NO HOUSE FOR SHAMA BISWAS
In VS Naipaul's semi-autobiographical A House for Mr Biswas, there are only fleeting glimpses of its most attractive woman character. What if she were to tell her story and that of Naipaul – or Anand, her son in the novel – instead of the other way round?
Ratna Raman Delhi
The Tulsi store shut down a long time ago. Hanuman House was abandoned, its living spaces dismantled and eventually disposed off after Owad's marriage. Owad migrated to Canada from San Fernando, with his violin-playing wife and all of Shekhar's beautiful daughters following suit, in the footsteps of their only uncle, to discover more promising futures in the new world. One of them is a doctor, another is an architect, and a third runs a beauty parlour from where she conjures up incredible salon hair treatments for her clients. Women in Canada wear their hair very differently, not oiled and tightly plaited in the way Mai did ours.
We washed the oil out of our hair with powdered shikakai and ritha herbs, and finished up with the towelling. Then Mai got us to perfume our hair while it dried, with incense in small metal bowls, which emitted smoky vapours beneath the coir-woven charpoys over which we stretched out, our hair often tumbling down to the floor over the wooden frame of the charpoy. This was a mandatory ritual that recurred one day of each week and was looked forward to by all the women and girls in the house. The perfumed smoke crept into our hair and the musky sweet fragrance lingered delicately on, long after our tresses had dried out and were neatly plaited again.
I hear that despite all the new care available, not too many women have the incredibly long and buoyant tresses of my generation. Apparently, there is no time to look after long hair... and possibly even less time to grow it, I guess. When we finished our baths, we stretched out in warm sunny spots and lay undisturbed for a few hours with our own special pot of smoking incense, dreaming idly and occasionally drifting off into delicious slumbers from which we awoke refreshed to eat long lazy lunches, consisting of a mound of white rice drenched with streams of yellow lentils and vegetables, deep fried and steamed in so many different ways.
However, I meant to clear away the ashy remains of the past from the cold grate and set things in order, for an altogether different reason. I was reclining idly in the bookstore when VS Naipaul was mentioned. Two women termed his latest pronouncements on women writers indicative of how far gone he was, plagued by both age and a bipolar condition. I was quite startled to hear this!
Post-colonial critics attack him for downsizing Third World inhabitants for an occidental audience, but there hasn't really been much protest about how he treated the women in his life, both real and fictional. In fact, last year a TV show host suggested that if the women in his life weren't complaining, it really wasn't anybody's business. So if we are to believe this TV show host, women don't have inalienable rights. If women don't protest about unequal treatment, that means they
have nothing to complain of. That set me thinking...
I am by far the most attractive woman character in Naipaul's undeniably powerful semi-autobiographical tome, A House for Mr Biswas. This man created me, not from something as substantial as a rib, but from the tips of his fingers with black ink, and exorcised me into the printed life forever. So here I am, "Shama Biswas, Naipaul's mother in a fictionalised autobiography!" Think of it, without me, he wouldn't be around at all, literally and factually! There are fleeting glimpses of me in the book, which is really Mohun Biswas's story. I need perhaps to put both my story and that of Naipaul nee Anand in perspective.
My correspondence, with Myrtle in London, for instance? I wrote letters to her vetted by our principal. Myrtle replied to them. Her last letter expressed shock that I was getting married at 16. She was all set to train as a nurse and work in the Royal London Hospital. I was too mortified to ever write again. Myrtle's life choices were inconceivable in my growing years at Trinidad.
My marriage to Mohun Biswas brought me four children whom I raised mostly without him. Parenting is an arduous task, and more so if you have an erratic, solipsistic spouse as Mohun Biswas was. The children and I relied entirely on the support and goodwill of my siblings and my natal home which, at that point, was at Hanuman House. Only after we moved to Port of Spain and Mohun bought the house on Sikkim Street, did we live together in the manner of modern nuclear families. Till then we shared space with relatives in Mai's town house.
When I met Miss Logie, Head of the Community Welfare Department at Port of Spain, so competent and in control of her life, I wondered how I would have fared in a similar situation. After all, I wrote a good hand, helped out at the store, had a head for figures, and was an efficient rent collector. Pip did well for himself with much less to go by in Charles Dickens's Great Expectations. So did Mohun Biswas, the painter of signs in Trinidad.
Mai ran an efficient household that thrived on women's labour. We ran the shop and the house, fed and raised children, supervised their school work, helped out with endless chores, washed and cooked and sewed and darned, celebrated birthdays and festivals, administered to the ill and the ailing, and lived a community life amid familial generations.
These last outposts of matrilineal living were quickly erased by the prevailing patriarchal modes that Naipaul recorded. I think now that perhaps as a young boy he never understood them. Maybe that is why he could never endorse them or feel strongly about them in fiction or in life.
My ancestors brought rice cultivation to the Caribbean, but that was a long while ago. When the change came, the men fell away and the women, sheltering behind these puny men, were unable to turn things around. Our land at GreenVale and our orchards at Shorthills dwindled and declined, and as colonized subjects we were edged out slowly when oil was discovered on arable land. Two phases of colonialism it took to push us to the wall, little fish caught in the onrush of a historic moment.
Yet, our lives were lived fully. Contrary to authorial suggestion, neither my sisters nor I thought it was our destiny to marry, bear children, and accept our husbands' rights to beat us. Wife-beating is deeply entrenched in all patriarchal societies. This should be easy to understand in a world where women are still underdogs and can be cudgelled by inebriated husbands when the national football team loses in the World Cup. This was pretty much how things worked in Trinidad and only an atrophying black humour could view wife-abuse as comic. Nobody ever intervened on behalf of any woman. This was every woman's story.
Mohun's father, Raghu, beat my mother-in-law Bipti. His death, however, led to her meagre land holding being usurped from her. The remainder of her life, she lived out on the largesse of her sister Tara. Bipti gave her daughter Dehuti away to Tara, and subsequently everyone disowned her when she married below her caste. Befriended by the women of the Tulsi household, Dehuti assisted and participated in all Tulsi House festivities. My brothers' wives, much younger than all of us sisters, were the only people in my generation who had a little space for themselves, but even that was carved out with difficulty.
Bipti's three feckless sons, of whom Mohun was the youngest, left home and made good for themselves. Most sons, (and hindsight serves me well here) did very little for their mothers, or their fathers for that matter. Mohun did very little for his mother. My son Anand did even less for us although in his case, he was given so much more.
He left for England, evading the clutches of insular Trinidad, never to return. Nothing moved him, neither his father's sickness, nor our plight. His sister Savi was made of finer stuff. She too had left for England to pursue higher studies. Hearing of her father's illness, she hurtled back home.
Savi found a job and stayed home, close to all of us. Ceaseless trips she made back and forth to the hospital, drove us around in the car, helped fix unending meals and offered endless cups of tea and conversation to visitors and kept us afloat, supplying so readily the small change of everyday living. Myna and Kamala drew such strength from her, and her presence gave Mohun such solace. Slowly, she helped us rebuild our lives together, after the pain of losing Mohun began to subside.
Rocking cradles, lighting hearths, giving care, finding themselves, holding jobs and shaping destinies, what a lot of work daughters do! Easy mistresses of houses, they possess the extraordinary ability to transform brick and mortar houses into ebullient homes. And yet, they are sentimental enough to foster family ties, irrespective of dysfunctional males.
Unfortunately, both Anand and Naipaul devalue this remarkable ability as feminine tosh and revisit early embitterment in an unabashed dismissal of women writers. Prescriptive glasses only correct superficial sight disorders. For deep rooted distortions of vision, solutions continue to elude humankind. Austen, Murdoch and quite a few others agree with me that the sins of the son must not be visited on the mother!
The writer is Associate Professor, Department of English, Sri Venkateswara College, University of Delhi