Monday, September 14, 2015

A House for Mr Biswas by V.S. Naipaul

Often, while Shama moved heavily about the back verandah and the kitchen, Mr. Biswas sat before the typewriter on the green table, inserted a sheet of Sentinel paper, typed his name and address at the top righthand corner, as the Ideal School and all the books had recommended, and wrote:

                              by M. Biswas

At the age of thirty-three, when he was already the father of four children.  .  .  .

Here he often stopped. Sometimes he went on to the end of the page; sometimes, but rarely, he typed frenziedly for page after page.  Sometimes his hero had a Hindi name; then he was short and unattractive and poor, and surrounded by ugliness, which was anatomized in bitter detail. Sometimes his hero had a Western name; he was then faceless, but tall and broad-shouldered; he was a reporter and moved in a world derived from the novels Mr Biswas had read and the films he had seen. None of these stories was finished, and their theme was always the same. The hero, trapped into marriage, burdened with a family, his youth gone, meets a young girl. She is slim, almost thin, and dressed in white. She is fresh, tender, unkissed; and she is unable to bear children. Beyond the meeting the stories never went.

Sometimes these stories were inspired by an unknown girl in the advertising department of the Sentinel. She often remained unknown. Sometimes Mr Biswas spoke; but whenever the girl accepted his invitation – to lunch, a film, the beach –his passion at once died; he withdrew the invitation and avoided the girl; thus in time creating a legend among the girls of the advertising department, all whom knew, though he did not suspect, for he kept it as a heavy, shameful secret, that at the age of thirty-three Mohun Biswas was already the father of four children.

Still, at the typewriter, he wrote of his untouched barren heroines.  He began these stories with joy; they left him dissatisfied and feeling unclean. Hen he went to his room, called for Anand, and to Anand’s disgust tried to play with him as a baby, saying, ‘Shompo! Gomp!’

Forgetting that in his strictness, and as part of her training, he had ordered Shama to file all his papers, he thought that these stories were as secret at home as his marriage and four children were at the office. And one Friday, when he found Shama puzzling over her accounts, and had scoffed as usual, she said, ‘Leave me alone, Mr. John Lubbard.’

That was one of the names of his thirty-three-year-old hero.

‘Go and take Sybil to the pictures.’

That was from another story. He had got that name from a novel by Warwick Deeping.

‘Leave Ratni alone.’

That was the Hindi name he had given to the mother of four in another story. Ratni walked heavily, ‘as though perpetually pregnant’; her arms filled he sleeves of her bodice and seemed about to burst them; she sucked in her breath through her teeth while she worked at her accounts, the only reading and writing she did.

Mr Biswas recalled with horror and shame the descriptions of the small tender breasts of his barren heroines.

Shama sucked her teeth loudly.

If she had laughed he would have hit her. But she never looked at him, only her account books.

He ran to his room, undressed, got his own cigarettes and matches, took down Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus, and got into bed.

It was not long after this that Mr Biswas, painting the kitchen safe and the green table with a tin of yellow paint, yielded to an impulse and painted the typewriter-case and parts of the typewriter as well.

For long the typewriter remained unused, until Anand and Savi began learning to type on it.

But, still, in the office, whenever he had cleaned his typewriter or changed the ribbon and wished to test the machine, the sentence he always wrote was: At the age of thirty-four, when he was already the father of four children.  .  .  .

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