In England I am not English, in India I am not Indian. I am chained to the 1,000 square miles that is Trinidad; but I will evade that fate yet.
The House of Mr. Biswas
But Mr Biswas never went to work on the estates. Events which were to occur presently led him away from that. They did not lead him to riches, but made it possible for him to console himself in later life with the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, while he rested on the Slumberking bed in the one room which contained most of his possessions.
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.
When he got to Green Vale it was dark. Under the trees it was night. The sounds from the barracks were assertive and isolated one from the other: snatches of talk, the sound of frying, a shout, the cry of a child: sounds thrown up at the starlit sky from a place that was nowhere, a dot on the map of the island, which was a dot on the map of the world. The dead trees ringed the barracks, a wall of flawless black.
All Saturday’s candidates were there. They had become a superior, leisured caste. A few boys did spend the day writing the examination as nearly as possible as they had done on Saturday. (The Chinese boy, with a mortification that amounted almost to terror, got the correct answer to the sum about the cyclist.) The others flaunted their idleness. At first they were content to be in the classroom and not of the class, seeing the exhibition discipline enforced on next year’s candidates. But this soon palled, and they wandered out into the yard. Their attitude to the examination had changed since Saturday afternoon : they all now had tales of disaster. Anand, believing none of them, magnified his own blunder. In the end they were all boasting of how badly they had done; and apparently none of them really cared. Time hung heavily on their hands, and the afternoon was only partially enlivened by a packet of cigarettes: disappointing, but a prank, at last.
It was the fashion at the time for men to appear on sporting occasions with a round tin of fifty English cigarettes and a plain box of matches held in one hand, the forefinger pressing the matchbox to the top of the tin. Mr Biswas had the matches; he used half a day’s subsistence allowance to buy the cigarettes. Not wishing to derange the hang of his jacket, he cycled to the Oval with the tin in his hand.
‘I am giving you notice’ Mr Biswas shouted. ‘I curse the day I step into your house.’
‘You curse the day?’ Mrs Tulsi said. ‘Coming to us with no more clothes than you could hang on a nail.’ This wounded Mr Biswas. He could not reply at once. ‘I am giving you notice’ he repeated at last.
I am giving you notice.’ Mrs Tulsi said.
‘I gave it to you first.’
‘He going to build it over my dead body,’ Mr Biswas called back, measuring.
The old man rocked, greatly amused.
‘Aha ! ’ Mr Biswas said, when he got to the end of the lot.
‘Aha! I always suspected.’ He stooped and started to measure back to the half-empty lot, while the old man rocked and chuckled.
‘Shama ! ’ Mr Biswas said, running to the kitchen. ‘Where you have the deed for the house?’
‘In the bureau.’ She went up to get it. She brought it down and Mr Biswas read.
‘Aha ! The old tout ! Shama, we going to get a bigger yard’
By accident or design the fence the solicitor’s clerk had put up was a full twelve feet inside the boundary indicated in the deed.
‘I always thought’ Shama said, ‘that we didn’t have a fifty- foot frontage.’
‘Frontage, eh?’ Mr Biswas said. ‘Nice word, Shama. But you’re picking up a lot of nice words in your old age, you know.’
But the debt remained. At nights, with a clear view of the sky through the slightly crooked window frames on the top floor, he felt the time flying by, the five years shrinking to four, to three, bringing disaster closer, devouring his life. In the morning the sun struck through the lattice work on the landing and below the bar-room door into his bedroom, and calmness returned. The children would see about the debt.
A Bend In the River
Chapter 9: Indar’s revelation to Salim
I awakened to where I was. I was walking on the Embankment, beside the river, walking without seeing. On the Embankment wall there are green metal lamp standards. I had been examining the dolphins on the standards, dolphin by dolphin, standard by standard. I was far from where I had started, and I had momentarily left the dolphins to examine the metal supports of the pavement benches. These supports, as I saw with amazement, were in the shape of camels. Camels and their sacks! Strange city: the romance of India in that building. And the romance of the desert here. I stopped, stepped back mentally, as it were, and all at once saw the beauty in which I had been walking -- the beauty of the river and the sky, the soft colours of the clouds, the beauty of light on water, the beauty of the buildings, the care with which it had all been arranged.
In Africa, on the coast, I had paid attention only to one colour in nature - the colour of the sea. Everything else was just bush, green and living. Or brown and dead. In England so far I had walked with my eyes at shop level; I had seen nothing. A town, even London, was just a series of streets or street names, and a street was a row of shops. Now I saw differently. And I understood that London wasn’t simply a place that was there, as people say of mountains, but that it had been made by men, that men had given attention to details as minute as those camels.
I began to understand at the same time that my anguish about being a man adrift was false, that for me that dream of home and security was nothing more than a dream of isolation, anachronistic and stupid and very feeble. I belonged to myself alone. I was going to surrender my manhood to nobody For someone like me there was only one civilization and one place -- London, or a place like it. Every other kind of life was make-believe. Home -- what for? To hide? To bow to our great men? For people in our situation, people led into slavery, that is the biggest trap of all. We have nothing. We solace ourselves with that idea of the great men of our tribe, the Gandhi and the Nehru, and we castrate ourselves. ‘Here take my manhood and invest it for me. Take my manhood and be a greater man yourself, for my sake!’ No! I want to be a man myself.
At certain times in some civilizations great leaders can bring out the manhood in the people they lead. It is different with slaves. Don’t blame the leaders. It is just part of the dreadfulness of the situation. It is better to withdraw from the whole business, if you can. And I could. You may say -- and I know, Salim, that you have thought it -- that I have turned my back on my community and sold out. I day: ‘Sold out to what and from what? What do you have to offer me? What is your own contribution? And can you give me back my manhood?’ Anyway, that was what I decided that
morning, beside the river of London, between the dolphins and the camels, the work of some dead artist who had been adding to the beauty of their city.
That was five years ago. I often wonder what would have happened to me if I hadn’t made that decision. I suppose I would have sunk. I suppose I would have found some kind of hole and tried to hide or pass. After all, we make ourselves according to the ideas we have of our possibilities. I would have hidden in my hole and been crippled by my sentimentality, doing what I doing, and doing it well, but always looking for the wailing wall. And I would never have seen the world as the rich place that it is. You wouldn’t have seen me here in Africa , doing what I do. I wouldn’t have wanted to do it, and no one would have wanted me to do it. I would have said: ‘It’s all over for me, so why should I let myself be used by anybody? The Americans want to win the world. It’s their fight, not mine.’ And that would have been stupid. It is stupid to talk of the Americans. They are not a tribe, as you might think from the outside. They’re all individuals fighting to make their way, trying as hard as you or me not to sink.
It wasn’t easy after I left the university. I still had to get a job, and the only thing I knew now was what I didn’t want to do. I didn’t want to exchange one prison for another. People like me have to make their own jobs. It isn’t something that’s going to come to you in a brown envelope. The job is there, waiting. But it doesn’t exist for you or anyone else until you discover it, and you discover it because it’s for you and you alone.