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Learners and Readers in Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas


Dawa Lhamo

V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas chronologically depicts the life of the East Indian
community in Trinidad, and simultaneously narrates the story of a man in search of an identity. From
the beginning of the novel till the end, we see a sense of determination in Mr. Biswas, an ordinary
man, to own a house and to beome independent of his in-laws. Although, the search for the house
becomes the crux of the novel, we cannot help but see the pervasive presence of British system of
education which preoccupies Naipaul in this and other novels. This system of education is undeniably
analogous to another form of British imperialism. We cannot overlook that Mr. Biswas sees in
education a sort of ladder, or a bridge by which he hopes to escape from his life. It is not only with Mr.
Biswas, but also with all the members of the Tulsi sons-in-law and daughters. They also see in
education a route to progress further in life from a socially constricted world. Hence, undisputedly, the
imperial value system encroaches on the lives of the characters through the educational system,
affirming the imperial hegemony on a different plane.
Education in the colonies became another instrument of domination for the imperialist. It is a
common knowledge that postcolonialism is based on the historical facts of colonialism and deals with
the effects that it has on cultures and societies. Postcolonial theory involves discussions on issues of
suppression, race, gender, class, culture, and a range of other issues. This has a specific historical
context and a link can be established by exploring the administrative apparatus used to dominate and
subjugate the colonies. Thus, education is another administrative activity for colonial supremacy.
British Education Policy launched literary Education as a very effective tool to ascertain dominance
in the colonies. The universal values of literature were appropriated to justify the civilizing mission in
the colonies. Gauri Viswanathan points out that British documents provide evidence “that humanistic
functions traditionally associated with the study of literature-- for example the shaping of character or
the development of the aesthetic sense or the disciplines of ethical thinking -- are also essential to the
process of sociopolitical control” (431). Even in England, Thomas Macaulay, as member of the
Supreme Council of India, articulated the rationale for such an education for imperial officers, “…we
ought to fill the magistrate of our Eastern Empire with men who may do honour to our country, with
men who may represent the best part of the English Nation” (229). Thus, literary studies gained
cultural strength not only in territorial expansion and conquest but also as an institutionalized
discipline for strengthening the imperial supremacy. Therefore, the British Education Policy was used
in the “civilizing mission” as a ruse for territorial control.
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The study of the English as a language was not new to the natives; as it had been introduced in
institutions for a long period of time. Under the pretext of moral instruction the British introduced
liberal Western thought, underplay the radical ideas and get the native to comply, balancing the
situation in their favor. In this manner the British interpellated the masses to establish their hegemony,
extend authority and at the same time dissipated native resistance. The colonial masters proceeded to
carve out a colonial subjectivity that would ensure compliance with them. Gramsci propagates that
cultural domination can only be effective with the consent of the governed, which he argues can be
achieved by imposing moral and intellectual superiority as the British pronounced: “The Natives must
either be kept down by a sense of our power, or they must willingly submit from a conviction that we
are more wise, more just, most humane, and more anxious to improve their condition than any other
rulers they could have.” (qtd. in Viswanathan, 436). The British representation of themselves as refined
in morals and intellect, managed to impress the natives .They successfully convinced the subjects that
they had gained everything because of superior knowledge. The native had the chance to achieve the
same status if he was prepared to be instructed in the literary, philosophical, and scientific texts of the
English. Thus education was used as a gentle pursuasion to manipulate the colonized and “the
individual willingly learned whatever they believed provided them with the means of advancement in
the world” (Viswanathan, 436).
Ashrcroft in the introduction says that “education , whether missionary or , primary or secondary
(later tertiary) was a massive canon in the artillery of empire” (425). Undoubtedly, the imperial tried to
maintain control over the colonials through the education system. The imperial introduced education
into the colonial society and made the colonials feel the importance of education, and brought about
the willing subjectification of the colonials. This form of willingness in people were evoked by
legitimazing the role of education in the society, people were made to believe that education serves
their interest, needs and purpose, besides remaining consistent with the goals of imperialism. As such,
we see how education takes control over the Tulsis-- first the two gods, then come numberless sons
and daughters of the Tulsi herd; the rush to educate their children with a debilitating impact on the
joint family system and values, tradition and culture; and the growth of new values injected insidiously
through education. Ashrcroft also comments that “Education is perhaps the most insidious and in some
ways the most cryptic of colonialist survivals” and becomes “a conquest of another kind of territory”
(425). Education is not a blatant and physical conquering of the territory but the control of the
intellectual faculty of the society. Education was used as a mechanism to instill in the colonials the
value of education to perpetuate the imperial dominion over the colonials. Hence the colonials’
willingness to learn, and to accept the belief with the hope of advancement in life through education.
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Presumably, education not only brings about a willing subject, but orients the colonials toward
accepting education as a powerful tool of technology. Through the implicit devise of education it
brings about subjectification of the colonials. The form of education is made to look inviting and
interpellate the colonials, and the colonials subjectify themselves as the subject. The ideology behind
education is to bring about a willing social control. Gramsci calls this as “hegemony by consent”
(425). There is no territorial exploitation, but the deployment of education as an apparatus to bring
about a willing collective social control. This is done through the introduction of the English texts
and by “teaching him those foreign languages in which greatest mass of information had been laid
up, and thus putting all those information within his reach” (Macaulay 430). Hence this insidious
nature of education infiltrates into every household and takes control over the lives of the colonial
subject. And there is the over all assumption that encourages people that education is good, it is a
way to freedom, and to improve their worth in the job market. We see these instances in A House
for Mr. Biswas, particularly in the scramble for education within the Tulsis. Education transfers
culture and values of a different order and they channelise the role of the children into various
imperialist social mode, thereby maintaining hierarchical social and economic structure.
Not only is education not looked at as a liberating force, but it also raises an ethical question. What
is looked at as something of a utility may no longer or may not be viewed as altogether making a
positive contribution towards the framework of tradition and tradition. By introducing institutionalized
education it prepares the colonials into various well defined social roles. Education is projected as a
way to salvation, a force that will liberate the people from the suppressed and lower strata of the
society. The façade of education is that it will uplift the subjects from their socially constricted lives- a
good education will ultimately lead to a good job, a good salary, a good house, and cars- all in all a
good economic life. They, thereby, obliterate from the colonials’ mind that they are subjugating
themselves by subjecting themselves to eurocentric form of education, hence bringing about a
willingly participation in perpetuating another form of imperialism.
Education is also used as an apparatus to measure development in socio-economic and political
structure. It is also another form of eurocentric ideology that if the people have education then that
country is on its way to development. Evidently, it cannot be denied that education has an inherent
duality, it does bring about a form of development, but are they all geared towards making a positive
contribution towards the society. It is a very debatable question. Because with education comes other
values and system that erode a nation’s culture and tradition. Philip G. Altbach also affirms that
imperialism is maintained through the “distribution of foreign textbooks” and use of “foreign technical
advisors on matters of curricular patterns for school” (452), thereby orchestrating the development
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policy and indoctrinating the people to inculcate imperial values and system. People imbibe and take
on a different culture and their own values die out. We see this case in A House for Mr. Biswas.
Education not only actuates the thread of imperialism, education also impinges on the society in the
form of European culture in A House for Mr. Biswas. From the beginning of the novel we see Mr.
Biswas being sent to school by his aunt Tara. Education was revered as it entailed socio-economic
betterment. Yet, how ironic it is to see Mr. Biswas’s knowledge of arithmetic and reading do not go
beyond oughts, oughts and Bell’s standard elocutionist. Michael Fabre says that “Mr Biswas’s literary
culture is shallow, incomplete, and obsolete but its shortcomings reflect not upon the character himself
but on the narrow system of education or (mis-education) available to him, and to the group he
belonged to” (62). Colonial powers often set up education system that was far from being useful to
local needs and tradition, as we see in the case of Mr. Biswas’ education. Mr. Biswas is taught history
and geography not of the local area but of some far off distant land that he has little or no relevance at
all in life. Therefore, he just studied them as one of the subjects where one had to study in school.
However, it cannot be denied that this little education has a negative impact on his life. It makes Mr.
Biswas a practical dreamer, fills him with a desire to escape from his dreary life and to go to a land that
he has learnt in his lessons. When the reality has no direct relation to his dreams, it makes him morose
and depressed. And all the more he clings onto Samuel Smiles and Marcus Aurelius, despite the lack
of any practical relation to his life. Perhaps he achieves a certain perverse pleasure out of reading them,
since he sees a fair bit of himself in almost all the characters in the book:
Mr. Biswas saw in himself several of the Samuel Smiles heroes; he was young, he was poor,
and he fancied he was struggling. But there always came a point when resemblances ceased.
The heroes had rigid ambitions and lived in countries where ambitions could be pursued and
have meaning. He had no ambition, and in this hot land, apart from opening a shop or buying a
motorbus, what could he do?” (78).
The role of education plays an important part in the decay of culture and tradition. Mr. Biswas
because of education he becomes a mistfit at Hanuman House. He rebels against the age old tradition
and culture, makes him think differently and exposes him to a different life. He dabbles in philosophy
and Christianity, and these further drive a rift between him and the Tulsis. The Tulsis feel that he is a
threat to the age old values and tradition. Maureen Warner comments that “one of the reasons for the
disintegrating influence of formal education on tradition is that the topics treated in its system are
European” (98). It cannot be denied about the role of education because it brings about an
unbridgeable gulf between the foreign inspired ideal, and the real and the local. Even Altbach says that
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“indigenous educational patterns were destroyed either by design or as the inadvertent results of
policies which ignored local needs and traditions” (453).
On another level, the first picture that we see of Hanuman House is that of a white imposing fortress
guarded by the monkey god. It looks impenetrable, but somehow the European cultural infiltration has
already taken place in the Tulsi household. The decadence of the values symbolized by Hanuman
House is because of exposure to a different set of environment. Although the sons partake in the day-
to-day rituals like praying and lighting lamps, yet we are made aware that these are all superficial act,
maybe to please Mrs. Tulsi or perhaps a feeble show of preserving their sense of Indianess. Yet, how
ironic it is to see the Tulsi sons go to a Roman Catholic school and wear a crucifix. This wearing of the
crucifix is considered as a form of social prestige. While the Tulsis are at Arwacas, we glimpse a
feeble attempt in preserving their culture, but when they move to Port of Spain, everything just takes a
different turn. The family is no longer a joint family; everybody starts having selfish motives; there is a
rush for material possession, jealousy, rivalry and greed. All these happen because they are in the
midst of a world dominated by European values and ideas. Besides, the economic boom brought about
by the American presence in Trinidad brings another cultural upheaval, and it shows the complete
disintegration of the value system. Govind plundering fruits and other agricultural products,
W.C.Tuttle selling off cedar trees, and even Mr. Biswas stoops so low as to pluck a paltry number of
oranges and sells off in the market. How gross it is to see the slow disintegration and trickling away of
the family values? Evidently, we see the slow transformation and the disintegration of the society from
traditionalism to capitalism and decadence.
Another case of educational influence is when Mr. Biswas enrolls his children Savi and Anand into
a Sunday school. We all know that in a Sunday school the children are taught the values, attitudes, and
norms of the European ideals. This is another encroachment of a different kind, nonetheless, imperial
in design. Thus, it furthermore concretises a different ideal in the mind of the children, laying a
foundation to promote imperial hegemony. Besides, the English in general had doubts about the moral
standings of the natives. The English felt that their morality was superior and needs to be taught to the
natives in order to improve their morality and intellect. And children are the right target to set in
motion the moral standing of eurocentric norms. Even Martin Carnoy seems to agree that “schools
transfer culture and values and they channel children into various social roles. They help to maintain
social order” (8). Schooling as a form of imperial institution trains to shape children to fit the mold and
to maintain a different scheme of things. Savi and Anand start singing hymns at home, “Jesus loves
me, yes I know” and that infuriates Mrs. Tulsi, “how do you know that Jesus loves you?,” “’cause the
bible tells me so,”Anand replies. She thinks that it is another form of Mr. Biswas’s campaign against
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her and that further drives a wedge in the relation between Mrs. Tulsi and Mr. Biswas. The children
can no longer converse in Hindi. The children find themselves surrounded by European values and
ideas abandon calling their parents as “pa” and “ma,” but shift to daddy and mummy. John Thieme
comments that “virtually everyone in the novel is a casualty of some form of cultural imperialism, but
perhaps the most frightening embodiment of its injurious effect is the eldest son of W.C.Tuttle who
‘writes’ a book , […] a verbatim copy of Nelson’s West Indian Geography – by Captain Cutteridge!”
(81). All these look trivial, nevertheless it contributes towards the slow disappearance of the cultural
values. Thus, Hanuman House is unable to withstand the force of cultural domination and finally
crumbles.
Furthermore, education is not only a form of imperialism but it also creates familial
social/economic hierarchy within the Tulsis household. We see a strong division between the educated
sons and the uneducated sons-in-law. Mr. Biswas is disconcertingly correct in calling the sons, the
gods:
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; […]. Despite their age they
were admitted into councils of seth and Mrs. Tulsi and their views were quoted with respect by
sisters and brothers-in-law.[…], 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” (104)
It is obvious from the way they carry themselves and the privileges given them, they do act like gods.
It is education that brings the gods in contact with the ideas and religion of the outside world. Due to
their education, they have advantages over everyone else around them creating a familial hierarchy.
They (Shekhar and Owad) are the privileged ones in the family besides Mrs. Tulsi and Seth. And on
Owad’s return from Europe, it is Owad’s educational superiority that automatically secures him the
position as the head of the family, over Shekhar, over his sisters and his brothers-in-law.. On the one
hand, there is Shekhar and Owad, and on the other hand the numerous sons-in-law. The rest of the
sons-in-law either work on the farm as labourers or as pundit like Hari, as none of them are educated
and cannot earn a decent living. Therefore, they have no entity at all, instead they
have merged together with the Hanuman House. However, we see Mr. Biswas swinging in between. Is
Mr. Biswas’s position in the house better than the rest of the sons-in-law? or does he belong on the
lowest rung of the ladder? It is a question that is difficult to answer. At times he seems to have a little
advantage over the rest of the Tulsi herds, but at certain times he is made to squirm like a worm.
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Moreover, education ignites a certain desire in the minds of the people to integrate into the
Eurocentric notion of the society. People have come to believe that to be accepted as civilized, as one
of them, they must be educated. The main crux is that education is a prerequisite to participate and to
be able to integrate well into the mainstream urban life. Hence the Tulsis’ move to Port of Spain. In the
urban environment they come in close contact with European values and norms, accordingly, to
become part of them, there is the rush for education, a rush for material possession, greed, and rivalry.
Even as a young man, Mr Biswas yearns for metropolitan romance as he reads Samuel Smiles and
Marcus Aurelius, etc. Mr. Biswas has ill-defined aspirations towards a better life, and he is entrapped
in the role of the little man, and as he grows older he comes to realise that the contact with the real
world is not possible for him, but becomes a reality for Owad, then Savi, and Anand. Mr. Biswas reads
political books and books of sociology but drops them as he finds them unable to comprehend the
situation that has little or no relevance to his situation. Therefore, he strongly wants his children to
succeed in life. Thus, Anand goes through a rigorous training:
Anand lived a life of pure work. Private lessons were given in the morning for half an hour
before school; private lessons were given in the afternoon for an hour after school; private
lessons were given for the whole of Saturday morning. […]. He went from school to the Dairies
to school again; then he went to the headmaster’s, where Savi waited for him with sandwiched
and lukewarm ovaltine. […]. Then he did his school homework; then he prepared for all his
private lessons” (463).
Alongside Anand, Vidhiadhar also does not escape from this training. And “every afternoon, at five
minutes past three, the people in the Dairies saw two Indian boys sitting at opposite ends of the milk
bar, drinking half-pints of milk through straw…” (462). Beside Anand and Vidhiadhar, there are the
readers and the learners with Basdai, trying their best to get education that will finally release them
from the constricting lives. It is because of the colonial notion of education as a way of fulfilling
dreams, an escape from, and for social upliftment that the children are thoroughly grilled into studying.
Apart from Bell’s elocution, Mr. Biswas undergoes various other form of education that stifles an
individual’s creativity. For example, when Mr. Biswas goes to look for a job as a journalist. Mr.
Burnett of the Sentinel gives him copies of London papers, so that he could turn out presentable
imitations. There is this underlying notion that a native man’s writing and style is not good enough
unless he produces something similar to what is being produced and written in London. Even Mr.
Biswas is made to think that unless he writes something similar to a London paper, he is not good
enough to get a job. Thieme says that “mimicry is an index of the society’s entrapment in the
colonial/determinist predicament” (82). Furthermore, Mr. Biswas takes a distance journalism course
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from the Ideal School of Journalism, which not only teaches but markets the work. Ironically, the first
assignment he gets is to write up a piece on the four seasons of England:
‘Summer. The crowded trains to the seaside, the chink of ice in a glass, the slap of fish on the
fishmonger’s slab …’
‘Slap of fish on the fishmonger’s slab,’ Mr. Biswas said. ‘The only fish that I see is the fish
that does come around every morning in a basket on the old fishwoman head.’
‘… the trademen’s blinds, the crack of bat on ball on the village green, the lengthening
shadow…’
Mr. Biswas wrote the article on summer; and with the help of the hints, wrote other articles
on spring, winter and autumn” (343).
All he gets in the end is a congratulatory letter, and comes another lesson to write up on Guy Fawkes
Night. And what does Mr. Biswas know of England and her four seasons? Or of Guy Fawkes Night?
Where is the relevancy of the piece to his situation? The only thing that Mr. Biswas can do is “read
descriptions of bad weather in foreign countries; they made him forget the heat and the sudden rain
which was all he knew” (182). He continues reading Samuel Smiles and books on philosophy,
although they are irrelevant to his situation. Perhaps, it provides Mr. Biswas some intellectual comfort,
and takes him away from the everyday worries and dreariness.
Nonetheless, the form of education is basically constructed along the lines of “alien and alienating
colonial system” (Tsomondo, 26). The colonials experience a form of alienation- one from one’s own
disappearing culture, and another from the metropolitan culture. Education introduces the colonials
into eurocentric ideology of socio-economic society, slowly the erosion of tradition and culture takes
place. Later in the novel, Shekhar marries into a Presbyterian family, Owad goes away to England and
comes back as a pompous and an egotistical man, given to bouts of temper and communism. Although,
Mr. Biswas is awed by the mere presence of Owad, yet we as readers witness the denigrating and
debilitating effect on the values and customs that Mrs. Tulsis feebly tries to cling onto. Instead, after
Owad’s return from Europe, we see him pursuing other European leisures like swimming, playing
squash, and movies. In the end, he also marries Dorothy’s Canadian educated cousin and moves away
from home. Where are the former Shekhar and Owad gone? The ones who used to go through morning
rituals of lighting lamp and prayers. Have they been wholly swallowed up by European norms and
attitudes? Ostensibly, all these are evidential revelation of the final erosion and collapse of the Indian
tradition and culture
Besides, education also virtually helps to maintain imperial/colonial relations. In “Minute on Indian
Education,” Macaulay propagates in his own way the Filtration Theory of educating the masses. He
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states, “We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the
millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in
opinions, in morals, and in intellect” (430). This proved to be very effective as it distanced the
Englishman from his ongoing colonial onslaught of territorial exploitation and racial oppression,
instead this theory defined the colonials in terms of their intellectual capabilities. Even Viswanathan
says that “His material reality as a subjugator and alien ruler was dissolved in his mental output” (437).
Seemingly, as pronounced by Macaulay, we see some traces in the hierachical setup in the relation
between Mr. Biswas and Mr.Burnett, the editor of the Sentinel. Mr. Burnet is socially and
economically on a higher plane than Mr. Biswas. We see Mr. Biswas at the mercy of this imperial
figure. Then, comes Miss Logie of the Welfare department. Even while working for her, she remains
his superior, no matter how hard Mr. Biswas works, she will always remain in a higher position than
Mr. Biswas. It is because the whole societal set up is based on the eurocentric norm of the white man
being superior economically and intellectually, and no native can ever rise to a position higher in rank
than a white man. So in this case also it is constructed in such a way that the hierarchy is subtly
maintained.
Hence, in A House for Mr. Biswas, there is a perceived notion that education is altogether a
liberating force and a way to advancement in life. People are oblivious of the fact that education is an
implement used by the imperialist to maintain their control over the colonials. The imperialist
attempted and instilled in the minds of the colonials the premise that education is of utmost importance
if the people want to progress forward in life. Gauri Viswanathan states that “the English literary texts
functioned as a surrogate Englishman in his highest and most perfect state” (437). This structure of
education still prevails. Postcolonial countries have yet to emerge from these education system.
Ngugi’Wa Thiong puts it, the “decolonization of the mind” has yet to take place and when that will
happen is the biggest dilemma of the post-colonial subjectivity. Although it cannot be denied that there
is duality in education; in one way it can be seen as having a positive contribution towards a nation,
however it also has the power of eroding the cultural values and customs, as were evident in A House
for Mr. Biswas. The appropriation of education is essentially a subversive strategy, a means of
colonials’ subjugation. We see the final disintegration when the Tulsi sons marry and go away, the
sisters and their eccentric husbands rush for material possessions and break away from the family, and
Seth, who has spent the entire years with the Tulsis, is no longer on speaking terms with them.
Eventually, the whole joint Tulsi household breaks up into nuclear families, and the customs and
tradition cannot help but become past history in the whole scheme of things. Therefore, the abandoning
of the Hanuman House could be read as a symbol of final disintegration and decadence of the Indian
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culture and tradition under the influence of the imperial values and system, which has been injected
insidiously through the education system.
Works cited:
Altbach, Philip G. “Education and neo-colonialism.” eds. Ashcroft et al. The Postcolonial
Studies Reader. London and New York: Routledge, 1995. (452-6).

Carnoy, Martin. Education as Cultural Imperialism. New York: David Mckay Company, INC.,
1974.

Fabre, Michel. “By Words Possessed: The Education of Mr. Biswas as a Writer.” Commonwealth
Essays and Studies. 9. 1.(1986): 59-71.

Naipaul, V.S. A House for Mr. Biswas. London: Penguin Books, 1969.

Thieme, John. The Web of Tradition: Uses of Allusion in V.S. Naipaul’s Fiction. Dangaroo Press &
Hansib Publication, 1987.

Tsomondo, Thorell. “Speech and Writing: A Matter of Presence and Absence in A House for Mr.
Biswas.” Kunapipi, 10. 3. (1988): 18-29.

Viswanathan, Gauri. “English Literary Study in British India.” Ashcroft et al, eds. The Postcolonial
Studies Reader. London and New York: Routledge, 1995 ( 431-37).

Warner-Lewis, Maureen. “Cultural Confrontation, Disintegration and Syncretism in A House for


Mr. Biswas.” Hamner, R.D. ed. Critical Perspectives on V.S.Naipaul. Washington, D.C.: Three
Continents Press, 1977: (94-103).

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