, giggled. Mrs. Tulsi gave a short explosive laugh. Only the gods remained stern; but Mrs. Tulsi, still embracing the elder god, coaxed a smile from him.

So the encounter was a defeat. But Mr. Biswas, so far from being cast down, was exhilarated. He had no doubt now that in his campaign against the Tulsis-for that was how he thought of it-he was winning.

Unexpected support came through the Aryan Association.

The Association attracted the attention of Mrs. Weir, the wife of the owner of a small sugar-estate. She didn’t pay her labourers well but was respected by them for her interest in religion and the concern she showed for their spiritual welfare. Most of her labourers were Hindus and Mrs. Weir was particularly interested in Hinduism. It was rumoured that her purpose was an eventual wholesale conversion of Hindus, but Misir denied this. He said he had practically converted her. She did indeed come to an Aryan meeting. And she invited some of the Aryans to tea. Mr. Biswas, Misir, Shivlochan and two others went. Misir talked. Mrs. Weir listened and never disagreed. Misir gave books and pamphlets. Mrs. Weir said she looked forward to reading them. Just before they left, Mrs. Weir presented everyone with copies of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the Discourses of Epictetus, and a number of other booklets.

For days afterwards Hanuman House was subjected to the propaganda of a little-known Christian sect. Mrs. Weir’s booklets turned up on the long table, in the Tulsi Store, in the kitchen, in bedrooms. A religious picture was nailed on the inside of the latrine-door. When a booklet was found on the prayer-room shrine, Seth summoned Mr. Biswas and said, “The next thing will be for you to start teaching the children hymns. I can’t understand how anyone could have even tried to turn you into a pundit.”

Mr. Biswas said, “Well, since I been in this house I begin to get the feeling that to be a good Hindu you must be a good Roman Catholic first.”

The elder god, seeing himself attacked, got up from the hammock, already prepared to cry.

“Look at him,” Mr. Biswas said. “Little Jack Horner. If he just put his hand in his shirt he pull up a crucifix.”

The elder god did wear a crucifix. It was regarded in the house as an exotic and desirable charm. The elder god wore many charms and it was thought fitting that someone so valuable should be well protected. On the Sunday before examination week he was bathed by Mrs. Tulsi in water consecrated by Hari; the soles of his feet were soaked in lavender water; he was made to drink a glass of Guinness stout; and he left Hanuman House, a figure of awe, laden with crucifix, sacred thread and beads, a mysterious sachet, a number of curious armlets, consecrated coins, and a lime in each trouser pocket.

“You call yourself Hindus?” Mr. Biswas said.

Shama tried to silence Mr. Biswas.

The younger god got out of the hammock and stamped. “I not going to remain in this hammock and hear my brother insulted, Ma. You don’t care.”

“What?” said Mr. Biswas. “I insult somebody? At the Catholic college they make him close his eyes and open his mouth and say Hail Mary. What about that?”

“Man!” Shama said.

The elder god was crying.

The younger god said, “You don’t care, Ma.”

“Biswas!” Seth said. “You want to feel my hand?”

Shama pulled at Mr. Biswas’s shirt and he struggled as though he were being pulled away from a physical fight which he was winning and wanted to continue. But he had noted Seth’s threat and allowed himself to be pushed slowly up the stairs.

Halfway up they heard Seth calling for his wife. “Padma! Come quickly and look after your sister. She is going to faint.”

Someone raced up the steps. It was Chinta. She ignored Mr. Biswas and said accusingly to Shama, “Mai faint.”

Shama looked hard at Mr. Biswas.

“Faint, eh?” Mr. Biswas said.

Chinta didn’t say any more. She hurried on to the concrete house to prepare Mrs. Tulsi’s bedroom, the Rose Room.

As soon as Shama had seen Mr. Biswas safely to their room she left him, and he heard her running across the Book Room and down the stairs.

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. The elder god had done this duty in the past but had grown too heavy.

The sons-in-law found themselves alone in the wooden house with the children, who knew without being told that they had to be silent. All activity was suspended; the house became dead. One of the sons-in-law was invariably responsible for precipitating Mrs. Tulsi’s faint. He was now hounded by silence and hostility. If he attempted to make friendly talk many glances instantly reproved him for his frivolity. If he moped in a corner or went up to his room he was condemned for his callousness and ingratitude. He was expected to stay in the hall and show all the signs of contrition and unease. He waited for the sounds of footsteps coming from the Rose Room; he accosted a busy, offended sister and, ignoring snubs, made whispered inquiries about Mrs. Tulsi’s condition. Next morning he came down, shy and sheepish. Mrs. Tulsi would be better. She would ignore him. But that evening forgiveness would be in the air. The offender would be spoken to as if nothing had happened, and he would respond with eagerness.

Mr. Biswas didn’t go to the hall. He remained on his blanket in the long room, doodling and thinking out subjects for the articles he had promised to write for the New Aryan, a magazine Misir was planning. He couldn’t concentrate, and soon the paper was covered with repetitions, in various styles, of the letters RES, a combination he had found challenging and beautiful ever since he had done a sign for a restaurant.

The room smelled of hartshorn.

“You happy, eh, now that you make Mai faint?”

It was Shama. Her hands were still oily.

“Which foot you rub?” Mr. Biswas asked. “You should be glad they allow you to touch a foot. You know, it does beat me why all you sisters so anxious to look after the old hen. She did look after you? She just pick you up and marry you off to any old coconut-seller and crab-catcher. And still everybody rushing up to rub foot and squeeze head and hand smelling-salts.”

“You know, nobody hearing you talk would believe that you come to this house with no more things than you could hang up on a one-inch nail.”

It was a familiar attack. He ignored it.

Next morning he went down to the hall and called briskly, “Morning, morning. Morning, everybody.” He got no reply. He said, “Shama, Shama. Food, girl. Food.” She brought him a tall cup of tea. Breakfast was tea and biscuits. The biscuits came in a vast drum, returnable to the biscuit makers: the largest economy size, the method of bulk-purchase used by cafй-owners. While he was diving into the drum, turning away straw, feeling for biscuits-a pleasant task, for the straw and biscuits together had a smell that was good and even better than the meal-while he was doing this, Mrs. Tulsi came into the hall, fatigued and heavy, looking almost as old as Padma. Her veil was low over her forehead and every now and then she pressed a handkerchief soaked in eau-de-Cologne to her nose. Without her teeth she looked decrepit, but there was about her decrepitude a quality of ever-lastingness.

“You feeling better, Mai?” Mr. Biswas asked, stacking some biscuits on a chipped enamel plate. He spoke very cheerfully.

The hall was hushed.

“Yes, son,” Mrs. Tulsi said. “I am feeling better.”

And it was Mr. Biswas’s turn to be astonished.

(“I was wrong about your mother,” he told Shama before he left that morning. “She is not a old hen at all. Nor a old cow.”

“I glad you learning gratitude,” Shama said.

“She is a she-fox. A old she-fox. What they call that? You know what I mean, man. You remember your Macdougall’s Grammar. Abbot, abbess. Stag, roe, Hart, hind. Fox, what?”

“I not going to tell you.”

“I going to find out. In the meantime, remember the name change. She is the old she-fox.”)

He remained on the staircase landing, sinking lower and lower through the torn seat of a cane-bottomed chair in front of the stained, battered, disused and useless piano, sipping his tea, cracking biscuits and dropping the pieces into the tea. He watched the pieces swell out and rescued them with his spoon just when they started to sink. Then swiftly, before the soggy biscuit that drooped over the spoon could fall off, he thrust the spoon into his mouth. All around him children were doing the same.

The younger god came down the stairs. He had been doing the morning puja. With his small dhoti, small vest, beads and miniature caste-marks he looked like a toy holy man. He carried a brass plate on which there was a cube of burning camphor. The camphor had been used to give incense to the images in the prayer-room; now it was to be offered to every member of the family.

The god went first to Mrs. Tulsi. She put her handkerchief in her bosom, touched the camphor flame with her fingertips and carried her fingertips to her forehead. “Rama, Rama,” she said. Then she added, “Take it to your brother Mohun.”

The hall was hushed again. And again Mr. Biswas was astonished.

Sushila, clinging to her sickroom authority of the previous evening, said, “Yes, Owad. Take it to your brother Mohun.”

The god hesitated, frowning. Then he sucked his teeth, stamped up to the landing and offered the aromatic camphor flame to Mr. Biswas. Mr. Biswas rescued more sodden biscuit from the enamel cup. He put his mouth under the spoon, caught the biscuit that broke off, chewed noisily and said, “You could take that away. You know I don’t hold with this idol worship.”

The god, annoyed just the moment before, was stupefied almost into argument and coaxing before the full horror of Mr. Biswas’s rejection came to him. He stood still, the camphor burning, melting on the plate.

The hall was still.

Mrs. Tulsi was silent. Forgetting her frailty and fatigue, she got up and walked slowly up the stairs.

“Man!” Shama cried.

Shama’s shout aroused the god. He walked down to the hall, tears of anger in his eyes, saying, “I didn’t want to go and offer him anything. I didn’t. I know the amount of respect he have for people.”

Sushila said, “Shh. Not while you are carrying the plate.”

“Man!” Shama said. “What you go and do now?”

Mr. Biswas drained his cup, used his spoon to scrape up the mess of biscuit at the bottom, ate that and, getting up, said, “What I do? I ain’t do nothing. I just don’t believe in this idol worship, that is all.”

“M-m-m-m. Mm!” Miss Blackie made a loud purring noise. She was offended. She was a Roman Catholic and went to mass every morning, but she had seen the Hindu rites performed every day for many years and regarded them as inviolate as her own.

“Idols are stepping-stones to the worship of the real thing,” Mr. Biswas said, quoting Pankaj Rai to the hall. “They are necessary only in a spiritually backward society. Look at that little boy down there. You think he know what he was doing this morning?”

The god stamped and said shrilly, “I know a lot more about it than you, you-you Christian!”

Miss Blackie purred again, now deeply offended.

Sushila said to the god, “You must never lose your temper when you are doing puja, Owad. It isn’t nice.”

“It nice for him to insult me and Ma and everybody else the way he doing?”

“Just give him enough rope. He will hang himself.”

In the long room Mr. Biswas gathered his painting equipment and sang over and over:

In the snowy and the blowy,

In the blowy and the snowy.

Words and tune were based, remotely, on Roaming in the Gloaming, which the choir at Lai’s school had once sung to entertain important visitors from the Canadian Mission.

Yet almost as soon as he had left Hanuman House through the side gate, Mr. Biswas’s high spirits vanished, and a depression fell upon him and lasted all day. He worked badly. He had to paint a large sign on a corrugated iron paling. Doing letters on a corrugated surface was bad enough; to paint a cow and a gate, as he had to, was maddening. His cow looked stiff, deformed and sorrowful, and undid the gaiety of the rest of the advertisement.

He was strained and irritable when he went back to Hanuman House. The aggrieved and aggressive stares he received in the hall reminded him of his morning triumph. All his joy at that had turned into disgust at his condition. The campaign against the Tulsis, which he had been conducting with such pleasure, now seemed pointless and degrading. Suppose, Mr. Biswas thought in the long room, suppose that at one word I could just disappear from this room, what would remain to speak of me? A few clothes, a few books. The shouts and thumps in the hall would continue; the puja would be done; in the morning the Tulsi Store would open its doors.

He had lived in many houses. And how easy it was to think of those houses without him! At this moment Pundit Jairam would be at a meeting or he would be eating at home, looking forward to an evening with his books. Soanie stood in the doorway, darkening the room, waiting for the least gesture of command. In Tara’s back verandah Ajodha sat relaxed in his rockingchair, his eyes closed, listening perhaps to That Body of Yours being read by Rabidat, who sat at an awkward angle, trying to hide the smell of drink and tobacco on his breath. Tara was about, harrying the cowman (it was milking-time) or harrying the yard boy or the servant girl, harrying somebody. In none of these places he was being missed because in none of these places had he ever been more than a visitor, an upsetter of routine. Was Bipti thinking of him in the back trace? But she herself was a derelict. And, even more remote, that house of mud and grass in the swamplands: probably pulled down now and ploughed up. Beyond that, a void. There was nothing to speak of him.

He heard footsteps and Shama came into the room with a brass plate loaded with rice, curried potatoes, lentils and coconut chutney.

“How often you want me to tell you that I hate those blasted brass plates?”

She put the plate on the floor.

He walked round it. “Nobody ever teach you hygiene at school? Rice, potatoes. All that damn starch.” He tapped his belly. “You want to blow me up?” At the sight of Shama his depression had turned to anger, but he spoke jocularly.

“I always say,” Shama said, “that you must complain only when you start providing your own food.”

He went to the window, washed his hands, gargled and spat.

Someone shouted from below, “Up there! Look what you doing!”

“I know, I know,” Shama said, running to the window. “I know this was bound to happen one day. You spit on somebody.”

He looked out with interest. “Who it is? The old she-fox, or one of the gods?”

“You spit on Owad.”

They heard him complaining.

Mr. Biswas took another mouthful of water and gargled. Then, with cheeks puffed out, he leaned as far out of the window as he could.

“Don’t think I not seeing you,” the god shouted. “I marking what you doing, Mr. Biswas. But I standing up right here and if you spit on me again I going to tell Ma.”

“Tell, you little son of a bitch,” Mr. Biswas muttered, spitting.


“O God!” the god exclaimed.

“You lucky little monkey,” Mr. Biswas said. He had missed.

“Man!” Shama cried, and dragged him from the window.

He walked slowly around the brass plate.

“Walk,” Shama said. “You walk until you tired. But wait until you provide your own food before you start criticizing the food other people give you.”

“Who give you that message to give me? Your mother?” He pulled his top teeth behind his lower teeth, but his long floursack pants prevented him from looking menacing.

“Nobody didn’t give me any message to give you. It is just something I think of myself.”

“You think of it yourself, eh?”

He had seized the brass plate, spilling rice on the floor, and was rushing to the Demerara window. Going to throw the whole damned thing out, he had decided. But his violence calmed him, and at the window he had another thought: throw the plate out and you could kill somebody. He arrested his hurling gesture, and merely tilted the plate. The food slipped off easily, leaving a few grains of rice sticking to streaks of lentils and oily, bubble-ridden trails of curry.

“O God! Oo-Go-o-od!”

It began as a gentle cry and rose rapidly to a sustained bawling which aroused sympathetic shrieks from babies all over the house. All at once the bawling was cut off, and seconds later-it seemed much later-Mr. Biswas heard a deep, grating, withdrawing snuffle. “I going to tell Ma,” the god cried. “Ma, come and see what your son-in-law do to me. He cover me down with his dirty food.” After a sirenlike intake of breath the bawling continued.

Shama looked martyred.

There was considerable commotion below. Several people were shouting at once, babies screamed, there was much subsidiary bawling and chatter, and the hall resounded with agitated movements.

Heavy footsteps made the stairs shake, rattled the glass panes on doors, drummed across the Book Room, and Govind was in Mr. Biswas’s chamber.

“Is you!” Govind shouted, breathing hard, his handsome face contorted. “Is you who spit on Owad.”

Mr. Biswas was frightened.

He heard more footsteps on the stairs. The bawling drew nearer.

“Spit?” Mr. Biswas said. “I ain’t spit on anybody. I just gargle out of the window and throw away some bad food.”

Shama screamed.

Govind threw himself on Mr. Biswas.

Caught by surprise, stupefied by fear, Mr. Biswas neither shouted nor hit back at Govind, and allowed himself to be pummelled. He was struck hard and often on the jaw, and with every blow Govind said, “Is you.” Vaguely Mr. Biswas was aware of women massing in the room, screaming, sobbing, falling upon Govind and himself. He was acutely aware of the god bawling, right in his ear, it seemed: a dry, deliberate, scraping noise. Abruptly the bawling ceased. “Yes, is he!” the god said. “Is he. He asking for this a long time now.” And at every cuff and kick Govind gave, the god grunted, as though he himself had given the blow. The women were above Mr. Biswas and Govind, their hair and veils falling loose. One veil tickled Mr. Biswas’s nose.

“Stop him!” Chinta cried. “Govind will kill Biswas if you don’t stop him. He is a terrible man, I tell you, when his temper is up.” She burst into a short, sharp wail. “Stop it, stop it. They will send Govind to the gallows if you don’t stop it. Stop it before they make me a widow.”

Punched on his hollow chest, short-jabbed on his soft, rising belly, Mr. Biswas found, to his surprise, that his mind remained quite clear. What the hell is that woman crying for? he thought. She is going to be a widow all right, but what about me? He was trying to encircle Govind with his arms, but was unable to do more than tap him on the back. Govind didn’t appear to notice the taps. Mr. Biswas would have been surprised if he had. He wanted to scratch and pinch Govind, but reflected that it would be unmanly to do so.

“Kill him!” the god shouted. “Kill him, Uncle Govind.”

“Owad, Owad,” Chinta said. “How can you say a thing like that?” She pulled the god to her and pressed his head against her bosom. “You too? Do you want to make me a widow?”

The god allowed himself to be embraced, but twisted his head to see the struggle and kept on shouting, “Kill him, Uncle Govind. Kill him.”

The women were having little effect on Govind. They had succeeded only in lessening the swing of his arms, but his short jabs were powerful. Mr. Biswas felt them all. They no longer caused pain.

“Kill him, Uncle Govind!”

He doesn’t want any encouragement, Mr. Biswas thought.

Neighbours were shouting.

“What happening, Mai? Mai! Mrs. Tulsi! Mr. Seth! What happening?”

Their urgent, frightened voices frightened Mr. Biswas. Suddenly he heard himself bawling, “O God! I dead. I dead. He will kill me.”

His terror silenced the house.

It stilled Govind’s arms. It stilled the god, and gave him a fleeting vision of black policemen, courthouses, gallows, graves, coffins.

The women lifted themselves off Govind and Mr. Biswas. Govind, breathing heavily, lifted himself off Mr. Biswas.

How I hate people who breathe like that, Mr. Biswas thought. And how that Govind smells! It wasn’t a smell of sweat, but of oil, body oil, associated in Mr. Biswas’s mind with the pimples on Govind’s face. How unpleasant it must be, to be married to a man like that!

“Has he killed him?” Chinta asked. She was calmer; her voice held pride and genuine concern. “Talk, brother. Talk. Talk to your sister. Get him to say something, somebody.”

Now that Govind was off his chest Mr. Biswas’s only concern was to make sure that he was properly dressed. He hoped nothing had happened to his pants. He moved a hand down to investigate.

“He is all right,” Sushila said.

Someone bent over him. That smell of oil, Vick’s Vapo-rub, garlic and raw vegetables told him it was Padma. “Are you all right?” she asked, and shook him.

He turned over on his side, his face to the wall.

“He is all right,” Govind said, and added in English, “Is a good thing all you people did come, otherwise I woulda be swinging on the gallows for this man.”

Chinta gave a sob.

Shama had maintained her martyr’s attitude throughout, sitting on the low bench, her skirt draped over her knees, one hand supporting her chin, her staring eyes misting over with tears.

“Spitting on me, eh?” the god said. “Go ahead. Why you don’t spit now? Coming and laughing at our religion. Laughing at me when I do puja. I know the good I doing myself when I do puja, you hear.”

“It’s all right, son,” Govind said. “Nobody can insult you and Mai when I am around.”

“Leave him alone, Govind,” Padma said. “Leave him, Owad.”

The incident was over. The room emptied.

Left alone, Shama and Mr. Biswas remained as they were, Shama staring through the doorway, Mr. Biswas considering the lotuses on the pale green wall.

They heard the hall return to life. The evening meal, delayed, was being laid out with unusual zest. Babies were consoled with songs, clapping, chuckles and baby-talk. Children were scolded with exceptional good humour. Between everyone downstairs there was for the moment a new bond, and Mr. Biswas recognized this bond as himself.

“Go and get me a tin of red salmon,” he said to Shama, without turning from the wall. “And some hops bread.”

Her throat was tickling. She coughed and tried to hide the swallow by sighing.

This wearied him further. He got up, his pants hanging loose, and looked at her. She was still staring through the doorway into the Book Room. His face felt heavy. He put a hand to one cheek and worked his jaw. It moved stiffly.

Tears spilled over from Shama’s big eyes and ran down her cheeks.

“What happen? Somebody beat you too?”

She shook her tears away, without removing her hand from her chin.

“Go and get me a tin of salmon. Canadian. And get some bread and peppersauce.”

“What happen? You have a craving? You making baby?”

He would have liked to hit her. But that would have been ridiculous after what had just happened.

“You making baby?” Shama repeated. She rose, shook down her skirt and straightened it. Loudly, as though trying to catch the attention of the people downstairs, she said, “Go and get it yourself. You not going to start ordering me around, you hear.” She blew her nose, wiped it, and left.

He was alone. He gave a kick at a lotus on the wall. The noise startled him, his toe hurt, and he aimed another kick at his pile of books. He sent them toppling and marvelled at the endurance and uncomplainingness of inanimate objects. The bent corner of the cover of Bell’s Standard Elocutionist was like a wound silently, accusingly borne. He stooped to pick the books up, then decided it would be a sign of self contempt to do so. Better for them to lie like that for Shama to see and even rearrange. He passed a hand over his face. It felt heavy and dead. Squinting downwards, he could see the rise of cheek. His jaw ached. He was beginning to ache all over. It was odd that the blows had made so little impression at the time. Surprise was a good neutralizer. Perhaps it was the same with animals. Jungle life could be bearable, then; it was part of God’s plan. He went over to the cheap mirror hanging at the side of the window. He had never been able to see properly in it. It was an idiotic place to put a mirror, and he was mad enough to pull it down. He didn’t. He stepped to one side and looked over his shoulder at his reflection. He knew his face felt heavy; he had no idea it looked so absurd. But he had to go out, leave the house for the time being, get his salmon, bread and peppersauce-bad for him, but the suffering would come later. He put on his trousers, and the rattle of the belt buckle was such a precise, masculine sound that he silenced it at once. He put on his shirt and opened the second button to reveal his hollow chest. But his shoulders were fairly broad. He wished he could devote himself to developing his body. How could he, though, with all that bad food from that murky kitchen? They had salmon only on Good Friday: the influence, doubtless, of the orthodox Roman Catholic Hindu Mrs. Tulsi. He pulled his hat low over his forehead and thought that in the dark he might just get away with his face.

As he went down the stairs the chatter became a babel. Past the landing, he waited for the silence, the reanimation.

It happened as he feared.

Shama didn’t look at him. Among gay sisters she was the gayest.

Padma said. “You better feed Mohun, Shama.”

Govind didn’t look up. He was smiling, at nothing, it seemed, and was eating in his savage, noisy way, rice and curry spilled all over his hairy hand and trickling down to his wrist. Soon, Mr. Biswas knew, he would clean his hand with a swift, rasping lick.

Mr. Biswas, his back to everyone in the hall, said, “I not eating any of the bad food from this house.”

“Well, nobody not going to beg you, you hear,” Shama said.

He curled the brim of his hat over his eye and went down into the courtyard, lit only by the light from the hall.

The god said, “Anyone see a spy pass through here?”

Mr. Biswas heard the laughter.

Under the eaves of a bicycle shop across the High Street an oyster stall was yellowly, smokily lit by a flambeau with a thick spongy wick. Oysters lay in a shining heap, many-faceted, grey and black and yellow. Two bottles, stopped with twists of brown paper, contained red peppersauce.

Postponing the salmon, Mr. Biswas crossed the road and asked the man, “How the oysters going?”

“Two for a cent.”

“Start opening.”

The man shouted, released into happy activity. From somewhere in the darkness a woman came running up. “Come on,” the man said. “Help open them.” They put a bucket of water on the stall, washed the oysters, opened them with short blunt knives, and washed them again. Mr. Biswas poured peppersauce into the shell, swallowed, held out his hand for another. The peppersauce scalded his lips.

The oyster man was talking drunkenly, in a mixture of Hindi and English. “My son is a helluva man. I feel that something is seriously wrong with him. One day he put a tin can on the fence and come running inside the house. ‘The gun, Pa,’ he said. ‘Quick, give me the gun.’ I give him the gun. He run to the window and shoot. The tin can fall. ‘Pa,’ he say. ‘Look. I shoot work. I shoot ambition. They dead.’ “ The flambeau dramatized the oyster man’s features, filling hollows with shadow, putting a shine on his temples, above his eyebrows, along his nose, along his cheek-bones. Suddenly he flung down his knife and pulled out a stick from below his stall. He waved the stick in front of Mr. Biswas. “Anybody!” he said. “Tell anybody to come!”

The woman didn’t notice. She went on opening oysters, laying them in her scratched, red palms, prising the ugly shells open, cutting the living oysters from their moorings to the pure, just-exposed inside shell.

“Tell anybody,” the man said. “Anybody at all.”

“Stop!” Mr. Biswas said.

The woman took her hand out of the bucket and replaced a dripping oyster on the heap.

The man put away his stick. “Stop?” He looked saddened, and ceased to be frightening. He began to count the empty shells.

The woman disappeared into the darkness.

“Twenty-six,” the man said. “Thirteen cents.”

Mr. Biswas paid. The raw, fresh smell of oysters was now upsetting him. His stomach was full and heavy, but unsatisfied. The peppersauce had blistered his lips. Then the pains began. Nevertheless he went on to Mrs. Seeung’s. The high, cavernous cafй was feebly lit. Flies were asleep everywhere, and Mr. Seeung was half-asleep behind the counter, his porcupinish head bent over a Chinese newspaper.

Mr. Biswas bought a tin of salmon and two loaves of bread. The bread looked and smelled stale. He knew that in his present state bread would only bring on nausea, but it gave him some satisfaction that he was breaking one of the Tulsi taboos by eating shop bread, a habit they considered feckless, negroid and unclean. The salmon repelled him; he thought it tasted of tin; but he felt compelled to eat to the end. And as he ate, his distress increased. Secret eating never did him any good.

Yet what he considered his disgrace was in fact his triumph.

The next morning Seth summoned him and said in English, “I come back late last night from Carapichaima, just looking for my food and my bed and the first thing I hear is that you try to beat up Owad. I don’t think we could stand you here any longer. You want to paddle your own canoe. All right, go ahead and paddle. When you start getting your tail wet, don’t bother to come back to me or Mai, you hear. This was a nice united family before you come. You better go away before you do any more mischief and I have to lay my hand on you.”

So Mr. Biswas moved to The Chase, to the shop. Shama was pregnant when they moved.

4. The Chase

The chase was a long, straggling settlement of mud huts in the heart of the sugarcane area. Few outsiders went to The Chase. The people who lived there worked on the estates and the roads. The world beyond the sugarcane fields was remote and the village was linked to it only by villagers’ carts and bicycles, wholesalers’ vans and lorries, and an occasional private motorbus that ran to no timetable and along no fixed route.

For Mr. Biswas it was like returning to the village where he had spent his early years. Only, now the surrounding darkness and mystery had gone. He knew what lay beyond the sugarcane fields and where the roads went. They went to villages which were just like The Chase; they went to ramshackle towns where, perhaps, some store or cafй was decorated by his signs.

To such towns the villagers made arduous and infrequent excursions to obtain dry goods, to make complaints to the police, to appear in court; for The Chase could support neither a dry goods store nor a police station nor even a school. Its two most important public buildings were the two rumshops. And it abounded in small food-shops, one of which was Mr. Biswas’s.

Mr. Biswas’s shop was a short, narrow room with a rusty galvanized iron roof. The concrete floor, barely higher than the earth, was abraded to a pebbly roughness and encrusted with dirt. The walls leaned and sagged; the concrete plaster had cracked and flaked off in many places, revealing mud, tapia grass and bamboo strips. The walls shook easily, but the tapia grass and bamboo strips had given them an astonishing resilience; so that although for the next six years Mr. Biswas never ceased to feel an anxiety when someone leaned on the o walls or flung sacks of sugar or flour against them, the walls never fell down, never deteriorated beyond the limberness in which he had found them.

At the back of the shop there were two rooms with un-plastered mud walls and a roof of old, rough thatch that extended over an open gallery at one side. The floor of beaten earth had disintegrated and the chickens of the neighbourhood came there to take dust-baths during the heat of the day.

The kitchen was a derelict makeshift structure in the yard. It had crooked tree branches for uprights, assorted bits of corrugated iron for roof, and almost anything for walls: sections of tin, strips of canvas and bamboo, boards from shop boxes. One wall had a space for a window, but the rectangular shape that had been intended had become a rhomboid. The window itself, ill-fitting lengths of unmatched wood held together by two crossbars split by massive nails that had been hammered back flat and grown rusty, the window itself was rectangular and was unable to fill the rhomboid vacancy. Though it was small and stood in the open, the kitchen was always dark. The window by day and the flambeau or fire by night showed that the walls were black and fluffy with soot, as though a new species of spider had been bred there, with the ability to spin webs as black and furry as its legs. Everything smelled of woodsmoke.

But there was space. Space to the back, right up to a boundary that was lost amid a tangle of tall bush, abandoned land called by the villagers and later by Mr. Biswas “the ‘bandon”. There was more abandoned land to one side; once a well-tilled field, it was now a pasture for those cows of the village that could feed on its weeds and nettles and razor-sharp grass, wild, scrambling growths.

The Tulsis had bought this unprofitable property on the advice of Seth. He was a member of a Local Road Board and had received information, later proved to be worthless, that a trunk road was to be driven through the very spot on which Mr. Biswas’s shop stood.

Mr. Biswas moved from Hanuman House with little trouble. He had little to move: his clothes, a few books and magazines, his painting equipment. Shama had much more. She had many clothes; and just before she left, she was given bolts of cloth by Mrs. Tulsi straight from the shelves of the Tulsi Store. It was Shama, too, who thought of buying pots and pans and cups and plates; and though she got them at cost price from the Tulsi Store, Mr. Biswas was disturbed to see that his savings, sign-writing money accumulated during his stay at Hanuman House, had begun to melt even before he had moved.

Their goods barely filled a donkey-cart, and their arrival at The Chase was noted by a waiting crowd with pity and some hostility. The hostility came from rival shopkeepers. And Mr. Biswas, shakily perched on one of Shama’s bundles, with the clang of those cost-price but expensive pans in his ears, was unable to ignore the hostility of Shama herself. She had kept up her martyr’s attitude throughout the journey, silently staring at the road through the piquets of the cart, holding on her lap a box containing a Japanese coffee-set of intricate and fantastic design, part of a consignment the Tulsi Store had not been able to sell after three years, and given by Seth as a belated wedding present. Nor did Mr. Biswas fail to notice that The Chase appeared to be managing quite well without his shop, which had been closed, as he knew, for many months.

“Is the sort of place you could build up,” he said to the carter.

The carter nodded non-committally, looking neither at Mr. Biswas nor at the crowd but straight at his donkey, and aiming a gentle lash at the animal’s eye.

And Shama sighed: the sigh which now told Mr. Biswas that she thought him stupid, boring and shaming.

The cart stopped.

“Whoa!” some boys shouted.

Looking stern, preoccupied and, as he hoped, dangerous, Mr. Biswas became very busy, helping the carter to unload. They carried bundles and boxes through the back rooms smelling of dust to the dark shop, warm in the late afternoon with the smell of coarse brown sugar and stale coconut oil. The white lines of light between the boards of the front door came from a bright, open world; movements inside the shop sounded furtive.

Their possessions, spread out on the counter, didn’t take up much space.

“Only the first load,” Mr. Biswas said to the carter. “Have a pile of other stuff to come.”

The carter said nothing.

“Oh.” Mr. Biswas remembered the carter had to be paid. More money.

The man took the dirty blue dollar-note and left.

“Is the last time he carry anything for me,” Mr. Biswas said. “I could tell him that.”

There was silence in the closed, stuffy shop.

“Is the sort of place you could build up,” Mr. Biswas said.

His eyes became accustomed to the darkness and he looked about him. On a top shelf he saw some tins, apparently abandoned by the previous shopkeeper. About this person Mr. Biswas now began to speculate. There was ambition and despair in these tins: their faded labels had been nibbled by rats and stained by flies; some tins had no labels at all.

He heard the carter shouting at his donkey as the cart turned in the narrow road; villagers gave advice, boys shouted encouragement, a whip repeatedly cracked, hoofbeats sounded awkward and irregular; then, with a jangle of harness, a cracking of the whip and a shout, the cart was off, cheered by the village boys.

Shama started to cry. But this time she didn’t cry silently, with the tears running down from the expressionless eyes. She sobbed like a child, leaning over the box with the Japanese coffee-set on the counter. “You wanted this. You wanted to paddle your own canoe. In all my life I never was so shamed as today. People standing up and laughing. This is what you want to paddle your own canoe with.” She covered her eyes with one hand and waved at the bundles on the counter with the other.

He wanted to comfort her. But he needed comfort himself. How lonely the shop was! And how frightening! He had never thought it would be like this when he found himself in an establishment of his own. It was late afternoon; Hanuman House would be warm and noisy with activity. Here he was afraid to disturb the silence, afraid to open the door of the shop, to step into the light.

And in the end it was Shama who gave him comfort. For presendy she stopped crying, gave a long, decisive blow to her nose and began sweeping, setting up, putting away. He followed her about, watching, offering help, glad to be told to do something and enjoying it when she reproved him for doing it badly.

In his careless retreat the previous tenant had abandoned two articles of furniture to the Tulsis; these had now passed to Mr. Biswas. In one of the back rooms there was a large, canopy-less cast iron fourposter whose black enamel paint was chipped and lacklustre.

“Smell,” Shama said, holding a bedboard to Mr. Biswas’s nose. It had the piercing acrid smell of bedbugs. She doused the boards with kerosene. It wouldn’t kill the bugs, she said. But it would keep them quiet for the time being.

And for years Mr. Biswas was to know, particularly on a Saturday morning, the smell of kerosene and bedbugs. The boards changed; the mattress changed; but the bugs remained, following the fourposter wherever it went, from The Chase to Green Vale to Port of Spain to the house at Shorthills and, finally, to the house in Sikkim Street, where it nearly filled one of the two bedrooms on the upper floor.

The other piece of furniture that came with the shop was a kitchen table, small, low, and so neatly made that it stood, not in the kitchen in the yard, but in a bedroom. It was on this table, after much dusting and washing and wiping, that Shama placed her clothes and bolts of cloth; the parcel with the Japanese coffee-set she put below it, on the earth floor. Mr. Biswas no longer thought the coffee-set, and Shama’s attitude to it, absurd. Feeling grateful to Shama, he felt tender towards her coffee-set. He was not prepared for such a change in himself; but then he was astonished at the change in Shama. Till the last she had protested at leaving Hanuman House, but now she behaved as though she moved into a derelict house every day. Her actions were assertive, wasteful and unnecessarily noisy. They filled shop and house; they banished silence and loneliness.

And, further miracle, she produced a meal from that kitchen in the yard. He could not look on it as simply food. For the first time a meal had been prepared in a house which was his own. He felt abashed; and was glad that Shama did not treat it as an occasion. Only, feeding him at the table in the bedroom, by the light of a brand-new cost-price oil lamp from the Tulsi Store, she didn’t sigh or stare or look weary and impatient as she had done in the lotus-decorated long room at Hanuman House.

In a few weeks the house became cleaner and habitable. The atmosphere of decay and disuse, while not disappearing, was made to retreat and held in check. Nothing could be done about the walls of the shop; no amount of washing could remove the smell of oil and sugar; the lower shelves and the two planks on the concrete floor behind the counter remained black with grease that had dried, and rough with dust that had stuck. They poured disinfectant everywhere, until they were almost choked by its fumes. But as the days passed, their zeal abated. They remembered the previous tenants less and less; and the grime, increasingly familiar, eventually became their own, and therefore supportable. Only slight improvements were made to the kitchen. “It standing up just by the grace of God,” Mr. Biswas said. “Pull out one board, and the whole thing tumble down.” The earth floor of the bedrooms and gallery was mended, packed a little higher and plastered to a smooth, grey dustlessness. The Japanese coffee-set was taken out of its box and displayed on the table, where it appeared to be in peril; but Shama said it would remain there only until a better place was found.

And that was what Mr. Biswas continued to feel about their venture: that it was temporary and not quite real, and it didn’t matter how it was arranged. He had felt that on the first afternoon; and the feeling lasted until he left The Chase. Real life was to begin for them soon, and elsewhere. The Chase was a pause, a preparation.

In the meantime he became a shopkeeper. Selling had seemed to him such an easy way of making a living he had often wondered why people bothered to do anything else. On market days in Pagotes, for instance, you could buy a bag of flour, open it, sit down before it with a scoop and a set of scales on one side; and, ridiculously, people came and bought your flour and put money in your pocket. It looked such a simple process that Mr. Biswas felt it wouldn’t work if he tried it. But when he had stocked the shop, using the rest of his savings, and opened his doors, he found that people did come to him and buy and hand over real money. After every sale in those early days he felt he had pulled off a deep confidence trick, and had difficulty in hiding his exultation.

He thought of the tins on the top shelf-he had not got around to taking them down-and was as puzzled by his success as he was delighted by it. At the end of the first month he found he had made the vast profit of thirty-seven dollars. He knew nothing about keeping books and it was Shama who had suggested that he should make notes of goods given on credit on squares of brown shop-paper. It was Shama who suggested that these squares should be spiked. It was Shama who made the spike. And it was Shama who kept the accounts, writing in her round, stylish, slow Mission-school hand in a Shorthand Reporter’s Notebook (the words were printed on the cover).

During these weeks the strangeness of their solitude lessened. But they were as yet unused to their new relationship and though they never quarrelled their talk remained impersonal and constrained. The solitude embarrassed Mr. Biswas by the intimacy it imposed, especially during the serving of food. The atmosphere of service and devotion was flattering, but at the same time unsettling. It strained Mr. Biswas and he was even glad when abruptly, it broke.

One evening Shama said, “We must have a house-blessing ceremony, and get Hari to bless the shop and house, and have Mai and Uncle and everybody else here.”

He was taken completely by surprise, and lost his temper. “What the hell you think I look like?” he asked in English. “The Maharajah of Barrackpore? And what the hell for I should get Hari to come and bless this place? This place? Look for yourself.” He pointed to the kitchen and slapped the wall of the shop. “Is bad enough as it is. To feed your family on top of all this is really going too damn far.”

And Shama did something he hadn’t heard for weeks: she sighed, the old weary Shama sigh. And she said nothing.

In the days that followed he learned something new: how a woman nagged. The very word, nag, was known to him only from foreign books and magazines. It had puzzled him. Living in a wife-beating society, he couldn’t understand why women were even allowed to nag or how nagging could have any effect. He saw that there were exceptional women, Mrs. Tulsi and Tara, for example, who could never be beaten. But most of the women he knew were like Sushila, the widowed Tulsi daughter. She talked with pride of the beatings she had received from her short-lived husband. She regarded them as a necessary part of her training and often attributed the decay of Hindu society in Trinidad to the rise of the timorous, weak, non-beating class of husband.

To this class Mr. Biswas belonged. So Shama nagged; and nagged so well that from the first he knew she was nagging. It amazed him that someone so young should show herself so competent in such an alien skill. But there were things which should have warned him. She had never run a house, but at The Chase she had always behaved like an experienced housewife. Then there was her pregnancy. She took that as easily as if she had borne many children; she never spoke about it, ate no special foods, made no special preparations, and generally behaved so normally that at times he forgot she was pregnant.

So Shama nagged. With her gloom and a refusal to speak, first of all; then with a precise, economical and noisy efficiency. She didn’t ignore Mr. Biswas. She made it clear that she noted his presence, and that it filled her with despair. At nights, next to him, but without touching him, she sighed loudly and blew her nose just at those moments when he was dropping off to sleep. She turned heavily and impatiently from side to side.

For the first two days he pretended not to notice.

On the third day he asked, “What happen to you?”

She didn’t reply, sitting next to him at the table, sighing, watching him while he ate.

He asked again.

She said, “Talk about ungrateful!” and was up and out of the room.

He ate with diminished appetite.

That night Shama blew her nose repeatedly, and turned over in bed.

Mr. Biswas prepared to stick it out.

Then Shama was silent.

Mr. Biswas thought he had won.

Then Shama snuffled, very low, as though ashamed that the sound had escaped her.

Mr. Biswas grew very still, and listened to his own breathing. It sounded regular and unnatural. He opened his eyes and looked up at the thatched roof. He could make out the rafters and the loose straws that hung straight down, threatening to fall into his eyes.

Shama groaned and blew her nose loudly, once, twice, three times. Then she got out of the cast iron fourposter and it rattled. Suddenly silent and energetic, she went out of the room. The latrine was right at the back of her yard.

When she came back, minutes later, he acknowledged defeat. “What happen, man?” he asked. “You can’t sleep?”

“I been sleeping sound sound,” she said.

The next morning he said, “All right, send for the old queen and the big boss and Hari and the gods and everybody else and get the shop bless.”

Shama was determined to do things well. Three labourers worked for three days to put up a large tent in the yard. It was a simple affair, with bamboo uprights and a roof of coconut branches; but the bamboos had to be transported from a neighbouring village, and the labourers, after many aggrieved and unintelligible mutterings about the Workmen’s Compensation Act, had to be paid extra for climbing the coconut trees to get branches. Enormous quantities of food were bought; and, to assist in its preparation, sisters began arriving at The Chase three days before the house-blessing ceremony. With their arrival Mr. Biswas’s protests ceased. He consoled himself with the thought that not all of the Tulsis would come.

They all came, except Seth, Miss Blackie and the two gods.

“Owad and Shekhar learning,” Mrs. Tulsi said in English, meaning only that the gods were at school.

She wandered about the yard, opening doors, inspecting, no expression on her face.

Hari, the holy man, who was to be the pundit that day, was just as Mr. Biswas remembered him, just as soft-spoken and lymphatic. His felt hat sat softly on his head. He greeted Mr. Biswas without rancour, without pleasure, without interest. Then he went into the bedroom that was reserved for him and changed into his pundit’s garb, which he had brought in a small cardboard suitcase. When he emerged as a pundit everyone treated him with a new respect.

Children, most of whom Mr. Biswas could associate with no particular parent, swarmed everywhere, the girls in stiff satin dresses and with large rayon bows in long, dank hair, the boys in pantaloons and bright shirts. And there were babies: asleep in mothers’ arms, asleep on blankets and sacks under the tent, asleep in various corners of the shop; babies crying and being energetically walked in the yard; babies crawling, babies bawling, babies simply silent; babies performing every babylike function.

Govind nodded to Mr. Biswas, but didn’t speak, and went and sat in the tent, where he talked and laughed loudly with the brothers-in-law.

Chinta and Padma asked without warmth after Mr. Biswas’s health. Padma asked because it was her duty, as Seth’s representative; Chinta asked because Padma had done so. The two women were together for much of the time, and Mr. Biswas suspected that an equally close relationship existed between Govind and Seth.

It seemed, too, that Sushila, the childless widow, was enjoying one of her periods of authority. She had now joined Mrs. Tulsi and they both wandered about, peering and prodding and holding muted discussions in Hindi.

Mr. Biswas found himself a stranger in his own yard. But was it his own? Mrs. Tulsi and Sushila didn’t appear to think so. The villagers didn’t think so. They had always called the shop the Tulsi Shop, even after he had painted a sign and hung it above the door:

The Bonne Esperance Grocery

M. Biswas Prop

Goods at City Prices

With one bedroom reserved for Hari, the other for Mrs. Tulsi, and with the shop full of babies, Mr. Biswas could retreat nowhere. He stood before the shop, fondling his belly under his shirt and working out the quarrel he would have with Shama afterwards.

A scampering and a series of cries came from the shop.

Then Sushila’s voice was heard, raised in undoubted authority. “Get away from here. Go and play in the open. Can’t you see you are waking up the babies? Why do you big children like the dark so much?”

Every sister was perpetually on the alert for any sign, however slight or veiled, of sexual inclination among the children.

Mr. Biswas knew the disagreeable rumpus that would follow. He had no taste for it, and walked away from the shop to the boundary of the lot. Here, under a hedge, he came upon a group of children playing house.

“You are Mai,” a girl said to another girl. And to a boy, “You are Seth.”

Mr. Biswas withdrew. But the girl-whose litter did she belong to?-saw him and, raising her voice from the whisper with which games of house should be played, said with unmistakable malice, “And who will be Mohun? You, Bhoj. You have three-quarter white pants. And you are a great fighter.”

There was a round of childish laughter which filled Mr. Biswas’s mind with thoughts of murder, though even as he hurried away he felt some desire to see what Bhoj looked like.

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.

Mr. Biswas didn’t want to witness the ceremony. It meant sitting with the brothers-in-law in the tent; and he was sure that the sight of Shama’s submissive and exultant back would eventually infuriate him. Also, it occurred to him that if he kept moving about he might prevent some of the Tulsi army from looting.

It was then that he thought of the shop.

He nearly ran there. It was dark, with the front doors closed, and he had to be careful. The shop smelled of babies, who were asleep everywhere: on the counter, flanked by pillows and boxes to keep them from rolling off; under the counter; on the floor planks behind the counter. Then, slowly in the darkness, a group of squatting children defined itself in one corner. They were silent and intent. With equal silence and intentness Mr. Biswas picked his way past the babies to the counter.

The little group was methodically breaking soda water bottles and extracting the crystal marbles from the necks. The bottles were wrapped in sacking to muffle the noise. There was a deposit of eight cents on every bottle. The sweet jars on the bottom shelf were disarrayed. The Paradise Plums had dwindled substantially. So had the Mintips, a mint sweet with the elasticity and lastingness of rubber. So had the salted prunes. Many tin-lids had not been screwed on properly. Mr. Biswas put out a hand to straighten a lid. It felt sticky. He dropped it. A baby bawled, the children in the corner became alert, and Mr. Biswas shouted, “Get out of here before I lay my hand on some of you.” And at the same time, with the dexterity of the practised shopkeeper, he lifted the flap of the counter and opened the little door, almost in one action, and was on the group in the corner.

He lifted a boy by the collar. The boy bawled, the girls with him bawled, the babies in the shop bawled.

From outside a woman asked, “What’s happening? What’s happening?”

Mr. Biswas dropped the boy he had seized, and the boy ran outside, screaming louder than the babies.

“Uncle Mohun beat me. Ma, Uncle Mohun beat me.”

Another woman, doubtless the mother, said, “But he wouldn’t touch you for nothing.” Her tone indicated that Mr. Biswas wouldn’t dare. “You must have been doing something.”

“I wasn’t doing nothing, Ma,” the boy wailed in English.

“He wasn’t doing nothing, Ma.” This was from one of the girls. Mr. Biswas knew her: a dumpy little thing, with big contemptuous eyes and full, pendulous lips; she was capable of fantastic physical contortions and often performed for visitors at Hanuman House.

“Blasted liar!” Mr. Biswas said. He ran out of the shop, past a woman who was coming, cooing, to a bawling baby. “Wasn’t doing nothing? And who break up all those soda water bottles?”

In the tent Hari droned imperturbably on. Shama remained bowed in her white cocoon. The brothers-in-law sat on their blankets, reverentially still.

Mr. Biswas was lucid enough to hope that he wasn’t antagonizing a father.

Padma went into the shop in her slow way and came out and said judicially. “Some bottles have been broken.”

“And is eight cents a bottle,” Mr. Biswas said. “Wasn’t doing nothing!”

The mother of the boy, suddenly enraged, flew to a hibiscus bush and began breaking off a switch. It was a tough bush and she had to bend the switch back and forth several times. Torn leaves fell on the ground.

The boy’s bawls were now touched with genuine anguish.

The mother broke two switches on the boy, speaking as she beat. “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.” She caught sight of the marks left on the boy’s collar by Mr. Biswas’s fingers, sticky from the tin-lid. “And this will teach you not to let big people make your clothes dirty. This will teach you that they don’t have to wash them. You are a big man. You know right. You know wrong. You are not a child. That is why I am beating you as though you are a big man and can take a big man’s blows.”

The beating had ceased to be a simple punishment and had become a ritual. Sisters came out to witness, rocking crying babies in their arms, and said without urgency, “You will damage the boy, Sumati.” And: “Stop it now, Sumati. You have beaten him enough.”

Sumati continued to beat, and didn’t stop talking.

In the tent Hari intoned. From the set of Shama’s back Mr. Biswas could divine her displeasure.

“House-blessing party!” Mr. Biswas said.

The beating went on.

“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?”

The boy, no longer crying, was at last released. He sought comfort from an aunt, who calmed her baby, calmed the boy, said to the baby, “Come, kiss him. His mother has beaten him really badly today”; then to the boy, “Come, look how you are making him cry.” The whimpering boy kissed the crying baby and slowly the noise subsided.

“Good!” Sumati said, tears in her eyes. “Good! Everyone is satisfied now. And I suppose the soda water bottles have been made whole again. Nobody is losing eight cents a bottle now.”

“I didn’t ask anybody to beat their child, you hear,” Mr. Biswas said.

“Nobody asked,” Sumati said, to no one in particular. “I am just saying that everybody is now satisfied.”

She went to the tent and sat down in the section set aside for women and girls. The boy sat among the men.

The road was now lined with villagers and a few outsiders as well. They had not been attracted by the flogging, though that had encouraged the children of the village to gather a little earlier than might have been expected. They came for the food that would be distributed after the ceremony. Among these expectant uninvited guests Mr. Biswas noticed two of the village shopkeepers.

The cooking was being done, under the superintendence of Sushila, over an open fire-hole in the yard. Sisters stirred enormous black cauldrons brought for the occasion from Hanuman House. They sweated and complained but they were happy. Though there was no need for it, some had stayed awake all the previous night, peeling potatoes, cleaning rice, cutting vegetables, singing, drinking coffee. They had prepared bin after bin of rice, bucket upon bucket of lentils and vegetables, vats of tea and coffee, volumes of chapattis.

Mr. Biswas had given up trying to work out the cost. “Just going to leave me a damn pauper,” he said. He walked along the hibiscus hedge, plucked leaves, chewed them and spat them out.

“You have a nice little property here, Mohun.”

It was Mrs. Tulsi, looking tired after her rest on the cast iron fourposter. She had used the English word “property”; it had an acquisitive, self-satisfied flavour; he would have preferred it if she had said “shop” or “place”.

“Nice?” he said, not sure whether she was being satirical or not.

“Very nice little property.”

“Walls falling down in the shop.”

“They wouldn’t fall.”

“Roof leaking in the bedroom.”

“It doesn’t rain all the time.”

“And I don’t sleep all the time either. Want a new kitchen.”

“The kitchen looks all right to me.”

“And who does eat all the time, eh? We could do with a extra room.”

“What’s the matter? You want a Hanuman House right away?”

“I don’t want a Hanuman House at all.”

“Look,” Mrs. Tulsi said. They were in the gallery now. “You don’t want an extra room at all. You could just hang some sugarsacks on these posts during the night, and you have your extra room.”

He looked at her. She was in earnest.

“Take them away in the morning,” she said, “and you have your gallery again.”

“Sugarsack, eh?”

“Just six or seven. You wouldn’t need any more.”

I would like to bury you in one, Mr. Biswas thought. He said, “You going to send me some of these sugarsacks?”

“You’re a shopkeeper,” she said. “You have more than me.”

“Don’t worry. I was just joking. Just send me a coal barrel. You could get a whole family in a coal barrel. You didn’t know that?”

She was too surprised to speak.

“I don’t know why they still building houses,” Mr. Biswas said. “Nobody don’t want a house these days. They just want a coal barrel. One coal barrel for one person. Whenever a baby born just get another coal barrel. You wouldn’t see any houses anywhere then. Just a yard with five or six coal barrels standing up in two or three rows.”

Mrs. Tulsi patted her lips with her veil, turned away and stepped into the yard. Faintly she called, “Sushila.”

“And you could get Hari to bless the barrels right in Hanuman House,” Mr. Biswas said. “No need to bring him all the way to The Chase.”

Sushila came and, giving Mr. Biswas a hard stare, offered her arm to Mrs. Tulsi. “What has happened, Mai?”

In the shop a baby woke and screamed and drowned Mrs. Tulsi’s words.

Sushila led Mrs. Tulsi to the tent.

Mr. Biswas went to the bedroom. The window was closed and the room was dark, but enough light came in to make everything distinct: his clothes on the wall, the bed rumpled from Mrs. Tulsi’s rest. Violating his fastidiousness, he lay down on the bed. The musty smell of old thatch was mingled with the smell of Mrs. Tulsi’s medicaments: bay rum, soft candles, Canadian Healing Oil, ammonia. He didn’t feel a small man, but the clothes which hung so despairingly from the nail on the mud wall were definitely the clothes of a small man, comic, make-believe clothes.

He wondered what Samuel Smiles would have thought of him.

But perhaps he could change. Leave. Leave Shama, forget the Tulsis, forget everybody. But go where? And do what? What could he do? Apart from becoming a bus-conductor, working as a labourer on the sugar-estates or on the roads, owning a shop. Would Samuel Smiles have seen more than that?

He was in a state between waking and sleeping when there was a rattling on the door: no ordinary rattling: this was rattling with a purpose: he recognized Shama’s hand. He shut his eyes and pretended to be asleep. He heard the hook lift and fall. She came into the room and even on the earth floor her footsteps were heavy, meant to be noticed. He felt her standing at the side of the fourposter, looking down at him. He stiffened; his breathing changed.

“Well, you make me really proud of you today,” Shama said.

And, really, it wasn’t what he was expecting at all. He had grown so used to her devotion at The Chase that he expected her to take his side, if only in private. All the softness went out of him.

Shama sighed.

He got up. “The house done bless?”

She flung back her long hair, still damp and straight, and he could see the sandalwood marks on her forehead: so strange on a woman. They made her look terrifyingly holy and unfamiliar.

“What you waiting for? Get out and make sure it properly bless.”

She was surprised by his vehemence and, without sighing or speaking, left the room.

He heard her making excuses for him.

“He has a headache.”

He recognized the tone as the one used by friendly sisters to discuss the infirmities of their husbands. It was Shama’s plea to a sister to exchange intimacies, to show support.

He hated Shama for it, yet found himself anxiously waiting for someone to reply, to discuss his illness sympathetically, headache though it was.

But no one even said, “Give him an aspirin.”

Still, he was pleased that Shama had tried.

The house-blessing seriously depleted Mr. Biswas’s resources; and after the ceremony, affairs in the shop began to go less well. One of the shopkeepers Mr. Biswas had fed sold his establishment. Another man moved in; his business prospered. It was the pattern of trade in The Chase.

“Well, one thing sure,” Mr. Biswas said. “The house bless. You think everybody was just waiting for all that free food to stop coming here?”

“You give too much credit,” Shama said. “You must get those people to pay you.”

“You want me to go and beat them?”

And when she took out the Shorthand Reporter’s Notebook, he said, “What you want to bust your brains adding up accounts for? I could tell you straight off. Ought oughts are ought.”

She worked out the expenses of the house-blessing and added up the outstanding credit.

“I don’t want to know,” Mr. Biswas said. “I just don’t want to know. How about getting the house un-bless? You think Hari could manage that?”

She had a theory. “The people feeling shame. They owe too much. It used to happen in the store at home.”

“You know what I think it is? Is my face. I don’t think I have the face of a shopkeeper. I have the sort efface of a man who does give credit but can’t get it.” He got a mirror and studied his face. “That nose, with that ugly lump on top of it. Those Chinese eyes. Look, girl, suppose-I mean, just supposing you see me for the first time. Look at me and try to imagine that.”

She looked.

“All right. Close your eyes. Now open them. First time you see me. You just see me. What you would say I was?”

She couldn’t say.

“That is the whole blasted trouble,” he said. “I don’t look like anything at all. Shopkeeper, lawyer, doctor, labourer, overseer-I don’t look like any of them.”

The Samuel Smiles depression fell on him.

Shama was a puzzle. Within the girl who had served in the Tulsi Store and romped up and down the staircase of Hanuman House, the wit, the prankster, there were other Shamas, fully grown, it seemed, just waiting to be released: the wife, the housekeeper, and now the mother. With Mr. Biswas she continued to be brisk, uncomplaining and almost unaware of her pregnancy. But when she was visited by her sisters, who made it plain that the pregnancy was their business, Tulsi business, and had little to do with Mr. Biswas, a change came over her. She did not cease to be uncomplaining; but she also became someone who not so much suffered as endured. She fanned herself and spat often, which she never did when she was alone; but pregnant women were supposed to behave in this way. It was not that she was trying to impress the sisters and get their sympathy; she was anxious not to disappoint them or let herself down. And when her feet began to swell, Mr. Biswas wanted to say, “Well, you are complete and normal now. Everything is going as it should. You are just like your sisters.” For there was no doubt that this was what Shama expected from life: to be taken through every stage, to fulfil every function, to have her share of the established emotions: joy at a birth or marriage, distress during illness and hardship, grief at a death. Life, to be full, had to be this established pattern of sensation. Grief and joy, both equally awaited, were one. For Shama and her sisters and women like them, ambition, if the word could be used, was a series of negatives: not to be unmarried, not to be childless, not to be an undutiful daughter, sister, wife, mother, widow.

Secretly, with the help of her sisters, the baby clothes were made. A number of Mr. Biswas’s floursacks disappeared; later they turned up as diapers. And the time came for Shama to go to Hanuman House. Sushila and Chinta came to fetch her; the pretence was still maintained that Mr. Biswas didn’t know why.

Then he discovered that Shama had made preparations for him as well. His clothes had been washed and darned; and he was moved, though not surprised, to find on the kitchen shelf little squares of shop-paper on which, in her Mission-school script that always deteriorated after the first two or three lines, Shama had pencilled recipes for the simplest meals, writing with a disregard for grammar and punctuation which he thought touching. How quaint, too, to find phrases he had only heard her speak committed to paper in this handwriting! In her instructions for the boiling of rice, for example, she told him to “throw in just a little pinch of salt”-he could see her bunching her long fingers-and to use “the blue enamel pot without the handle”. How often, crouched before the chulha fire, she had said to him, “Just hand me the blue pot without the handle.”

During the idle hours in the shop he had begun to choose names, mostly male ones: he never thought anything else likely. He wrote them on shop-paper, rolled them on his tongue, and tried them out on customers.

“Krishnadhar Haripratap Gokulnath Damodar Biswas. What do you think of that for a name? K. H. G. D. Biswas. Or what about Krishnadhar Gokul nath Haripratap Damodar Biswas. K. G. H. D.”

“You are not leaving much room for the pundit to give the child a name.”

“No pundit is giving any name to any child of mine.”

And on the back endpaper of the Collins Clear-Type Shakespeare, a work of fatiguing illegibility, he wrote the names in large letters, as though his succession had already been settled. He would have used Bell’s Standard Elocutionist, still his favourite reading, if it had not suffered so much from the kick he had given it in the long room at Hanuman House; the covers hung loose and the endpapers had been torn, exposing the khaki-coloured boards. He had bought the Collins Clear-Type Shakespeare for the sake of Julius Caesar, parts of which he had declaimed at Lai’s school. Every other play defeated him; the volume remained virtually unread and now, as a repository of the family records, proved to be a mistake. The endpaper blotted atrociously.

And the baby was a girl. But it was born at the correct time; it was born without difficulty; it was healthy; and Shama was absolutely well. He expected no less from her. He closed the shop and cycled to Hanuman House, and found that his daughter had already been named.

“Look at Savi,” Shama said.


They were in Mrs. Tulsi’s room, the Rose Room, where all the sisters spent their confinements.

“It is a nice name,” Shama said.

Nice name; when all the way from The Chase he had been working on names, and had decided on Sarojini Lakshmi Kamala Devi.

“Seth and Hari chose it.”

“You don’t have to tell me.” Jerking his chin towards the baby, he asked in English, “They had it register?”

On the marble topped table next to the bed there was a sheet of paper under a brass plate. She handed that to him.

“Well! I glad she register. You know the government and nobody else did want to believe that I was even born. People had to swear and sign all sort of paper.”

“All of we was register,” Shama said.

“All of all-you would be register.” He looked at the certificate. “Savi? But I don’t see the name here at all. I only see Basso.”

She widened her eyes. “Shh!”

“I not going to let anybody call my child Basso.”


He understood. Basso was the real name of the baby, Savi the calling name. The real name of a person could be used to damage that person, whereas the calling name had no validity and was only a convenience. He was relieved he wouldn’t have to call his daughter Basso. Still, what a name!

“Hari make that one up, eh? The holy ghost.”

“And Seth.”

“Trust the pundit and the big thug.”

“Man, what you doing?”

He was scribbling hard on the birth certificate.

“Look.” At the top of the certificate he had written: Real calling name: Lakshmi. Signed by Mohun Biswas, father. Below that was the date.

They both felt that a government document, which should have remained inviolate, had been challenged.

He enjoyed her alarm, and looked at her closely for the first time since he had come. Her long hair was loose and spread about her pillow. To look at him she had to press her chin into her neck.

“You got a double chin,” he said. She didn’t reply.

Suddenly he jumped up. “What the hell is this?”

“Show me.”

He showed her the certificate. “Look. Occupation of father. Labourer. Labourer! Me! Where your family get all this bad blood, girl?”

“I didn’t see that.”

“Trust Seth. Look. Name of informant: R. N. Seth. Occupation: Estate Manager.”

“I wonder why he do that.”

“Look, the next time you want a informant, eh, just let me know. Calling Lakshmi Basso and Savi. Hello, Lakshmi. Lakshmi, is me, your father, occupation-occupation what, girl? Painter?”

“It make you sound like a house painter.”

“Sign-painter? Shopkeeper? God, not that!” He took the certificate and began scribbling. “Proprietor,” he said, passing the certificate to her.

“But you can’t call yourself a proprietor. The shop belong to Mai.”

“You can’t call me a labourer either.”

“They could bring you up for this.”

“Let them try.”

“You better go now, man.”

The baby was stirring.

“Hello, Lakshmi.”




“Talk about the old thug. The old scorpion, if you ask me. The old Scorpio.”

He left the dark room with its close medicinal smells, its basins and its pile of diapers and came out into the drawing-room where at one end the two tall chairs stood like thrones. He went through the wooden bridge to the verandah of the old upstairs where Hari usually sat reading his unwieldy scriptures. Shyly, he came down the stairs into the hall, anticipating much attention as the father of the newest baby in Hanuman House. No one particularly looked at him. The hall was full of children eating gloomily. Among them he recognized the contortionist and the girl who had been running the house-game at The Chase. He smelled sulphur and saw that the children were not eating food but a yellow powder mixed with what looked like condensed milk.

He asked, “What is that, eh?”

The contortionist grimaced and said, “Sulphur and condensed milk.”

“Food getting expensive, eh?”

“Is for the eggzema,” the house-player said.

She dipped her finger in condensed milk, in sulphur, then put her finger in her mouth. Hurriedly she repeated the action.

Mrs. Tulsi had come out of the black kitchen doorway.

“Sulphur and condensed milk,” Mr. Biswas said.

“To sweeten it,” Mrs. Tulsi said. Again she had forgiven him.

“Sweeten!” the contortionist whispered loudly. “My foot.” Her achievements gave her unusual licence.

“Very good for the eczema.” Mrs. Tulsi sat down next to the contortionist, took up her plate and shook back the sulphur from the rim, over which the contortionist had been steadily spilling sulphur on to the table. “Have you seen your daughter, Mohun?”



“Lakshmi. My daughter. That is the name I choose.”

“Shama looks well.” Mrs. Tulsi brushed the spilled sulphur off the table on to her palm and shook the palm over the condensed milk, which the contortionist had so far kept virgin. “I have put her in the Rose Room. My room.”

Mr. Biswas said nothing.

Mrs. Tulsi patted the bench. “Come and sit here, Mohun.”

He sat beside her.

“The Lord gives,” Mrs. Tulsi said abruptly in English.

Concealing his surprise, Mr. Biswas nodded. He knew Mrs. Tulsi’s philosophizing manner. Slowly, and with the utmost solemnity, she made a number of simple, unconnected statements; the effect was one of puzzling profundity.

“Everything comes, bit by bit,” she said. “We must forgive. As your father used to say”-she pointed to the photographs on the wall-“what is for you is for you. What is not for you is not for you.”

Against his will Mr. Biswas found himself listening gravely and nodding in agreement.

Mrs. Tulsi sniffed and pressed her veil to her nose. “A year ago, who would have thought that you would be sitting here, in this hall, with these children, as my son-in-law and a father? Life is full of these surprises. But they are not really surprising. You are responsible for a life now, Mohun.” She began to cry. She put her hand on Mr. Biswas’s shoulder, not to comfort him, but urging him to comfort her. “I let Shama have my room. The Rose Room. I know that you are worried about the future. Don’t tell me. 1 know.” She patted his shoulder.

He was trapped by her mood. He forgot the children eating sulphur and condensed milk, and shook his head as if to admit that he had thought profoundly and with despair of the future.

Having trapped him in the mood, she removed her hand, blew her nose and dried her eyes. “Whatever happens, you keep on living. Whatever happens. Until the Lord sees fit to take you away.” The last sentence was in English; it took him aback, and broke the spell. “As He did with your dear father. But until that time comes, no matter how they starve you or how they treat you, they can never kill you.”

They, Mr. Biswas thought, who are they?

Then Seth stamped into the hall with his muddy bluchers and the children applied themselves with zeal to the sulphur powder.

“Mohun,” Seth said. “See your daughter? You surprise me, man.”

The contortionist giggled. Mrs. Tulsi smiled.

You traitor, Mr. Biswas thought, you old she-fox traitor.

“Well, you are a big man now, Mohun,” Seth said. “Husband and father. Don’t start behaving like a little boy again. The shop gone bust yet?”

“Give it a little time,” Mr. Biswas said, standing up. “After all, is only about four months since Hari bless it.”

The contortionist laughed; for the first time Mr. Biswas felt charitably towards this girl. Encouraged, he added, “You think we could get him to un-bless it?”

There was more laughter.

Seth shouted for his wife and food.

At the mention of food the children looked up longingly.

“No food for none of all-you today,” Seth said. “This will teach you to play in dirt and give yourself eggzema.”

Mrs. Tulsi was at Mr. Biswas’s side. She was solemn again. “It comes bit by bit.” She was whispering now, for sisters were coming out of the kitchen with brass plates and dishes. “You never thought, I expect, that your own first child would be born in a place like this.”

He shook his head.

“Remember, they can’t kill you.”

That “they” again.

“Oh,” Mr. Biswas said. “So it have three in the family now.”

She was warned by his tone.

“Send me a barrel,” he said loudly. “A small coal barrel.”

He came out through the side gate and wheeled his cycle past the arcade, which was already filling up with the evening crowd of old India-born men who came there to smoke and talk. He cycled to Misir’s rickety little wooden house and called at the lighted window.

Misir pushed his head past the lace curtain and said, “Just the man I want to see. Come in.”

Misir said he had packed his wife and children off to his mother-in-law. Mr. Biswas guessed the reason to be a quarrel or a pregnancy.

“Been working like hell without them, too,” Misir said. “Writing stories.”

“For the Sentinel?”

“Short stories,” Misir said with his old impatience. “Just sit down and listen.”

Misir’s first story was about a man who had been out of work for months and was starving. His five children were starving; his wife was having another baby. It was December and the shops were full of food and toys. On Christmas eve the man got a job. Going home that evening, he was knocked down and killed by a motorcar that didn’t stop.

“Helluva thing,” Mr. Biswas said. “I like the part about the car not stopping.”

Misir smiled, and said fiercely, “But life is like that. Is not a fairy-story. No once-upon-a-time-there-was-a-rajah nonsense. Listen to this one.”

Misir’s second story was about a man who had been out of work for months and was starving. To keep his large family he began selling his possessions, and finally he had nothing left but a two-shilling sweepstake ticket. He didn’t want to sell it, but one of his children fell dangerously ill and needed medicine. He sold the ticket for a shilling and bought medicine. The child died; the ticket he had sold won the sweepstake.

“Helluva thing,” Mr. Biswas said. “What happen?”

“To the man? Why you asking me? Use your imagination.”

“Hell, hell, helluva thing.”

“People should know about these things,” Misir said. “Know about life. You should start writing some stories yourself

“I just don’t have the time, boy. Have a little property in The Chase now.” Mr. Biswas paused, but Misir didn’t react. “Married man, too, you know. Responsibilities.” He paused again. “Daughter.”

“God!” Misir exclaimed in disgust. “God!”

“Just born.”

Misir shook his head, sympathizing. “Cat in bag, cat in bag. That is all we get from this cat-in-bag business.”

Mr. Biswas changed the subject. “What about the Aryans?”

“Why you asking? You don’t really care. Nobody don’t care. Just tell them a few fairy-stories and they happy. They don’t want to face facts. And this Shivlochan is a damn fool. You know they send Pankaj Rai back to India? Sometimes I stop and wonder what happening to him over there. I suppose the poor man in rags, starving in some gutter, can’t get a job or anything. You know, you could make a good story out of Pankaj.”

“Just what I was going to say. The man was a purist.”

“A born purist.”

“Misir, you still working for the Sentinel?”

“Blasted cent a line still. Why?”

“A damn funny thing happen today. You know what I see? A pig with two heads.”


“Right here, Hanuman House. From their estate.”

“But Hindus like the Tulsis wouldn’t keep pigs.”

“You would be surprised. Of course it was dead.”

For all his reforming instincts, Misir was clearly disappointed and upset. “Anything for the money these days. Still, is a story. Going to telephone it in straight away.”

And when he left Misir, Mr. Biswas said, “Occupation labourer. This will show them.”

It would be three weeks before Shama returned to The Chase. He put up a hammock for the baby in the gallery and waited. The shop and the back rooms became increasingly disordered, and felt cold, like an abandoned camp. Yet as soon as Shama came with Lakshmi-“Her name is Savi,” Shama insisted, and Savi it remained-those rooms again became the place where he not only lived, but had status without having to assert his rights or explain his worth.

He immediately began complaining of the very things that pleased him most. Savi cried, and he spoke as though she were one of Shama’s indulgences. Meals were late, and he exhibited an annoyance which concealed the joy he felt that there was someone to cook meals with him in mind. To these outbursts Shama didn’t reply, as she would have done before. She was morose herself, as though she preferred this bond to the bond of sentimentality.

He liked to watch when the baby was bathed. Shama did this expertly; she might have been bathing babies for years. Her left arm and hand supported the baby’s back and wobbly head; her right hand soaped and washed; finally there was the swift, gentle gesture which transferred the baby from basin to towel. He marvelled that someone who had come out of Hanuman House with hands torn by housework could express so much gentleness through those same hands. Afterwards Savi was rubbed with coconut oil and her limbs exercised, to certain cheerful rhymes. The same things had been done to Mr. Biswas and Shama when they were babies; the same rhymes had been said; and possibly the ritual had been evolved a thousand years before.

The anointing was repeated in the evening, when the sun had dropped and the surrounding bush had begun to sing. And it was at this time, some six months later, that Moti came to the shop and rapped hard on the counter.

Moti did not belong to the village. He was a small worried-looking man with grey hair and bad teeth. He was dressed in a dingy clerkish way. His dirty shirt sat neatly on him and the creases on his trousers could just be seen. In his shirt pocket he carried a fountain pen, a stunted pencil and pieces of soiled paper, the equipment and badge of the rural literate.

He asked nervously for a pennyworth of lard.

Mr. Biswas’s Hindu instincts didn’t permit him to stock lard. “But we have butter,” he said, thinking of the tall smelly tin full of red, runny, rancid butter.

Moti shook his head and took off his bicycle clips. “Just give me a cent Paradise Plums.”

Mr. Biswas gave him three in a square of white paper.

Moti didn’t go away. He put a Paradise Plum in his mouth and said, “I am glad you don’t stock lard. I respect you for it.” He paused and, closing his eyes, crushed the Paradise Plum between his jaws. “I am glad to see a man in your position not giving up his religion for the sake of a few cents. Do you know that these days some Hindu shopkeepers are actually selling salt beef with their own hands? Just for the few extra cents.”

Mr. Biswas knew, and regretted the squeamishness which prevented him from doing the same.

“And look at that other thing,” Moti said, talking through the crushed Paradise Plum. “Did you hear about the pig?”

“The Tulsi pig? Doesn’t surprise me at all.”

“Still, the blessing is that not everyone is like that. You, for instance. And Seebaran. Do you know Seebaran?”


“Don’t know Seebaran! L. S. Seebaran? The man who has been handling practically all the work in the Petty Civil.”

“Oh, him,” Mr. Biswas said, still in the dark.

“Very strict Hindu. And one of the best lawyers here too, I can tell you. We should be proud of him. The man who was here before you-what’s his name?-anyway, the man before you had a lot to thank Seebaran for. He would be a pauper today if it hadn’t been for Seebaran.”

Moti put another Paradise Plum in his mouth and absently considered the meagrely filled shelves. Mr. Biswas followed Mod’s gaze, which came to rest on the tins with half-eaten labels, left there by the man Seebaran had assisted.

“So everybody going to Dookhie, eh?” Moti said, more familiar now, and speaking in English. Dookhie was the newest shopkeeper in The Chase. “Is a shame. Is a shame the way some people spend their whole life living on credit. Is a form of robbery. Take Mungroo. You know Mungroo?”

Mr. Biswas knew him well.

“A man like Mungroo should be in jail,” Moti said.

“I think so too.”

“Is not,” Moti said judiciously, closing his eyes and cracking the Paradise Plum, “as if he was a pauper and can’t afford to pay. Mungroo richer than you and me could ever hope to be, you hear.” This was news to Mr. Biswas.

“Man should be in jail,” Moti repeated.

Mr. Biswas was about to say that he hadn’t been fooled by Mungroo when Moti said, “He don’t rob the rude and crude shopkeepers, people like himself. He frighten they give him a good dose of licks. No, he does look for nice people with nice soft heart, and is them he does rob. Mungroo see you, he think you look nice, and next day his wife come round for two cents this and three cents that, and she forget that she ain’t got no money, and if you could wait till next pay day. Well, you wrap up the goods in good strong paper-bag, you send she home happy, and you sit down and wait till next day. Next pay day Mungroo forget. His wife forget. They too busy killing chicken and buying rum to remember you. Two-three days later, eh-eh, wife suddenly remember you. She bawling again. She want more trust. Don’t tell me about Mungroo. I know him too good. Man should be in jail, if anybody had the guts to throw him there.”

The account was telescoped and dramatized, but Mr. Biswas recognized its truth. He felt exposed, and said nothing.

“Just show me your accounts,” Moti said. “Just to see how much Mungroo owe you.”

Mr. Biswas took down the spike from the nail between the shelves where it hung above a faded advertisement for Cydrax, a beverage which had not caught the village’s fancy. The spike was now a tall, feathery, multi-coloured brush, with the papers at the bottom as brittle and curling as dead leaves.

“Pappa!” Moti said, and became graver and graver as he looked through the papers. He could not look very far because to get at the lower papers he would have had to remove those at the top altogether. He turned away from Mr. Biswas and contemplated the blackness outside, staring past the doorway against which the rear wheel of his decrepit bicycle could be seen. Sadly he sucked his Paradise Plum. “Pity you don’t know Seebaran. Seebaran woulda fix you up in two twos. He help out the man before you. Otherwise the man would be a pauper now, man. A pauper. Is a funny thing, but you don’t expect to find people getting fat and rich on credit while the poor shopkeeper, who give the credit, not getting enough to eat, wearing rags, watching his children starve, watching them sick.”

Mr. Biswas, seeing himself as the hero of one of Misir’s stories, could scarcely hide his alarm.

“All right, then, man.” Moti fixed his bicycle clips around his ankles. “I got to go. Thanks for the chat. I hope everything go all right with you.”

“But you know Seebaran,” Mr. Biswas said.

“Know him, yes. But I don’t know whether I could just go and ask him to help out a friend of mine. Busy man, you know. Handling nearly all the work in the Petty Civil.”

“Still, you could tell him?”

“Yes,” Moti said, without conviction. “I could tell him. But Seebaran is a big man. You can’t.go troubling him with just one or two little things.”

Mr. Biswas brushed his hand up and down the papers on the spike. “It have a lot of work here for him,” he said aggressively. “You tell him.”

“All right. I go tell him.” Moti got on his cycle. “But I ain’t promising nothing.”

Savi was asleep when Mr. Biswas went to the back room.

“Going to settle Mungroo and the rest of them,” Mr. Biswas said to Shama. “Putting Seebaran on their tail.”

“Who is Seebaran?”

“Who is Seebaran! You mean you don’t know Seebaran? The man who handling practically all the work in the Petty Civil.”

“I know all that. I hear what the man was saying too.”

“Why the hell you ask me then for?”

“You don’t think you better get advice before you start bringing up people?”

“Advice? Who from? The old thug and the old she-fox? I know they know everything. You don’t have to tell me that. But they know law?”

“Seth bring up a lot of people.”

“And every time he bring somebody up, he lose. You don’t have to tell me that either. Everybody in Arwacas know about Seth and the people he bring up. He don’t know everything.”

“He used to study doctor. Doctor or druggist.”

“Used to study doctor! Horse-doctor, if you ask me. He look like a doctor to you? You ever look at his hands? Fat, thick. Can’t even hold a pencil properly.”

“He cut open that boil Chanrouti had the other day.”

“And yes. That is another thing I want to tell you, eh. In advance. In advance. I don’t want Seth cutting open any boil on any of my children. And I don’t want him prescribing any blasted sulphur and condensed milk for any of them either.”

Mungroo was the leader of the village stick-fighters. He was a tall, wiry, surly man, made ferocious in appearance by a large handlebar moustache, for which the villagers called him Moush, then Moach. As a stickman he was a champion. He had reach and skill, and his responses were miraculous. He converted a parry into a lunge so fluently it seemed to be a single action. He fought every duel as though he had rehearsed its every development. It was Mungroo who had organized the young men of The Chase into a fighting band, ready to defend the honour of the village on the days of the Christian Carnival and the Muslim Hosein. Under his direction and in his yard they practised assiduously in the evenings by the light of flambeaux. The village boys went to watch this evening practice. So, despite Shama’s disapproval, did Mr. Biswas.

As much as the game he liked the making of the sticks. Designs were cut into the bark of the poui, which was then roasted in a bonfire; the burnt bark was peeled off, leaving the design burnt into the white wood. There was no scent as pleasant as that of barely roasted poui: faint, yet so lasting it seemed to come from afar, from some immeasurable depth captive within the wood: as faint as the scent of the pouis Raghu roasted in the village like this, in a yard like this, in a bonfire like this: bringing sensations, not pictures, of an evening meal being cooked over a fire that shone on a mud wall and kept out the night, of cool, new, unused mornings, of rain muffled on a thatched roof and warmth below it: sensations as faint as the scent of the poui itself, but sadly evanescent, refusing to be seized or to be translated into a concrete memory.

Afterwards, the sticks, their heads carved, were soaked in coconut oil in bamboo cylinders, to give them greater strength and resilience. Then Mungroo took the sticks to an old stickman he knew, to have them “mounted” with the spirit of a dead Spaniard. So that the ritual ended in romance, awe and mystery. For the Spaniards, Mr. Biswas knew, had surrendered the island one hundred years before, and their descendants had disappeared; yet they had left a memory of reckless valour, and this memory had passed to people who came from another continent and didn’t know what a Spaniard was, people who, in their huts of mud and grass where time and distance were obliterated, still frightened their children with the name of Alexander, of whose greatness they knew nothing.

By profession Mungroo was a roadmender. He preferred to say that he worked for the government, and he preferred not to work at all. He made it plain that because he defended the honour of the village, the village owed him a living. He exacted contributions for pitch-oil for the flambeaux, for the “mounting” fees, and for the expensive costumes the stick-fighters wore on days of battle. At first Mr. Biswas contributed willingly. Then Mungroo, the better to devote himself to his art, abandoned the road-gang for weeks at a time and lived on credit from Mr. Biswas and other shopkeepers. Mr. Biswas admired Mungroo. He felt it would be disloyal to refuse Mungroo credit, unbecoming to remind him of his debts, and dangerous to do either. Mungroo became steadily more demanding. Mr. Biswas complained to other customers; they told Mungroo. Mungroo didn’t reply, as Mr. Biswas had feared, with violence, but with a dignity which, though it struck Mr. Biswas as hollow, hurt him as deeply as the silences and sighs of Shama. Mungroo refused to speak to Mr. Biswas and spat, casually, whenever he passed the shop. Mungroo’s bills remained unpaid; and Mr. Biswas lost a few more customers.

Earlier than Mr. Biswas had expected, Moti returned and said, “You are a lucky man. Seebaran has decided to help you. I told him you were a friend of mine and a good Hindu, and he’s a very strict Hindu himself, as you know. He is going to help you. Even though he’s busy.” He took out the papers from his shirt pocket, found the one he wanted and slapped it down on the counter. At the top a mauve stamp, slightly askew, said that L. S. Seebaran was a solicitor and conveyancer. Below that there were many dotted lines between printed sentences. “Seebaran going to full up those for you as soon as he get your papers,” Moti said, using English, the language of the law.

Unless this sum, Mr. Biswas read with a thrill, together with One Dollar and Twenty Cents ($1,020), the cost of this letter, is paid within ten days, legal proceedings shall be instituted against you. And there was another dotted line below that, where L. S. Seebaran was to sign himself yours faithfully.

“Powerful, powerful, man,” Mr. Biswas said. “Legal proceedings, eh. I didn’t know it was so easy to bring people up.”

Moti gave a knowing little grunt.

“One dollar and twenty cents, the cost of this letter,” Mr. Biswas said. “You mean I don’t even have to pay that?”

“Not with Seebaran fighting your case for you.”

“One dollar and twenty cents. You mean Seebaran getting that just for fulling up those dotted lines? Education, boy. It have nothing like a profession.”

“You is your own boss, if you is a professional man,” Moti said, his voice touched with a remote sadness.

“But one twenty, man. Five minutes’ writing for one twenty.”

“You forgetting that Seebaran had to spend years and years studying all sort of big and heavy books before they allow him to send out papers like this.”

“You know, the thing to do is to have three sons. Make one a doctor, one a dentist, and one a lawyer.”

“Nice little family. If you have the sons. And if you have the money. They don’t give trust in those places.”

Mr. Biswas brought out Shama’s accounts. Moti asked to see the credit slips again, and his face fell as he looked through them. “A lot of these ain’t signed,” he said.

Mr. Biswas had for long thought it discourteous to ask his creditors to do so. He said, “But they wasn’t signed the last time either.”

Moti gave a nervous laugh. “Don’t worry. I know cases where Seebaran recover people money even without paper or anything. But is a lot of work here, you know. You got to show Seebaran that you serious.”

Mr. Biswas went to the drawer below the shelves. The drawer was large but not heavy, and pulled out in an easy, awkward way; the wood inside was oily but surprisingly white. “A dollar and twenty cents?” he said.

A throat was cleared. Shama’s.

“Maharajin,” Moti said.

There was no reply.

Mr. Biswas didn’t turn. “One twenty?” he repeated, rattling the coins in the drawer.

Moti said unhappily, “You can’t give a man like Seebaran one twenty to fight a case for you.”

“Five,” Mr. Biswas said.

“That would be good,” Moti said, as though he had hoped to get ten.

“Two,” Mr. Biswas said, walking briskly to the counter and laying down a red note.

“Is all right,” Moti said. “Don’t bother to count it.”

“And one is three.” Mr. Biswas put down a blue note. “And one is four. And one is five.”

“Five,” Moti said.

“Tell Seebaran I send that.”

Moti put the notes in his side pocket and Shama’s Shorthand Reporter’s Notebook in his hip pocket. He fixed on his bicycle clips and, looking up, said, “Maharajin,” directing a brief smile over Mr. Biswas’s shoulder. Then, briskly, not looking back, he wheeled his shaky bicycle across the yellow dirt yard, dusty and cracked, with here and there a bleached and flattened Anchor cigarette packet. “Right,” he called from the road, hopping on the saddle and pedalling rapidly away.

“Right, man, Moti!” Mr. Biswas called back.

He remained where he was, palms pressed against the edge of the counter, staring at the road, at the mango tree and the side wall of the hut in the lot obliquely opposite, and the sugarcane fields stretching away with an occasional blob of trees, to the low hills of the Central Range.

“All right!” he said. “Somebody turn you into a statue?”

Shama sighed.

“I suppose I is my own boss.”

“And a professional man,” she said.

“Shoulda give him ten dollars.”

“Is not too late. Why you don’t empty the drawer and run after him?”

And having stimulated his rage and his appetite for argument, she left the doorway and went to the back room, where after much thumping and sighing she began to sing a popular Hindi song:

Slowly, slowly,

Brothers and sisters,

Bear his corpse to the water’s edge.

He didn’t have the Hindu delight in tragedy and the details of death, and he had often asked Shama not to sing this cremation song. Now he had to listen while she sang with sweet lugubriousness to the end. And when, fretted to defeat, he went to the back room, he found Shama, in her best satin bodice and most elaborately worked veil, putting bootees on a fully dressed Savi.

“Hello!” he said.

Shama tied one bootee and slipped on the other.

“Going somewhere?”

She tied the other bootee.

At last she said in Hindi, “You may have lost all shame. But everyone hasn’t. Just remember that.”

He knew that the Tulsi daughters who lived with their husbands often went back after a quarrel to Hanuman House, where they complained and got sympathy and, if they didn’t stay too long, respect. “All right,” he said. “Pack up and go. I suppose they are going to give you some medal at the monkey house.”

After she left, he stood in the shop doorway, fondling his belly and watching his creditors coming back from the fields. The only thing that gave him pleasure was the thought of the surprise these people were going to get in a few days: a flutter of disturbances throughout The Chase for which he, inactive in his shop, would be responsible.

“Biswas!” Mungroo shouted from the road. “Come out, before I come in.”

The day had arrived. Mungroo was holding a sheet of paper in one hand and slapping at it with the other.


A crowd was beginning to gather. Many held papers.

“Paper,” Mungroo said. “He has sent me a paper. I am going to make him eat this piece of paper. Biswas!”

Unhurriedly Mr. Biswas lifted the counter-flap, pulled the little door open and passed to the front of the shop. The law was on his side-he had, indeed, brought it into play-and he felt this gave him complete protection. He leaned against the doorpost, felt the wall quiver, stifled his fear about the wall tumbling down, and crossed his legs.

“Biswas! I am going to make you eat this paper.”

Women screamed from the road.

“Touch me,” Mr. Biswas said.

“Paper,” Mungroo said, stepping into the yard.

Touch me and I bring you up.”

Still Mungroo advanced.

“I bring you up and you spend Carnival in jail.”

The effect was startling. Carnival was less than a month away. Mungroo halted. His followers, seeing themselves leaderless during the two most important days of the stick-fighting year, at once ran to Mungroo and held him back.

“I call all of all-you as witnesses,” Mr. Biswas said, unaware of the reasons for his deliverance. “Let him touch me. And all of all-you have to come to court to be my witnesses.” He believed that by being the first to ask them he had bound them legally. “Can’t ask my wife,” he went on. “They don’t take wife as witness. But I asking all of all-you here.”

“Paper. The man has sent me a paper,” Mungroo muttered, while he allowed himself, without loss of prestige, to be pushed slowly back to the road by his followers.

“Well,” Mr. Biswas said. “One man get his paper. He had it coming to him a long time. Let me tell you, eh. Don’t let Tom, Dick or Harry think he can play with me, you hear. One man get his paper. A lot more going to get their paper before I finish. And don’t come to talk to me. Go and talk to Seebaran.”

When he came to the shop, a week later, Moti was businesslike. As soon as he greeted Mr. Biswas he took out a sheet of paper from his shirt pocket, spread it on the counter and began ticking off names with his fountain pen. “Well, Ratni pay up,” he said. “Dookhni pay. Sohun pay. Godberdhan pay. Rattan pay.”

“We frighten them, eh? So, no legal proceedings against them, then?”

“Jankie ask for time. Pritam too. But they going to pay, especially as they see the others paying up.”

“Good, good,” Mr. Biswas said. “I could do with their money right now.”

Moti folded the sheet of paper.

“So?” Mr. Biswas said.

Moti put the paper in his pocket.

Mr. Biswas pretended he hadn’t been waiting for anything. “And Mungroo?”

“I glad you ask about him. As a matter of fact, he giving us a little trouble.” Moti took out a long envelope from his trouser pocket and handed it to Mr. Biswas. “This is for you.”

It was a communication, on stiff paper, from the Attorney-General.

Mr. Biswas read with disbelief, annoyance and distress.

“Who is this damn Muslim Mahmoud who stamp his dirty name down here? He is a solicitor and conveyancer too, eh? I thought Seebaran was handling all the work in the Petty Civil.”

“No, no,” Moti said soothingly. “This is Assize Court business.”

“Assize. Assize! So this is what Seebaran land me up in!”

“Seebaran ain’t land you up in nothing. You land yourself. Read the schedule.”

“O God! Look, look. Mungroo bringing me up for damaging his credit!”

“And he have a good case too. You shouldn’t go around telling people he owe you money. Over and over I hear Seebaran telling clients, ‘Leave everything to me and keep your mouth shut. Keep your mouth shut. Keep your mouth shut and leave everything to me.’ Over and over. But clients don’t listen. I know clients who talk their way straight to the gallows.”

“Seebaran didn’t tell me a damn thing. I ain’t even see the blasted man yet.”

“He want to see you now.”

“Just let me get this straight. Mungroo owe me money. I say so and I damage his credit. So now he can’t go around taking goods on trust and not paying. So he bring me up. Exactly what the hell this is? And what about those slips?”

“They wasn’t signed. I did warn you about that, remember. But you didn’t listen. Clients don’t listen. Is a serious business, man. It got Seebaran worried like anything. I could tell you.”

“Hear you. It got Seebaran worried. What about me?”

“Seebaran don’t think you would have a chance in court. He say it would be better to settle outside.”

“You mean shell out. All right. Pounds, shillings and pence, dollars and cents. Let me hear who have to get how much. This is the way Seebaran handling all the work in the Petty Civil, eh?”

“Seebaran only want to help you out, you know. You could take your case to some K c or the other and pay him a hundred guineas before he ask you to sit down. Nobody stopping you.”

Mr. Biswas listened. He learned with surprise that there had already been friendly discussions between Mungroo’s lawyer, Mahmoud, and Seebaran; so that the case had been raised and virtually settled without his knowing anything about it at all. It appeared that Mungroo was willing, for one hundred dollars, to call off the action. The fees of both lawyers came to a hundred dollars as well, though Seebaran, appreciating Mr. Biswas’s position, had said he would accept only such money as he could recover from Mr. Biswas’s creditors.

“Suppose,” Mr. Biswas said, “that all the others decide to behave like Mungroo. Suppose that every manjack bring me up.”

“Don’t think about it,” Moti said. “You would make yourself sick.”

As soon as he could, Mr. Biswas cycled to Arwacas to ask Shama to come back. He did not tell her what had happened. And it was not from Mrs. Tulsi or Seth that he borrowed the money, but from Misir, who, in addition to his journalistic, literary and religious activities, had set up as a usurer, with a capital of two hundred dollars.

More than half the time that remained to Mr. Biswas in The Chase was spent in paying off this debt.

In all Mr. Biswas lived for six years at The Chase, years so squashed by their own boredom and futility that at the end they could be comprehended in one glance. But he had aged. The lines which he had encouraged at first, to give him an older look, had come; they were not the decisive lines he had hoped for that would give a commanding air to a frown; they were faint, fussy, disappointing. His cheeks began to fall; his cheek bones, in a proper light, jutted slightly; and he developed a double chin of pure skin which he could pull down so that it hung like the stiff beard on an Egyptian statue. The skin loosened over his arms and legs. His stomach was now perpetually distended; not fat: it was his indigestion, for that affliction had come to stay, and bottles of Maclean’s Brand Stomach Powder became as much part of Shama’s purchases as bags of rice or flour.

Though he never ceased to feel that some nobler purpose awaited him, even in this limiting society, he gave up reading Samuel Smiles. That author depressed him acutely. He turned to religion and philosophy. He read the Hindus; he read the Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus which Mrs. Weir had given him; he earned the gratitude and respect of a stall-keeper at Arwacas by buying an old and stained copy of The Supersensual Life; and he began to dabble in Christianity, acquiring a volume, written mostly in capital letters, called Arise and Walk. As a boy he had liked to read descriptions of bad weather in foreign countries; they made him forget the heat and sudden rain which was all he knew. But now, though his philosophical books gave him solace, he could never lose the feeling that they were irrelevant to his situation. The books had to be put down. The shop awaited; money problems awaited; the road outside was short, and went through flat fields of dull green to small, hot settlements.

And at least once a week he thought of leaving the shop, leaving Shama, leaving the children, and taking that road.

Religion was one thing. Painting was the other. He brought out his brushes and covered the inside of the shop doors and the front of the counter with landscapes. Not of the abandoned field next to the shop, the intricate bush at the back, the huts and trees across the road, or the low blue mountains of the Central Range in the distance. He painted cool, ordered forest scenes, with gracefully curving grass, cultivated trees ringed with friendly serpents, and floors bright with perfect flowers; not the rotting, mosquito-infested jungle he could find within an hour’s walk. He attempted a portrait of Shama. He made her sit on a fat sack of flour-the symbolism pleased him: “Suit your family to a T,” he said-and spent so much time on her clothes and the sack of flour that before he could begin on her face Shama abandoned him and refused to sit any more.

He read innumerable novels, particularly those in the Reader’s Library; and he even tried to write, encouraged by the appearance in a Port of Spain magazine of a puzzling story by Misir. (This was a story of a starving man who was rescued by a benefactor and after some years rose to wealth. One day, driving along the beach, the man heard someone in the sea shouting for help, and recognized his former benefactor in difficulties. He instantly dived into the water, struck his head on a submerged rock and was drowned. The benefactor survived.) But Mr. Biswas could never devise a story, and he lacked Misir’s tragic vision; whatever his mood and however painful his subject, he became irreverent and facetious as soon as he began to write, and all he could manage were distorted and scurrilous descriptions of Moti, Mungroo, Seebaran, Seth and Mrs. Tulsi.

And there were whole weeks when he devoted himself to some absurdity. He grew his nails to an extreme length and held them up to startle customers. He picked and squeezed at his face until his cheeks and forehead were inflamed and the rims of his lips were like welts. When his skin became pitted with little holes, he studied these with interest and found the perfection of their shape pleasing. And once he dabbed healing ointments of various colours on his face and went and stood in the shop doorway, greeting people he knew.

He did these things when Shama was away. And more and more frequently she went to Hanuman House, even when there was no quarrel, and stayed longer.

Three years after Savi was born, Shama gave birth to a son. He was not given the names that had been written on the endpaper of the Collins Clear-Type Shakespeare. Seth suggested that the boy should be called Anand, and Mr. Biswas, who had prepared no new names, agreed. Then it was Anand who travelled with Shama. Savi stayed at Hanuman House. Mrs. Tulsi wanted this; so did Shama; so did Savi herself. She liked Hanuman House for its activity and its multitude of children; at The Chase she was restless and badly behaved.

“Ma,” Savi said to Shama one day, “couldn’t you give me to Aunt Chinta and take Vidiadhar in exchange?”

Vidiadhar was Chinta’s newest baby, born a few months before Anand. And the reason for Savi’s request was this: by virtue of a tradition whose beginnings no one could trace, Chinta was the aunt who distributed all the delicacies that were given to the House by visitors.

Shama told the story as a joke, and couldn’t understand it when Mr. Biswas became annoyed.

Once a week he rode his Royal Enfield bicycle to Hanuman House to see Savi. Often he didn’t have to go inside; Savi was waiting for him in the arcade. At every visit he gave her a silver six-cents piece and asked anxious questions.

“Who beat you?”

Savi shook her head.

“Who shouted at you?”

“They shout at everybody.”

She didn’t seem to need a protector.

One Saturday he found her wearing heavy boots with long iron bands down the side of her legs and straps over her knees.

“Who put these on you?”

“Granny.” She was not aggrieved. She was proud of the boots, the iron, the straps. “They are heavy, heavy.”

“Why did she put them on? To punish you?”

“Only to straighten my legs.”

She had bow-legs. He didn’t believe anything could be done about them and had never tried to find out.

“They are ugly.” That was all he could say. “They make you look like a cripple.”

She frowned at the word. “Well, I like it.” Then, taking the six cents, “At least, I don’t mind.” She threw out her hands, then put them on her hips and looked away, just like one of the aunts.

The numbers of the Tulsis swelled continually. Fresh children were born to the resident daughters. A son-in-law who lived away died, and his brood came to Hanuman House, where they were distinguished and made glamorous by their mourning clothes of black, white and mauve. This Christian custom did not please everyone. And almost at once Shama had tales to take back to The Chase about the low manners and language of the new arrivals. There were even whispers of theft and obscene practises, and Shama reported the general approval when the widow, anxious to appease, took to inflicting spectacular punishments on her bereaved children.

All this made Mr. Biswas uneasy, and he was mortified to find that Savi now talked of nothing but the mourners, their misdeeds and their punishments.

“Sometimes,” Savi said, “their mother simply hands over to Granny.”

“Look, Savi. If Granny or anybody else touches you, you just let me know. Don’t let them frighten you. I will take you home right away. You just let me know.”

“And Granny tied Vimla to the bed in the Rose Room and blindfolded her and pinched her all over.”


“It serves Vimla right. The language that girl has picked up.”

Mr. Biswas wanted to know whether Savi had been blindfolded and pinched herself; but he was afraid to ask.

“Oh, I like Granny,” Savi said. “I think she is very funny. And she likes me.”


“She calls me the little paddler.”

He made no comment.

Another day Savi said, “Granny is making me eat fish. I hate it.”

“Well, you just don’t eat it. Throw it away. Don’t let them feed you any of their bad food.”

“But I can’t refuse. Granny takes out all the bones and feeds me herself.”

When he got back to The Chase he told Shama, “Look, I want you to get your mother to stop trying to feed my daughter all sort of bad food, you hear.”

She knew about it. “Fish? But the brains good for the brain, you know.”

“It look to me that your family just eat too much damn fish brains, you hear. And I want them to stop calling the girl the little paddler. I don’t want anybody to give names to my child.”

“And what about the names you give?”

“I just want them to stop it, that is all.”

Never ceasing to believe that their stay at The Chase was only temporary, he had made no improvements. The kitchen remained askew and rickety; he did not wall off part of the gallery to make a new room; and he had not thought it worth while to plant trees that would bear flowers or fruit in two or three years.

It was strange, then, for him to find one day that house and shop bore so many marks of his habitation. No one might have lived there before him, and it was hard to imagine anyone after him moving about these rooms and getting to know them as he had done. The hammock rope had worn polished indentations in the rafters from which it hung. The rope itself had grown darker; where his hands and Shama’s had held it there were glints like those on the bumps on the lower half of the mud walls. The thatch was sootier and more bearded; the back rooms smelled of his cigarettes and his paint; window-sills and the gallery uprights had been made clean by constant leaning. The shop was gloomier, dingier, smellier, but entirely supportable. The table that had come with the shop had been so transformed that he felt it had always been his. He had tried to varnish it, but the wood, a local cedar, was absorbent and never sated, drinking in coat after coat of stain and varnish until, in exasperation, he painted it one of his forest greens, and had to be dissuaded by Shama from doing a landscape on it.

And it was strange, too, to find that these disregarded years had been years of acquisition. They could not move from The Chase on a donkey-cart. They had acquired a kitchen safe of white wood and netting. This too had been awkward to varnish and had been painted. One leg was shorter than the others and had to be propped up; now they knew without thinking that they must never lean on the safe or handle it with violence. They had acquired a hatrack, not because they possessed hats, but because it was a piece of furniture all but the very poor had. As a result, Mr. Biswas acquired a hat. And they had acquired, at Shama’s insistence, a dressingtable, the work of a craftsman, french-polished, with a large, clear mirror. To protect it, they had placed it on lengths of wood in a dark corner of their bedroom, so that the mirror was almost useless. The first scratches had been treated as disasters. It had since suffered many more scratches and one major excision, and Shama polished it less often; but it still looked new and surprisingly rich in that low thatched room. Shama, never afraid of debt, had wanted a wardrobe as well, but Mr. Biswas said that wardrobes reminded him of coffins, and their clothes remained in the drawers of the dressingtable, on nails on the wall and in suitcases under the fourposter.

Though Hanuman House had at first seemed chaotic, it was not long before Mr. Biswas had seen that in reality it was ordered, with degrees of precedence all the way down, with Chinta below Padma, Shama below Chinta, Savi below Shama, and himself far below Savi. With no child of his own, he had wondered how the children survived. Now he saw that in this communal organization children were regarded as assets, a source of future wealth and influence. His fears that Savi would be badly treated were absurd, as was his surprise that Mrs. Tulsi should go to such trouble to get Savi to overcome her dislike of fish.

It was not for this reason alone that his attitude to Hanuman House changed. The House was a world, more real than The Chase, and less exposed; everything beyond its gates was foreign and unimportant and could be ignored. He needed such a sanctuary. And in time the House became to him what Tara’s had been when he was a boy. He could go to Hanuman House whenever he wished and become lost in the crowd, since he was treated with indifference rather than hostility. And he went there more often, held his tongue and tried to win favour. It was an effort, and even at times of great festivity, when everyone worked with energy and joy, enthusiasm reacting upon enthusiasm, in himself he remained aloof.

Indifference turned to acceptance, and he was pleased and surprised to find that because of his past behaviour he, like the girl contortionist, now being groomed for marriage, had a certain licence. On occasion pungent remarks were invited from him, and then almost anything he said raised a laugh. The gods were away most of the time and he seldom saw them. But he was glad when he did; for his relationship with them had changed also, and he considered them the only people he could talk to seriously. Now that he had dropped his Aryan iconoclasm, they discussed religion, and these discussions in the hall became family entertainments. He invariably lost, since his telling points could be dismissed as waggishness; which satisfied everybody. His standing rose even higher when there were guests for important religious ceremonies. It was soon established that Mr. Biswas, like Hari, was too incompetent, and too intelligent, to be given the menial tasks of the other brothers-in-law. He was deputed to have disputations with the pundits in the drawingroom.

He took to going to Hanuman House the afternoon before these ceremonies, so that he spent the night there. And it was then that he was reminded of an old, secret ambition. As a boy he had envied Ajodha and Pundit Jairam. How often, of an evening, he had seen Jairam bath and put on a clean dhoti and settle down among the pillows in his verandah with his book and spectacles, while his wife cooked in the kitchen! He had thought then that to be grown up was to be as contented and comfortable as Jairam. And when Ajodha sat on a chair and threw his head back, that chair at once looked more comfortable than any. Despite his hypochondria and fastidiousness Ajodha ate with so much relish that Mr. Biswas used to feel, even when eating with him, that the food on Ajodha’s plate had become more delicious. Late in the evenings, before he went to bed, Ajodha let his slippers fall to the floor, drew up his legs on to the rockingchair and, rocking slowly, sipped a glass of hot milk, closing his eyes, sighing after every sip; and to Mr. Biswas it had seemed that Ajodha was relishing the most exquisite luxury. He believed that when he became a man it would be possible for him to enjoy everything the way Ajodha did, and he promised himself to buy a rockingchair and to drink a glass of hot milk in the evenings. But on these evenings when Hanuman House was bright with lights and hummed with happy activity, when he was able to sit among the cushions on the polished floor of the drawingroom and call for a glass of hot milk, he experienced no sharp pleasure, and was instead nagged by the uneasiness he had felt when he visited Tara’s and read That Body of Yours to Ajodha. Then he knew that as soon as he stepped out of the yard he returned to nonentity, the rumshop on the Main Road and the hut in the back trace. Now it was the thought of the shop in darkness at The Chase, the shelves of tinned foods that wouldn’t sell, the display boards that had lost their pleasant smell of new cardboard and printer’s ink and had grown flyblown and dim, the oily drawer that rocked in its socket and held so little money. And always the thought, the fear about the future. The future wasn’t the next day or the next week or even the next year, times within his comprehension and therefore without dread. The future he feared could not be thought of in terms of time. It was a blankness, a void like those in dreams, into which, past tomorrow and next week and next year, he was falling.

Once, years before, he was conducting one of Ajodha’s motorbuses that ran its erratic course to remote and unsuspected villages. It was late afternoon and they were racing back along the ill-made country road. Their lights were weak and they were racing the sun. The sun fell; and in the short dusk they passed a lonely hut set in a clearing far back from the road. Smoke came from under the ragged thatched eaves: the evening meal was being prepared. And, in the gloom, a boy was leaning against the hut, his hands behind him, staring at the road. He wore a vest and nothing more. The vest glowed white. In an instant the bus went by, noisy in the dark, through bush and level sugarcane fields. Mr. Biswas could not remember where the hut stood, but the picture remained: a boy leaning against an earth house that had no reason for being there, under the dark falling sky, a boy who didn’t know where the road, and that bus, went.

And often, among the pundits and the cushions and the statuary in the drawingroom, eating the enormous meals the Tulsis provided on these occasions, he was assailed by this sense of utter desolation. Then, without conviction, he counted his blessings and ordered himself to enjoy the moment, like the others.

And while he made greater efforts to please at Hanuman House, with Shama, at The Chase, he became increasingly irritable. After every visit he abused the Tulsis to her, and his invective was without fantasy or humour.

“Talk about hypocrisy,” Shama said. “Why you don’t tell them so to their face?”

He began to think that she was plotting to get him back to Hanuman House, and he wondered whether she hadn’t encouraged him to believe that The Chase was temporary. She had never urged him to make improvements, and was always interested when something was done at Hanuman House, when the famous clay-brick factory was pulled down or when awnings were put up over the windows. More and more The Chase was a place where Shama only spent time; she had always called Hanuman House home. And it was her home, and Savi’s, and Anand’s, as it could never be his. As he realized every Christmas.

The Tulsis celebrated Christmas in their store and, with equal irreligiosity, in their home. It was a purely Tulsi festival. All the sons-in-law, and even Seth, were expelled from Hanuman House and returned to their own families. Even Miss Blackie went to her own people.

For Mr. Biswas Christmas was a day of tedious depression. He went to Pagotes to see his mother and Tara and Ajodha, none of whom recognized Christmas. His mother cried so much and with so much feeling he was never sure whether she was glad to see him. Every Christmas she said the same things. He sounded like his father; if she closed her eyes while he spoke she could imagine that his father was alive again. She had little to say about herself. She was happy where she was and did not want to be a burden to any of her sons; her life was over, she had nothing more to do, and was waiting for death. To feel sympathy for her he had to look, not at her face, but at the thinness of her hair. It was still black, however: which was a pity, for grey hair would have helped to put him in a more tender mood. Suddenly she got up and said she was going to make him tea; she was poor, that was all she could offer. She went out to the gallery and he heard her talking to someone. Her voice was quite different; it was firm, without a whine, the voice of a woman still energetic and capable. She brought tea that was lukewarm, with too little tea, too much milk and a taste of woodsmoke. She told him he needn’t drink it. Dutifully he put his arm around her. The gesture caused him pain, making him feel his own worthlessness. She didn’t respond, and wept and talked as before. She said she was going to give him tomatoes and cabbages and lettuces to take home. When she went out her voice and manner changed again. He gave her a dollar, which he could scarcely afford. She took it without showing surprise and without a word of thanks. He was always glad when he could leave the back trace to go to Tara’s.

At last Shama said she could stand The Chase no more. She wanted them to give up the shop and return to Hanuman House. This re-opened all their old quarrels. Only, now everything Shama said was true and cutting.

“We are not doing anything here,” she said.

“All right, Mrs. Samuel Smiles. Look, I standing up in this shop, behind this dirty old counter. Tell me exactly what it have for me to do. You tell me.”

“You know it isn’t that I mean.”

“You want me to make the spinning-jenny and the flying shuttle? Invent the steam-engine?”

And these arguments ended in insults and were followed by days of silence.

They spent their last two years at The Chase in this state of mutual hostility; at peace only in Hanuman House.

She became pregnant for the third time.

“Another one for the monkey house,” he said, passing his hands over her belly.

“You had nothing to do with it.”

And though he had spoken humorously, this led to another serious quarrel, which went over the same limited ground until, unable to control his rage, he hit her.

They were both astonished. She was silenced in the middle of a sentence; for some time afterwards the unfinished sentence remained in his mind, as though it had just been spoken. She was stronger than he. Her silence and her refusal to retaliate made his humiliation complete. She dressed Anand and went to Arwacas.

It was the kite-flying season and in the afternoons, when the wind came from the hills to the north, for miles around multi-coloured kites with long tails plunged and wriggled like tadpoles in the clear sky above the plain. He had been thinking that in two or three years he and Anand would fly kites together.

He decided that this time Shama would have to make the first move. So for many months he didn’t go to Hanuman House, not even to see Savi. When, however, he judged that the baby was born, he broke his resolution and closed the shop-what was it that made him know, as he put the bar into place, that he was closing the doors for the last time?-and wheeled out the Royal Enfield from the bedroom and cycled to Arwacas, a small man made conspicuous by the exaggeratedly upright way he sat on the low saddle (to tauten his stomach and relieve his indigestion pains), with his palms pressing hard on the handgrips and the inside of his wrists turned outwards. He cycled slowly and steadily, his feet flat on the pedals. From time to time he inclined his head, arched his back and gave a series of small belches. This gave him some relief.

He reached Arwacas when it was dark, suffering an additional anxiety because he rode without bicycle lights, an offence zealously pursued by idle policemen. There were no street lamps, only the yellow smoky flames of flambeaux on night stalls and the dim lights of houses coming through curtained doorways and windows. In the arcade of Hanuman House, grey and substantial in the dark, there was already the evening assembly of old men, squatting on sacks on the ground and on tables now empty of Tulsi Store goods, pulling at clay cheelums that glowed red and smelled of ganja and burnt sacking. Though it wasn’t cold, many had scarves over their heads and around their necks; this detail made them look foreign and, to Mr. Biswas, romantic. It was the time of day for which they lived. They could not speak English and were not interested in the land where they lived; it was a place where they had come for a short time and stayed longer than they expected. They continually talked of going back to India, but when the opportunity came, many refused, afraid of the unknown, afraid to leave the familiar temporariness. And every evening they came to the arcade of the solid, friendly house, smoked, told stories, and continued to talk of India.

Mr. Biswas went in by the tall side gate. The hall was lit by one oil lamp. Despite the late hour children were still eating. Some were at the long table, some on benches and chairs about the hall, two in the hammock, some on the steps, some on the landing, and two on the disused piano. Two of the lesser Tulsi sisters and Miss Blackie were supervising.

No one seemed surprised to see him. He was grateful for that. He looked for Savi and had trouble in locating her. She saw him first, smiled, but didn’t leave the table. He went up to her.

“I haven’t seen you for a long time,” she said, and he couldn’t tell whether she was disappointed or not.

“Missing your six cents, eh?” He studied the food on Savi’s enamel plate: curried beans, fried tomatoes and a dry pancake. “Where’s your mother?”

“She had another baby. Did you know?”

He noticed the fatherless children. They had given up their offending mourning suits; even so, their clothes were different. He didn’t know these children very well and they regarded him, a visiting father, with curiosity.

“Ma said you beat her,” Savi said.

The fatherless children looked at Mr. Biswas with dread and disapproval. They all had large eyes: another distinguishing feature.

Mr. Biswas laughed. “She was only joking,” he said in English.

“She upstairs, rubbing down Myna,” Savi said, in English as well.

“Myna, eh? Another girl.” He spoke light-heartedly, trying to get the attention of the two Tulsi sisters. “This family just full of girl children.”

The sisters tittered. He turned to them and smiled.

Shama was not in the Rose Room, but in the wooden bridge between the two houses. A basin with soapy, baby-smelling water was on the floor and, as Savi had said, Shama was rubbing down Myna, the way she had rubbed down Savi herself and Anand (asleep on the bed: no more rubbing for him, for the rest of his life).

Shama saw him, but concentrated on the baby, folding limbs this way and that, saying the rhyme that was to end in a laugh, a bunching of the limbs over the belly, a clap, and a release of the limbs.

Mr. Biswas watched.

While she was dressing Myna, Shama said, “Have you eaten?”

He shook his head. They might have parted only the hour before. And not only that. She had spoken about eating, and there was nothing in her voice to hint at the innumerable quarrels they had had about food. He had often opened tins of salmon and sardines from the shop after refusing to eat her food and sometimes throwing it away, food as unimaginative as that he had just seen on Savi’s plate. It wasn’t that the Tulsis couldn’t cook. They thought appetizing food should be reserved for religious festivals; at other times it was a carnal indulgence. Mr. Biswas’s digestion had been repeatedly shocked to move from plain food before a ceremony to excessively rich food on the day of the ceremony and promptly back to plain food the day after.

Myna fell asleep at Shama’s breast and was laid on the bed next to Anand. A pillow was placed at her side to keep her from rolling off, and the oil lamp in the bracket on the un-painted wall was turned down.

When Mr. Biswas and Shama passed through the verandah it was thronged with children sitting on mats, reading or playing cards or draughts. These games had been recently introduced and were taken with the utmost seriousness; they were regarded as intellectual disciplines particularly suitable for children. Savi, too small for books, was playing Go-to-Pack with one of the large-eyed children. Everyone talked in whispers. Shama walked on tiptoe.

“Mai sick,” she said.

Which accounted for the children’s late dinner and the absence of so many of the sisters.

Shama laid out food for Mr. Biswas in the hall. The food might be bad at Hanuman House, but there was always some for unexpected visitors. Everything was cold. The pancakes were sweating, hard on the outside and little better than dough inside. He did not complain.

“You going back tonight?” she asked in English.

He knew then that he hadn’t intended to go back, ever. He said nothing.

“You better sleep here then.”

As long as there was floor space, there was bed space.

Some sisters came into the hall. Packs of cards were brought out; the sisters split into groups and gravely settled down to play. Chinta played with style. She fussed with her cards, rearranged them often, stared blankly and disconcertingly at the other players, hummed and never spoke; before she played a telling card she frowned at it, pulled it up a little, tapped it down and kept on tapping it; then, suddenly, she threw it on the table with a crack and, still frowning, collected her trick. She was a magnanimous winner and a bad loser.

Mr. Biswas watched.

Shama made a bed for him in the verandah upstairs, among the children.

He woke to a babel the next morning and when he went down to the hall found the sisters getting their children ready for school. It was the only time of day when it was reasonably easy to tell which child belonged to which mother. He was surprised to see Shama filling a satchel with a slate, a slate pencil, a lead pencil, an eraser, an exercise book with the Union Jack on the cover, and Nelson’s West Indian Reader, First Stage, by Captain J. O. Cutteridge, Director of Education, Trinidad and Tobago. Lastly Shama wrapped an orange in tissue paper and put it in the satchel. “For teacher,” she said to Savi.

Mr. Biswas didn’t know that Savi had begun to go to school.

Shama sat on a bench, held Savi between her legs, combed her hair, plaited it, straightened the pleats on her navy-blue uniform, and adjusted her Panama hat.

Mother and daughter had been doing this for many weeks. And he had known nothing.

Shama said, “If your shoelaces come loose again today, you think you would be able to tie them back?” She bent down and undid Savi’s shoelaces. “Let me see you tie them.”

“You know I can’t tie them.”

“Do it quick sharp, or I give you a dose of licks.”

“I can’t tie them.”

“Come,” Mr. Biswas said, shamelessly paternal in the bustling hall. “I will tie them for you.”

“No,” Shama said. “She must learn to tie her laces. Otherwise I will keep her at home and beat her until she can tie them.”

It was standard talk at Hanuman House. At The Chase Shama had never spoken like that.

As yet no one was paying attention. But when Shama started to hunt for one of the many hibiscus switches which always lay about the hall, sisters and children became less noisy and good-humouredly waited to see what would happen. It was not going to be a serious flogging since ineptitude rather than criminality was being punished; and Shama moved about with a comic jerkiness, as though she knew she was only an actor in a farce and not, like Sumati at the house-blessing in The Chase, a figure of high tragedy.

Mr. Biswas, his eyes fixed on Savi, found himself tittering nervously. Still wearing her Panama hat, Savi squatted on the floor, tangling laces and watching them fall apart, or knotting them double, tight and high, and having to undo them with her nails and teeth. She, too, was partly acting for the audience. Her failures were greeted with approving laughter. Even Shama, standing by with whip in hand, allowed amusement to invade her playacting annoyance.

“All right,” Shama said. “Let me show you for the last time. Watch me. Now try.”

Savi fumbled ineffectually again. This time there was less laughter.

“You just want to shame me,” Shama said. “A big girl like you, five going on six, can’t tie her own laces. Jai, come here.”

Jai was the son of an unimportant sister. He was pushed to the front by his mother, who was dandling another baby on her hip.

“Look at Jai,” Shama said. “His mother don’t have to tie his shoelaces. And he is a whole year younger than you.”

“Fourteen months younger,” Jai’s mother said.

“Well, fourteen months younger,” Shama said, directing her annoyance to Savi. “You want to defy me?”

Savi was still squatting.

“Hurry up now!” Shama said, so loudly and suddenly that Savi jumped and began playing stupidly with the laces.

No one laughed.

Stooping, Shama brought the hibiscus switch down on Savi’s bare legs.

Mr. Biswas looked on, a fixed smile on his face. He made phlegmy little noises, urging Shama to stop.

Savi was crying.

Sushila, the widow, came to the top of the stairs and said authoritatively, “Remember Mai.”

They all remembered. Silence for the sick. The scene was over.

Shama, trying too late to turn comedy into tragedy, developed a sudden temper and stamped off, almost unnoticed, to the kitchen.

Sumati, the flogger at The Chase, pulled Savi to her long skirt. Savi cried into it and used it to wipe her nose and dry her eyes. Then Sumati tied Savi’s laces and sent her off to school.

At The Chase Shama had seldom beat Savi, and then it had been only a matter of a few slaps. But at Hanuman House the sisters still talked with pride of the floggings they had received from Mrs. Tulsi. Certain memorable floggings were continually recalled, with commonplace detail made awful and legendary by its association with a stupendous event, like the detail in a murder case. And there was even some rivalry among the sisters as to who had been flogged worst of all.

Mr. Biswas had breakfast: biscuits from the big black drum, red butter, and tea, lukewarm, sugary and strong. Shama, though indignant, was dutiful and correct. As she watched him eat, her indignation became more and more defensive. Finally she was only grave.

“You see Mai yet?”

He understood.

They went to the Rose Room. Sushila admitted them and at once went outside. A shaded oil lamp burned low. The jalousied window in the thick clay-brick wall was closed, keeping out daylight; cloth was wedged around the frame, to keep out draughts. There was a smell of ammonia, bay rum, rum, brandy, disinfectant, and a variety of febrifuges. Below a white canopy with red appliquй apples Mrs. Tulsi lay, barely recognizable, a bandage around her forehead, her temples dotted with lumps of soft candle, her nostrils stuffed with some white medicament.

Shama sat on a chair in a shadowed corner, effacing herself.

The marble topped bedside table was a confusion of bottles, jars and glasses. There were little blue jars of medicated rubs, little white jars of medicated rubs; tall green bottles of bay rum and short square bottles of eyedrops and nosedrops; a round bottle of rum, a flat bottle of brandy and an oval royal blue bottle of smelling-salts; a bottle of Sloan’s Liniment and a tiny tin of Tiger Balm; a mixture with a pink sediment and one with a yellow-brown sediment, like muddy water left to stand from the previous night.

Mr. Biswas didn’t want to talk to Mrs. Tulsi in Hindi, but the Hindi words came out. “How are you, Mai? I couldn’t come to see you last night because it was too late and I didn’t want to disturb you.” He hadn’t intended to give any explanations.

“How are you?” Mrs. Tulsi said nasally, with unexpected tenderness. “I am an old woman and it doesn’t matter how I am.”

She reached out for the bottle of smelling salts and sniffed at it. The bandage around her forehead slipped down to her eyes. Adapting her tone of tenderness to one of distress and authority, she said, “Come and squeeze my head, Shama.”

Shama obeyed with alacrity. She sat on the edge of the bed and undid the bandage, undid Mrs. Tulsi’s hair, parted it in several places, poured bay rum into her palms and from there into the partings. She worked the bay rum into Mrs. Tulsi’s scalp and the soaked hair squelched. Mrs. Tulsi looked comforted. She closed her eyes, screwed the white medicament a little further up her nostrils, and patted her lips with a thin shawl.

“You have seen your daughter?”

Mr. Biswas laughed.

“Two girls,” Mrs. Tulsi said. “Our family is unlucky that way. Think of the worry I had when your father died. Fourteen daughters to marry. And when you marry your girl children you can’t say what sort of life you are letting them in for. They have to live with their Fate. Mothers-in-law, sisters-in-law. Idle husbands. Wife-beaters.”

Mr. Biswas looked at Shama. She was concentrating on Mrs. Tulsi’s head. At every press of Shama’s long fingers Mrs. Tulsi closed her eyes, interrupted what she was saying and groaned, “Aah.”

“That is what a mother has to put up with,” Mrs. Tulsi said. “I don’t mind. I have lived long enough to know that you can’t expect anything from anybody. I give you five hundred dollars. Do you think I want you to bow and scrape and touch my feet whenever you see me? No. I expect you to spit on me. I expect that. When you want five hundred dollars again you come back to me. Do you want me to say, ‘The last time I gave you five hundred dollars you spat on me. Therefore I can’t give you five hundred dollars this time’? Do you want me to say that? No. I expect the people who spit on me to come to me again. I have a soft heart. And when you have a soft heart, you have a soft heart. Your father used to say to me, ‘My bride’-that was the way he called me until the day he died-‘my bride,’ he used to say, ‘you have the softest heart of any person I know. Be careful of that soft heart. People will take advantage of that soft heart and trample on it.’ And I used to say, ‘When you have a soft heart, you have a soft heart.’ “

She pressed her eyes till tears ran down her cheeks. Her damp grey hair was spread out on the pillow. Now here was a woman with grey hair, and he felt little tenderness towards her.

Then he noted, what he had missed in the darkness, that Shama’s cheeks were also wet. She must have been crying silently all along.

“I don’t mind,” Mrs. Tulsi said. She blew her nose and called for bay rum. Shama filled her palm with bay rum, drenched Mrs. Tulsi’s face and pressed her palm over Mrs. Tulsi’s nose. Mrs. Tulsi’s face shone; she screwed up her eyes to prevent the bay rum going into them and breathed loudly through her mouth. Shama removed her hand and Mrs. Tulsi said, “But I don’t know what Seth will say.”

As at a cue Seth came in. He ignored Mr. Biswas and Shama and asked Mrs. Tulsi how she was, expressing in those words his concern for Mrs. Tulsi and his impatience with the people who were disturbing her. He sat on the other side of the bed. The bed creaked; he sighed; he shifted his feet and his bluchers drummed on the floor in annoyance.

“We’ve been talking,” Mrs. Tulsi said gently.

Shama gave a little sob.

Seth sucked his teeth. He sounded extremely irritable; it was as if he too were unwell, with a cold or a headache. “Paddling-addling,” he said. His voice was gruff and indistinct.

“You mustn’t mind,” Mrs. Tulsi said.

Seth held his thigh and looked at the floor.

And Mr. Biswas was convinced of what he had already guessed from Mrs. Tulsi’s speech and Shama’s tears: that the scene had been arranged, that there had been not only discussions, but decisions. And Shama, who had arranged the scene, was crying to lessen his humiliation, to shift some of it to herself. Her tears were ritual in another way: they were tears for the hardships that had come to her with a husband she had been given by Fate.

“So what we going to do about the shop?” Seth asked in English. He was still irritable and his voice, though businesslike, was weary.

Mr. Biswas couldn’t think. “Is a bad site for a shop,” he said.

“A bad site today could be a good site tomorrow,” Seth said. “Suppose I drop a few cents here and there and get the Public Works to run the trunk road through there after all? Eh?”

Shama’s sobs mingled with the squelch of bay rum in Mrs. Tulsi’s hair.

“You got any debts?”

“Well, a lot of people owing me but they won’t pay.”

“Not after what happen with Mungroo. I suppose you was the only man in Trinidad who didn’t know about Seebaran and Mahmoud.”

Shama was crying openly.

Abruptly Seth lost interest in Mr. Biswas. He said, “Tcha!” and looked at his bluchers.

“You mustn’t mind,” Mrs. Tulsi said. “I know you haven’t got a soft heart. But you mustn’t mind.”

Seth sighed. “So what we going to do with the shop?”

Mr. Biswas shrugged.

“Insure-and-burn?” Seth said, making it one word: insuranburn.

Mr. Biswas felt that talk like this belonged to the realms of high finance.

Seth crossed his big arms high over his chest. “Is the only thing for you to do now.”

“Insuranburn,” Mr. Biswas said. “How much I going to make out of that?”

“More than you would make if you don’t insuranburn. The shop is Mai own. The goods is yours. For the goods you ought to get about seventy-five, a hundred dollars.”

It was a large sum. Mr. Biswas smiled.

But Seth only said, “And after that, what?”

Mr. Biswas tried to look thoughtful.

“You still too proud to get your hands dirty in the fields?” And Seth displayed his own hands.

“Soft heart,” Mrs. Tulsi muttered.

“I want a driver at Green Vale,” Seth said.

Shama gave a loud sob and, suddenly leaving Mrs. Tulsi’s head, rushed to Mr. Biswas and said, “Take it, man. Take it, I beg you.” She was making it easy for him to accept. “He will take it,” she cried to Seth. “He will take it.”

Seth looked irritable and turned away.

Mrs. Tulsi groaned.

Shama, still crying, went back to the bed and pressed her fingers into Mrs. Tulsi’s hair.

Mrs. Tulsi said, “Aah.”

“I don’t know anything about estate work,” Mr. Biswas said, trying to salvage some of his dignity.

“Nobody begging you,” Seth said.

“You mustn’t mind,” Mrs. Tulsi said. “You know what Owad always tells me. He always blames me for the way I married off my daughters. And I suppose he is right. But then Owad is going to college, reading and learning all the time. And I am very oldfashioned.” She spoke with pride in Owad and pride in her oldfashionedness.

Seth stood up. His bluchers scraped on the floor, the bed made noises, and Mrs. Tulsi was slightly disturbed. But Seth’s irritability had disappeared. He took out the ivory cigarette holder which had been pushing up through the buttoned flap of the pocket on his khaki shirt, put it in his mouth and blew whistlingly through it. “Owad. You remember him, Mohun?” He laughed, opening his mouth on either side of the holder. “The old hen son.”

“What is past is past,” Mrs. Tulsi said. “When people are boys they behave like boys. When they are men they behave like men.”

Shama squeezed vigorously at Mrs. Tulsi’s head and succeeded in reducing Mrs. Tulsi’s speech to a series of “Aah. Aah.” She washed bay rum into Mrs. Tulsi’s hair and face and held her palm over Mrs. Tulsi’s nose and mouth.

“This insuranburning,” Mr. Biswas said, and his tone was light, “who going to see about it? Me?” He was putting himself back into the role of the licensed buffoon.

Shama was the first to laugh. Seth followed. A croak came from Mrs. Tulsi and Shama took away her hand from Mrs. Tulsi’s mouth to allow her to laugh.

Mrs. Tulsi began to splutter. “He want,” she said in English, choking with laughter, “to jump-from-the fryingpan-into-into-”

They all roared.

“-into-the fire!”

The witty mood spread.

“No more paddling,” Seth said.

“We insuranburning right away?” Mr. Biswas asked, pitching his voice high and speaking quickly.

“You got to get your furniture out first,” Seth said.

“My bureau!” Shama exclaimed, and put her hand to her own mouth, as though astonished that, when she had left Mr. Biswas, she had forgotten to take that piece of furniture with her.

“You know,” Seth said, “the best thing would be for you to do the insuranburning.”

“No, Uncle,” Shama said. “Don’t start putting ideas in his head.”

“Don’t worry with the child,” Mr. Biswas said. “You just tell me.”

Seth sat on the bed again. “Well, look,” he said, and his voice was amused and avuncular. “You had this trouble with Mungroo. You go to the police station and lay your life on Mungroo head.”

“Lay my what on Mungroo head?”

“Tell them about the row. Tell them that Mungroo threatening to kill you. And the moment anything happen to you, the first person they would pick up would be Mungroo.”

“You mean the first person they would pick up would be me. But let me get this straight. When I dead, like a cockroach, lying on my back with my four foot throw up straight and stiff and high in the air, you want me to walk to the police station and say, ‘I did tell all-you so.’ “

Mrs. Tulsi, still chuckling over her own joke, the first she had managed in English, made Mr. Biswas’s an excuse to burst out laughing again.

“Well, you lay your life on Mungroo head,” Seth said. “You go back to The Chase and stay quiet. You let one week pass, two weeks, even three. Then you make your little preparations. You let Shama collect her bureau. On Thursday, half-day, you drop pitch-oil all over the shop-not where you sleeping-and in the night-time you set a match to it. You give it a little time-not too much-and then you run outside and start bawling for Mungroo.”

“You mean,” Mr. Biswas said, “that this is why all those motorcars burning up every day in this place? And all those houses?”

5. Green Vale

Whenever afterwards Mr. Biswas thought of Green Vale he thought of the trees. They were tall and straight, and so hung with long, drooping leaves that their trunks were hidden and appeared to be branchless. Half the leaves were dead; the others, at the top, were a dead green. It was as if all the trees had, at the same moment, been blighted in luxuriance, and death was spreading at the same pace from all the roots. But death was forever held in check. The tonguelike leaves of dead green turned slowly to the brightest yellow, became brown and thin as if scorched, curled downwards over the other dead leaves and did not fall. And new leaves came, as sharp as daggers; but there was no freshness to them; they came into the world old, without a shine, and only grew longer before they too died.

It was hard to imagine that beyond the trees on every side lay the clear plain. Green Vale was damp and shadowed and close. The trees darkened the road and their rotting leaves choked the grass gutters. The trees surrounded the barracks.

As soon as he saw the barracks Mr. Biswas decided that the time had come for him to build his own house, by whatever means. The barracks gave one room to one family, and sheltered twelve families in one long room divided into twelve. This long room was built of wood and stood on low concrete pillars. The whitewash on the walls had turned to dust, leaving stains like those left on stones by bleaching clothes; and these stains were mildewed and sweated and freckled with grey and green and black. The corrugated iron roof projected on one side to make a long gallery, divided by rough partitions into twelve kitchen spaces, so open that when it rained hard twelve cooks had to take twelve coal-pots to twelve rooms. The ten middle rooms each had a front door and a back window. The rooms at the end had a front door, a back window, and a side window. Mr. Biswas, as a driver, was given an end room. The back window had been nailed shut by the previous tenant and plastered over with newspaper. Its position could only be guessed at, since newspaper covered the walls from top to bottom. This had obviously been the work of a literate. No sheet was placed upside down, and Mr. Biswas found himself continuously exposed to the journalism of his time, its bounce and excitement bottled and made quaint in these old newspapers.

Into this room they moved all their furniture: the kitchen safe, the green kitchen table, the hatrack, the iron fourposter, a rockingchair Mr. Biswas had bought in the last days at The Chase, and the dressingtable which, during Shama’s long absences at Hanuman House, had come to stand for Shama.

Only one small drawer of the dressingtable was Mr. Biswas’s. The others were alien and if by some chance he opened one he felt he was intruding. It was during the move to Green Vale that he discovered that, in addition to the finer clothes of Shama and the children, those drawers contained Shama’s marriage certificate and the birth certificates of her children; a Bible and Bible pictures she had got from her mission school and kept, not for their religious content, but as reminders of past excellence; and a packet of letters from a pen-pal in Northumberland, the result of one of the headmaster’s schemes. Mr. Biswas yearned after the outside world; he read novels that took him there; he never suspected that Shama, of all persons, had been in contact with this world.

“You didn’t by any chance keep the letters you did write back?”

“Headteacher used to read them and post them.”

“I woulda like to read your letters.”

So Mr. Biswas became a driver, or sub-overseer, at a salary of twenty-five dollars a month, which was twice as much as the labourers got. As he had told Seth, he knew nothing about estate work. He had been surrounded by sugarcane all his life; he knew that the tall fields shot up grey-blue, arrow-like flowers just when shop signs were bursting into green and red gaiety, with holly and berries and Santa Claus and snow-capped letters; he knew the “crop-over” harvest festival; but he didn’t know about burning or weeding or hoeing or trenching; he didn’t know when new cuttings had to be put in or mounds of trash built around new plants. He got instructions from Seth, who came to Green Vale every Saturday to inspect, and pay the labourers, which he did from the kitchen space outside Mr. Biswas’s room, using the green kitchen table, and having Mr. Biswas sit beside him to read out the number of tasks each labourer had worked.

Mr. Biswas didn’t know the admiration and respect his father Raghu had had for drivers. But he could feel the awe the labourers had for the blue and green moneybags with serrated edges and small circular holes for the money to breathe, and he took some pleasure in handling these bags casually, as though they were a bother. It sometimes occurred to him that, perhaps at that very moment, his brothers were standing in similar slow submissive queues on other estates.

On Saturdays, then, he enjoyed power. But on the other days it was different. True, he went out early every morning with his long bamboo rod and measured out the labourers’ tasks. But the labourers knew he was unused to the job and was there simply as a watchman and Seth’s representative. They could fool him and they did, fearing more a single rebuke of Seth’s on Saturday than a week of shy remonstrance from Mr. Biswas. Mr. Biswas was ashamed to complain to Seth. He bought a topee; it was too big for his head, which was rather small, and he adjusted the topee so badly that it fell down to his ears. For some time after that, whenever the labourers saw Mr. Biswas they pulled their hats over their eyes, tilted their heads backwards and looked in his direction. Two or three of the young and impudent even talked to him in this way. He thought he ought to ride a horse, as Seth did; and he was beginning to feel sympathy for those overseers of legend who rode on horseback and lashed labourers on either side. Then, being the buffoon with Seth one Saturday, he mounted Seth’s horse, was thrown after a few yards, and said, “I didn’t want to go where he was going.”

“Gee up!” one labourer shouted to another on Monday.

“Oops!” the second labourer replied.

Mr. Biswas told Seth, “I got to stop living next door to these people.”

Seth said, “We are going to build a house for you.”

But Seth was only talking. He never mentioned the house again, and Mr. Biswas remained in the barracks. He began to speak about the brutishness of labourers; and instead of wondering, as he had done at the beginning, how they lived on three dollars a week, he wondered why they got so much. He took it out on Shama.

“Is you who get me in this. You and your family. Look at me. I look like Seth? You could look at me and say that this is my sort of work?”

He came back from the fields sweated, itching and dusty, bitten by flies and other insects, his skin torn and tender. He welcomed the sweating and the fatigue and the sensation of burning on his face. But he hated the itching, and dried dirt on his fingernails tortured him as acutely as the sound of slate pencils on slates or shovels on concrete.

The barrackyard, with its mud, animal droppings and the quick slime on stale puddles, gave him nausea, especially when he was eating fish or Shama’s pancakes. He took to eating at the green table in the room, hidden from the front door, his back to the side window, and determined not to look up at the black, furry underside of the galvanized iron roof. As he ate he read the newspapers on the wall. The smell of damp and soot, old paper and stale tobacco reminded him of the smell of his father’s box, under the bed which rested on tree-branches buried in the earth floor.

He bathed incessantly. The barracks had no bathroom but at the back there were waterbarrels under the spouts which drained off the water from the roof. However quickly the water was used, there were always larvae of some sort on its surface, jumpy jellylike whiskery things, perfection in their way. Mr. Biswas stood in pants and sabots on a length of board next to a barrel and threw water over himself with a calabash dipper. He sang Hindi songs and In the snowy and the blowy while he did so. Afterwards he wrapped a towel around his waist, took off his pants and then, in towel and sabots, made a dash for his room. Since there was no side door to his room, he had to run around to the front, come into full view of all twelve kitchens and all twelve rooms, then bound into his own.

One day the towel dropped off.

“Is you,” he told Shama, after a terrible day in the fields. “Is you and your family who get me in this.”

Shama, who had herself spent a day of humiliation at the barracks, cooked one of her especially bad meals, dressed Anand, a boy now big enough to talk, and took him to Hanuman House.

On Saturday, after he had paid the labourers, Seth smiled and said, “Your wife say to look in the top righthand drawer of her bureau and get her pink bodice, and look in the bottom of the lefthand corner of the middle drawer for the pantaloons for the boy.”

“Ask my wife, which boy?”

But Mr. Biswas explored the alien drawers.

“I nearly forget,” Seth said, just before he left. “That shop at The Chase. Well, it insuranburn now.”

Seth took out a roll of dollar notes from his trouser pocket and displayed it like a magician. Note by note, he counted the roll into Mr. Biswas’s hand. It came to seventy-five dollars, the sum he had mentioned in the Rose Room at Hanuman House.

Mr. Biswas was impressed and grateful. He determined to put his money aside, and add to it, until he had enough to build his house.

He had thought deeply about this house, and knew exactly what he wanted. He wanted, in the first place, a real house, made with real materials. He didn’t want mud for walls, earth for floor, tree branches for rafters and grass for roof. He wanted wooden walls, all tongue-and-groove. He wanted a galvanized iron roof and a wooden ceiling. He would walk up concrete steps into a small verandah; through doors with coloured panes into a small drawingroom; from there into a small bedroom, then another small bedroom, then back into the small verandah. The house would stand on tall concrete pillars so that he would get two floors instead of one, and the way would be left open for future development. The kitchen would be a shed in the yard; a neat shed, connected to the house by a covered way. And his house would be painted. The roof would be red, the outside walls ochre with chocolate facings, and the windows white.

His talk about houses made Shama fearful and impatient and had even caused quarrels. So he did not tell her of this picture or of his plan, and she continued to live for long periods at Hanuman House. She needed to give no explanations to her sisters now. Green Vale, part of the Tulsi lands and just outside Arwacas, was considered almost an extension of Hanuman House.

Rejecting the stone-cold food Shama occasionally sent from Hanuman House, and tired of tins, Mr. Biswas learned to cook for himself; and he bought a primus, since he couldn’t manage the coal-pot. Sometimes he went for a walk in the early evening; sometimes he stayed in his room and read. But there were times when, without being fatigued, he could do nothing, when neither food nor tobacco tasted, and he could only lie on the fourposter and read the newspapers on the wall. He soon had many of the stories by heart. And the first line of one story, in breathless capitals, came to possess his mind: AMAZING SCENES WERE WITNESSED YESTERDAY WHEN. Absently he spoke the words aloud, by himself, with the labourers, with Seth. On some evenings, in his room, the words came into his head and repeated themselves until they were meaningless and irritating and he longed to drive them away. He wrote the words on packets of Anchor cigarettes and boxes of Comet matches. And, to fight this exhausting vacancy that left him with the feeling that he had drunk gallons of stale, lukewarm water, he took to lettering religious tags on strips of cardboard, which he hung on the walls against the newspapers. From a Hindi magazine he copied a sentence which, on cardboard, stretched right across one wall, above the papered window: HE WHO BELIEVETH IN ME OF HIM I WILL NEVER LOSE HOLD AND HE SHALL NEVER LOSE HOLD OF ME.

The sugarcane was in arrow. The lanes and roads between the fields were clean green canyons. And at Arwacas the shop-signs celebrated snow and Santa Claus. The Tulsi Store was hung with paper holly and berries, but carried no Christmas signs. Mr. Biswas’s old signs still served. They had faded; the distemper on the wall and columns had flaked off in places and Punch had lost a piece of his nose; near the ceiling the letters were dim with dust and soot. Savi knew, and was proud, that the signs had been done by her father. But their gaiety puzzled her; she couldn’t associate them with the morose man she went to see in the dingy barrackroom and who sometimes came to see her. She felt, with a sense of loss that became sharper as Christmas drew nearer, that the signs had been done at some time beyond her memory when her father lived happily at Hanuman House with her mother and everyone else.

Christmas was the only time of the year when the gaiety of the signs had some meaning. Then the Tulsi Store became a place of deep romance and endless delights, transformed from the austere emporium it was on other days, dark and silent, its shelves crammed with bolts of cloth that gave off acrid and sometimes unpleasant smells, its tables jumbled with cheap scissors and knives and spoons, towers of dusty blue-rimmed enamel plates interleaved with ragged grey paper, and boxes of hairpins, needles, pins and thread. Now all day there was noise and bustle. Gramophones played in the Tulsi Store and all the other stores and even from the stalls in the market. Mechanical birds whistled; dolls squeaked; toy trumpets were tried out; tops hummed; cars shot across counters, were seized by hands, and held whining in mid-air. The enamel plates and the hairpins were pushed to the back, and their place was taken by black grapes in white boxes filled with aromatic sawdust; red Canadian apples whose scent overrode every other; by a multitude of toys and dolls and games in boxes, new and sparkling glassware, new china, all smelling of their newness; by Japanese lacquered trays, stacked one on top the other like a pack of cards, so elegant as they stood that it was sad to think of them being sold one by one, leaving the store in brown paper and string, and ending drab, broken and disregarded in ugly kitchens and tumbledown houses. There were stacks, too, of the Bookers Drug Stores Almanac, with art paper tickling smooth to the touch and a smell of corresponding richness, with jokes, stories, photographs, quizzes, puzzles, and prizes for competitions which the Tulsi children were all going to enter but never would, though they had already inked in their names and addresses on dotted lines. And the decorations: the paper holly and berries, the spiralling streamers of crepe paper, the cotton wool and the Jack Frost that stuck to fingers and clothes, the balloons, the lanterns.

The sisters masked their excitement by frowns and complaints of fatigue that fooled no one. Mrs. Tulsi herself came to the store from time to time, spoke to people she knew, and on occasion even sold something. The two gods strode sternly about, superintending, signing bills, checking money. The elder god was especially stern this Christmas and the children were afraid of him. His behaviour had grown a little strange. He had not yet left the Roman Catholic college, but efforts were being made to find him a wife from among the handful of eligible families. He expressed his disapproval by random angry outbursts, tears and threats of suicide. This was construed as a conventional shyness and, as such, was a source of amusement to sisters and brothers-in-law. But the children were frightened when he talked of leaving the house and buying rope and soft candle; they were not sure what he wanted the soft candle for; and they stayed out of his way.

On the morning of Christmas Eve excitement was at its height, but before the afternoon was out had subsided so far that the displays had ceased to be magical, their gaiety became disorder, and the disorder could be seen to be superficial. So that before Christmas came, in the shop it was felt to be over. And throughout the afternoon attention turned more and more to the hall and kitchen where Sumati, the flogger, was in charge of the baking, and Shama, who had no recognized talents, was one of her many helpers. The smells from the kitchen had an added savour because, as always at Hanuman House, the food continued to be ordinary and bad up to the very day of a festival.

The Tulsi Store was closed, the toys left in darkness which would transform them into stock and the brothers-in-law prepared to leave Hanuman House for their families. As Mr. Biswas cycled through the night to Green Vale, he remembered he had not got presents for Savi and Anand. But they expected none from him; they knew they would find their presents in their stockings on Christmas morning.

Because the sisters were busy the children were given a skimpier dinner than usual. Then hunts were started for stockings. There were none to be had. The providential, mostly the girls, had acquired theirs days before, and the boys had to be content with pillowcases. There was talk of staying awake, but one by one the children dropped out of card games and fell asleep to the songs that came from their mothers in the kitchen.

Anand had a moment of alarm when he got up. His pillowcase, lying at the foot of his bedding on the floor, looked empty. But when he shook the pillowcase out he found he had got what the other boys had: a balloon, one of those he had seen for weeks past in the store, a red apple in a dark blue wrapper, one of those he had seen in the boxes in the store, and a tin whistle. In her stocking Savi found a balloon, an apple and a tiny rubber doll. Presents were compared, and when it was established that there was no cause for jealousy, the children ate their apples, blew up balloons, and raised a feeble chirruping with tin whistles. Many whistles were soon silenced by spittle or some fundamental mechanical defect, and most of the boys burst their balloons before going downstairs to kiss Mrs. Tulsi. Those boys who were to grow up into detestable men gave a single toot on their whistles, nibbled at their apples and blew up their balloons hardly at all, in this resembling the girls, who already showed their pleasure in possession and anticipation rather than fulfilment. Then the children, in varying degrees of contentment, went downstairs and found Mrs. Tulsi waiting at the long pitchpine table. Their mothers were waiting as well, happy Santa Clauses. When a discontented child forgot to kiss Mrs. Tulsi and impatiently hurried off to see about food, his mother called him back.

After breakfast-tea and biscuits from the drum-the children waited for lunch. More whistles were silenced; more balloons burst. The girls seized the scraps of the boys’ burst balloons and blew them up into many-coloured bunches of grapes which they rubbed against their cheeks to make a noise like heavy furniture dragging on an unpolished floor. Lunch was good. And after lunch they waited for tea: Sumati’s cakes, a local and fraudulent cherry brandy doled out by Chinta, and icecream, made by Chinta again, who, against annual evidence, was supposed to have an especial gift for making icecream. And that was that. Dinner was as bad as usual. Christmas was over. And, like all other Christmases at Hanuman House, it had turned out to be only a series of anticipations.

At the barracks there were no apples, no stockings, no baking of cakes, no churning of icecream, no refinements to be waited for. It was from the start a day of abandoned eating and drinking and was to end, not with the beating of children, but with the beating of wives. Mr. Biswas went to see his mother and had dinner at Tara’s. On Boxing-day he visited his brothers; they had married nondescript women from nondescript families and spent Christmas with their wives.

The following day Mr. Biswas cycled from Green Vale to Arwacas. When he turned into the High Street the sight of the stores, open again and carelessly displaying Christmas goods at bargain prices, reminded him of the presents he had forgotten. He got off his bicycle and leaned it against the kerb. Before he had taken off his bicycle clips he was accosted by a heavy-lidded shopman who repeatedly sucked his teeth. The shopman offered Mr. Biswas a cigarette and lit it for him. Words were exchanged. Then, with the shopman’s arm around his shoulders, Mr. Biswas disappeared into the shop. Not many minutes later Mr. Biswas and the shopman reappeared. They were both smoking and excited. A boy came out of the shop partly hidden by the large doll’s house he was carrying. The doll’s house was placed on the handlebar of Mr. Biswas’s cycle and, with Mr. Biswas on one side and the boy on the other, wheeled down the High Street.

Every room of the doll’s house was daintily furnished. The kitchen had a stove such as Mr. Biswas had never seen in real life, a safe and a sink. As they progressed towards Hanuman House Mr. Biswas’s excitement cooled; his extravagance astonished, then frightened him. He had spent more than a month’s wages. He couldn’t take back the doll’s house now; he was attracting continuous attention. And he had bought nothing for Anand. It was always like this. When he thought of his children he thought mainly of Savi. She was part of those early months at The Chase and he knew her. Anand belonged completely to the Tulsis.

At Hanuman House they knew about the doll’s house before it arrived. The hall was packed with sisters and their children. Mrs. Tulsi sat at the pitchpine table patting her lips with her veil.

The children exclaimed when the doll’s house was set down, and in the hush that followed Savi came forward and stood near it proprietorially.

“Well, what you think?” Mr. Biswas asked the hall, using his quick, high-pitched voice.

The sisters were silent.

Then Padma, Seth’s wife, usually taciturn and oppressed and unwell, began on a long and involved story, which Mr. Biswas refused to believe, about an incredible doll’s house one of Seth’s brothers had made for somebody’s daughter, a girl of exceptional beauty who had died shortly afterwards.

As Padma spoke, the children, boys and girls, gathered round the house. Mr. Biswas was not altogether happy about this, but was pleased when the children acknowledged Savi’s ownership by asking her permission to open doors and touch beds. Even as she explored, Savi tried to give the impression that she was familiar with everything.

“What have you brought for the others?”

It was Mrs. Tulsi.

“Didn’t have room,” Mr. Biswas said gaily.

“When I give, I give to all,” Mrs. Tulsi said. “I am poor, but I give to all. It is clear, however, that I cannot compete with Santa Claus.”

Her voice was even and he would have smiled, as at a witticism, but when he looked at her he saw that her face was tight with anger.

“Vidiadhar and Shivadhar!” Chinta shouted. “Come here at once. Stop interfering with what doesn’t belong to you.”

As at a signal the sisters pounced on their children, threatening horrible punishments on those who interfered with what didn’t belong to them.

“I will peel your backside.”

“I will break every bone in your body.”

And Sumati the flogger said, “I will make you heavy with welts.”

“Savi, go and put it away,” Shama whispered. “Take it upstairs.”

Mrs. Tulsi, rising, patting her lips, said, “Shama, I hope you will have the grace to give me notice before you move to your mansion.” She laboured up the stairs, and Sushila, the widow who ruled the sickroom, followed solicitously.

The affronted sisters drew closer together, and Shama stood alone. Her eyes were wide with dread. She stared accusingly at Mr. Biswas.

“Well,” he said briskly. “I better go back home-to the barracks.”

He urged Savi and Anand to come with him out to the arcade. Savi came willingly. Anand was, as usual, embarrassed. Mr. Biswas couldn’t help feeling that, compared with Savi, the boy was a disappointment. He was small for his age, thin and sickly, with a big head; he looked as though he needed protection, but was shy and tongue-tied with Mr. Biswas and always seemed anxious to be free of him. Now, when Mr. Biswas put his arms around him, Anand sniffed, rubbed a dirty face against Mr. Biswas’s trousers, and tried to pull away.

“You must let Anand play with it,” Mr. Biswas said to Savi.

“He is a boy.”

“Don’t worry.” Mr. Biswas rubbed Anand’s bony back. “You are going to get something next time.”

“I want a car,” Anand said to Mr. Biswas’s trousers. “A big one.”

Mr. Biswas knew the sort he meant. “All right,” he said. “Going to get you a car.”

Immediately Anand broke away and ran back through the gate to the yard, riding an imaginary horse, wielding an imaginary whip and shouting, “And I going to get a car! I going to get a car!”

He bought the car; not, despite his promise, the big one Anand wanted, but a clockwork miniature; and on Saturday, after the labourers had been paid, he took it to Arwacas. His arrival was noted from the arcade and, as he pushed the side gate open, he heard the message being relayed by the children in awed and expectant tones: “Savi, your pappa come to see you.”

She came crying to the doorway of the hall. When he embraced her she burst into loud sobs.

The children were silent. He heard the stairs creaking continually, and he became aware of a thick shuffling and whispering in the black kitchen at the far end.

“Tell me,” he said.

She stifled her sobs. “They break it up.”

“Show me!” he cried. “Show me!”

His rage shocked her out of her tears. She came down the steps and he followed her through the gallery at the end of the hall into the yard, past a half-full copper reflecting a deep blue sky, and a black riveted tank where fish, bought alive from the market, swam until the time came for them to be eaten.

And there, below the almost bare branches of the almond tree that grew in the next yard, he saw it, thrown against a dusty leaning fence made of wood and tin and corrugated iron. A broken door, a ruined window, a staved-in wall or even roof-he had expected that. But not this. The doll’s house did not exist. He saw only a bundle of firewood. None of its parts was whole. Its delicate joints were exposed and useless. Below the torn skin of paint, still bright and still in parts imitating brickwork, the hacked and splintered wood was white and raw.

“O God!”

The sight of the wrecked house and the silence of her father made Savi cry afresh.

“Ma mash it up.”

He ran back to the house. The edge of a wall scraped against his shoulder, tearing his shirt and tearing the skin below.

Sisters had now left the stairs and kitchen and were sitting about the hall.

“Shama!” he bawled. “Shama!”

Savi came slowly up the steps from the courtyard. Sisters shifted their gaze from Mr. Biswas to her and she remained in the doorway, looking down at her feet.


He heard a sister whisper, “Go and call your aunt Shama. Quick.”

He noticed Anand among the children and sisters.

“Come here, boy!”

Anand looked at the sisters. They gave him no help. He didn’t move.

“Anand, I call you! Come here quick sharp.”

“Go, boy,” Sumati said. “Before you get blows.”

While Anand hesitated, Shama came. She came through the kitchen doorway. Her veil was pulled over her forehead. This unusual touch of dutifulness he noted. She looked frightened yet determined.

“You bitch!”

The silence was absolute.

Sisters shooed away their children up the stairs and into the kitchen.

Savi remained in the doorway behind Mr. Biswas.

“I don’t mind what you call me,” Shama said.

“You break up the dolly house?”

Her eyes widened with fear and guilt and shame. “Yes,” she said, exaggeratedly calm. Then casually, “I break it up.”

“To please who?” He was losing control of his voice.

She didn’t answer.

He noticed that she looked lonely. “Tell me,” he screamed. “To please these people?”

Chinta got up, straightened out her long skirt and started to walk up the stairs. “Let me go away, eh, before I hear something I don’t like and have to answer back.”

“I wasn’t pleasing anybody but myself Shama was speaking more surely now and he could see that she was gaining strength from the approval of her sisters.

“You know what I think of you and your family?”

Two more sisters went up the stairs.

“I don’t care what you think.”

And suddenly his rage had gone. His shouts rang in his head, leaving him startled, ashamed and tired. He could think of nothing to say.

She recognized the change in his mood and waited, at ease now.

“Go and dress Savi.” He spoke quietly.

She made no move.

“Go and dress Savi!”

His shout frightened Savi and she began to scream. She was trembling and when he touched her she felt brittle.

Shama at last moved to obey.

Savi pulled away. “I don’t want anybody to dress me.”

“Go and pack her clothes.”

“You are taking her with you?”

It was his turn to be silent.

The children who had been shooed away into the kitchen pushed their faces out of the doorway.

Shama walked the length of the hall to the stairs, where sisters, sitting on the lower steps, pulled their knees in to let her pass.

At once everybody relaxed.

Sumati said in an amused voice, “Anand, are you going with your father too?”

Anand pulled his head back into the kitchen.

The hall became active again. Children drifted back, and sisters hurried between kitchen and hall, laying out the evening meal. Chinta returned arid started on a light-hearted song, which was taken up by other sisters.

The drama was over, and Shama’s re-entry, with ribbons, comb and a small cardboard suitcase, did not have the same attention as her exit.

Offering the suitcase with outstretched hand, Shama said, “She is your daughter. You know what is good for her. You have been feeding her. You know-”

He set his mouth, pulling his upper teeth behind his lower.

Chinta broke off her singing to say to Savi, “Going home, girl?”

“Put some shoes on her feet,” Shama said.

But that meant washing Savi’s feet, and that meant delay; and, pushing away Shama when she tried to comb Savi’s hair, he led Savi outside. It was only when they were in the High Street that he remembered Anand.

Market day was over and the street was littered with broken boxes, torn paper, straw, rotting vegetables, animal droppings and, though it hadn’t rained, a number of puddles. By the light of flambeaux stalls were being stripped and carts loaded by vendors, their wives and tired children.

Mr. Biswas tied the suitcase to the carrier of his bicycle, and he and Savi walked in silence to the end of the High Street.

When the red and ochre police station was out of sight, he put Savi on the crossbar of the cycle, took a short run and, with difficulty and some nervousness, hopped on to the saddle. The cycle wobbled; Savi held on to his left arm and made balance more uncertain. Presently, however, they had left Arwacas and there was nothing but silent sugarcane on either side of the road. It was pitch black. The bicycle had no lights and they couldn’t see for more than a few yards ahead. Savi was trembling.

“Don’t frighten.”

A light flashed in front of them. A gritty male voice said harshly, “Where you think you going?”

It was a Negro policeman. Mr. Biswas pulled at his handbrakes. The bicycle leaned to the left and Savi slipped to the ground.

The policeman examined the bicycle. “No licence, eh? No licence. No lights. And you was towing. You have a nice little case coming up.” He paused, waiting to be bribed. “All right, then. Name and address.” He wrote in his book. “Good. You go be getting a summons.”

So they walked the rest of the way to Green Vale, through the darkness, and then below the dead trees to the barracks.

They spent a miserable week. Mr. Biswas left the barracks early in the morning and returned in the middle of the afternoon. All that time Savi was alone. An old woman, who was spending time with her son, his wife and five children in a barrackroom, took pity on Savi and gave her food at midday. This food Savi never ate; hunger could not overcome her distrust of food cooked by strangers. She took the plate to the room, emptied it on to a sheet of newspaper, washed the plate, took it back to the old woman, thanked her, and waited for Mr. Biswas. When he came she waited for the night; when the night came she waited for the morning.

To amuse her, he read from his novels, expounded Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus, made her learn the quotations hanging on the walls, and made her sit still while he unsuccessfully tried to sketch her. She was dispirited and submissive. She was also afraid. Sometimes, especially during walks under the trees, he suddenly seemed to forget her, and she heard him muttering to himself, holding bitter, repetitive arguments with unseen persons. He was “trapped” in a “hole”. “Trap,” she heard him say over and over. “That’s what you and your family do to me. Trap me in this hole.” She saw his mouth twist with anger; she heard him curse and threaten. When they got back to the barracks he asked her to mix him doses of Macleans’ Brand Stomach Powder.

They were both looking forward to Saturday afternoon, when Seth would come and take her back to Hanuman House. There was a good reason why she couldn’t stay any longer: her school was opening on Monday.

On Saturday Seth came. He was not alone. Shama, Anand and Myna came with him. Savi ran to the road to meet them. Mr. Biswas pretended he didn’t see, and Seth smiled, as at the antics of children. Quarrels between Seth and his wife were unknown, and it was his policy never to interfere in quarrels between sisters and their husbands. But Mr. Biswas knew that despite the smile Seth had come as Shama’s protector.

He immediately took out the green table to the yard, setting it some distance away from the room, and the labourers queued up, screening him from Shama. While he sat beside Seth, calling out tasks and wages and making entries in the ledger, he listened to Savi talking excitedly to Shama and Anand. He heard Shama’s cooing replies. Soon she was so sure of the children’s affection that she was even scolding them. What a difference there was, though, in the voice she used now and the voice she used at Hanuman House!

And even while he noted Shama’s duplicity, he felt that Savi had betrayed him.

The labourers were paid. Seth said he wanted to have a look at the fields; it was not necessary for Mr. Biswas to come with him.

Shama was sitting in the kitchen area. She held Myna in her arms and was playing with her, talking baby-talk. Savi and Anand looked on. When Mr. Biswas passed, Shama glanced at him but did not stop talking to Myna.

Savi and Anand looked up apprehensively.

Mr. Biswas went into the room and sat in the rocking-chair.

Shama said loudly, “Anand, go and ask your father if he would like a cup of tea.”

Anand came, shy and worried, and mumbled the message.

Mr. Biswas did not reply. He studied Anand’s big head and thin arms. The skin at the elbow was baggy, and scarred purple with eczema. Had he too been fed on sulphur and condensed milk?

Anand waited, then went outside.

Mr. Biswas rocked. The floor-planks were wide and rough. One had cambered and cracked; whenever the rockers came down on it, it squeaked and snapped.

Savi, not looking at Mr. Biswas, brought Myna into the room and laid her carefully on the bed.

Shama was fanning the coal-pot.

Savi, her pyromaniacal instincts aroused, hurried out of the room, saying, “Ma, you getting coal all over your clothes. Let me.”

So. They had all forgotten the doll’s house. He drew up his feet on to the chair, leaned his head back, closed his eyes and rocked. The board replied.

“Anand, take this to your father.”

He heard Anand approaching but didn’t open his eyes. He wondered whether he shouldn’t take the tea and fling it over Shama’s fussy embroidered dress and smiling, uncertain face.

He opened his eyes, took the cup from Anand, and sipped.

When Seth came back he smiled at everyone benevolently and sat down on the steps. Shama gave him a large cup of tea and he drank it in three gurgling draughts, snorting and sighing in between. He took off his hat and smoothed his damp hair. Suddenly he began to laugh. “Mohun, I hear you have a case.”

“Case? Oh, case! Small one. Tiny tiny. Baby case, really.”

“You are a funny sort of paddler. Get your summons yet?”

“Waiting for it.”

“And Savi. You get your summons yet?”

Savi smiled, as though there had been no terror in the dark road and the flash of the policeman’s torch.

“Well, don’t worry.” Seth got up. “These people just want to see whether your dollar-notes look any different from theirs. I settle it up. Wouldn’t do anybody any good for your case to come up.”

And he was gone.

Mr. Biswas closed his eyes, rocked on the noisy board, and the children became anxious again.

He remained in the chair until it was dark and time to eat. Oil lamps were lighted in many barrackrooms. Far down a drunk man was swearing.

Savi and Anand ate sitting on the steps. As he ate at the green table Mr. Biswas became less torpid, and Shama correspondingly gloomier. Towards the end of the meal he even began to clown. He squatted on the chair, with his left hand squashed between calf and thigh, and asked banteringly, “Why you didn’t stay at the monkey house, eh?”

She didn’t reply.

After he had washed his hands and gargled out of the side window, Shama sat down on the steps to eat. He watched her.

“Crying, eh?”

Slowly the tears flowed out of her wide eyes.

“So you vex up then?”

One tear raced down her cheek and hung trembling over her top lip.

“It tickling?”

Her mouth was half full but she stopped chewing.

“Don’t tell me the food so bad.”

She said, as though to herself, “If it wasn’t for the children-”

“If it wasn’t for the children, what?”

She continued to chew with a loud and morose deliberation.

In one corner Savi and Anand were rolling out sacks and sheets on which to sleep.

“You come,” Shama said. “You come, you didn’t look right, you didn’t look left, you start getting on, you curse me upside down-”

It was the beginning of her apology. He didn’t interrupt.

“You didn’t know what I had to put up with. Talking night and day. Puss-puss here. Puss-puss there. Chinta dropping remarks all the time. Everybody beating their children the moment they start talking to Savi. Nobody wanting to talk to me. Everybody behaving as though I kill their father.” She stopped, and cried. “So I had to satisfy them. I break up the dolly-house and everybody was satisfied. And then you come. You didn’t look right, you didn’t look left-”

“Charge of the Light Brigade. You think Chinta would break up a dolly-house Govind buy? If you could imagine Govind doing anything like that. Tell me, what does that brother-in-law of yours use for food, eh? Dirt? You think Chinta would break up a dolly-house Govind buy?”

She wept over her plate.

Later she wept over the washingup, repeatedly interrupting her tears, first to blow her nose, then to sing sad songs softly, and finally to ask about Savi’s behaviour during the week.

He told how Savi had thrown away the old woman’s food. Shama was gratified, and told other stories of the girl’s sensibility. Savi, still anxiously awake and only pretending to be asleep, listened with pleasure. Again Shama told of Savi’s dislike for fish and how Mrs. Tulsi had overcome that dislike. She also spoke of Anand, who was so sensitive that biscuits made his mouth bleed.

Mr. Biswas, his mood now soft as hers, did not say that he thought this to be a sign of undernourishment. Instead he began to talk about his house and Shama listened without enthusiasm but without objection.

“And as soon as the house finish, going to buy that gold brooch for you, girl!”

“I would like to see the day.”

They had come on Saturday. On Monday Savi had to go back to school.

“Stay here,” Mr. Biswas said. “They don’t teach much on the first day.”

“How you know?” Savi said. “You ever went to school?”

“Yes, miss. I went to school. You are not the only one to go to school, you know.”

“If I stay I will have to have an excuse to give Teacher.”

“I will write one for you in two twos. Dear Teacher, My daughter Savi is unable to attend school for the first week because she has been staying with her grandmother and is suffering from serious undernourishment.”

On Sunday evening Shama took Savi and Anand back to Arwacas. She went to Hanuman House again. And so for the rest of the term she came and left; and he never ceased to feel that he was alone, with the trees, the newspapers on the wall, the religious quotations, his books.

One thing gave him comfort. He had claimed Savi.

At Easter he learned that Shama was pregnant for the fourth time.

One child claimed; one still hostile; one unknown. And now another.


The future he feared was upon him. He was falling into the void, and that terror, known only in dreams, was with him as he lay awake at nights, hearing the snores and creaks and the occasional cries of babies from the other rooms. The relief that morning brought steadily diminished. Food and tobacco were tasteless. He was always tired, and always restless. He went often to Hanuman House; as soon as he was there he wanted to leave. Sometimes he cycled to Arwacas without going to the house, changing his mind in the High Street, turning round and cycling back to Green Vale. When he closed the door of his room for the night it was like an imprisonment.

He talked to himself, shouted, did everything as noisily as he could.

Nothing replied. Nothing changed. Amazing scenes were witnessed yesterday when. The newspapers remained as jaunty as they had been, the quotations as sedate. Of him I will never lose hold and he shall never lose hold of me. But now in the shape and position of everything around him, the trees, the furniture, even those letters he had made with brush and ink, there was an alertness, an expectancy.

Seth announced one Saturday that there were to be changes on the estate at the end of the crop season. Some twenty acres which had for many years been rented to labourers were to be taken over. Seth and Mr. Biswas went from hut to hut, breaking the news. As soon as he entered a labourer’s hut Seth lost his briskness. He looked tired and sounded tired; he accepted a cup of tea and drank it wearily; then he spoke, as though the matter was trivial, burdensome only to him, and the land was being taken from the labourers purely for their benefit. The labourers listened politely and asked Seth and Mr. Biswas whether they wanted more tea. Seth accepted at once, saying it was very good tea. He played with the thin-limbed, big-eyed children, made them laugh and gave them coppers to buy sweeties. Their parents protested he was spoiling them.

Afterwards Seth said to Mr. Biswas, “You can’t trust those buggers. They are going to give a lot of trouble. You better watch out.”

The labourers never spoke about the land to Mr. Biswas, and while the crop was being reaped there was no trouble.

When the land was bare Seth said, “They will want to dig up the roots. Don’t let them.”

It was not long before Mr. Biswas had to report that some roots had been dug up.

Seth said, “It looks as though I will have to horsewhip one or two of them.”

“No, not that. You go back every night to sleep safe and sound in Arwacas. I have to stay here.”

In the end they decided to employ a watchman, and the land was prepared, without further trouble, for the new crop.

“You think the whole thing worth it?” Mr. Biswas asked. “Paying watchman and everything?”

“In a year or so we wouldn’t have any trouble,” Seth said. “People get used to everything.”

And it seemed that Seth was.right. The dispossessed labourers, though they saw Mr. Biswas every day, contented themselves with sending him messages by other labourers.

“Dookinan says that he know you have a kind heart and wouldn’t want to do anything to harm him. Five children, you know.”

“Is not me,” Mr. Biswas said. “Is not my land. I just doing a job and drawing a salary.”

The labourers’ acceptance, at first touched with hope, turned to resignation. And resignation turned to hostility, directed not against Seth, who was feared, but against Mr. Biswas. He was no longer mocked; but no one smiled at him, and outside the fields he was ignored.

Every night he bolted himself in his room. As soon as he was still he felt the stillness around him and he had to make movements to destroy the stillness, to challenge the alertness of the room and the objects in it.

He was rocking hard on the creaking board one night when he thought of the power of the rockers to grind and crush and inflict pain, on his hands and toes and the tenderer parts of his body. He rose at once in agony, covering his groin with his hands, sucking hard on his teeth, listening to the chair as, rocking, it moved sideways along the cambered plank. The chair fell silent. He looked away from it. On the wall he saw a nail that could puncture his eye. The window could trap and mangle. So could the door. Every leg of the green table could press and crush. The castors of the dressing-table. The drawers. He lay face down on the bed, not wanting to see and, to drive out the shapes of objects from his head, he concentrated on the shapes of letters, working out design after design for the letter R. At last he fell asleep, with his hands covering the vulnerable parts of his body, and wishing he had hands to cover himself all over. In the morning he was better; he had forgotten his fears.

There had been many changes at Hanuman House, but though he went there two or three times a week he noticed the changes as from a distance and felt in no way concerned. Marriage had taken away one wave of children, among them the contortionist. Marriage had also overtaken the elder god, though for some time it had looked as though he might be reprieved. The search among the eligible families had failed to provide someone beautiful and educated and rich enough to satisfy Mrs. Tulsi or her daughters, who, notwithstanding the chancy haste of their own marriages, based solely on caste, thought that their brother’s bride should be chosen with a more appropriate concern. For a short time afterwards a search was made for an educated, beautiful and rich girl from a caste family who had been converted to Christianity and had lapsed. Finally, it was agreed that any educated, beautiful and rich Indian girl would do, provided she had no Muslim taint. The oil families, whatever their original condition, were too grand. So they searched among the families in soft drinks, the families in ice, the transport families, the cinema families, the families in filling stations. And at last, in a laxly Presbyterian family with one filling station, two lorries, a cinema and some land, they found a girl. Each side patronized the other and neither suspected it was being patronized; after smooth and swift negotiations the marriage took place in a registry office, and the elder god, contrary to Hindu custom and the traditions of his family, did not bring his bride home, but left Hanuman House for good, no longer talking of suicide, to look after the lorries, cinema, land and filling station of his wife’s family.

His departure was followed by another. Mrs. Tulsi went to live in Port of Spain, not caring for the younger god to be in that city by himself, and not trusting anyone else to look after him. She bought not one house, but three: one to live in, two to rent out. She travelled up to Port of Spain with the god every Sunday evening and came down with him every Friday afternoon.

During her absences the accepted degrees of precedence at Hanuman House lost some of their meaning. Sushila, the widow, was reduced to nonentity. Many sisters attempted to seize power and a number of squabbles ensued. Offended sisters ostentatiously looked after their own families, sometimes even cooking separately for a day or two. Padma, Seth’s wife, alone continued to be respected, but she showed no inclination to assert authority. Seth exacted the obedience of everyone; he could not impose harmony. That was reestablished every week-end, when Mrs. Tulsi and the younger god returned.

And just before the school holidays all quarrels were forgotten. The house was scrubbed and cleaned, the brass polished and the yard tidied, as though to receive passing royalty; and the brothers-in-law vied with one another in laying aside offerings for the god: a Julie mango, a bunch of bananas, an especially large purple-skinned avocado pear.

Mr. Biswas brought nothing. Shama complained.

“And what about my son, eh?” Mr. Biswas said. “He lost in the crowd? Who looking after him? He not studying too?”

For, halfway through the term, Anand had begun to go to the mission school. He hated it. He soaked his shoes in water; he was flogged and sent to school in wet shoes. He threw away Captain Cutteridge’s First Primer and said it had been stolen; he was flogged and given another copy.

“Anand is a coward,” Savi told Mr. Biswas. “He still frightened of school. And you know what Aunt Chinta say to him yesterday? ‘If you don’t look out you will come a grass-cutter just like your father.’ “

“Grass-cutter! Look, look, Savi. The next time your aunt Chinta open that big mouth”-he broke off, remembering grammar-“the next time she opens her big mouth-”

Savi smiled.

“-you just ask her whether she has ever read Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus.”

These were household names to Savi.

“Munnih-munnih-munnih,” Mr. Biswas muttered.


“Money. Checking munnih-munnih-munnih. That is the only way your mother’s family like to get their fat little hands dirty. Look, the next time Chinta or anybody else says I am a grass-cutter, you just tell them that it is better to be a grass-cutter than a crab-catcher. You got that? Better to be a grass-cutter than a crab-catcher.”

And he opened the campaign himself. He had seen some large blue-backed crabs scrambling awkwardly about the black tank in the yard. “Whoo!” he said in the hall. “Those are big crabs in the tank. Where did they come from?”

“Govind bought them for Mai and Owad,” Chinta said proudly.

“Bought them?” Mr. Biswas said. “Anybody would say that he caught them.”

When he next went to Hanuman House he found that Savi had delivered all his messages.

Chinta came straight up to him and said, with the mannishness she put on when Mrs. Tulsi was away, “Brother-in-law, I want you to know that until you came to this house there were no crab-catchers here.”

“Eh? No what?”


“Crab-catchers? What about crab-catchers? You don’t have enough here?”

“Marcus Aurelius-Aurelius,” Chinta said, retreating to the kitchen. “Shama sister, I don’t want to meddle in the way you are bringing up your children, but you are turning them into men and women before their time.”

Mr. Biswas winked at Savi.

Presently Chinta came out to the hall again. She had obviously thought of something to say. Sternly and needlessly she rearranged chairs and benches and straightened the photographs of Pundit Tulsi and a huge Chinese calendar which showed a woman of sly beauty against a background of tamed trees and waterfalls. “Savi,” Chinta said at last, and her voice was gentle, “you reach first standard at school and you must know the poetry Captain Cutteridge have in that book. I don’t think your father know it because I don’t think your father reach first standard.”

Mr. Biswas had not been brought up on Captain Cutteridge but on the Royal Reader. Nevertheless he said, “First standard? I skipped that one. I went straight from Introductory to second standard.”

“I thought so, brother-in-law. But you, Savi, you know the poetry I mean. The one about felo-de-se. The little pigs. You know it?”

“I know it! I know it!” a boy exclaimed. This was Jai, the expert lace-knotter, fourteen months younger than Savi. He had developed into something of an exhibitionist. He ran to the centre of the hall, held his hands behind his back and said, “The Three Little Piggies. By Sir Alfred Scott-Gatty.”

A jolly old sow once lived in a sty.

And three little piggies had she,

And she waddled about, saying, “Umph! Umph! Utnph!”

While the little ones said, “Wee! Wee!”

”My dear little brothers,” said one of the brats,

”My dear little piggies,” said he,

”Let us all for the future say, ‘Umph! Umph! Umph!’

”Tis so childish to say, ‘Wee! Wee!’”

While Jai recited Chinta moved her head up and down in time to the rhythm and stared smilingly at Savi.

“So after a time,” Jai went on,

So after a time these little pigs died,

They all died of “felo-de-se”,

From trying too hard to say, “Umph! Umph! Umph!”

When they could only say, “Wee! Wee!”

“A moral there is to this little song,” Chinta said, continuing the poem with Jai and wagging her finger at Savi. “A moral that’s easy to see.”

“Felo-de-se?” Mr. Biswas said. “Sounds like the name of a crab-catcher to me.”

Chinta stamped, irritated as when she lost at cards, and, looking as though she was about to cry, went back to the kitchen.

“Shama sister,” Mr. Biswas heard her say in a breaking voice, “I want you to ask your husband to stop provoking me. Otherwise I will just have to tell him ”-her husband, Govind-“and you know what happened when he had a little falling-out with your husband.”

“All right, Chinta sister, I will tell him.”

Shama came out and said, with annoyance, “Man, stop provoking C. You know she can’t take jokes.”

“Jokes? What jokes? Crab-catching is no joke, you hear.”

Chinta had her revenge a few days later.

Mr. Biswas arrived at Hanuman House when the evening meal was over and the children were sitting about the hall in groups of three or four, reading primers or pretending to read. One of the economies of the house was that as many children as possible shared a book; and the children were talking among themselves and trying to hide the fact by holding their hands over their mouths and turning pages regularly. When Mr. Biswas came they looked at him with amusement and expectancy.

Chinta smiled. “You have come to see your son, brother-in-law?”

A rustle of turning pages coincided with many muffled titters.

Savi left a group around a book and came to Mr. Biswas. She looked unhappy. “Anand upstairs.” When they were halfway up she whispered, “He kneeling down.”

In the hall Chinta was singing.

“Kneeling down? What for?”

“He mess up himself at school today and had to leave.”

They went through the Book Room to the long room, which he and Shama had occupied after their marriage. The lotus decorations on the wall were as faded as before; the Demerara window through which he had gargled was propped open with a section of a broomstick.

Anand was kneeling in a corner with his face to the wall.

“He kneeling down since this afternoon,” Savi said.

Mr. Biswas didn’t feel this was true. Anand had been left to himself, and was now kneeling upright, without a sign of fatigue, as though he had just begun.

“Stop kneeling,” Mr. Biswas said.

He was surprised at Anand’s outraged and querulous reply. “They tell me to kneel down and I going to kneel down.”

It was the first time he had seen Anand in a temper. He looked at the boy’s narrow shoulder blades below the thin cotton shirt; the slender neck, the large head; the thin eczema-stained legs in small, loose trousers; the blackened soles-shoes were to be worn only outside the house-and the big toes.

“He was frightened,” Savi said.

“To do what?”

“Frightened to ask Teacher permission to leave the room. And when he leave the room he was frightened again. Frightened to use the school we.”

“Is a nasty, stinking place,” Anand burst out, getting off his knees and turning to face them.

“It really is,” Savi said. “And then-well-”

Anand cried.

“He went back to the classroom and Teacher ask him to leave.”

Anand looked down at the floor, sniffing and running his fingers along the grooves between the floorboards.

“Well, just then school was over and everybody walk behind Anand. Everybody was laughing.”

“And when I come home Ma beat me,” Anand said. He wasn’t complaining. He was angry. “Ma beat me. She beat me.” Repeated, the words lost their anger and became pleas for sympathy.

Mr. Biswas became the buffoon. He told about his own misadventure at Pundit Jairam’s, caricaturing himself, and ridiculing Anand’s shame.

Anand didn’t look up or smile. But he had ceased to cry. He said, “I don’t want to go back to that school.”

“You want to come with me?”

Anand didn’t reply.

They all went down to the hall.

Mr. Biswas said, “Look, Shama, don’t make this boy kneel down again, you hear.”

Sushila, the widow, said, “When we were small Mai used to make us kneel on graters for a thing like that.”

“Well, I don’t want my children to grow up like you, that is all.”

Sushila, childless, husbandless and now without the protection of Mrs. Tulsi, swept upstairs, complaining that advantage was being taken of her situation.

Chinta said, “You are taking your son home with you, brother-in-law?”

Shama, noting Mr. Biswas’s serene mood, said sternly, “Anand not going anywhere. He got to stay here and go to school.”

“Why?” Chinta asked. “Brother-in-law could teach him. I sure he know the ABC.”

“A for apple, B for bat, C for crab,” Mr. Biswas said.

Anand followed Mr. Biswas outside and seemed unwilling to let him leave. He said nothing; he simply hung around the bicycle, occasionally rubbing up against it. Mr. Biswas was irritated by his shyness, but he was again touched by the boy’s fragility and the carefully ragged “home clothes” which Anand, like the other children, wore the minute he came from school. Anand’s washed-out khaki shorts were spectacularly patched, had slits but no pockets and a gaping empty fob. His shirt was darned and frayed and the collar was chewed; from the crooked stitches, the irregular cut, the weak and absurd decoration on the pocket Mr. Biswas could tell that the shirt had been made by Shama.

He asked, “You want to come with me?”

Anand only smiled and looked down and spun the bicycle pedal with his big toe.

It would soon be dark. Mr. Biswas had no lamp (every bicycle lamp and every bicycle pump he bought was promptly stolen) and he could never contrive, as some cyclists did, less to light their way than to appease the police, to ride with a lighted candle in an open paper-bag in one hand.

He cycled down the High Street. Just past the shop with the Red Rose Tea Is Good Tea sign, he looked back. Anand was still under the arcade, next to one of the thick white pillars with the lotus-shaped base; standing and staring like that other boy Mr. Biswas had seen outside a low hut at dusk.

When he got to Green Vale it was dark. Under the trees it was night. The sounds from the barracks were assertive and isolated one from the other: snatches of talk, the sound of frying, a shout, the cry of a child: sounds thrown up at the starlit sky from a place that was nowhere, a dot on the map of the island, which was a dot on the map of the world. The dead trees ringed the barracks, a wall of flawless black.

He locked himself in his room.

That week he decided he couldn’t wait any longer. Unless he started his house now he never would. His children would stay at Hanuman House, he would remain in the barrack-room, and nothing would arrest his descent into the void. Every night he wound himself up to a panic at his inaction, every morning he reaffirmed his decision, and on Saturday he spoke to Seth about a site.

“Rent you land?” Seth said. “Rent? Look, man, there is the land. Why don’t you just choose a site and build? Don’t talk to me about renting.”

The site Mr. Biswas had in mind was about two hundred yards from the barracks, screened from it by the trees and separated from it by a shallow damp depression which ran with muddy water after rain. Trees also screened the road. But when he thought of the land as the site of his house, the trees did not seem unfriendly; and he liked to think of the spot as a “bower”, a word that had come to him from Wordsworth by way of the Royal Reader.

On Sunday morning, after he had had some cocoa, shop bread and red butter, he went to see the builder. The builder lived in a crumbling wooden house in a small Negro settlement not far from Arwacas. Just over the gutter a badly-written notice board announced that George Maclean was a carpenter and cabinet-maker; this announcement was choked by much subsidiary information scattered all over the board in small and wavering letters; Mr. Maclean was also a blacksmith and a painter; he made tin cups and he soldered; he sold fresh eggs; he had a ram for service; and all his prices were keen.

Mr. Biswas called, “Morning!”

From the shack in the hard yellow yard a Negro woman came out, a large calabash full of corn in one hand. Her tight cotton dress imperfectly covered her big body and her kinky hair was in curlers and twists of newspaper.

“The carpenter home?” Mr. Biswas asked.

The woman called, “Georgie!” For a fat woman her voice was surprisingly thin.

Mr. Maclean appeared above the half-door at the side of the house. He looked at Mr. Biswas suspiciously.

The woman walked to the far end of the yard, scattering corn and clucking loudly, calling the poultry to feed.

Mr. Biswas didn’t know how to begin. He couldn’t just say, “I want to build a house.” He didn’t have all the necessary money and he didn’t want to deceive Mr. Maclean or expose himself to his scorn. He said shyly, “I have a little business I want to talk to you about.”

Mr. Maclean pushed open the lower half of the door and came down the concrete steps. He was middle-aged, tall and thin; he looked as eager and uncertain as his board. His profession was a frustrating one. The county abounded in work he had not been allowed to finish: exposed and rotting house-frames, houses that had begun with concrete and dressed wood and ended with mud walls and tree branches. Evidence of his compensating activities lay about the yard. In an open shed at the back a half-finished wheel stood amid shavings. Here and there Mr. Biswas saw goat droppings.

“What sort of business?” Mr. Maclean asked. He reached up and pulled a window open. It rattled and glittered; it was hung on the inside with strings of tin cups.

“Is about a house.”

“Oh. Repairs?”

“Not exactly. It ain’t build yet. As a matter of fact-”

“Georgie!” Mrs. Maclean shouted. “Come and see what that damn mongoose do again.”

Mr. Maclean went to the back of the house. Mr. Biswas heard him mumbling evenly. “Damn nuisance,” he said, coming back, striking his trousers with a switch. “So, you want me to build a house for you?”

Mr. Biswas mistook his wariness for sarcasm and said defensively, “Is not a mansion.”

“That is a blessing. Too much people putting up mansion these days. You ever had a close look at the County Road?” He paused. “Upstairs house?”

Mr. Biswas nodded. “Upstairs house. Small thing. But neat. I don’t want too much to make me happy,” he ran on, made uneasy by Mr. Maclean. “I don’t see any point in pretending that you have more money than you really have.”

“Naturally,” Mr. Maclean said. With the switch he flicked some fowl droppings from the yard into the thick dust under the floor of his own house. Then he drew two equal and adjacent squares on the ground. “You want two bedrooms.”

“And a drawingroom.”

Mr. Maclean added another square of the same size. To this he added half a square and said, “And a gallery.”

“That’s it. Nothing too fancy for me. Small and neat.”

“You want a door from the gallery to the front bedroom. A wood door. And you want another door to the drawing-room. With coloured glass panes.”

“Yes, yes.”

“One side of the gallery you want board up. For the front you would like some fancy rails. You want a nice concrete step with a banister in front.”

“Yes, yes.”

“For the front bedroom you want glass windows, and if you get the money you going to paint them white. The back windows could be pure board. And you want a plain wood staircase at the back, with no banister or anything like that. The kitchen you going to build yourself, somewhere in the yard.”


“That’s a nice little house you have there. A lot of people would like it. It going to cost you about two hundred and fifty, three hundred dollars. Labour, you know-” He looked at Mr. Biswas and slowly rubbed a bare foot over the drawing on the ground. “I don’t know. I busy these days.” He pointed to the unfinished wheel in the shed.

A hen cackled, proclaiming an egg.

“Georgie! Is the Leghorn.”

There was a tremendous squawking and flapping among the poultry.

Mr. Maclean said, “Is a lucky thing. Otherwise she was going straight in the pot.”

“We not bound and “bliged to build the whole thing right away,” Mr. Biswas said. “Rome wasn’t built in a day, you know.”

“So they say. But Rome get build. Anyway, as soon as I get some time I going to come and we could look at the site. You have a site?”

“Yes, yes, man. Have a site.”

“Well, in about two-three days then.”

He came early that afternoon, in hat, shoes and an ironed shirt, and they went to look at the site.

“Is a real little bower,” Mr. Biswas said.

“Is a sloping site!” Mr. Maclean said in surprise and almost with pleasure. “You really have to have high pillars.”

“High on one side, low on the other. It could practically be a style. And then I was thinking about a little path down to the road here. Steps. In the ground itself. Garden on both sides. Roses. Exora. Oleanders. Bougainvillaea and poinsettia. And some Queen of Flowers. And a neat little bamboo bridge to the road.”

“It sound nice.”

“I was thinking. About the house. It would be nice to have concrete pillars. Not naked though. I don’t think that does look nice. Plastered and smooth.”

“I know what you mean. You think you could give me about a hundred and fifty dollars just to start off with?”

Mr. Biswas hesitated.

“You mustn’t think I want to meddle in your private affairs. I just wanting to know how much you want to spend right away.”

Mr. Biswas walked away from Mr. Maclean, among the bushes on the damp site, the weeds and the nettles. “About a hundred,” he said. “But at the end of the month I could give you a little bit more.”

“A hundred.”

“All right?”

“Yes, is all right. For a start.”

They went through the weeds and over the leaf-choked gutter to the narrow gravelly road.

“Every month we build a little,” Mr. Biswas said. “Little by little.”

“Yes, little by little.” Mr. Maclean wasn’t animated, but some of his wariness had gone; he even sounded encouraging. “I will have to get some labour. Helluva thing these days, getting good labour.” He spoke the word with relish.

And the word pleased Mr. Biswas too. “Yes, you must get labour,” he said, suppressing his astonishment that there were people who depended on Mr. Maclean for a living.

“But you better get a few more cents quick.” Mr. Maclean said, almost friendly now. “Otherwise you wouldn’t get any concrete pillars.”

“Must have concrete pillars.”

“Then all the house you going to build will be a row of concrete pillars with nothing on top of them.”

They walked on.

“A row of coal barrels,” Mr. Biswas said.

Mr. Maclean didn’t intrude.

“Just send me a coal barrel. Yes, you old bitch. Just a coal barrel.”

He decided to borrow the money from Ajodha. He didn’t want to ask Seth or Mrs. Tulsi. And he couldn’t ask Misir: their relationship had cooled since he had borrowed from him to pay Mungroo and Seebaran and Mahmoud. And yet he was unwilling to go to Ajodha. He walked out of the barrackyard but before he reached the main road decided to let the matter rest until the following Sunday. He walked back to his room and put on his bicycle clips, thinking he would spend the afternoon at Hanuman House instead. But he knew so clearly what he would find there that he took off his bicycle clips. Eventually it was the room that drove him out. He caught two buses and was at Pagotes in the late afternoon.

He entered Tara’s yard through the wide side gate of unpainted corrugated iron and went down the gravelled way to the garage and the cowpen. Nothing in this part of the yard seemed to have changed since he had first seen it. The plum tree was as desolate as ever; it bore fruit regularly but its grey branches were almost bare and looked dry and stiff and brittle. He no longer wondered what would be done with the heap of scrap metal, and he had given up the hope, which he had had as a boy, of seeing the rusting body of a motorcar reanimated and driven away. The mound of manured grass changed in size but remained where it always had been. For despite the cost and the trouble, and the multiplication of his business interests, Ajodha still kept two or three cows in his yard. They were his pets; he spent most of his free time in the cowpen, which he could never finish improving.

From the cowpen came the hiss of milk in a bucket and the mumble of conversation. It was Sunday; Ajodha would certainly be in the cowpen. Mr. Biswas didn’t look. He hurried to the back verandah, hoping to see Tara first and to catch her alone.

She was alone, except for the servant girl. She greeted him so warmly that he at once felt ashamed of his mission. His resolve to speak directly came to nothing, for when he asked how she was she replied at length and, instead of asking for money, he had to give sympathy. Indeed, she didn’t look well. Her breathing had grown worse and she couldn’t move about easily; her body had broadened and become slack; her hair had thinned; her eyes had lost their brightness.

The servant girl brought him a cup of tea and Tara followed the girl back to the kitchen.

The top shelves of the bookcase were still packed with the disintegrating volumes of The Book of Comprehensive Knowledge, for which Ajodha had not paid. The lower shelves contained magazines, motor manufacturers’ catalogues and illustrated trilingual souvenir booklets of Indian films. The religious pictures on the walls were crowded out by calendars from the distributors of American and English motor vehicles, and an enormous framed photograph of an Indian actress.

Tara came back to the verandah and said that she hoped Mr. Biswas would stay to dinner. He had intended to; apart from everything else, he liked their food. She sat down in Ajodha’s rockingchair and asked after the children. He told her about the one that was coming. She asked about the Tulsis and he replied as briefly as he could. He knew that, though the two houses had little to do with one another, an antagonism existed between them. The Tulsis, who did puja every day and celebrated every Hindu festival, regarded Ajodha as a man who pursued wealth and comfort and modernity and had alienated himself from the faith. Ajodha and Tara simply thought the Tulsis squalid, and had always made it clear that they considered Mr. Biswas’s marriage into that house a calamity. It was doubly embarrassing to Mr. Biswas to discuss the Tulsis with Tara, since despite his concern for his children he found it hard not to agree with her view, particularly when he was in her clean, uncrowded, comfortable house, waiting for a meal he knew would be good.

The cowman came from the pen, called to the girl in the kitchen and passed her the bucket of milk through the window. Then, at the standpipe in the yard he washed his Wellingtons, took them off, washed his feet and hands and face.

Mr. Biswas felt more and more reluctant to tell Tara what he had come for.

Then it was too late. Rabidat, Bhandat’s younger son, came in, and Tara and Mr. Biswas fell silent. As far as Tara and Ajodha were concerned, Rabidat was still a bachelor, though it was generally known that, like his brother Jagdat, he was living with a woman of another race and had some children, no one knew how many, by her. He was wearing sandals and brief khaki shorts; his tailless shirt flapped loose, unbuttoned all the way down, the short sleeves rolled up almost to his armpits. It was as though, unable to hide his prognathous face, he wished to display the rest of himself as well. He had a superb body, well proportioned and well developed and not grossly muscular. He barely nodded to Mr. Biswas and ignored Tara. When he sat sprawling on a chair, two thin folds of skin appeared about his middle; they were almost a disfigurement of his neatness. He sucked his teeth, took a film booklet from the bookcase and flicked through it, breathing loudly, his small eyes intent, his prognathous sneer more pronounced. He threw the booklet back on the bookcase and said, “How is everything, Mohun?” Without waiting for an answer he shouted at the kitchen, “Food, girl!” and clamped his mouth shut.

“Ooh! The married man!”

It was Ajodha, back from the cowpen.

Rabidat rearranged his legs.

Before Mr. Biswas could reply, Ajodha stopped smiling and spoke to Rabidat about the behaviour of a certain lorry.

Rabidat shifted in his chair and sucked his teeth, not looking up.

Ajodha raised his voice querulously.

Rabidat explained awkwardly, sulkily, insolently. He seemed to be trying to bite the inside of his lower lip, and his voice, though deep, was blurred.

Abruptly Ajodha lost interest in the lorry and smiled mischievously at Mr. Biswas.

Tara got up from the rockingchair and Ajodha sat in it, fanning his face and opening a shirt button to reveal a grey-haired chest. “How many children has the married man got now? Seven, eight, a dozen?”

Rabidat smiled uneasily, got up and went to the kitchen.

Mr. Biswas thought he would be brave and begin. “Late last night,” he said, “some “larmist bring me a message that my mother was very sick. So I came to see her today and as I was here I thought I would come and see you.”

The servant girl brought a glass of milk for Ajodha. He received it reverentially, holding the glass as though any pressure might cause it to break. He said, “Bring Mohun some. You know, Mohun, milk is a food in itself, especially when it is fresh like this.”

The milk was brought and drunk. Mr. Biswas welcomed the pause. The absurd story he hadjust made up didn’t sound convincing, and he hoped he would be allowed to drop it.

“And how was your mother?” Tara asked. “I heard nothing.”

“Oh, she. She was all right. It was just some “larmist, that was all.”

Ajodha rocked gently. “What about your job, Mohun? Somehow I never felt you were made for a job in the fields. Eh, Tara?”

“Well, as a matter of fact,” Mr. Biswas said briskly, “it was that I wanted to talk to you about. You see, this is a steady job-”

Ajodha said, “Mohun, I don’t think you are looking well at all. Eh, Tara? Look at his face. And, eh-” He broke off with a giggle and said in English, “Look, look. He getting a punch.” He stabbed at Mr. Biswas’s belly with a long sharp finger, and when Mr. Biswas winced Ajodha gave a little yelping laugh. “Pap,” he said. “Your belly soft like pap. Like a woman. All you young people getting bellies these days.” He winked at Mr. Biswas; then, tilting back his head, he said loudly, “Even Rabidat got a punch.”

Tara gave a short, chesty laugh.

Rabidat came out of the kitchen, chewing, his mouth full, and mumbled incomprehensibly.

Ajodha grimaced, “Take your face back to the kitchen. You know you make me ill when you talk with your mouth full.”

Rabidat swallowed hurriedly. “Punch?” he said, nibbling at his lower lip. “I got a punch?” He pulled his shirt off his shoulders, drew in his breath and the definitions of his abdominal muscles became sharper. Above his sneering mouth his small eyes glittered.

Smiling, Ajodha said, “All right, Rabidat. Go back and eat. I was only teasing.” The demonstration had pleased him; he was as proud of Rabidat’s body as of his own. “Good food,” he told Mr. Biswas. “And lots of exercise.” He threw back his shoulders, stuck out his stomach, grabbed Mr. Biswas’s soft hand with his firm, long fingers and said, “Feel that. Come on, feel it.” Mr. Biswas didn’t respond. Ajodha seized one of Mr. Biswas’s fingers and pulled it hard against his stomach. Mr. Biswas felt his finger bend backwards; he wrenched it from Ajodha’s grasp. “There,” Ajodha said. “Hard as steel. You still sleep with a pillow, I imagine?”

Surreptitiously rubbing his paining finger against its neighbour, Mr. Biswas nodded.

“I never use a pillow. Nature didn’t intend us to use pillows. Train your children from the start, Mohun. Don’t let them use pillows. Ooh! Four children!” Ajodha gave another little yelp of laughter, jumped out of his chair, walked to the verandah half-wall and shouted irritably to someone outside. He had heard the cowman preparing to leave and was only bidding him good night; that was the voice he always used with his employees. The cowman replied and Ajodha returned to his chair. “Married man!”

“Well, as I was saying,” Mr. Biswas said, “this job I have is steady. And I am beginning to build a little house.”

“O good, Mohun,” Tara said. “Very good.”

“I don’t know how you managed to live at Hanuman House,” Ajodha said. “How many people live in that place?”

“About two hundred,” Mr. Biswas said, and they all laughed. “Now, this house is going to be a proper house-”

“You know what you should do, Mohun?” Ajodha said. “You should take Sanatogen. Not one bottle. Take the full course. You don’t get any benefit unless you take the full course.”

Tara nodded.

Rabidat came out of the kitchen again. “What is this I hear about a house, Mohun? You build a house? Where you get all this money from?”

“He has been saving up,” Ajodha said impatiently. “Not like you. You are going to end up living in a hole in the ground, Rabidat. I don’t know what you do with your money.” It was only indirectly, like this, that Ajodha referred to Rabidat’s outside life.

“Look. You!” Rabidat said. “I wasn’t born with money, you hear. And I don’t have the scheming mind to make any. My father neither.” He was being provocative, since any mention of his father, like any mention of Mr. Biswas’s sister, was forbidden.

Ajodha frowned and rocked violently.

And Mr. Biswas realized that the time to ask had gone for good.

Ajodha’s look wasn’t the one he assumed so easily, of worry and petulance, which meant nothing, though it filled his employees with dread. It was a look of anger.

Ignoring Ajodha and smiling at Mr. Biswas, Rabidat asked, “A dirt house?”

“No, man. Concrete pillars. Two bedrooms and a drawing-room. Galvanized roof and everything.”

But Rabidat wasn’t listening.

“Tara!” Ajodha said. “If I didn’t take him out of the gutter, where would he be today? If I didn’t feed him all that food”-rising so swiftly that the rockingchair shot backwards, he went up to Rabidat and held his biceps-“do you think he would have these?”

“Don’t touch me!” Rabidat bawled.

Mr. Biswas jumped. Ajodha whipped away his hand.

“Don’t touch me!” Tears sprang to Rabidat’s small eyes. He closed them tightly, as if in great pain, lifted one foot high and brought it down with all his strength on the floor. “You didn’t make me. If you want to touch children, make them. What you want me to do with the food you feed me? What?”

Tara got up and passed her hand on Rabidat’s back. “All right, all right, Rabidat. It is time for you to go to the theatre.” One of his duties was to go to the cinema twice a day to check the takings.

Breathing hard, almost grunting, and chewing up his words into incomprehensible sounds, he went up the two steps that led from the back verandah to the main section of the house.

Ajodha pulled the rockingchair towards him, sat on it and began to rock briskly.

Tara smiled at Mr. Biswas. “I don’t know what to do with them, Mohun.”

“Gratitude!” Ajodha said.

“Tell us about your house, Mohun,” Tara said.

“You take them out of a barrackroom and this is what you get.”

“House?” Mr. Biswas said. “Oh, is nothing really. A small little thing. Is for the children sake that I really building it.”

“We want to build over this house,” Tara said. “But the trouble! The moment you want to put up anything good, so many forms, so many people’s permission. When we built this house we had nothing like that. But I don’t imagine you have that worry.”

“O no,” Mr. Biswas said. “No worry about that at all.”

With those light, precise motions on which he prided himself, Ajodha jumped out of his chair and went through the half-door into the yard.

“Those two,” Tara said. “Always quarrelling. But they don’t mean anything. Tomorrow they will be like father and son.”

They heard Ajodha in the cowpen abusing the absent cowman.

Jagdat, Rabidat’s elder brother, came in and asked in his cheerful way, “Something eating your husband, Aunt?” and chuckled.

Whenever Mr. Biswas saw Jagdat he felt that Jagdat had just come from a funeral. Not only was his manner breezy; there was also his dress, which had never varied for many years: black shoes, black socks, dark blue serge trousers with a black leather belt, white shirt cuffs turned up above the wrist, and a gaudy tie: so that it seemed he had come back from a funeral, taken off his coat, undone his cuffs, replaced his black tie, and was generally making up for an afternoon of solemnity. His eyes were as small as Rabidat’s, but livelier; his face was squarer; he laughed more often, showing rabbitlike teeth. With a hairy ringed hand he slapped Mr. Biswas hard on the back, saying, “The old Mohun, man!”

“The old Jagdat,” Mr. Biswas said.

“Mohun is building a house,” Tara said.

“Has he come to invite us to the housewarming? We only see you at Christmas, man. You don’t eat the rest of the year? Or is because of all the money you making?” And Jagdat roared with laughter.

Ajodha came back from the cowpen and he and Mr. Biswas and Jagdat ate in the verandah. Tara ate by herself in the kitchen. Ajodha was silent and sullen, Jagdat subdued. The food was good but Mr. Biswas ate without pleasure.

He had hoped that after the meal he would get Tara alone. But Ajodha remained rocking in the verandah and after a little Mr. Biswas thought the time had come to leave. The girl had finished washing up in the kitchen, and the night silence made it seem later than it was.

Tara said he should take back some fruit for the children.

“Vitamin C,” Ajodha said, in his irritable voice. “Give him lots of vitamin C, Tara.”

She obediently filled a bag with oranges.

Then Ajodha went inside.

As soon as he had gone Tara put some avocado pears into the bag, large purple-skinned ones such as, at Hanuman House, were set aside for Mrs. Tulsi and the god. “They will get ripe soon,” she said. “The children will like them.”

He didn’t want to explain where the children lived and where he lived. But he was glad he hadn’t asked her for money.

“I am sorry your uncle was in such a temper,” she said. “But it doesn’t mean anything. The boys are being a little difficult. They want money from him all the time and you can’t blame him for getting angry sometimes. They are spreading all sorts of stories about him, too. He doesn’t say anything. But he knows.”

Mr. Biswas went to say good-bye to Ajodha. His room was in darkness, the door was open, and Ajodha was lying on his pillowless bed with all his clothes on. Mr. Biswas knocked lightly and there was no reply. The ledges on the walls were littered with papers. The room had only four pieces of furniture: the bed, a chair, a low chest of drawers and a black iron chest, the top of which was also covered with papers and magazines. Mr. Biswas was about to go away when he heard Ajodha say gently, “I am not asleep, Mohun. But these days I always rest after eating. You mustn’t mind if I don’t talk or get up.”

On the way to the Main Road to get a bus Mr. Biswas was hailed by someone. It was Jagdat. He put his hand on Mr. Biswas’s shoulder and conspiratorially offered a cigarette. Ajodha forbade smoking and for Jagdat a cigarette was still an excitement.

Jagdat said breezily, “You come to squeeze something out of the old man, eh?”

“What? Me? I just come to see the old people, man.”

“That wasn’t what the old man tell me.”

Jagdat waited, then clapped Mr. Biswas on the back.

“But I didn’t tell him anything.”

“The old Mohun, man. Trying out the old diplomatic tactic, eh. The old tic-tac-toe.”

“I wasn’t trying out anything.”

“No, no. You mustn’t think I look down on you for trying. What else you think I doing every day? But the old man sharp, boy. He could smell a thing like that before you even start thinking about it. So what, eh? You still building this house for the children sake?”

“You build one for yours?”

There was a sudden abatement of Jagdat’s high spirits. He stopped, half turned, as though about to go back, and raising his voice, said angrily, “So they spreading stories about me, eh? To you?” He bawled, “O God! I going to go back and knock out all their false teeth. Mohun! You hearing me?”

The melodramatic flair seemed to run through the family. Mr. Biswas said, “They didn’t tell me anything. But don’t forget that I know you since you was a boy. And if is still the old Jagdat I imagine you have enough outside children now to make up your own little school.”

Jagdat, still in the attitude of return, relaxed. They walked on.

“Just four or five,” Jagdat said.

“How you mean, four or five?”

“Well, four.” Some ofjagdat’s bounce had gone and when, after some time, he spoke again, it was in an elegiac voice. “Boy, I went to see my father last week. The man living in a small concrete room in Henry Street in a ramshackle old house full of creole people. And, and”-his voice was rising again-“that son of a bitch”-he was screaming-“that son of a bitch not doing a damn thing to help him.”

In lighted windows curtains were raised. Mr. Biswas plucked at Jagdat’s sleeve.

Jagdat dropped his voice to one of melancholy piety. “You remember the old man, Mohun?”

Mr. Biswas remembered Bhandat well.

“His face,” Jagdat said, “come small small.” He half-closed his small eyes and bunched the fingers of one hand raised in a gesture so delicate it might have been made by a pundit at a religious ceremony. “O yes,” he went on, “Ajodha always ready to give you vitamin A and vitamin B. But when it come to any real sort of help, don’t go to him. Look. He employ a gardener one time. Old man, wearing rags, thin, sick, practically starving. Indian like you and me. Thirty cents a day. Thirty cents! Still, poor man can’t do better, in all the hot sun the old man working. Doing his little weeding and hoeing. About three o”clock, sun hot like blazes, sweating, back aching as if it want to break, he ask for a cup of tea. Well, they give him a cup of tea. But at the end of the day they dock six cents off his pay.”

Mr. Biswas said, “You think they going to send me a bill for the food they give me?”

“Laugh if you want. But that is the way they treat poor people. My consolation is that they can’t bribe God. God is good, boy.”

They were in the Main Road, not far from the shop where Mr. Biswas had served under Bhandat. The shop was now owned by a Chinese and a large signboard proclaimed the fact.

The moment came to separate from Jagdat. But Mr. Biswas was unwilling to leave him, to be alone, to get on the bus to go back through the night to Green Vale.

Jagdat said, “The first boy bright like hell, you know.”

It was some seconds before Mr. Biswas realized that Jagdat was talking about one of his celebrated illegitimate children. He saw anxiety in Jagdat’s broad face, in the bright jumping little eyes.

“I glad,” Mr. Biswas said. “Now you could get him to read That Body of Yours to you.”

Jagdat laughed. “The same old Mohun.”

There was no need to ask where Jagdat was going. He was going to his family. He too, then, lived a divided life.

“She does work in a office,” Jagdat said, anxious again.

Mr. Biswas was impressed.

“Spanish,” Jagdat said.

Mr. Biswas knew this was a euphemism for a red-skinned Negro. “Too hot for me, man.”

“But faithful,” Jagdat said.

Knocked about on the wooden seat of the rackety rickety dim-lit bus, going past silent fields and past houses which were lightless and dead or bright and private, Mr. Biswas no longer thought of the afternoon’s mission, but of the night ahead.

Early next morning Mr. Maclean turned up at the barracks and said he had put off other pressing work and was ready to go ahead with Mr. Biswas’s house. He was in his poor but respectable business clothes. His ironed shirt was darned with almost showy neatness; his khaki trousers were clean and sharply creased, but the khaki was old and would not keep the crease for long.

“You decide how much you want to start off with?”

“A hundred,” Mr. Biswas said. “More at the end of the month. No concrete pillars.”

“Is only a sort of fanciness. You watch. I will get you a crapaud that would last a lifetime. Wouldn’t make no difference.”

“Once it neat.”

“Neat and nice,” Mr. Maclean said. “Well, I suppose I better start seeing about materials and labour.”

Materials came that afternoon. The crapaud pillars looked rough; they were not altogether round or altogether straight. But Mr. Biswas was delighted by the new scantlings, and the new nails that came in several wrappings of newspaper. He took up handfuls of nails and let them fall again. The sound pleased him. “Did not know nails was so heavy,” he said.

Mr. Maclean had brought a tool-box which had his initials on the cover and was like a large wooden suitcase. It contained a saw with an old handle and a sharp, oiled blade; several chisels and drills; a spirit-level and a “I square; a plane; a hammer and a mallet; wedges with smooth, fringed heads; a ball of old, white-stained twine; and a lump of chalk. His tools were like his clothes: old but cared-for. He built a rough work-bench out of the materials and assured Mr. Biswas that all the material would be eventually released for the house and would suffer little damage. That was why, he explained in reply to another of Mr. Biswas’s queries, no nail had been driven right in.

The labour also came. The labour was a labourer named Edgar, a muscular, full-blooded Negro whose short khaki trousers were shaggy with patches, and whose vest, brown with dirt, was full of holes that had been distended by his powerful body into ellipses. Edgar cutlassed the site, leaving it a rich wet green.

When Mr. Biswas returned from the fields he found the brushed site marked in white with the plan of the house. Holes for pillars had been indicated and Edgar was digging. Not far off Mr. Maclean had constructed a frame which rested level on stones and answered wonderfully to the design he had drawn in his yard.

“Gallery, drawingroom, bedroom, bedroom,” Mr. Biswas said, hopping over the spars. “Gallery, bedroom, bedroom, drawingroom.”

The air smelled of sawdust. Sawdust had spilled rich red and cream on the grass and had been ground into the damp black earth by Edgar’s bare feet and Mr. Maclean’s old, un-shining working-boots.

Mr. Maclean talked to Mr. Biswas about the difficulties of labour.

“I try to get Sam,” he said. “But he a little too erratic and don’t-care. Edgar, now, does do the work of two men. The only trouble is, you got to keep a eye on him all the time. Look at him.”

Edgar was knee-deep in a hole and regularly throwing up spadefuls of black earth.

“You got to tell him to stop,” Mr. Maclean said. “Otherwise, he dig right through till he come out the other side. Well, boss, how about something to wet the job?” He made a drinking gesture. In the early days he had preferred to drink on the completion of a job; now he got his drink as soon as he could.

Mr. Biswas nodded and Mr. Maclean called, “Edgar!”

Edgar went on digging.

Mr. Maclean tapped his forehead. “You see what I tell you?” He put two fingers in his mouth and whistled.

Edgar looked up and jumped out of his hole. Mr. Maclean asked him to go to the rumshop and buy a nip of rum. Edgar ran to where his belongings were, seized a dusty, squashed aand abbreviated felt hat, pressed it on his head and ran off. Some minutes later he came back, still running, one hand holding a bottle, the other holding down his hat.

Mr. Maclean opened the bottle, said, “To you and the house, boss,” and drank. He passed the bottle to Edgar, who said, “To you and the house, mister boss,” and drank without wiping the botde.

Mr. Maclean required much space when he worked. Next day he built another frame and left it on the ground beside the frame of the floor. The new frame was of the back wall and Mr. Biswas recognized the back door and the back window. Edgar finished digging the holes and set up three of the crapaud pillars, making them firm with stones taken from a heap left by the Public Works Department some distance away.

One thing puzzled Mr. Biswas. The materials had cost nearly eighty-five dollars. That left fifteen dollars to be divided between Mr. Maclean and Edgar for work which, Mr. Maclean said, would take from eight to ten days. Yet they were both cheerful; though Mr. Maclean had complained, in a whisper, about the cost of labour.

That afternoon, when Mr. Maclean and Edgar left, Shama came.

“What is this I hear from Seth?”

He showed her the frames on the ground, the three erect pillars, the mounds of dirt.

“I suppose you use up every cent you had?”

“Every red cent,” Mr. Biswas said. “Gallery, drawingroom, bedroom, bedroom.”

Her pregnancy was beginning to be prominent. She puffed and fanned. “Is all right for you. But what about me and the children?”

“What you mean? They going to be ashamed because their father building a house?”

“Because their father trying to set himself up in competition with people who have a lot more than him.”

He knew what was upsetting her. He could imagine the whisperings at the monkey house, the puss-puss here, the puss-puss there. He said, “I know you want to spend all the days of your life in that big coal barrel called Hanuman House. But don’t try to keep my children there.”

“Where you going to get the money to finish the house?”

“Don’t you worry your head about that. If you did worry a little bit more and a little bit earlier, by now we might have a house.”

“You just gone and throw away your money. You want to be a pauper.”

“O God! Stop digging and digging at me like this!”

“Who digging? Look.” She pointed to Edgar’s mounds of earth. “You is the big digger.”

He gave an annoyed little laugh.

For some time they were silent. Then she said, “You didn’t even get a pundit or anything before you plant the first pillar.”

“Look. I get enough good luck the last time Hari come and bless the shop. Remember that.”

“I not going to live in that house or even step inside it if you don’t get Hari to come and bless it.”

“If Hari come and bless it, it wouldn’t surprise me if nobody at all even get a chance to live in it.”

But she couldn’t undo the frames and the pillars, and in the end he agreed. She went back to Hanuman House with an urgent message for Hari, and next morning Mr. Biswas told Mr. Maclean to wait until Hari had done his business.

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?”

“When the house finish,” Mr. Biswas said.

Mr. Maclean bore his disappointment well. “Naturally. I was forgetting.”

Edgar was putting a pillar into the consecrated hole.

Mr. Biswas said to Mr. Maclean, “Is a waste of a good penny, if you ask me.”

At the end of the week the house had begun to take shape. The floor-frame had been put on, and the frames for the walls; the roof was outlined. On Monday the back staircase went up after Mr. Maclean’s work-bench had been dismantled for its material.

Then Mr. Maclean said, “We going to come back when you get some more materials.”

Every day Mr. Biswas went to the site and examined the skeleton of the house. The wooden pillars were not as bad as he had feared. From a distance they looked straight and cylindrical, contrasting with the squareness of the rest of the frame, and he decided that this was practically a style.

He had to get floorboards; he wanted pitchpine for that, not the five inch width, which he thought common, but the two and a half inch, which he had seen in some ceilings. He had to get boards for the walls, broad boards, with tongue-and-groove. And he had to get corrugated iron for the roof, new sheets with blue triangles stamped on the silver, so that they looked like sheets of an expensive stone rather than iron.

At the end of the month he set aside fifteen of his twenty-five dollars for the house. This was extravagant; he was eventually left with ten.

At the end of the second month he could add only eight dollars.

Then Seth came up with an offer.

“The old lady have some galvanize in Ceylon,” he said. “From the old brick-factory.”

The factory had been pulled down while Mr. Biswas was living at The Chase.

“Five dollars,” Seth said. “I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before.”

Mr. Biswas went to Hanuman House.

“How is the house, brother-in-law?” Chinta asked.

“Why you asking? Hari bless it, and you know what does happen when Hari bless something.”

Anand and Savi followed Mr. Biswas to the back, where everything was gritty with the chaff from the new rice-mill next door, and the iron sheets were stacked like a very old pack of cards against the fence. The sheets were of varying shapes, bent, warped and richly rusted, with corners curled into vicious-looking hooks, corrugations irregularly flattened out, and nail-holes everywhere, dangerous to the touch.

Anand said, “Pa, you not going to use that?”

“You will make the house look like a shack,” Savi said.

“You want something to cover your house,” Seth said. “When you are sheltering from the rain you don’t run outside to look at what is sheltering you. Take it for three dollars.”

Mr. Biswas thought again of the price of new corrugated iron, of the exposed frame of his house. “All right,” he said. “Send it.”

Anand, who had been displaying more and more energy since his misadventure at school, said, “All right! Go ahead and buy it and put it on your old house. I don’t care what it look like now.”

“Another little paddler,” Seth said.

But Mr. Biswas felt as Anand. He too didn’t care what the house looked like now.

When he got back to Green Vale he found Mr. Maclean.

They were both embarrassed.

“I was doing a job in Swampland,” Mr. Maclean said. “I was just passing by here and I thought I would drop in.”

“I was going to come to see you the other day,” Mr. Biswas said. “But you know how it is. I got about eighteen dollars. No, fifteen. I just went to Arwacas to buy some galvanize for the roof

“Just in time too, boss. Otherwise all the money you did spend woulda waste.”

“Not new galvanize, you know. I mean, not brand-brand new.”

“The thing about galvanize is that you could always make it look nice. You go be surprised what a little bit of paint could do.”

“They have a few holes here and there. A few. Tiny tiny.”

“We could fix those up easy. Mastic cement. Not expensive, boss.”

Mr. Biswas noted the change in Mr. Maclean’s tone.

“Boss, I know you want pitchpine for the floor. I know pitchpine nice. It does look nice and it does smell nice and it easy to keep clean. But you know it does burn easy. Easy, easy.”

“I was thinking the same thing,” Mr. Biswas said. “At pujas we always use pitchpine.” To burn the offerings in a quick, scented flame.

“Boss, I got some cedar planks. A man in Swampland offer me a whole pile of cedar for seven dollars. Seven dollars for a hundred and fifty foot of cedar is a real bargain.”

Mr. Biswas hesitated. Of all wood cedar appealed to him least. The colour was pleasing but the smell was acrid and clinging. It was such a soft wood that a fingernail could mark it and splinters could be bitten off with teeth. To be strong it had to be thick; then its thickness made it look ungainly.

“Now, boss, I know they is only rough planks. But you know me. When I finish planing them they would be level level, and when I join them together you wouldn’t be able to slip a sheet of bible-paper between them.”

“Seven dollars. That leave eight for you.” Mr. Biswas meant it was little to pay for laying a floor and putting on a roof.

But Mr. Maclean was offended. “My labour,” he said.

The corrugated iron came that week-end on a lorry that also brought Anand and Savi and Shama.

Anand said, “Aunt Sushila bawl off the men when they was loading the galvanize on the lorry.”

“She tell them to throw them down hard, eh?” Mr. Biswas said. “Is that what she tell them? She did want them to dent them up more, eh? Don’t frighten to tell me.”

“No, no. She say they wasn’t working fast enough.”

Mr. Biswas examined the sheets as they were unloaded, looking for bumps and dents he could attribute to Sushila’s maliciousness. Whenever he saw a crack in the rust he stopped the loaders.

“Look at this. Which one of you was responsible for this? You know, I mad enough to get Mr. Seth to dock your money.” That word “dock”, so official and ominous, he had got from Jagdat.

Stacked on the grass, the sheets made the site look like an abandoned lot. No corrugation of one sheet fitted into the corrugation of any other; the pile rose high and shaky and awkward.

Mr. Maclean said, “I could straighten them out with the hammer. Now, about the rafters, boss.”

Mr. Biswas had forgotten about those.

“Now, boss, you must look at it this way. The rafters don’t show from the outside. Only from the inside. And even then, when you get a ceiling you could hide the rafters. So I think it would be better and it would cost you nothing if you get tree-branches. When you trim them they does make first-class rafters.”

And when Mr. Maclean set to work, he worked alone. Mr. Biswas never saw Edgar again and never asked about him.

Mr. Maclean went to a “‘bandon”, brought back tree-branches and trimmed them into rafters. He cut notches in the rafters wherever they were to rest on the main frame, and nailed them on. They looked solid. He used thinner branches, limber, irregular and recalcitrant, for cross-rafters. They looked shaky and reminded Mr. Biswas of the rafters of a dirt-and-grass hut.

Then the corrugated iron was nailed on. The sheets were dangerous to handle and the rafters shook under Mr. Maclean’s weight and the blows of his hammer. The weeds below and the frame became covered with rust. When Mr. Maclean had packed his tools into his wooden suitcase and gone home for the day, it was a pleasure to Mr. Biswas to stand below the roof and be in shade where only the day before, only that morning, there had been openness.

As the sheets went up, and they were enough to cover all the rooms except the gallery, the house no longer looked so drab and un-begun. Mr. Maclean was right: the sheets did hide the branch-rafters. But every hole in the roof glittered like a star.

Mr. Maclean said, “I did mention a thing called mastic cement. But that was before I did see the galvanize. You would spend as much on mastic cement as on five-six sheets of new galvanize.”

“So what? I just got to sit down in my new house and get wet?”

“Where there’s a will there’s a way, as the people does say. Pitch. You did think about that? A lot of people does use pitch.”

They got the pitch free, from a neglected part of the road where asphalt was laid on, without gravel, in lavish lumps. Mr. Maclean put small stones over the holes in the roof and sealed them down with pitch. He ran sealings of pitch along the edges of the sheets and down the cracks. It was a slow, long job, and when he was finished the roof was curiously patterned in black with many rough lines, straight down, angularly jagged across, and freaked and blobbed and gouted all over with pitch, above the confused red, rust, brown, saffron, grey and silver of the old sheets.

But it worked. When it rained, as it was beginning to do now every afternoon, the ground below the roof remained dry. Poultry from the barrackyard and other places came to shelter and stayed to dig the earth into dust.

The cedar floorboards came, rough and brisdy, and impregnated the site with their smell. When Mr. Maclean planed them they seemed to acquire a richer colour. He fitted them together as neatly as he had said, nailing them down with headless nails and filling in the holes at the top with wax mixed with sawdust which dried hard and could scarcely be distinguished from the wood. The back bedroom was floored, and part of the drawingroom, so that, with care, it was possible to walk straight up to the bedroom.

Then Mr. Maclean said, “When you get more materials you must let me know.”

He had worked for a fortnight for eight dollars.

Perhaps he didn’t pay seven dollars for the cedar, Mr. Biswas thought. Only five or six.

The house now became a playground for the children of the barracks. They climbed and they jumped; many took serious falls but, being barrack children, came to little harm. They nailed nails into the crapaud pillars and the cedar floor; they bent nails for no purpose; they flattened them to make knives. They left small muddy footprints on the floor and on the crossbars of the frame; the mud dried and the floor became dusty. The children drove out the poultry and Mr. Biswas tried to drive out the children.

“You blasted little bitches! Let me catch one of you and see if I don’t cut his foot off.”

As the sugarcane grew taller the dispossessed labourers grew surlier, and Mr. Biswas began to receive threats, delivered as friendly warnings.

Seth, who had often spoken of the treachery and dangerousness of the labourers, now only said, “Don’t let them frighten you.”

But Mr. Biswas knew of the many killings in Indian districts, so well planned that few reached the courts. He knew of the feuds between villages and between families, conducted with courage, ingenuity and loyalty by those same labourers who, as wage-earners, were obsequious and negligible.

He decided to take precautions. He slept with a cutlass and a poui stick, one of his father’s, at the side of his bed. And from Mrs. Seeung, the Chinese cafй-owner at Arwacas, he got a puppy, a hairy brown and white thing of indeterminate breed. The first night at the barracks the puppy whined at being left outside, scratched at the door, fell off the step and whined until he was taken in. When Mr. Biswas woke up next morning he found the puppy in bed beside him, lying quite still, its eyes open. At Mr. Biswas’s first gesture, which was one of surprise, the puppy jumped to the floor.

He called the puppy Tarzan, to prepare it for its duties. But Tarzan turned out to be friendly and inquisitive, and a terror only to the poultry. “The hens stop laying because of your dog,” the poultry owners complained, and it looked true enough, for Tarzan often had pieces of feather stuck in the corners of his mouth, and he was continually bringing trophies of feathers to the room. Then one day Tarzan ate an egg and immediately developed a taste for eggs. The hens laid their eggs in bush, in places which they thought were secret. Tarzan soon got to know these places as well as the owners of the hens and he often came back to the barracks with his mouth yellow and sticky with egg. The owners of the hens took their revenge. One afternoon Mr. Biswas found Tarzan’s muzzle smeared with fowl droppings, and Tarzan in great misery at this novel and continuing discomfort.

The placards in Mr. Biswas’s room increased. He worked more slowly on them now, using black and red estate ink and pencils of many colours. He filled the blank space with difficult decorations and his letters became intricate and ornamented.

Thinking it would help him if he read novels, he bought a number of the cheap Reader’s Library editions. The covers were dark purple with gold lettering and decorations. In the stall at Arwacas they had looked attractive, but in his room he could scarcely bear to touch them. The gilt stuck to his fingers and the covers reminded him of funeral palls and of those undertakers’ horses that were draped with the colours of death every day.

The sun shone and the rain fell. The roof didn’t leak. But the asphalt began to melt and hung limply down: a legion of slim, black, growing snakes. Occasionally they fell, and, falling, curled and died.

Late one night, when he had put out the oil lamp and was in bed, he heard footsteps outside his room.

He lay still, listening. Then he jumped out of bed, grabbed his stick and deliberately knocked against the kitchen safe and table and Shama’s dressingtable. He stood at the side of the door and violently pushed out the top half, his body protected by the lower half.

He saw nothing but the night, the still, colourless barrack-yard, the dead trees black against the moonlit sky. Two rooms away a light was burning: someone was out, or a child was ill.

Then, making a lapping, happy sound, Tarzan was on the step, wagging his tail so hard it struck against the lower half of the door.

He let him in and stroked him. His coat was damp.

Tarzan, overjoyed at the attention, stuck his muzzle against Mr. Biswas’s face.


For a second Tarzan hesitated. No threat appearing, he redoubled his tail-wagging, continually shifting his hind legs.

Mr. Biswas embraced him.

After that he always slept with his oil lamp on.

He began to fear that his house might be burned down. He went to bed with an added anxiety; every morning he opened his side window as soon as he got up, looking past the trees for signs of destruction; in the fields he worried about it. But the house always stood: the variegated roof, the frames, the crapaud pillars, the wooden staircase.

When Shama came he told her of his fears.

She said, “I don’t think they would worry about it.”

And he regretted telling her, for when Seth came he said, “So you frighten they burn it down, eh? Don’t worry. They not so idle.”

Mr. Maclean came twice and went away.

And every day the rain fell, the sun blazed, the house became greyer, the sawdust, once fresh and aromatic, became part of the earth, the asphalt snakes hanging from the roof grew longer, and many more died, and Mr. Biswas worked more and more elaborate messages of comfort for his walls with a steady, unthinking hand, and a mind in turmoil.

Then one evening a great calm settled on him, and he made a decision. He had for too long regarded situations as temporary; henceforth he would look upon every stretch of time, however short, as precious. Time would never be dismissed again. No action would merely lead to another; every action was a part of his life which could not be recalled; therefore thought had to be given to every action: the opening of a matchbox, the striking of a match. Slowly, then, as though unused to his limbs, and concentrating hard, he had his evening bath, cooked his meal, ate it, washed up, and settled down in his rockingchair to pass-no, to use, to enjoy, to live-the evening. The house was unimportant. The evening, in this room, was all that mattered.

And so great was his assurance that he did something he had not done for weeks. He took down the Reader’s Library edition of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. He passed his hands over the cover; deliberately he opened the book, broke the spine in a few places, destroying it completely in one place, and, pulling up his legs on to the chair so that he was huddled and cosy, and smacking his lips, which was not one of his habits, he began to read.

His mind was clear. He had pushed everything apart from the Victor Hugo to the boundaries. He had made a clearing in the bush: that was the picture he gave himself of his mind: for his mind had become quite separate from the rest of himself.

The image changed. It was no longer a forest, but a billowing black cloud. Unless he was careful the cloud would funnel into his head. He felt it pressing on his head. He didn’t want to look up.

Surely it was only a trick of the oil lamp, which stood directly in front of him on the table?

He huddled a little more on the chair and smacked his lips again.

Then he was so afraid that he almost cried out.

Why should he be afraid? Of whom? Esmeralda? Quasimodo? The goat? The crowd?

People. He could hear them next door and all down the barracks. No road was without them, no house. They were in the newspapers on the wall, in the photographs, in the simple drawings in advertisements. They were in the book he was holding. They were in all books. He tried to think of landscapes without people: sand and sand and sand, without the “oses” Lai had spoken about; vast white plateaux, with himself safely alone, a speck in the centre.

Was he afraid of real people?

He must experiment. But why? He had spent all his life among people without even thinking that he might be afraid of them. He had faced people across a rumshop counter; he had gone to school; he had walked down crowded main roads on market day.

Why now? Why so suddenly?

His whole past became a miracle of calm and courage.

His fingers were dusted with gilt from the pall-like cover of the book. As he studied them the clearing became overgrown again and the black cloud billowed in. How heavy! How dark!

He put his feet down and sat still, staring at the lamp, seeing nothing. The darkness filled his head. All his life had been good until now. And he had never known. He had spoiled it all by worry and fear. About a rotting house, the threats of illiterate labourers.

Now he would never more be able to go among people.

He surrendered to the darkness.

When he roused himself he opened the top half of the door. He saw no one. The barracks had gone to sleep. He would have to wait until morning to find out whether he was really afraid.

In the morning he had a full minute of lucidity. He remembered that something had nagged and exhausted him the previous evening. Then, still in bed, he remembered, and the anguish returned. He got up. The bedsheet looked tormented. The mattress was exposed in places and he could smell the dingy old coconut-fibre. Slowly and carefully, like his actions the night before, his thoughts came, and he framed each thought in a complete sentence. He thought: “The bed is a mess. Therefore I slept badly. I must have been afraid all through the night. Therefore the fear is still with me.”

Outside, beyond the closed window, the light breaking through the chinks and fanning out in dust-shot rays, was the world. Outside there were people.

He spoke aloud some of the words of comfort that hung on the walls. Then, trying to feel them as deeply as he could, he closed his eyes and spoke them again slowly, syllable by syllable. Then he pretended to write the words on his head with his finger.

Then he prayed.

But even in prayer he found images of people, and his prayers were perverted.

He dressed and opened the top half of the door.

Tarzan was waiting.

“You are glad to see me,” he thought. “You are an animal and think that because I have a head and hands and look as I did yesterday I am a man. I am deceiving you. I am not whole.”

Tarzan wagged his tail.

He opened the lower half of the door.


Fear seized him and hurt like a pain.

Tarzan jumped upon him, egg-stained, shining-eyed.

Grieving, he stroked him. “I enjoyed this yesterday and the day before. I was whole then.”

Already yesterday, last night, was as remote as childhood. And mixed with his fear was this grief for a happy life never enjoyed and now lost.

He set about doing the things he did every morning. At the beginning of every action he forgot his pain: split seconds of freedom, relished only after they had gone. Breaking the hibiscus twig, for instance, as he did every morning, to brush his teeth with one of the crushed ends, he automatically looked past the trees to see whether his house had been destroyed during the night. Then he remembered how unimportant the house had become.

Bravely, exposing himself to menace, he stripped to bath at the waterbarrel.

The labourers were up. He heard the morning sounds: the hawking, spitting, the fanning of coal-pots, the hissing of fryingpans, the fresh, brisk morning talk. Negligible, nondescript people yesterday, each now had to be considered individually.

He looked at them and checked.


The sun was coming up, lighting the dew on the grass, the roof, the trees: a cool sun, a pleasant time of day.

As with actions, so with people. Meeting them, he began to speak as though it was yesterday. Then the questioning came, and the inevitable answer: another relationship spoiled, another piece of the present destroyed.

The day which had begun, for that minute while he was still in bed, as a normal, happy day, was ending with him in an exhausting frenzy of questioning. He looked, he questioned, he was afraid. Then he questioned again. The process was taking a fraction of a second.

By the afternoon, however, he had made some progress. He was not afraid of children. They filled him only with grief. So much that was good and beautiful, from which he was now forever barred, awaited them.

He went to his room, lay down on the bed and forced himself to cry for all his lost happiness.

There was nothing he could do. The questioning went on ceaselessly. One photograph after another, one drawing after another, one story after another. He tried not to look at the newspapers on the wall, but always he had to check, always he was afraid, and then always he became uncertain again.

In the end the futility of lying on the bed caused him to rise and make another of those decisions he had been making all day: decisions to ignore, to behave normally, little decisions, little gestures of defiance that were soon forgotten.

He decided to cycle to Hanuman House.

Every man and woman he saw, even at a distance, gave him a twist of panic. But he had already grown used to that; it had become part of the pain of living. Then, as he cycled, he discovered a new depth to this pain. Every object he had not seen for twenty-four hours was part of his whole and happy past. Everything he now saw became sullied by his fear, every field, every house, every tree, every turn in the road, every bump and subsidence. So that, by merely looking at the world, he was progressively destroying his present and his past.

And there were some things he wanted to leave untouched. It was bad enough to deceive Tarzan. He didn’t want to deceive Anand and Savi. He turned and cycled back, past the fields whose terror was already familiar, to Green Vale.

It occurred to him that by repeating as far as he could all his actions of the previous night he might somehow exorcize the thing that had fallen on him. So, with a deliberation that was like the deliberation of the day before, he bathed, cooked, ate, then sat down and opened Notre Dame.

But the reading only brought back the memory of the previous night, the discovery of fear, and left his hands dusted with gilt.

Every morning the period of lucidity lessened. The bed-sheet, examined every morning, always testified to a tormented night. Between the beginning of a routine action and the questioning the time of calm grew less. Between the meeting of a familiar person and the questioning there was less and less of ease. Until there was no lucidity at all, and all action was irrelevant and futile.

But it was always better to be out among real people than to be in his room with the newspapers and his imaginings. And though he continued to solace himself with visions of deserted landscapes of sand and snow, his anguish became especially acute on Sunday afternoons, when fields and roads were empty and everything was still.

Continually he looked for some sign that the corruption which had come without warning upon him had secretly gone away again. Examining the bedsheet was one thing. Looking at his fingernails was the other. They were invariably bitten down; but sometimes he saw a thin white rim on one nail, and though these rims never lasted, he took their appearance to mean that release was near.

Then, biting his nails one evening, he broke off a piece of a tooth. He took the piece out of his mouth and placed it on his palm. It was yellow and quite dead, quite unimportant: he could hardly recognize it as part of a tooth: if it were dropped on the ground it would never be found: a part of himself that would never grow again. He thought he would keep it. Then he walked to the window and threw it out.

One Saturday Seth said, while they were by the unfinished house, “What’s the matter, Mohun? You are the colour of this.” He placed his large hand on one of the grey uprights.

And Mr. Maclean called. Someone he knew had offered him some timber at a bargain price. It would be enough to wall one room.

They went to look at the house. Mr. Maclean saw the asphalt hanging from the roof but said nothing about it. The floorboards in the back bedroom had begun to shrink, cracking and cambering. Mr. Maclean said, “The man did say that the wood was cured. But cedar is a damn funny wood. It does never cure at all.”

The new timber was bought. It was cedar.

“No tongue-and-groove,” Mr. Maclean said.

Mr. Biswas said nothing.

Mr. Maclean understood. He had seen this apathy overcome the builders of houses again and again.

The back bedroom was walled. The door to the partially floored drawingroom was built and hung. The door to the non-existent front bedroom was built and nailed into the doorway: “To prevent accident,” Mr. Maclean said, “in case you want to move in right away.” Mr. Biswas had wanted doors with panels; he got planks of cedar nailed to two cross bars. The window was built in the same fashion and hung; the new black bolts gleamed on the new wood.

“It coming along nice,” Mr. Maclean said.

Into Mr. Biswas’s busy, exhausted mind came the thought: “Hari blessed it. Shama made him bless it. They gave the galvanized iron and they blessed it.”

His sleep was broken by dreams. He was in the Tulsi Store. There were crowds everywhere. Two thick black threads were chasing him. As he cycled to Green Vale the threads lengthened. One thread turned pure white; the black thread became thicker and thicker, purple-black and monstrously long. It was a rubbery black snake; it developed a comic face; it found the chase funny and said so to the white thread, now also a snake.

When he passed the house and saw the black snakes hanging from the roof, he touched a crapaud pillar and said, “Hari blessed it.” He remembered the suitcase, the whining prayers, the sprinkling with the mango leaf, the dropping of the penny. “Hari blessed it.”

He was on a hill, a bare, brown-green hill. It was hot but the wind was cool and blew his hair. A woman was at the foot of the hill. She was crying and coming to him for help. He felt her pain but didn’t want to be seen. What help could he give? And the woman-Shama, Anand, Savi, his mother-kept coming up the hill. He heard her sobs and wanted to cry to her to go away.

Tarzan was whining outside his door.

One of his paws had been damaged.

“You like eggs too much.”

Then he remembered the dispossessed labourers.

Some nights later he was awakened by barking and shouts.

“Driver! Driver!”

He opened the top half of the door.

“They set fire to Dookinan land,” the watchman said.

He put on his clothes and hurried to the spot, followed by excited labourers.

There was no great danger or damage. Dookinan’s plot was small and was separated from the other fields by a trace and a ditch. Mr. Biswas ordered the boundary canes of the adjoining fields to be cut, and the labourers, though disappointed at the blaze, which from a distance had promised much, worked with zest. The firelight lit up their bodies and kept away the chill.

The tall red and yellow flames shrank; the trash smouldered, red and black, crackled and collapsed, uncovering the red heart of the fire, quickly cooling to black and grey. Glowing scraps rose, twinkling redly, blackened and diminished. At the roots the canes glowed like charcoal; in places it was as if the earth itself had caught fire. The labourers beat the roots and the trash with sticks; ash floated up; smoke turned from grey to white, and thinned.

Only then, when the danger had disappeared, Mr. Biswas realized that for more than an hour he had not questioned himself.

Instantly the questionings, the fear, came.

When the labourers returned to the barracks their chatter lasted a short time, and he was left alone.

But the hour had proved one thing. He was going to get better soon.

It was the first of many disappointments. In time he came to disregard these periods of freedom, just as he no longer expected to wake up one morning and find himself whole again.

At the beginning of the Christmas school holidays, when the sugarcane was in arrow once more and the Christmas shop-signs were going up at Arwacas, Shama sent word by Seth that she was bringing the children to Green Vale for a few days.

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 cutlassed, poisoned, 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 didn’t want to kill them.

They came. At once his designs became insubstantial and absurd. He felt only resignation and a great fatigue. And the deception and especial pain he had wished to avoid began. Even while he allowed himself to be touched and kissed by Anand and Savi he was questioning himself about them, looking for the fear, and wondering whether they had seen the deception and could tell what was going on in his mind.

Of Shama he was not afraid; only envious, for her unthinking assurance. Then almost immediately he began to hate her. Her pregnancy was grotesque; he hated the way she sat down; when she ate he listened for the noises she made; he hated the way she fussed and clucked over the children; he hated it when she puffed and fanned and sweated in her pregnant way; he was nauseated by the frills and embroidery and other ornamentation on her clothes.

Shama, Savi and Myna slept on bedding on the floor. Anand slept with Mr. Biswas on the fourposter. Dreading the boy’s touch, Mr. Biswas built a bank of pillows between Anand and himself.

His fatigue deepened. The next day, Sunday, he scarcely got out of bed. Whereas before he felt he had to be out of the room, now he didn’t wish to leave it. He said he was sick and found it easy to simulate the symptoms of malaria.

When Seth came Mr. Biswas told him, “Is ague, I think.”

After a week his fatigue hadn’t left him. Sitting up in bed he made kites and toy-carts for Anand and built a chest-of-drawers with matchboxes for Savi. The longer he stayed in the room the less he wanted to leave it. He became constipated. Yet from time to time he had to go outside; then he came back hurriedly, anxiously, relaxing only when he was on the bed again.

He continued to observe Shama closely, with suspicion, hatred and nausea. He never spoke to her directly, but through one of the children; and it was some time before Shama realized this.

As he was lying in bed one morning she came and placed her palm, then the back of her hand, on his forehead. The action offended him, flattered him, and made him uneasy. She had been cutting vegetables and he couldn’t bear their smell on her hand.

“No fever,” she said.

She undid his shirt and put her hand, large and dark and foreign, on his pale, soft chest.

He wanted to scream.

He said, “No, I not fat enough yet. You got to put me back and feed me some more. Here, why don’t you just feel my finger?”

She took her hand away. “Something on your mind, man?”

“Something on your mind?” he mimicked. “Something in my mind and you know what it is.” He was violently angry; never before had he been so disgusted by her. Yet he wished her to remain there. Half hoping she would take him seriously, half hoping only to amuse and bewilder her, he said in his quick, high-pitched voice, “Something in my mind all right. Clouds. Lots of little black clouds.”

“What you say?”

“Is a funny thing. You ever notice that when you insult people or tell them the truth they always pretend not to hear you the first time?”

“Is my own fault for meddling in what is not my business. I don’t know why I come here for. If it wasn’t for the children-”

“So all-you send Hari with his little black box, eh? All-you must think I look like a real fool.”

“Black box?”

“You see what I mean? You didn’t hear the first time.”

“Look, I just don’t have the time to stand up here talking to you like this, you hear. I wish you had a real fever. That would stop your mouth.”

He was beginning to enjoy the argument. “I know you want me to get a real fever. I know all-you want to see me dead. And then see the old she-fox crying, the little gods laughing, you crying-dressed up like hell to boot. Nice, eh? I know that is what all-you want.”

“Dress-up and powder-up? Me? On what you give me?”

Abruptly Mr. Biswas went cold with fear.

Seth and the land and the corrugated iron; Hari and the black box; the blessing; and now, since Shama had come, this fatigue.

He was dying.

They were killing him. He would just remain in this room and die.

She was in the kitchen area, cooing to the baby in the hammock.

“Get out!”

Shama looked up.

He jumped out of bed and grabbed the walking-stick. He was cold all over. His heart beat fast and painfully.

Shama climbed up the step to the room.

“Get out! Don’t come inside. Don’t touch me!”

Myna was crying.

“Man,” Shama said.

“Don’t come into this room. Don’t set foot in it again.” He waved the stick. He moved to the window and, looking at her, waving the stick, began to draw the bolt. “Don’t touch me,” he bawled, and there were sobs mixed with his words.

She blocked the door.

But he had thought of the window. He pushed it open. It swung out shakily. Light came into the room and fresh air mingled with the musty smell of old boards and newspapers-he had forgotten how musty they smelled. Beyond the flat barrackyard he saw the trees diat lined the road and screened his house.

Shama walked towards him.

He began screaming and crying. He pressed his palms on the window-sill and tried to hoist himself up, looking back at her, the stick now useless as a weapon of defence since his hands were occupied.

“What are you doing?” she said in Hindi. “Look, you will damage yourself.”

He was aware of Tarzan, Savi and Anand below the window. Tarzan was wagging his tail, barking and leaping up against the wall.

Shama came closer.

He was on the sill.

“O God!” he cried, winding his head up and down. “Go away.”

She was near enough to touch him.

He kicked at her.

She gave a yelp of pain.

He saw, too late, that he had kicked her on the belly.

The women from the barracks rushed up when they heard Shama cry out, and helped her from the room.

Savi and Anand came round to the kitchen area in front. Tarzan ran in puzzlement between them and the women and Mr. Biswas.

“Pack up your clothes and go home,” Dookhnee, one of the barrack-women, said. She had often been beaten and had witnessed many wife-beatings; they made all women sisters.

Savi went into the room fearfully and, not looking at her father, started to pack clothes into a suitcase.

Mr. Biswas stared and shouted, “Take your children and go away. Go away!”

Sharna, surrounded by the barrack-women, called, “Anand, pack up your clothes quick.”

Mr. Biswas jumped down from the sill.

“No!” he said. “Anand is not going with you. Take your girl children and go.” He didn’t know why he had said that. Savi was the only child he knew, yet he had gone out of his way to hurt her; and he didn’t know whether he wanted Anand to stay. Perhaps he had spoken only because Shama had mentioned the name.

“Anand,” Shama said, “Go and pack your clothes.”

Dookhnee said, “Yes, go and pack your clothes.”

And many of the women said, “Go, boy.”

“He is not going with you to that house,” Mr. Biswas said.

Anand remained where he was, in the kitchen area, stroking Tarzan, not looking at Mr. Biswas or the women.

Savi came out of the room with a suitcase and a pair of shoes. She dusted her feet and buckled on a shoe.

Shama, only now beginning to cry, said in Hindi, “Savi, I have told you many times to wash your feet before putting on your shoes.”

“All right, Ma. I will go and wash them.”

“Don’t bother this time,” Dookhnee said.

The women said, “No, don’t bother.”

Savi buckled on the other shoe.

Shama said, “Anand, do you want to come with me, or do you want to stay with your father?”

Mr. Biswas, the stick in his hand, looked at Anand.

Anand continued to stroke Tarzan, whose head was now upturned, his eyes partly closed.

Mr. Biswas ran to the green table and awkwardly pulled out the drawer. He took the long box of crayons he used for his placards and held it to Anand. He shook the box; the crayons rattled.

Savi said, “Come, Anand boy. Go and get your clothes.”

Still stroking Tarzan, Anand said, “I staying with Pa.” His voice was low and irritable.

“Anand!” Savi said.

“Don’t beg him,” Shama said, in control of herself again. “He is a man and knows what he is doing.”

“Boy,” Dookhnee said. “Your mother.”

Anand said nothing.

Shama got up and the circle of women around her widened. She took Myna, Savi took the suitcase, and they walked along the path, muddy between sparse and stubborn grass, to the road, scattering the hens and chickens before them. Tarzan followed, and was diverted by the chickens. When he was pecked by an angry hen he looked for Shama and Savi and Myna. They had disappeared. He trotted back to the barracks and Anand.

Mr. Biswas opened the box and showed Anand the sharpened crayons. “Take them. They are yours. You can do what you like with them.”

Anand shook his head.

“You don’t want them?”

Tarzan, between Anand’s legs, held up his head to be stroked, closing his eyes in anticipation.

“What do you want then?”

Anand shook his head. Tarzan shook his.

“Why did you stay then?”

Anand looked exasperated.


“Because-” The word came out thin, explosive, charged with anger, at himself and his father. “Because they was going to leave you alone.”

For the rest of that day they hardly spoke.

His instinct had been right. As soon as Shama had gone his fatigue left him. He became restless again, and almost welcomed the familiar constricted turmoil in his mind. He returned to the fields, taking Anand with him on the first day. Anand, dusty, itching, scorched by the sun and cut by sharp grass, refused to go again, and thereafter remained at the barracks with Tarzan.

He made more toys for Anand. A round tin-lid loosely nailed to a rod provided something that rolled when pushed and gave Anand a deep satisfaction. At night they drew imaginary scenes: snow-covered mountains and fir trees, red-hulled yachts in a blue sea below a clear sky, roads winding between well-kept forests to green mountains in the distance. They also talked.

“Who is your father?”


“Wrong. I am not your father. God is your father.”

“Oh. And what about you?”

“I am just somebody. Nobody at all. I am just a man you know.”

He showed Anand how to mix colours. He taught him that red and yellow made orange, blue and yellow green.

“Oh. That is why the leaves turn yellow?”

“Not exactly.”

“Well, look then. Suppose I take a leaf and wash it and wash it and wash it, it will turn yellow or blue?”

“Not really. The leaf is God’s work. You see?”


“Your trouble is that you don’t really believe. There was a man like you one time. He wanted to mock a man like me. So one day, when the man like me was sleeping, this other man drop an orange in his lap, thinking, ‘I bet the damn fool going to wake up and say that God drop the orange.’ So the other man woke up and began eating the orange. And this man come up and say, ‘I suppose God give you that orange.’ ‘Yes,’ the other man said. ‘Well, let me tell you. Is not God. Is me.’ ‘Well,’ the other man said, ‘I prayed for an orange while I was asleep.’ “

Anand was impressed.

“Now, look,” Mr. Biswas said. “See this matchbox. You see me holding it in my hand. Oops! It fall down. Why?”

“You leggo, that’s why.”

“Not that at all. It fall down because of gravity. The law of gravity. They not teaching you children anything at all these days.”

He talked to Anand about people called Coppernickus and Galilyo. And it gave him a thrill to be the first to inform Anand that the world was round and moved about the sun.

“Remember Galilyo. Always stick up for yourself.”

He was glad that Anand was interested. It was the week before Christmas and he was fearing the result of Seth’s visit.

He told Anand, “On Saturday we are going to make a compass.”

And on Saturday Seth said, “Why you don’t come home, Anand boy? Come home and hang up your stocking. What you doing here with your father?”

“He is not my father. It just look to you that he is my father.”

Seth evaded the theological issue. “They going to make cake and icecream, boy.”

Mr. Biswas said, “Remember Galilyo.”

Anand stayed.

Using the batteries of his electric torch Mr. Biswas magnetized a needle and stuck it on a disc of paper; in the centre of the disc he inserted a cap of paper and rested the cap on the head of a pin.

“Where the eye of the needle points, that is north.”

They played with that until the needle lost its magnetism.

Sometimes Mr. Biswas said he had ague. Then, wrapped up tightly and shivering, he made Anand recite Hindi hymns after him. And at these times, though nothing was said, Anand became affected by his father’s fear and repeated the hymns like charms. The barrackroom, its door and window closed, its edges in darkness, became cavernous and full of menace, and Anand longed for morning.

But there were compensations.

“Today,” Mr. Biswas said, “I am going to show you something about a thing called centrifugal force. Go and get the bucket outside and full it up so high with water.”

Anand brought the water.

“Not enough space here really,” Mr. Biswas said.

“Why you don’t go outside?”

Mr. Biswas didn’t listen. “Got to give it a good swing.” He swung.

The water splashed on the bed, the walls, the floor.

“The bucket was too heavy. Go and get one of the small blue pots from the kitchen. Full that with some water.”

And the second time it worked.

They made an electric buzzer, using the torch batteries, a piece of tin and a nail, a rusty new nail, one of those Mr. Maclean had brought in newspaper on the afternoon Edgar had brushed the site for the house.

There were many reasons why Mr. Biswas moved from the barracks to the finished room of his house. It was a positive action; it was a confident, defiant gesture; there was his continuing unease at hearing people moving about the barracks. And there was his hope that living in a new house in the new year might bring about a new state of mind. He would not have moved if he had been alone, for he feared solitude more than people. But, with Anand, he had enough company.

Tarzan found a pregnant cat in possession of the empty, dusty room and chased her out.

The room was swept and cleaned. They tried to scrape the asphalt snakes off the floor; but the asphalt, which melted so easily on the corrugated iron, remained hard on the cedar boards. The room was smaller than the barrackroom; the bed, Shama’s dressingtable, the green table, the kitchen safe and the rockingchair nearly filled it. “Got to be careful now,” Mr. Biswas said. “Can’t rock too hard.” And there were other inconveniences. There was no kitchen; they had to cook on boxes downstairs, below the room; they both got nausea. The roof had no gutters and water had to be fetched all the way from the barrack barrels. They also had to use the barrack latrine.

And every day Mr. Biswas saw the snakes, thin, black, lengthening.

The incompleteness of the house didn’t depress him. He saw the rafters, the old corrugated iron, the grey uprights, the cracked boards on the floor and walls, the door to the nonexistent bedroom nailed and barred. He knew that they had made him unhappy; but that was at a time so remote he could now scarcely imagine it.

The snakes appeared more often in his dreams. He began to regard them as living, and wondered what it would be like to have one fall and curl on his skin.

The questioning and the fear remained. He hadn’t left that at the barracks.

The trees could conceal so much.

And one night Anand was awakened by Mr. Biswas jumping out of bed, screaming, tearing at his vest as though he had been attacked by a column of red ants.

A snake had fallen on him. Very thin, and not long.

When they looked up they saw the parent snake, waiting to release some more.

With poles and brooms they tried to pull down the snakes. The asphalt only swung when they hit it. To grab at it was only to pull away a small snake, leaving the pregnant parent above.

He got a cocoa-knife and spent the following evening cutting down the snakes. It was not easy. Below the crust at the roots the asphalt was soft but rubbery. He scraped hard and felt the rust from the roof falling on his face.

By the next afternoon the snakes had begun to grow again.

He said he had another touch of malaria. He wrapped himself in the floursack sheet and rocked in his chair. Tarzan had his tail crushed; he leapt up with a yell, and went out of the room.

“Say Rama Rama Sita Rama, and nothing will happen to you,” Mr. Biswas said.

Anand repeated the words, faster and faster.

“You don’t want to leave me?”

Anand didn’t reply.

This had become one of Mr. Biswas’s fears. By concentrating on it-a power he had in his state-he managed to make it the most oppressive of all his fears: that Anand would leave him and he would be left alone.

Anand was rolling his tin-lid about the yard one afternoon when two men came to the house and asked whether he lived there. Then they asked for the driver.

“He in the fields,” Anand said. “But he coming back just now.”

Between the trees the road was cool. The men squatted there. They hummed; they talked; they threw pebbles; they chewed blades of grass; they spat. Anand watched them.

One of the men called, “Boy, come here.” He was fat and yellow-skinned with a black moustache and light eyes.

The other man, who was younger, said, “We digging for treasure.”

Anand couldn’t resist that. Pushing his tin-lid, he went to the road.

“Come on. Dig,” the younger man said.

The fat man cried, “Yaah!” and pulled out a cent from the gravel.

Anand went to where the fat man was and began scraping

Then the younger man called out, “Aha!” and took up a penny from the gravel.

Anand ran to him. Then the fat man called out again; he had found another cent.

Anand moved back and forth between the men.

“But I not finding any,” he said.

“Here,” the younger man said. “Dig here.”

Anand dug and found a penny. “I could keep it?”

“But is yours,” the younger man said. “You find it.”

The game went on for some time. Anand found two more cents.

Then the fat man appeared to lose interest. The driver taking long,” he said. “Where your father, boy?”

Anand pointed to the sky and was pleased when the fat man looked puzzled and asked, “The driver is your father, not so?”

“Well, everybody think he is my father. But he is not my father really. He is just a man I know.”

The men looked at one another. The fat man took up a handful of gravel and made as if to throw it at Anand. “Run away,” he said. “Go on, haul your little tail.”

“Is not your road,” Anand said. “Is the PWD road.”

“So you is a smart man into the bargain? Who the hell you think you talking to?” The fat man rose. “Since you so smart, give me back my money.”

“Find your own. This is mine.” Anand turned to the younger man. “You see me find it.”

“Leave the boy,” the younger man said.

“I not going to take cheek from a little boy who rob me of my last few cents,” the fat man said. “I going to teach him a lesson.” He seized Anand.

“Hit me and I tell my father.”

The fat man hesitated.

“Leave him, Dinnoo,” the younger man said. “Look, the driver.”

Anand broke away and ran to Mr. Biswas. “That fat man was trying to thief my money.”

“Afternoon, boss,” the fat man said.

“Haul your tail. Who the hell tell you you could lay your hand on my son?”

“Son, boss?”

“He try to thief my money,” Anand said.

“Was a game,” the fat man said.

“Haul off!” Mr. Biswas said. “Job! You not looking for any job. You not getting any either.”

“But, boss,” the younger man said, “Mr. Seth say he did tell you.”

“Didn’t tell me nothing.”

“But Mr. Seth say-” the fat man said.

“Leave them, Dinnoo,” the younger man said. “Father and blasted son.”

“Is in the blood,” the fat man said.

“You mind your mouth,” Mr. Biswas shouted.

“Tcha!” The man sucked his teeth, backing away.

Anand showed Mr. Biswas the coppers he had found.

“The road full of money,” he said. “They was finding silver. But I didn’t find any.”

Mr. Biswas was awake and lying in bed when Anand got up. Anand always got up first. Mr. Biswas heard him walk along the resounding boards of the unfinished drawingroom floor and step on to the staircase-that was a firmer sound. Then there was a silence, and he heard Anand coming back across the drawingroom.

Anand stood in the doorway. His face was blank. “Pa.” His voice was weak. His mouth remained half open and quivering.

Mr. Biswas threw off the sheet and went to him.

Anand shrugged off his father’s hand and pointed across the drawingroom.

Mr. Biswas went to look.

On the lowest step he saw Tarzan, dead. The body had been flung down carelessly. The hind quarters were on the step, the muzzle on the ground. The brown and white hair was clotted with black-red blood and stained with dirt; flies were thick about him. The tail was propped up against the second step, erect, the hair ruffled in the light morning breeze, as though it belonged to a living dog. The neck had been cut, the belly ripped open; flies were on his lips and around his eyes, which were mercifully closed.

Mr. Biswas felt Anand standing beside him.

“Come. Go inside. I will look after Tarzan.”

He led Anand to the bedroom. Anand walked lightly, very lightly, as though responding only to the pressure of Mr. Biswas’s fingers. Mr. Biswas passed his hand over Anand’s hair. Anand angrily shook the hand away. The tight, brittle body quivered and Anand, clutching his shirt with both hands, began dancing on the floor.

It was some seconds before Mr. Biswas realized that Anand had drawn a deep breath before screaming. He could do nothing but wait, watching the swollen face, the distended mouth, the narrow eyes. And then it came, a terrible whistle of a shriek that went on and on until it broke up into gurgles and strangulated sounds.

“I don’t want to stay here! I want to go!”

“All right,” Mr. Biswas said, when Anand sat red-eyed and snuffling on the bed. “I will take you to Hanuman House. Tomorrow.” It was a plea for time. In the anxiety that palpitated through him he had forgotten the dog, and knew only that he didn’t want to be left alone. It was a skill he had acquired: to forget the immediately unpleasant. Nothing could distract him from the deeper pain.

Anand, too, forgot the dog. All he recognized was the plea and his own power. He beat his legs against the side of the rumpled bed and stamped on the floor. “No! No! I want to go today.”

“All right. I will take you this afternoon.”

Mr. Biswas buried Tarzan in the yard, adding another mound to those thrown up by the energetic Edgar and now covered with a skin of vegetation. Tarzan’s mound looked raw; but soon the weeds would cover it; like Edgar’s mounds it would become part of the shape of the land.

The early morning breeze dropped. It became hazy. The heat rose steadily and no relieving shower came in the early afternoon. Then the haze thickened, clouds turned from white to silver to grey to black and billowed heavily across the sky: a watercolour in black and grey.

It became dark.

Mr. Biswas hurried from the fields and said, “I don’t think we can take you to Arwacas today. The rain is going to come any minute.”

Anand was content. Darkness at four o”clock was an event, romantic, to be remembered.

Downstairs, in the makeshift kitchen of boxes, they prepared a meal. Then they went upstairs to wait for the downpour.

Soon it came. Isolated drops, rapping hard on the roof, like a slow roll of drums. The wind freshened, the rain slanted. Every drop that struck the uprights blotted, expanding, into the shape of a spear-head. The rain that struck the dust below the roof rolled itself into dark pellets of dirt, neat and spherical.

They lit the oil lamp. Moths flew to it. Flies, deceived by the darkness, had already settled down for the night; they were thick on the asphalt lengths.

Mr. Biswas said, “If you go to Hanuman House, you have to give me back the colour-pencils.”

The wind blew in gusts, curving the fall of the rain.

“But you did give them to me.”

“Ah. But you didn’t take them. Remember? Anyway, I taking them back now.”

“Well, you could take them back. I don’t want them.”

“All right, all right. I was only joking. I not taking them back.”

“I don’t want them.”

“Take them.”


Anand went out to the unfinished drawingroom.

When the real rain came it announced itself seconds in advance by its roar: the roar of wind, of wind through trees, of the deluge on distant trees. Then came a swift crepitation on the roof, instantly lost in a continuous and even hammering, so loud that if Mr. Biswas spoke Anand could not have heard.

Here and there Mr. Maclean’s roof leaked; that added to the cosiness of shelter. Water fell from the corrugations in evenly-spaced streams, enclosing the house. Water flowed down the sloping land below the roof; the pellets of dirt had long disappeared. Water gouged out tortuous channels as it forced its way down to the road and down to the hollow before the barracks. And the rain continued to roar, and the roof resounded.

For several seconds at a time lightning lit up a shining chaotic world. Fresh mud flowed off Tarzan’s grave in a thin regular stream. Raindrops glittered as they struck the sodden ground. Then the thunder came, grating and close. Anand thought of a monstrous steam-roller breaking through the sky. The lightning was exciting but it made him feel peculiar. That, and the thunder, sent him back to the bedroom.

He surprised Mr. Biswas writing with his finger on his head. Mr. Biswas quickly pretended that he was playing with his hair. The flame of the oil lamp, though protected by a glass chimney, wavered; shadows dodged about the room; the shadows of the snakes swung in an ever-changing pattern on the shivering roof.

Still officially annoyed with his father, Anand sat down on the floor, at the foot of the bed, and held his arms over his knees. The din on the roof and the beat of the rain on the trees and earth made him feel chilly. Something fell near him. It was a winged ant, its wings collapsed and now a burden on its wormlike body. These creatures came out only in heavy rain and seldom lived beyond it. When they fell they never rose again. Anand pressed a finger on the broken wing. The ant wriggled, the wing was released; and the ant, suddenly busy, suddenly deceptively whole, moved off towards the dark.

All at once a cycle of heavy rain was over. It still drizzled, and the wind still blew, flinging the drizzle on the roof and walls like showers of sand. It was possible to hear the water from the roof falling to the earth, water gurgling as it ran off in its new channels. The rain had soaked through the gaps between the wall-boards. The edges of the floor were wet.

“Rama Rama Sita Rama, Rama Rama Sita Rama.”

Mr. Biswas was lolling on the bed, his legs locked together, his lips moving rapidly. The expression on his face was one of exasperation rather than pain.

Anand thought this was a plea for sympathy and ignored it. He leaned his head on his arms crossed over his knees, and rocked on the floor.

A fresh cycle of rain started. A winged ant dropped on Anand’s arm. Hurriedly he brushed it off; where the ant touched him seemed to burn. Then he saw that the room was full of these ants enjoying the last minutes of their short life. Their small wings, strained by large bodies, quickly became useless, and without wings they were without defence. They kept on dropping. Their enemies had already discovered them. On one wall, in the shadow of the reflector of the oil lamp, Anand saw a column of black ants. They were not the crazy ants, thin frivolous creatures who scattered at the slightest disturbance; they were the biting ants, smaller, thicker, neater, purple-black with a dull shine, moving slowly and in strict formation, as solemn and stately as undertakers. Lightning lit up the room again and Anand saw the column of biting ants stretched diagonally across two walls: a roundabout route, but they had their reasons.

“Hear them!”

Anand, watching the ants, his mouth pressed on his goose-fleshed arm, didn’t reply.


The anguish, the loudness of the voice rising above rain and wind made Anand jump. He stood up.

“You hear them?”

Anand listened, trying to pick up the component parts of the din: the rain, the wind, the running of water, the trees, the rain on walls and roof. Talk, indistinct, a bumble, rising and falling.

“You hear them?”

Anything could sound like talk: the gurgle of water, boughs rubbing against one another. Anand opened the door a little way and looked down through the spars of the drawingroom. The ground ran with shining black water. Below the unfloored front bedroom, where the ground was higher and not so wet, two men were squatting before a smoking fire of twigs. Two large heart-shaped leaves of the wild tannia were near the men. They must have used the leaves as umbrellas when they had been caught by the heavier shower. The men stared at the fire. One man was smoking a cigarette. In the weak firelight, in the stillness of the scene in the midst of turmoil, this act of smoking, so intense and unruffled, might have been part of an ancient ritual.

“You see them?”

Anand closed the door.

On the floor the winged ants had a new life. They were possessed of scores of black limbs. They were being carted away by the biting ants. They wriggled and squirmed, but did not disturb the even solemnity of their bearers. Bodiless wings were also being carried away.

Lightning obliterated shadows and colour.

The hair on Anand’s arms and legs stood straight. His skin tingled.

“You see them?”

Anand thought they might be the men from the day before. But he couldn’t be sure.

“Bring the cutlass.”

Anand put the cutlass against the wall near the head of the bed. The wall was running with water.

“And you take the walking-stick.”

Anand would have liked to go to sleep. But he didn’t want to get into bed with his father. And with the floor full of ants where it was not wet, he couldn’t make up a bed for himself.

“Rama Rama Sita Rama, Rama Rama Sita Rama.”

“Rama Rama Sita Rama,” Anand repeated.

Then Mr. Biswas forgot Anand and began to curse. He cursed Ajodha, Pundit Jairam, Mrs. Tulsi, Shama, Seth.

“Say Rama Rama, boy.”

“Rama Rama Sita Rama.”

The rain abated.

When Anand looked outside, the men under the house had gone with their tannia leaves, leaving a dead, hardly-smoking fire.

“You see them?”

The rain came again. Lightning flashed and flashed, thunder exploded and rolled.

The procession of the ants continued. Anand began killing them with the walking-stick. Whenever he crushed a group carrying a living winged ant, the ants broke up, without confusion or haste, re-formed, took away what they could of the crushed body and carried away their dead. Anand struck and struck with his stick. A sharp pain ran up his arm. On his hand he saw an ant, its body raised, its pincers buried in his skin. When he looked at the walking-stick he saw that it was alive with biting ants crawling upwards. He was suddenly terrified of them, their anger, their vindictiveness, their number. He threw the stick away from him. It fell into a puddle.

The roof rose and dropped, grinding and flapping. The house shook.

“Rama Rama Sita Rama,” Anand said.

“O God! They coming!”

“They gone!” Anand shouted angrily.

Mr. Biswas muttered hymns in Hindi and English, left them unfinished, cursed, rolled on the bed, his face still expressing only exasperation.

The flame of the oil lamp swayed, shrank, throwing the room into darkness for seconds, then shone again.

A shaking on the roof, a groan, a prolonged grinding noise, and Anand knew that a sheet of corrugated iron had been torn off. One sheet was left loose. It flapped and jangled continuously. Anand waited for the fall of the sheet that had been blown off.

He never heard it.

Lightning; thunder; the rain on roof and walls; the loose iron sheet; the wind pushing against the house, pausing, and pushing again.

Then there was a roar that overrode them all. When it struck the house the window burst open, the lamp went instantly out, the rain lashed in, the lightning lit up the room and the world outside, and when the lightning went out the room was part of the black void.

Anand began to scream.

He waited for his father to say something, to close the window, light the lamp.

But Mr. Biswas only muttered on the bed, and the rain and wind swept through the room with unnecessary strength and forced open the door to the drawingroom, wall-less, floorless, of the house Mr. Biswas had built.

Anand screamed and screamed.

Rain and wind smothered his voice, overturned the lamp, made the rockingchair rock and skid, rattled the kitchen safe against the wall, destroyed all smell. Lightning, flashing intermittently, steel-blue exploding into white, showed the ants continually disarrayed, continually re-forming.

Then Anand saw a light swaying in the dark. It was a man, bending forward against the rain, a hurricane lamp in one hand, a cutlass in the other. The living flame was like a miracle.

It was Ramkhilawan from the barracks. He had a jutebag over his head and shoulders like a cape. He was barefooted and his trousers were rolled up above his knees. The hurricane lamp showed glinting streaks of rain, and, as he climbed the slippery steps, his footprints of mud, instantly washed away.

“Oh, my poor little calf!” he called. “Oh, my poor little calf!”

He closed the drawingroom door. The lamp illuminated a wet chaos. He struggled with the window. As soon as he had pulled it a little way from the wall to which it was pinned, the wind, rising, gave a push, and the window slammed shut, making Ramkhilawan jump back. He took off the dripping jutebag from his head and shoulders; his shirt stuck to his skin.

The oil lamp was not broken. There even remained some oil in it. The chimney was cracked, but still whole. Ramkhilawan brought out a damp box of matches from his trouser pocket and put a lighted match to the wick. The wick, waterlogged, spluttered; the match burned down; the wick caught.

6. A Departure

A message had to be sent to Hanuman House. The labourers always responded to the melodramatic and calamitous, and there were many volunteers. Through rain and wind and thunder a messenger went that evening to Arwacas and dramatically unfolded his tale of calamity.

Mrs. Tulsi and the younger god were in Port of Spain. Shama was in the Rose Room; the midwife had been attending upon her for two days.

Sisters and their husbands held a council.

“I did always think he was mad,” Chinta said.

Sushila, the childless widow, spoke with her sickroom authority. “It isn’t about Mohun I am worried, but the children.”

Padma, Seth’s wife, asked, “What do you think he is sick with?”

Sumati the flogger said, “Message only said that he was very sick.”

“And that his house had been practically blown away,” Jai’s mother added.

There were some smiles.

“I am sorry to correct you, Sumati sister,” Chinta said. “But Message said that he wasn’t right in his head.”

Seth said, “I suppose we have to bring the paddler home.”

The men got ready to go to Green Vale; they were as excited as the messenger.

The sisters bustled about, impressing and mystifying the children. Sushila, who occupied the Blue Room when the god was away, cleared it of all personal, womanly things; much of her time was devoted to keeping the mysteries of women from men. She also burned certain evil-smelling herbs to purify and protect the house.

“Savi,” the children said, “something happen to your pappa.”

And they stuck pins in the wicks of lamps to keep misfortune and death away.

In the verandah and in every bedroom upstairs beds were made earlier than usual, lamps were turned low, and the children fell asleep, lulled by the sound of the rain. Downstairs the sisters sat silently around the long table, their veils pulled close over their heads and shoulders. They played cards and read newspapers. Chinta was reading the Ramayana; she continually set herself new ambitions and at the moment wanted to be the first woman in the family to read the epic from beginning to end. Occasionally the card-players chuckled. Chinta was sometimes called to look at the cards one sister had; often the temptation was too great, and Chinta, adopting her frowning card-playing manner, and not saying a word, stayed to play the hand, tapping each card before she played it, throwing down the winning card with the crack she could do so well, then, still silent, going back to the Ramayana. The midwife, an old, thin, inscrutable Madrassi, came to the hall and sat on her haunches in a corner, smoking, silent, her eyes bright. Coffee simmered in the kitchen; its smell filled the hall.

When the men returned, dripping, with Anand sleepily and tearfully walking beside them and Govind carrying Mr. Biswas in his arms, there was relief, and some disappointment. Mr. Biswas was not wild or violent; he made no speeches; he did not pretend he was driving a motorcar or picking cocoa-the two actions popularly associated with insanity. He only looked deeply exasperated and fatigued.

Govind and Mr. Biswas had not spoken since their fight. By carrying Mr. Biswas in his arms Govind had put himself on the side of authority: he had assumed authority’s power to rescue and assist when there was need, authority’s impersonal power to forgive.

Recognizing this, Chinta looked solicitously after Anand, drying his hair, taking off his wet clothes and giving him some of Vidiadhar’s, giving him food, taking him upstairs and finding a place for him among the sleeping boys.

Mr. Biswas was put in the Blue Room, given dry clothes and cautiously offered a cup of hot sweetened milk with nutmeg, brandy and lumps of red butter. He stilled remaining fears by taking the cup without accident, and drinking carefully.

He welcomed the warmth and reassurance of the room. Every wall was solid; the sound of the rain was deadened; the ceiling of two and a half inch pitchpine concealed corrugated iron and asphalt; the jalousied window, set in a deep embrasure, was unrattled by wind and rain.

He knew he was at Hanuman House; but he couldn’t assess what had gone before or what was to come. He felt he was continually awakening to a new situation, which was in some way linked to the memories he had, as instantaneous as snapshots, of other happenings that seemed to have spread over an unmeasurable length of time. The rain on the wet bed; the trip in the motorcar; the appearance of Ramkhilawan; the dead dog; the men talking outside; the thunder and lightning; the room suddenly full of Seth and Govind and the others; and now this warm, closed room, yellowly lit by a steady lamp; the dry clothes. As he concentrated, every object acquired a solidity, a permanence. That marble topped table with the china cup and saucer and spoon: no other arrangement of those objects was possible. He knew that this order was threatened; he had a feeling of expectation and unease.

He lay as still as possible. Soon he was asleep. In his last moments of lucidity he thought the sound of the rain, muffled and regular, was comforting.

It was still raining next morning, steadily, but the wind had dropped. It was dark, but there was no lightning and thunder. The gutters around the house were full and muddy. In the High Street the canals overflowed and the road was under water. The children could not go to school. There was excitement among them, not only at the unusual weather and unexpected holiday, but also at the overnight disturbance. Some had memories of being awakened briefly during the night; now Anand was with them and his father was in the Blue Room. Some of the girls pretended to know all that had happened. It was like the morning after a birth in the Rose Room: the mysteries were so well kept and everything carried out so secretly that few of the younger children knew what was afoot until they were told.

“Savi,” the children said, “your pappa here. In the Blue Room.”

But she didn’t want to go to the Blue Room or the Rose Room.

Outside, naked children splashed shrieking in the flooded road and swollen canals, racing paper boats and wooden boats and even sticks.

Towards the middle of the morning the sky lightened and lifted, the rain thinned to a drizzle, then stopped altogether. The clouds rolled back, the sky was suddenly blinding blue and there were shadows on the water. Rapidly, their gurgling soon lost in the awakening every day din, canals subsided, leaving a wash of twigs and dirt on the road. In yards, against fences, there were tidemarks of debris and pebbles which looked as though they had been washed and sifted; around stones dirt had been washed away; green leaves that had been torn down were partly buried in silt. Roads and roofs dried, steaming, areas of dryness spreading out swiftly, like ink on a blotter. And presently roads and yards were dry, except for the depressions where water had collected. Heat nibbled at their edges, until even the depressions failed to reflect the blue sky. And the world was dry again, except for the mud in the shelter of the trees.

The news about Mr. Biswas was broken to Shama. She suggested that the furniture from Green Vale should be brought to Hanuman House.

The doctor came, a Roman Catholic Indian, but much respected by the Tulsis for his manners and the extent of his property. He dismissed talk about having Mr. Biswas certified and said that Mr. Biswas was suffering from nerves and a certain vitamin deficiency. He prescribed a course of Sanatogen, a tonic called Ferrol with reputed iron-giving, body-building qualities, and Ovaltine. He also said that Mr. Biswas was to have much rest, and should go to Port of Spain as soon as he was better to see a specialist.

Almost as soon as the doctor had gone the thaumaturge came, an unsuccessful man with a flashy turban and an anxious manner; his fees were low. He purified the Blue Room and erected invisible barriers against evil spirits. He recommended that strips of aloe should be hung in doorways and windows and said that the family ought to have known that they should always have a black doll in the doorway of the hall to divert evil spirits: prevention was better than cure. Then he inquired whether he couldn’t prepare a little mixture as well.

The offer was rejected. “Ovaltine, Ferrol, Sanatogen,” Seth said. “Give Mohun your mixture and you turn him into a little capsule.”

But they hung the aloe; it was a natural purgative that cost nothing and large quantities were always in the house. And they hung the black doll, one of a small ancient stock in the Tulsi Store, an English line which had not appealed to the people of Arwacas.

That same afternoon a lorry brought the furniture from Green Vale. It was all damp and discoloured. The polish on Shama’s dressingtable had turned white. The mattress was soaked and smelly; the coconut fibre had swollen and stained the ticking. The cloth covers of Mr. Biswas’s books were still sticky, and their colours had run along the edges of the pages, which had wrinkled and stuck together.

The metal sections of the fourposter were left unmounted in that part of the long room which had once been Shama’s and Mr. Biswas’s; the boards and the mattress were put out to dry in the sun. The safe stood in the hall, near the doorway to the kitchen, looking almost new against the sooty green wall. It still exhibited the Japanese coffee-set (the head of a Japanese woman at the bottom of every cup, an embossed dragon breathing fire outside), Seth’s wedding present to Shama, never used, only cleaned. The green table was also put in the hall, but in that jumble of unmatching furniture was scarcely noticeable. The rockingchair was taken to the verandah upstairs.

Savi was pained to see the furniture so scattered and disregarded, and angered to see the rockingchair being misused almost at once. At first the children stood on the cane-bottom and rocked violently. From this they evolved a game: four or five climbed into the chair and rocked; another four or five tried to pull them off. They fought over the chair and overturned it: that was the climax of the game. Knowing that to protest was to make herself absurd, Savi went to the Rose Room, with its basins and quaint jugs and tubes and smells, and complained to Shama.

Shama, always gentle with her children when she was alone with them, and especially gentle during her confinements, stroked Savi’s hair and told her that she was not to mind, she was being selfish, and if she complained to anybody else she would certainly cause a quarrel. Mr. Biswas was sick, Shama said; and she herself was sick. Savi ought not to behave in a way that would annoy anyone.

“And where have they put the bureau?” Shama asked.

“In the long room.”

Shama looked pleased.

Some of Mr. Biswas’s most elaborate placards had also been brought from Green Vale. They were considered beautiful; though the sentiments, from a man long thought to be an atheist, caused some astonishment. The placards were hung in the hall and the Book Room, and when the children said, “Savi, your pappa did really paint those signs?” the pain at seeing the furniture scattered was lessened.

The children said, “Savi, so all-you staying here for good now?”

Lying in the room next to Shama’s, perpetually dark, Mr. Biswas slept and woke and slept again. The darkness, the silence, the absence of the world enveloped and comforted him. At some far-off time he had suffered great anguish. He had fought against it. Now he had surrendered, and this surrender had brought peace. He had controlled his disgust and fear when the men had come for him. He was glad he had. Surrender had removed the world of damp walls and paper covered walls, of hot sun and driving rain, and had brought him this: this worldless room, this nothingness. As the hours passed he found he could piece together recent happenings, and he marvelled that he had survived the horror. More and more frequently he forgot fear and questioning; sometimes, for as much as a minute or so, he was unable, even when he tried, to re-enter fully the state of mind he had lived through. There remained an unease, which did not seem real or actual and was more like an indistinct, chilling memory of horror.

Further messages had been sent and visitors came. Pratap and Prasad, abashed by the size of the house and conscious of their own condition, felt obliged to be kind to all the children. They began by giving each child a penny; but they had underestimated the number of children; they ended up by giving out halfpennies. They told Mr. Biswas exactly what they had been doing when they got Message; it seemed that they both nearly missed Message; they had both, however, had some signs on the night of the storm that something was wrong with Mr. Biswas and had told their wives so; they urged Mr. Biswas to get confirmation from their wives. Mr. Biswas listened with a sense of withdrawal. He asked after their families. Pratap and Prasad construed this as pure politeness, and though there was little to talk about, dismissed their families as worthless of serious consideration. And after making occasional solemn noises, looking down at their hats, examining them from various angles, brushing the bands, they got up to go, sighing.

Ramchand, Mr. Biswas’s brother-in-law, was less restrained. He had acquired a city brashness that went well with his uniform. He had left the country and the rum-factory years before and was now a warden at the Lunatic Asylum in Port of Spain.

“Don’t think I shy of you,” he told Mr. Biswas. “I used to this. This is my work.”

He spoke of himself, his career, the Lunatic Asylum.

“You ain’t got a gramophone here?” he asked.


“Music,” Ramchand said. “We does play music to them all the time.”

He spoke of the perquisites of the job as though the Lunatic Asylum had been organized solely for his benefit.

“Take the canteen now. Everything there five cents and six cents cheaper than outside, you know. But that is because they not running it to make a profit. If you ever want anything you must let me know.”


“I will see. Look, why you don’t leave the country, man, and come to Port of Spain? A man like you shouldn’t remain in this backward place. No wonder this thing happen to you. Come up and spend some time with us. Dehuti always talking about you, you know.”

Mr. Biswas promised to think it over.

Ramchand walked heavily through the house and when he came into the hall shouted at Sushila, whom he didn’t know, “Everything all right, maharajin?”

“He looks like a real chamar -caste-type,” Sushila said.

“However much you wash a pig,” Chinta said, “you can’t turn it into a cow.”

That evening Seth went to the Blue Room.

“Well, Mohun. How you feeling?”

“All right, I think.” Mr. Biswas spoke with something like his humorous high-pitched voice.

“You thinking of going back to Green Vale?”

To his own surprise, Mr. Biswas found himself behaving in the old way. With an expression of mock-horror he said, “Who? Me?”

“I glad you feel that way. As a matter of fact you can’t go back.”

“Look at me. I crying.”

“Guess what happen.”

“All the cane burn down.”

“Wrong. Only your house.”

“Burn down? You mean it insuranburn.”

“No, no. Not insuranburn. It burn fair and square. Green Vale people. Wicked like hell, man, those people.”

Seth saw that Mr. Biswas was crying and looked away. But Seth misunderstood.

An immense relief had come upon Mr. Biswas. The anxiety, the fear, the anguish which had kept his mind humming and his body taut now ebbed away. He could feel it ebbing; it was a physical sensation; it left him weak and very weary. And he felt an enormous gratitude to Seth. He wanted to embrace him, to promise eternal friendship, to make some vow.

“You mean,” he said at last, “that after all that rain they burn it down?” And he burst out sobbing.

That night Shama gave birth to her fourth child, another girl.

Mr. Biswas’s books had been placed among those in the Book Room. Somewhere among them was the Collins Clear-Type Shakespeare. No entry was made on its endpaper of this new birth.

The thin, short-winded and repetitive cry of the baby hardly made itself heard outside the Rose Room. The midwife no longer squatted in the hall and smoked. She was busy. She washed, she cleaned, she watched and ruled. After nine days she was paid and dismissed. The sisters told Anand and Savi, “You have a new sister. Somebody else to get a share of your father’s property.” And they told Anand, “You are lucky. You are still the only boy. But wait. One day you will get a brother, and he will cut off your nose.”

Mr. Biswas mixed and drank Sanatogen, drank tablespoonfuls of Ferrol and, in the evenings, glasses of Ovaltine. One day he remembered his fingernails. When he looked he saw they were whole, unbitten. There were still the periods of darkness, the spasms of panic; but now he knew they were not real and because he knew this he overcame them. He remained in the Blue Room, feeling secure to be only a part of Hanuman House, an organism that possessed a life, strength and power to comfort which was quite separate from the individuals who composed it.

“Savi, what you drinking?”


“Anand, what you drinking?”


“It nice?”

“Very nice.”

“Ma, Savi and Anand drinking Ovaltine. Their pappa give it to them.”

“Well, let me tell you, eh, boy, your father is not a millionaire to give you Ovaltine. You hear?”

And the next day:

“Jai, what you drinking?”

“Ovaltine, like you.”

“Vidiadhar, you drinking Ovaltine too?”

“No. We drinking Milo. We like it better.”

Mr. Biswas came out from the Blue Room to the drawing-room with the thronelike chairs and the statuary. He felt safe and even a little adventurous. He went through to the wooden house. In the verandah Hari was reading. Instinctively Mr. Biswas took a step back. Then he remembered there was no need. The two men looked at one another and looked away again.

Leaning on the verandah half-wall, with his back to Hari, Mr. Biswas thought about Hari’s position in the family. Hari spent all his free time reading. He used this reading for nothing; he disliked disputation of any sort. No one was able to check his knowledge of Sanskrit and his scholarship had to be taken on trust. Yet he was respected inside the family and outside it. How did Hari get to that position? Mr. Biswas wondered. Where did he start?

What would happen if he, Mr. Biswas, made a sudden appearance in the hall in dhoti and beads and sacred thread? Let his top-knot grow again, as it had grown at Pundit Jairam’s. Would Hanuman House care to have two sick scholars? But he couldn’t see himself as a holy man for long. Sooner or later someone was bound to surprise him, in dhoti, top-knot, sacred thread and caste-marks, reading The Manxman or The Atom.

Speculating about this, he reviewed his situation. He was the father of four children, and his position was as it had been when he was seventeen, unmarried and ignorant of the Tulsis. He had no vocation, no reliable means of earning a living. The job at Green Vale was over; he could not rest in the Blue Room forever; soon he would have to make a decision. Yet he felt no anxiety. The second to second agony and despair of those days at Green Vale had given him an experience of unhappiness against which everything had now to be measured. He was more fortunate than most people. His children would never starve; they would always be sheltered and clothed. It didn’t matter if he were at Green Vale or Arwacas, if he were alive or dead.

His money dwindled: Ovaltine, Ferrol, Sanatogen; the doctor’s fees, the midwife’s, the thaumaturge’s. And there was no more money to come.

One evening Seth said, “That tin of Ovaltine could very well be your last, if you don’t decide to do something.”

Decide. What was there to decide?

There was room for him at Hanuman House if he stayed. If he left he would not be missed. He had not claimed his children; they avoided him and were embarrassed when they met him.

But it was only when Seth said, “Mai and Owad are coming home this week-end,” meaning that the Blue Room had to be prepared for Owad, it was only then that Mr. Biswas thought of action, unwilling to move to any other part of the house, unwilling to face Mrs. Tulsi and the god.

The small brown cardboard suitcase, acquired in exchange for a large number of Anchor Cigarette packets, and decorated on both sides with his monogram, was enough for what he intended to take. He remembered Shama’s taunt: “When you came to us you had no more clothes than you could hang up on a nail.” He still had few clothes; they were all crumpled and dirty. The cork hat he decided to leave; he had always found it absurd, and it belonged to the barracks. He could always send for his books. But he packed his paintbrushes. Through every move they had survived; the soft candle on the bristle of one or two had hardened, cracked and turned to powder.

He wanted to leave early in the morning, to have as much time as possible before it became dark. The crumpled clothes felt loose when he put them on; his trousers sagged; he had grown thinner. He remembered the morning the towel had fallen from him in front of the twelve barrackrooms.

When Savi brought him the cocoa and biscuits and butter he told her, “I am going away.”

She didn’t look surprised or disappointed, and didn’t ask where he was going.

He was going out into the world, to test it for its power to frighten. The past was counterfeit, a series of cheating accidents. Real life, and its especial sweetness, awaited; he was still beginning.

He wondered whether he should go to see Shama and the baby. His senses recoiled. As soon as he heard the children leave for school he went downstairs. He was seen, but no one called out to him: the suitcase was not of a significant size.

The High Street was already busy. The market was alive: a high smell of meat and fish, a steady dull roar enlivened by shrieks and the ringing of bells. The haberdashers were coming in, on horse-carts, donkey-carts and ox-carts: ambitious men who set up little boxes and exposed stocks of combs and hairpins and brushes in front of large stores that sold the same things.

The spasms of terror didn’t come. The knots of fear were still in his stomach, but they were so subdued he knew he could ignore them. The world had been restored to him. He looked at the nails of his left hand; they were still whole. He tested them against his palm; they were sharp and cutting.

He walked past the Red Rose Tea Is Good Tea sign; past the rumshop with the vast awning; past the Roman Catholic church; the court house; past the police station, primly ochre-and-red, its lawn and hedges trimmed, the drive lined with large whitewashed stones and palm trees which, whitewashed halfway up their trunks, looked like the legs of Pratap and Prasad when, as boys, they returned from the buffalo-pond.

Part Two

1. “Amazing Scenes”

To the city of Port of Spain, where with one short break he was to spend the rest of his life, and where at Sikkim Street he was to die fifteen years later, Mr. Biswas came by accident. When he left Hanuman House and his wife and four children, the last of whom he had not seen, his main concern was to find a place to pass the night. It was still early morning. The sun was rising directly above the High Street in a dazzling haze, against which everyone was silhouetted, outlined in gold, and attached to shadows so elongated that movements appeared uncoordinated and awkward. The buildings on either side were in damp shadow.

At the road junction Mr. Biswas had still not decided where to go. Most of the traffic moved north: tarpaulin-covered lorries, taxis, buses. The buses slowed down to pass Mr. Biswas, and the conductors, hanging out from the footboard, shouted to him to come aboard. North lay Ajodha and Tara, and his mother. South lay his brothers. None of them could refuse to take him in. But to none of them did he want to go: it was too easy to picture himself among them. Then he remembered that north, too, lay Port of Spain and Ramchand, his brother-in-law. And it was while he was trying to decide whether Ramchand’s invitation could be considered genuine that a bus, its engine partially unbonneted, its capless radiator steaming, came to a stop inches away with a squeal of brakes and a racking of its tin and wood body, and the conductor, a young man, almost a boy, bent down and seized Mr. Biswas’s cardboard suitcase, saying imperiously, impatiently, “Port of Spain, man, Port of Spain”.

As a conductor of Ajodha’s buses Mr. Biswas had seized the suitcases of many wayfarers, and he knew that in these circumstances a conductor had to be aggressive to combat any possible annoyance. But now, finding himself suddenly separated from his suitcase and hearing the impatience in the conductor’s voice, he was cowed, and nodded. “Up, up, man,” the conductor said, and Mr. Biswas climbed into the vehicle while the conductor stowed away his suitcase.

Whenever the bus stopped to release a passenger or kidnap another, Mr. Biswas wondered whether it was too late to get off and make his way south. But the decision had been made, and he was without energy to go back on it; besides, he could get at his suitcase only with the cooperation of the conductor. He fixed his eyes on a house, as small and as neat as a doll’s house, on the distant hills of the Northern Range; and as the bus moved north, he allowed himself to be puzzled that the house didn’t grow any bigger, and to wonder, as a child might, whether the bus would eventually come to that house.

It was the crop season. In the sugarcane fields, already in parts laid low, cutters and loaders were at work, knee-deep in trash. Along the tracks between fields mudstained, grey-black buffaloes languidly pulled carts carrying high, bristling loads of sugarcane. But soon the land changed and the air was less sticky. Sugarcane gave way to rice-fields, the muddy colour of their water lost in the flawless reflections of the blue sky; there were more trees; and instead of mud huts there were wooden houses, small and old, but finished, painted and jalousied, with fretwork, frequently broken, along the eaves, above doors and windows and around fern-smothered verandahs. The plain fell behind, the mountains grew nearer; but the doll’s house remained as small as ever and when the bus turned into the Eastern Main Road Mr. Biswas lost sight of it. The road was strung with many wires and looked important; the bus moved westwards through thickening traffic and increasing noise, past one huddled red and ochre settlement after another, until the hills rose directly from the road on the right, and from the left came a smell of swamp and sea, which presently appeared, level, grey and hazy, and they were in Port of Spain, where the stale salt smell of the sea mixed with the sharp sweet smells of cocoa and sugar from the warehouses.

He had feared the moment of arrival and wished that the bus would go on and never stop, but when he got down into the yard next to the railway station his uncertainty at once fell away, and he felt free and excited. It was a day of freedom such as he had had only once before, when one of Ajodha’s relations had died and the rumshop had been closed and everybody had gone away. He drank a coconut from a cart in Marine Square. How wonderful to be able to do that in the middle of the morning! He walked on crowded pavements beside the slow, continuous motor traffic, noted the size and number of the stores and cafйs and restaurants, the trams, the high standard of the shop signs, the huge cinemas, closed after the pleasures of last night (which he had spent dully at Arwacas), but with posters, still wet with paste, promising fresh gaieties for that afternoon and evening. He comprehended the city whole; he did not isolate the individual, see the man behind the desk or counter, behind the pushcart or the steering-wheel of the bus; he saw only the activity, felt the call to the senses, and knew that below it all there was an excitement, which was hidden, but waiting to be grasped.

It wasn’t until four, when stores and offices closed and the cinemas opened, that he thought of making his way to the address Ramchand had given. This was in the Woodbrook area and Mr. Biswas, enchanted by the name, was disappointed to find an unfenced lot with two old unpainted wooden houses and many makeshift sheds. It was too late to turn back, to make another decision, another journey; and after making inquiries of a Negro woman who was fanning a coal-pot in one shed, he picked his way past bleaching stones, a slimy open gutter and a low open gutter and a low clothes-wire, to the back, where he saw Dehuti fanning a coal-pot in another shed, one wall of which was the corrugated iron fence of the sewer trace.

His disappointment was matched by their surprise when, after the exclamations of greeting, he made it clear that he intended to spend some time with them. But when he announced that he had left Shama, they were welcoming again, their solicitude touched not only with excitement but also with pleasure that in a time of trouble he had come to them.

“You stay here and rest as long as you want,” Ramchand said. “Look, you have a gramophone. You just stay here and play music to yourself.”

And Dehuti even dropped the sullenness with which she always greeted Mr. Biswas, a sullenness which, no longer defensive, held no meaning and was only an attitude fixed by habit, simplifying relationships.

Presently Dehuti’s younger son came back from school and Dehuti said sternly, “Take out your books and let me hear what you learn at school today.”

The boy didn’t hesitate. He took out Captain Cutteridge’s Reader, Standard Four, and read an account of an escape from a German prison camp in 1917.

Mr. Biswas congratulated the boy, Dehuti and Ramchand.

“He is a good little reader,” Ramchand said.

“And what is the meaning of ‘distribute’?” Dehuti asked, still stern.

“Share out,” the boy said.

“I didn’t know that at his age,” Mr. Biswas said to Ramchand.

“And bring out your copy book and show me what you do in arithmetic today.”

The boy took the book out to her and Dehuti said, “It look passable. But I don’t know anything about arithmetic. Take it to your uncle, let him see.”

Mr. Biswas didn’t know anything about arithmetic either, but he saw the approving red ticks and again congratulated the boy, Dehuti and Ramchand.

“This education is a helluva thing,” Ramchand said. “Any little child could pick up. And yet the blasted thing does turn out so damn important later on.”

Dehuti and Ramchand lived in two rooms. One of these Mr. Biswas shared with the boy. And though from the outside the unpainted house with its rusting roof and weatherbeaten, broken boards looked about to fall down, the wood inside had kept some of its colour, and the rooms were clean and well kept. The furniture, including the hatrack with the diamond shaped glass, was brilliantly polished. The area between the kitchen shed and the back room was roofed and partly walled; so that the open yard could be forgotten, and there was room and even privacy.

But at night gruff, intimate whispers came through the partitions, reminding Mr. Biswas that he lived in a crowded city. The other tenants were all Negroes. Mr. Biswas had never lived close to people of this race before, and their proximity added to the strangeness, the adventure of being in the city. They differed from country Negroes in accent, dress and manner. Their food had strange meaty smells, and their lives appeared less organized. Women ruled men. Children were disregarded and fed, it seemed, at random; punishments were frequent and brutal, without any of the ritual that accompanied floggings at Hanuman House. Yet the children all had fine physiques, disfigured only by projecting navels, which were invariably uncovered; for the city children wore trousers and exposed their tops, unlike country children, who wore vests and exposed their bottoms. And unlike country children, who were timid, the city children were half beggars, half bullies.

The organization of the city fascinated Mr. Biswas: the street lamps going on at the same time, the streets swept in the middle of the night, the rubbish collected by the scavenging carts early in the morning; the furtive, macabre sounds of the nightsoil removers; the newsboys, really men; the bread van, the milk that came, not from cows, but in rum bottles stopped with brown paper. Mr. Biswas was impressed when Dehuti and Ramchand spoke proprietorially of streets and shops, talking with the ease of people who knew their way about the baffling city. Even about Ramchand’s going out to work every morning there was something knowing, brave and enviable.

And with Mr. Biswas Ramchand was indeed the knowledgeable townsman. He took Mr. Biswas to the Botanical Gardens and the Rock Gardens and Government House. They went up Chancellor Hill and looked down at the ships in the harbour. For Mr. Biswas this was a moment of deep romance. He had seen the sea, but didn’t know that Port of Spain was really a port, at which ocean liners called from all parts of the world.

Mr. Biswas was amused by Ramchand’s city manners and allowed himself to be patronized by him. Ramchand had in any case always managed to do that, even when he had just stopped being a yard boy at Tara’s. Ostracized from the community into which he was born, he had shown the futility of its sanctions. He had simply gone outside it. He had acquired a loudness and heartiness which was alien and which he did not always carry off easily. He spoke English most of the time, but with a rural Indian accent which made his attempts to keep up with the ever-changing Port of Spain slang absurd. And Mr. Biswas suffered when, as sometimes happened, Ramchand was rebuffed; when, for instance, partly to impress Mr. Biswas, he overdid the heartiness in his relations with the Negroes in the yard and was met with cold surprise.

At the end of a fortnight Ramchand said, “Don’t worry about getting a job yet. You suffering from brain fag, and you got to have lots of rest.”

He spoke without irony, but Mr. Biswas, now practically without money, had begun to feel burdened by his freedom. He was no longer content to walk about the city. He wanted to be part of it, to be one of those who stood at the black and yellow busstops in the morning, one of those he saw behind the windows of offices, one of those to whom the evenings and week-ends brought relaxation. He thought of taking up sign-writing again. But how was he to go about it? Could he simply put up a sign in front of the house and wait?

Ramchand said, “Why you don’t try to get a job in the Mad House? Good pay, free uniform, and a damn good canteen. Everything there five and six cents cheaper. Ask Dehuti.”

“Yes,” she said, “Everything there much cheaper.”

Mr. Biswas saw himself in the uniform, walking alone through long rooms of howling maniacs.

“Well, why the hell not?” he said. “Is something to do.”

Ramchand looked slightly offended. He mentioned difficulties; and though he had contacts and influence, he was not sure that it would create a good impression if he made use of them. “That is the only thing that keeping me back,” he said. “The impression.”

Then one day Mr. Biswas was surprised by the spasms of fear. They were weak and intermittent, but they persisted, and reminded him to look at his hands. The nails were all bitten down.

His freedom was over.

And as a last act of this freedom he decided to go to the specialist the Arwacas doctor had recommended. The specialist’s office was at the northern end of St. Vincent Street, not far from the Savannah. House and grounds suggested whiteness and order. The fence pillars were freshly whitewashed; the brass plaque glittered; the lawn was trimmed; not a piece of earth was out of place on the flower-beds; and on the drive the light-grey gravel, free from impurities, reflected the sunlight.

He went through a white-walled verandah and found himself in a high white room. A Chinese receptionist in a stiff white uniform sat at a desk on which calendar, diary, inkwells, ledgers and lamp were neatly disposed. A fan whirred in one corner. A number of people reclined on low luxurious chairs, reading magazines or talking in whispers. They didn’t look sick: there was not a bandage or an oiled face among them, no smell of bay rum or ammonia. This was far removed from Mrs. Tulsi’s Rose Room; and it was hard to believe that in the same city Ramchand and Dehuti lived in two rooms of a crumbling house. Mr. Biswas began to feel that he had come on false pretences; there was nothing wrong with him.

“You have an appointment?” The receptionist spoke with the nasal, elided Chinese highness, and Mr. Biswas detected hostility in her manner.

Fish-face, he commented mentally.

The receptionist started.

Mr. Biswas realized with horror that he had whispered the word; he had not lost the Green Vale habit of speaking his thoughts aloud. “Appointment?” he said. “I have a letter.” He took out the small brown envelope which the Arwacas doctor had given him. It was creased, dirty, fuzzy along the edges, the corners curled.

The receptionist deftly slit the envelope open with a tortoiseshell knife. As she read the letter Mr. Biswas felt exposed, and more of a fraud than ever. The blunder he had made worried him. He determined to be cautious. He clenched his teeth and tried to imagine whether “fish-face”, heard in a whisper, couldn’t be mistaken for something quite different, something even complimentary.


The receptionist looked up.

Mr. Biswas smiled.

“You want to make an appointment, or you prefer to wait?” The receptionist was cold.

Mr. Biswas decided to wait. He sat on a sofa, sank right into it, fell back and sank further, his knees rising high. He didn’t know what to do with his eyes. It was too late to get a magazine. He counted the people in the room. Eight. He had a long time to wait. They probably all had appointments; they were all correctly ill.

A short limping man came in noisily, spoke loudly to the receptionist, stumped over to the sofa, sank into it, breathing hard, and stretched out a short straight leg.

At least there was something wrong with him. Mr. Biswas eyed the leg and wondered how the man was going to get up again.

The surgery door opened, a man was heard but not seen, a woman came out, and someone else went in.

A soldier of the legion lay dying in Algiers.

Mr. Biswas felt the lame man’s eyes on him.

He thought about money. He had three dollars. A country doctor charged a dollar; but illness was clearly more expensive in this room.

The lame man breathed heavily.

Money was too worrying to think about, Bell’s Standard Elocutionist too dangerous. His mind wandered and settled on Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, which he had read at Ramchand’s. He smiled at the memory of Huckleberry Finn, whose trousers “bagged low and contained nothing”, nigger Jim who had seen ghosts and told stories.

He chuckled.

When he looked up he intercepted an exchange of glances between the receptionist and the lame man. He would have left right then, but he was too deeply wedged in his chair; if he attempted to rise he would create a disturbance and draw attention to himself. He became aware of his clothes: the washed-out khaki trousers with the frayed turn-ups, the washed-out blue shirt with the cuffs given one awkward fold backwards (no shirt size fitted him absolutely: collars were too tight or sleeves too long), the little brown hat resting in the valley formed by his thighs and belly. And he had only three dollars.

You know, I am not a sick man at all.

The lame man cleared his throat noisily, very noisily for a small man, and agitated his stiff leg.

Mr. Biswas watched it.

Suddenly he had levered himself up from the sofa, rocking the lame man violently, and was walking towards the receptionist. Concentrating on his English, he said, “I have changed my mind. I am feeling much better, thank you.” And, putting on his hat, he went towards the door.

“What about your letter?” the receptionist asked, surprised into her Trinidad accent.

“Keep it,” Mr. Biswas said. “File it. Burn it. Sell it.”

He went through the tiled verandah, crossed the black afternoon shadow on the drive, emerged into the sun, noted a bed of suffering zinnias as he moved briskly down the dazzling gravel to St. Vincent Street. The wind from the Savannah was like a blessing. His mind was hot. And now he saw the city as made up of individuals, each of whom had his place in it. The large buildings around the Savannah were white and blank and silent in the heat.

He came to the War Memorial Park, sat on a bench in the shade of a tree and studied the statue of a belligerent soldier. Shadows were black and well-defined and encouraged repose and languor. His stomach was hurting.

His freedom was over, and it had been false. The past could not be ignored; it was never counterfeit; he carried it within himself. If there was a place for him, it was one that had already been hollowed out by time, by everything he had lived through, however imperfect, makeshift and cheating.

He welcomed the stomach pains. They had not occurred for months and it seemed to him that they marked the return of the wholeness of his mind, the restoration of the world; they indicated how far he had lifted himself from the abyss of the past months, and reminded him of the anguish against which everything now had to be measured.

Reluctantly, for it was a pleasure just to sit and let the wind play about his face and neck and down his shirt, he left the park and walked south, away from the Savannah. The quiet, withdrawn houses disappeared; pavements grew narrower and higher and more crowded; there were shops and cafйs and buses, cars, trams and bicycles, horns and bells and shouts. He crossed Park Street and continued towards the sea. In the distance, above the roofs at the end of the street, he saw the tops of masts of sloops and schooners at St. Vincent Jetty.

He passed the courts and came to the Red House, bulky in red sandstone. Part of the asphalt forecourt was marked off in white and lettered RESERVED FOR JUDGES. He went up the central steps and found himself under a high dome. He saw many green notice-boards and an unplaying fountain. The basin of the fountain was wet, and held many dead leaves and empty cigarette packets.

It was busy under the dome, with messengers in khaki uniforms and clerks in well-ironed clothes carrying buff or green folders, and with people continually passing between St. Vincent Street and Woodford Square, where the professional beggars lounged about the bandstand and on benches, so confident of their appearance that they disdained to beg, spending most of their time patching the rags they wore like a uniform, garments thick and shaggy and richly variegated, small rag sewn on to small rag, labours of love. Even about the beggars there was an air of establishment. Woodford Square, cool under the trees and attractively dappled with light, was theirs; they cooked, ate and slept there, disturbed only by occasional political gatherings. They worried no one, and since they all had excellent physiques, and one or two were reputed to be millionaires, no one worried them.

On the green notice-boards, which also served to screen the offices on either side, there were government notices. Mr. Biswas was reading these when he heard someone call out. He turned to see an elderly Negro, respectably dressed, waving to him with a one-armed pair of spectacles.

“You want a certificate?” The Negro’s lips snapped ferociously shut between words.


“Birth, marriage, death.” The Negro adjusted his mutilated spectacles low over his nose and from a shirt pocket stuffed with paper and pencils he pulled out a sheet of paper and let his pencil circle impatiently above it.

“I don’t want any certificate.”

The pencil stopped playing. “I can’t understand it.” The Negro put away paper and pencil, sat down on a long, shiny bench, took off his spectacles, thrust the scratched, white end of the remaining arm into his mouth, and shook his legs. “Nobody wanting certificates these days. If you ask me, the trouble is that nowadays it just have too damn many searchers. When I sit down on this bench in 1919 I was the onliest searcher. Today every Tom, Dick or Harry running up and down this place”-he jerked his chin towards the fountain-“calling themself searchers.” His lips snapped ferociously. “You sure you don’t want a certificate? You never know when these things could be useful. I get lots of certificates for Indians, you know. In fact, I prefer getting certificates for Indians. And I could get it for you this afternoon self. I know one of the clerks inside there.” He waved to the office at his back and Mr. Biswas saw a high, polished brown counter and pale green walls, lit, on this bright afternoon, by electric light.

“Helluva job,” the Negro said. “No Christmas and Easter for me, you know. At times like that nobody want any certificate at all. And every day, whether I search for ten or two or no certificates, that damn clerk inside there got to get his twenty cigarettes.”

Mr. Biswas began to move away.

“Still, if you know anybody who want a certificate-birth, death, marriage, marriage in extremis -send them to me. I come here every morning at eight o”clock sharp. The name is Pastor.”

Mr. Biswas left Pastor, overwhelmed by the thought that in the office behind the green notice-board records were kept of every birth and death. And they had nearly missed him! He went down the steps into St. Vincent Street and continued south towards the masts. Even Pastor, for all his grumbling, had found his place. What had driven him on a day in 1919 to take a seat outside the Registrar-General’s Department and wait for illiterates wanting certificates?

He had thought himself back into the mood he had known at Green Vale, when he couldn’t bear to look at the newspapers on the wall. And now he 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.

And, thinking of the newspapers on the barrackroom wall, he was confronted with the newspaper offices: the Guardian, the Gazette, the Mirror, the Sentinel, facing each other across the street. Machinery rattled like distant trains; through open windows came the warm smell of oil, ink and paper. The Sentinel was the paper for which Misir, the Aryan, was a cent-a-line country correspondent. All the stories Mr. Biswas had got by heart from the newspapers in the barrackroom returned to him. Amazing scenes were witnessed yesterday when… Passers-by stopped and stared yesterday when…

He turned down a lane, pushed open a door on the right, and then another. The noise of machinery was louder. An important, urgent noise, but it did not intimidate him. He said to the man behind the high caged desk, “I want to see the editor.”

Amazing scenes were witnessed in St. Vincent Street yesterday when Mohun Biswas, 31…

“You got an appointment?”

… assaulted a receptionist.

“No,” Mr. Biswas said irritably.

In an interview with our reporter… In an interview with our special correspondent late last night Mr. Biswas said…

“The editor is busy. You better go and see Mr. Woodward.”

“You just tell the editor I come all the way from the country to see him.”

Amazing scenes were witnessed in St. Vincent Street yesterday when Biswas, 31, unemployed, of no fixed address, assaulted a receptionist at the offices of the TRINIDAD SENTINEL. People ducked behind desks as Biswas, father of four, walked into the building with guns blazing, shot the editor and four reporters dead, and then set fire to the building. Passers-by stopped and stared as the flames rose high, fanned by a strong breeze. Several tons of paper were destroyed and the building itself gutted. In an exclusive interview with our special correspondent late last night Mr. Biswas said…

“This way,” the receptionist said, climbing down from his desk, and led Mr. Biswas into a large room which belied the urgent sounds of typewriters and machinery. Many typewriters were idle, many desks untenanted. A group of men in shirtsleeves stood around a green water-cooler in one corner; other groups of two or three were seated on desks; one man was spinning a swivel-chair with his foot. There was a row of frosted-glass cubicles along one wall, and the receptionist, going ahead of Mr. Biswas, knocked on one of these, pushed the door open, allowed Mr. Biswas to enter, and closed the door.

A small fat man, pink and oiled from the heat, half rose from behind a desk littered with paper. Slabs of lead, edged with type, served as paperweights. And Mr. Biswas was thrilled to see the proof of an article, headlined and displayed. It was a glimpse of a secret; isolated on the large white sheet, the article had an eminence tomorrow’s readers would never see. Mr. Biswas’s excitement increased. And he liked the man he saw before him.

“And what is your story?” the editor asked, sitting down.

“I don’t have a story. I want a job.”

Mr. Biswas saw almost with delight that he had embarrassed the editor; and he pitied him for not having the decision to throw him out. The editor went pinker and looked down at the proof. He was unhappy in the heat and seemed to be melting. His cheeks flowed into his neck; his neck bulged over his collar; his round shoulders drooped; his belly hung over his waistband; and he was damp all over. “Yes, yes,” he said. “Have you worked on a paper before?”

Mr. Biswas thought about the articles he had promised to write, but hadn’t, for Misir’s paper, which had never appeared. “Once or twice,” he said.

The editor looked at the door, as though for help. “Do you mean once? Or do you mean twice?”

“I have read a lot.” Mr. Biswas said, getting out of dangerous ground.

The editor played with a slab of lead.

“Hall Caine, Marie Corelli, Jacob Boehme, Mark Twain. Hall Caine, Mark Twain,” Mr. Biswas repeated. “Samuel Smiles.”

The editor looked up.

“Marcus Aurelius.”

The editor smiled.


The editor continued to smile, and Mr. Biswas smiled back, to let the editor know that he knew he was sounding absurd.

“You read those people just for pleasure, eh?”

Mr. Biswas recognized the cruel intent of the question, but he didn’t mind. “No,” he said. “Just for the encouragement.” All his excitement died.

There was a pause. The editor looked at the proof. Through the frosted glass Mr. Biswas saw figures passing in the newsroom. He became aware of the noise again: the traffic in the street, the regular rattle of machinery, the intermittent chatter of typewriters, occasional laughter.

“How old are you?”


“You have come from the country, you are thirty-one, you have never written, and you want to be a reporter. What do you do?”

Mr. Biswas thought of estate-driver, exalted it to overseer, rejected it, rejected shopkeeper, rejected unemployed. He said, “Sign-painter.”

The editor rose. “I have just the job for you.”

He led Mr. Biswas out of the office, through the newsroom (the group around the water-cooler had broken up), past a machine unrolling sheets of typewritten paper, into a partially dismantled room where carpenters were at work, through more rooms,