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 façade. 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 façade 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 café 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?”
“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.”
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?”
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 café-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.”
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.”
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 café 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.