My Journey to The House for Mr Biswas

“Will you come with me to the Caribbean?” my ex-colleague asked. I had visited the Caribbean at least eight times earlier, and I always wanted to go there again.
Two factors attract me to the Caribbean. The cricketers? Yes, Sir, you got it right. Names like Rohan Kanhai, Alvin Kallicharan of the older generations, and Sunil Narine, Denesh Ramdin of the latest, only show the linkages with India.
And the second factor? A bit difficult for you to guess, so let me not tax your brain – it is VS Naipaul. I have read his ‘A Million Mutinies Now’ and ‘The Middle Passage’ with great interest. I haven’t read ‘A House for Mr Biswas’ as yet, but it’s on my list.
“Yes, of course, I will come” I told my ex-colleague. Soon we were heading for Port of Spain, Trinidad.
Not much has changed, I thought, as I landed at Piarco Airport and passed through the immigration. The taxi driver whom I had befriended on my earlier trips informed me that the economy was not doing well, and low oil process had made the matters worse. He was of Indian diaspora.
“When did your forefathers arrive in Trinidad?” I asked. “Oh, that was in 1845!” the taxi driver said. The first ship arrived in Trinidad carrying indentured labourers on May 30, 1845. So his ancestors must have been one of the first to arrive. Indians had done well for themselves.
We then talked about Naipaul. He won Nobel Prize for literature. Naipaul is spoken about with a sense of pride by Trinidadians, although he has not been always very kind to them. Everybody remembers ‘A House for Mr. Biswas.’ It’s in Chaguanas he told me. “Ask anybody they will show you the house,” he said. “Do you know the place? Had you ever been there?” I asked. “Well I had not been there,” he said, as he grinned nervously, “but anybody in Chaguanas will tell you.” We had reached our hotel, the Hyatt Regency. That’s a new building on the reclaimed land. Part of the old memory, like the sea, was lost to times, claimed by new structures. We decided to visit Chaguanas and the House of Mr Biswas on the next day.
Next day. I looked for the Driver. He drove his car in the porch for me. I wanted to go to the ‘House of Biswas.’ Chaguanas from Port of Spain is not a very long drive. All highway. We entered Chaguanas. It reminds you of a small Indian town of the early seventies. May be early eighties. An observation like that does not go well with Trinidadians. They think it smacks of arrogance of the Indians. People of Trinidad share a kind of love and hate relationship with the Indians. They strongly resent the recent suspension of Sunil Narine from bowling in international cricket after his action was found to be illegal. That was in Sri Lanka, but they think it is the handy work of Indians which began in IPL T20 games. And they also desire to visit Shirdi temple of Sai Baba.
“If you do not know the location, ask somebody where the house is” I suggested to the driver. He asked two persons on the street. They nodded, shrugged shoulders to indicate that they did not know. My face must have disclosed my annoyance. “Don’t worry man, I will find out, I am taking you to the Police Station.” I froze. Police station for hunting for the house of Mr. Biswas? The place where their national hero, Mr. VS Naipaul, the Nobel Laureate, was born – trying to locate it takes me to the Police Station? I quickly realized that I was unnecessarily panicking – police could have guided us to the exact building.

We drove in front of Police Station. The driver went in to ask for directions, and returned in two minutes. “They say there is a historical house here but they do not know where House of Mr. Biswas is.” Police all over the world have nothing to do with the literature, I thought. “Ok, take me there.” Instinct told me that the ‘historical house’ must be the ‘House of Mr. Biswas.’
It was just a two minutes drive from the Police station of Chaguanas. I got down from the car. It is the house of Mr. Capildeo. More popularly the ‘Lion House.’ [This is generally assumed to be the model for Hanuman House in Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas, with Chaguanas as the model for Arwacas. Source Wikipedia]. He built it in 1926. This is where the Nobel Laureate was reportedly born. Mr. Capildeo was his uncle. After all ‘House of Mr. Biswas’ does not exist in reality, it is the house that exist in fiction, the house referred in the ‘A House for Mr. Biswas’ is the historical house of Mr. Capildeo, also ancestral house of Mr. Naipaul.
Reality and fiction often intrude each other’s territory!
Vivek Patwardhan