The Unlucky Sneeze

FROM A House For Mr. Biswas by V S Naipaul

[V S Naipaul won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2001.]

Mr. Biswas lost his sixth finger before he was nine days old. It simply came off one night and Bipti had an unpleasant turn when, shaking out the sheets one morning, she saw this tiny finger tumble to the ground. Bissoondaye thought this an excellent sign and buried the finger behind the cowpen at the back of the house, not far from where she had buried Mr. Biswas’s navel-string.

In the days that followed Mr. Biswas was treated with attention and respect. His brothers and sisters were slapped if they disturbed his sleep, and the flexibility of his limbs was regarded as a matter of importance. Morning and evening he was massaged with coconut oil. All his joints were exercised; his arms and legs were folded diagonally across his red shining body; the big toe of his right foot was made to touch his left shoulder, the big toe of his left foot was made to touch his right shoulder, and both toes were made to touch his nose; finally, all his limbs were bunched together over his belly and then, with a clap and a laugh, released.

Mr. Biswas responded well to these exercises, and Bissoondaye became so confident that she decided to have a celebration on the ninth day. She invited people from the village and fed them. The pundit came and was unexpectedly gracious, though his manner suggested that but for his intervention there would have been no celebration at all. Jhagru, the barber, brought his drum, andSelochan did the Shiva dance in the cowpen, his body smeared all over with ash. There was an unpleasant moment when Raghu, Mr. Biswas’s father, appeared. He had walked; his dhoti and jacket were sweated and dusty. “Well, this is very nice,” he said.

“Celebrating. And where is the father?” “Leave this house at once,” Bissoondaye said, coming out of the kitchen at the side. “Father! What sort of father do you call yourself, when you drive your wife away every time she gets heavy-footed?”

“That is none of your business,” Raghu said. “Where is my son?”

“Go ahead. God has paid you back for your boasting and your meanness. Go and see your son. He will eat you up. Six-fingered, born in the wrong way. Go in and see him. He has an unlucky sneeze as well.”

Raghu halted. “Unlucky sneeze?”

“I have warned you. You can only see him on the twenty-first day. If you do anything stupid now the responsibility will be yours.”

From his string bed the old man muttered abuse at Raghu. “Shameless, wicked. When I see the behaviour of this man I begin to feel that the Black Age has come.”

The subsequent quarrel and threats cleared the air. Raghu confessed he had been in the wrong and had already suffered much for it. Bipti said she was willing to go back to him. And he agreed to come again on the twenty-first day.

To prepare for that day Bissoondaye began collecting dry coconuts. She husked them, grated the kernels and set about extracting the oil the pundit had prescribed. It was a long job of boiling and skimming and boiling again, and it was surprising how many coconuts it took to make a little oil. But the oil was ready in time, and Raghu came, neatly dressed, his hair plastered flat and shining, his moustache trimmed, and he was very correct as he took off his hat and went into the dark inner room of the hut which smelled warmly of oil and old thatch. He held his hat on the right side of his face and looked down into the oil in the brass plate. Mr. Biswas, hidden from his father by the hat, and well wrapped from head to foot, was held face downwards over the oil. He didn’t like it; he furrowed his forehead, shut his eyes tight and bawled. The oil rippled, clear amber, broke up the reflection of Mr. Biswas’s face, already distorted with rage, and the viewing was over.

A few days later Bipti and her children returned home. And there Mr. Biswas’s importance steadily diminished. The time came when even the daily massage ceased.

But he still carried weight. They never forgot that he was an unlucky child and that his sneeze was particularly unlucky. Mr. Biswas caught cold easily and in the rainy season threatened his family with destitution. If, before Raghu left for the sugar-estate, Mr. Biswas sneezed, Raghu remained at home, worked on his vegetable garden in the morning and spent the afternoon making walking-sticks and sabots, or carving designs on the hafts of cutlasses and the heads of walking-sticks. His favourite design was a pair of Wellingtons; he had never owned Wellingtons but had seen them on the overseer. Whatever he did, Raghu never left the house. Even so, minor mishaps often followed Mr. Biswas’s sneeze: threepence lost in the shopping, the breaking of a bottle, the upsetting of a dish. Once Mr. Biswas sneezed on three mornings in succession.

“This boy will eat up his family in truth,” Raghu said.

One morning, just after Raghu had crossed the gutter that ran between the road and his yard, he suddenly stopped. Mr. Biswas had sneezed. Bipti ran out and said, “It doesn’t matter. He sneezed when you were already on the road.”

“But I heard him. Distinctly.”

Bipti persuaded him to go to work. About an hour or two later, while she was cleaning the rice for the midday meal, she heard shouts from the road and went out to find Raghu lying in an ox-cart, his right leg swathed in bloody bandages. He was groaning, not from pain, but from anger. The man who had brought him refused to help him into the yard: Mr. Biswas’s sneeze was too well known. Raghu had to limp in leaning on Bipti’s shoulder.

~~~~~~~~~~~❖❖❖❖~~~~~~~~~~~

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Published in: on January 11, 2010 at 2:46 PM  Leave a Comment  
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