Mr Biswas’ Houses: Finding V.S. Naipaul in Trinidad

by Philip Cartelli

From an airplane window, Trinidad initially appears as a dense green forest rising over the turquoise Caribbean Sea.  Beyond the Northern Range mountains, flat plains of cultivated fields line the horizon as far as the eye can see. Trinidad’s recent history has much to do with these sugar cane fields, including the island’s production of one of the more unique English-language writers of the last century.

Even before I traveled to Trinidad, my knowledge of the country had been almost entirely informed by V.S. Naipaul’s writing–from his early novels to a Caribbean travelogue, The Middle Passage, to his popular history, The Loss of El Dorado, which covers the early colonization of the island by the Spanish and British. During this time when Trinidad was constantly changing hands, slavery was increasingly difficult to maintain, especially after the abolition of its trade in 1807. Colonial authorities and plantation owners responded to the ensuing rapid decline in labor by importing cheap indentured laborers from another British colony, India.

This unlikely process, which took place to a larger extent in Trinidad and nearby British Guiana than anywhere else in the region, has produced contemporary populations evenly divided between those of African and East Indian descent; Naipaul belongs to the latter group.

At the age of 18, V.S. Naipaul left his native Trinidad for the United Kingdom to attend Oxford University before settling permanently in England.  Although many of his earlier works take place in Trinidad, Naipaul has not always been a popular figure in his country of birth.  Among the charges leveled at him are accusations of racist depictions of his characters of African descent and what has been perceived as a conservative perspective on the postcolonial world.

That said, during the week I spent in Trinidad it was difficult to avoid his name. Not only was Naipaul’s early novel, The Suffrage of Elvira, appearing daily in serialized form in the Trinidad Guardian, but the main Port-of-Spain library featured a banner announcing their Book of the Month: Sir Vidia Naipaul’s Miguel Street.

While many of Naipaul’s novels and stories are somewhat autobiographical, none are more so than A House for Mr Biswas, whose protagonist, Mohun Biswas, represents the author’s own father, Seepersad.  Biswas’ son, Anand, who leaves to study in England near the end of the book, is based on Naipaul himself.  When I recently traveled to Trinidad from my temporary home in the French West Indies, I spent some time visiting sites from A House for Mr Biswasand Naipaul’s early life.

My travels in Trinidad began in Port-of-Spain, the capital of Trinidad, but the story of Naipaul’s life and the central narrative in Biswas both take place an hour south in the bustling town of Chaguanas (called “Arwacas” in Biswas).  While cosmopolitan Port-of-Spain represents nearly all of Trinidad’s ethnic and cultural diversity, Chaguanas is largely home to Trinidadians of East Indian descent.  Many newly freed citizens of African descent moved into urban centers after 1833 and were replaced in rural areas by immigrants from India, who settled near the sugar cane fields they were paid to cultivate.  Modern Chaguanas is dominated by its two-story market where vendors hawk fruit, meat, fish (including live crabs ingeniously constricted with palm-frond twine), leather goods, books and clothing.

On the street outside, my traveling companions and I stopped to look at several DVDs of American Westerns and Bollywood films from India displayed on a folding table.  After a conversation with the vendor, I bought a copy of RD Burman’s 1977 Hindi-language classic, Kum Kisise Kum Naheen.  The vendor insisted that I write down his address and send him a note indicating whether or not I liked the film.  “I make great efforts to keep in touch with my customers,” he said.

Leaving the stall, we walked down Chaguanas’ main thoroughfare away from the commercial district.  Most of the streets around us were poorly marked and I wasn’t sure if we were headed in the right direction under the searing midday sun, until I saw an immaculate white building with elaborate fretwork that I immediately recognized from the following description.

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 facade. 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 facade 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.

The major visual disparity between Naipaul’s “Hanuman House” and the actual building is that the monkey figurines are really lions.  I tried to conjure images for myself of the shuttered building during Naipaul’s brief time there: the front doors flung open to the street exposing the dry goods shop within; the retired field laborers sitting under the overhang at night and speaking in Hindi as hemp smoke swirled from their pipes.

The first time Mohun Biswas is invited upstairs is when his mother-in-law-to-be, Mrs Tulsi, interrogates him before pressuring him into marriage with one of her younger daughters. The house’s modern-day surroundings include a Hindu temple down the block, a roti shop, and a church-run secondary school across the street with a liberally-decorated facade including the slogans All Things are Possible, Keep Persevering, and Power of Prayer.  As I stood across the street, attempting to snap a photo of the House without the low-hanging utility lines, a voice came from inside the darkened shop entrance behind me.

“Come on in.”

I stepped into the cool entranceway. Sunspots danced before my eyes. Eventually I made out the figure of an elderly woman sitting behind a glass counter covered with handwoven baskets.

“You here to see the house?” she asked, squinting at my companions and me.  “No one lives there anymore, but they fix it up right-nice.  You wait one minute.”

The woman stood up heavily, went to a back room and began rummaging around in some cardboard boxes.  She let out a yelp after about a minute and stepped back behind the shop counter, blowing dust from a thin booklet.

“This it,” she said, handing it to me. “The man who fix it up say to give this to anyone who come asking about the house.” She gestured across the street where the lions baked in the white glare.

I examined the front cover which read,

The Lion House

“The Mansion of Bliss ”

Erected by Pundit Capildeo in 1926
Restored by his grandson Surendranath Capildeo in 2001

I thanked her and asked how much it cost.

“No, no,” she waved away the question.

I told the woman that we needed to be on our way in order to get back to the town center where the minibuses for Port-of-Spain depart.  She held up her wrinkled index finger again.

“One minute.”

More rummaging in the back room yielded three cold plastic bottles of “Chubby,” a child’s soft drink that is popular in the Eastern Caribbean and also frequently combined with unrefined rum by adults for their own consumption.  We thanked the woman and, after stepping back onto the street outside, I paused for a moment, sipped my Tutti Frutti-flavored beverage and took a last look at the Lion House.

I examined the booklet that night in our room in Port-of-Spain at an inexpensive hotel that did dual business as a house of ill repute. I learnt that the Lion House was a rather unique example of East Central Indian architecture in the former British Empire, and that its recent renovation had been entirely funded by V.S. Naipaul’s cousin, Surendranath Capildeo, himself the son of the noted politician Simbhoonath Capildeo (depicted in A House for Mr Biswas as one of the “gods,” Mr Biswas’ despised brothers-in-law). I read in the booklet an excerpt from a 1987 interview with Simbhoonath, in which he discusses the architectural legacy of his father’s construction with language revealing the unconscious irony of many of Naipaul’s characters:

Becoming a little more serious, Mr. Capildeo expressed the hope that the house, which now belongs to his ten sisters, could be preserved if only for its architecture and historical value.

“I am very proud of my father and what he did. I feel that he left a monument which I like to describe,” using the words of Horace, “as ‘more durable than brass.'”

Although “Hanuman House” is perhaps the most significant architectural structure we encounter in Biswas, the house to which the title refers does not appear until the end of the novel; months after moving into the first residence that he can rightly call his own, Mr Biswas dies suddenly, and so ends the book.  It is not possible to pinpoint all of the locations mentioned in A House for Mr Biswas, but the next day in Port-of-Spain I dragged my companions to the semi-suburb of St James where we looked in vain on Nepaul Street for the house where Naipaul spent much of his youth.  Pausing in front of some construction workers who were taking a break from adding a new living room onto a middle-class home, I asked if they knew the house where V.S. Naipaul had grown up.  The men looked at each other quizzically and shrugged, but the home’s owner had overheard my question and strode forward eagerly.

“Looking for Naipaul’s house?” he inquired with restrained pride.  “It’s right behind this one. Not many people come here to see it.”

And so, stepping around to the side of his house I was able to get a brief glimpse of what remained of an older house’s facade. Only a wood-frame wall, a section of the roof, and a shuttered window stuck out from behind the newer construction–nothing remarkable, but a somehow satisfying bookend to the previous day’s experience. I asked my friend to take a picture of me standing in front of the barely-visible house then stopped him before he could click the viewfinder. I pulled out of my bag the yellowed paperback copy of A House for Mr Biswasthat my own father, an English professor, had given me years ago, and then told him to go ahead, feeling that I was fulfilling a similar duty to Naipaul’s when he fictionalized his father’s life in a now classic novel.  I was also reminded, even as I was currently occupied with descriptions of places from his youth, that Naipaul’s real literary genius lies in his descriptions of human conditions and interactions from the Caribbean to India to Africa, whether or not these depictions are flattering or indicative of certain stereotypes.

After my friend took the photo of me and A House for Mr Biswasin front of a house that may have once belonged to Mr Biswas, the owner of the neighboring home, a middle-aged man of East Indian descent, strolled over to us and regarded the older buildings crumbling roof in the waning daylight.

“Naipaul,” he offered.  “One hell of a writer.”

“What’s your favorite book of his?” I asked.

“Well,” he said, shading his face with a hand.  “Can’t say I’ve read any of them.  But they say he’s the best.”

I nodded and we stood there for another moment before my friend tapped me on the shoulder and we went on our way.

Philip Cartelli is a freelance travel, film and music writer.  His work has appeared in Film International and Impose Magazine among other publications.

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  1. Hi:
    It is nice to hear of your experience in Trinidad. I am of East-Indian decent and was raised in Trinidad, Felicity Chaguanas, to be exact and passed the Lion House a few times. My family and I migrated to New York in my mid teens.
    Reading about your travels made me feel as if I was there again. Thanks.