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From The Pen of Naipaul —PART II: Bicycles and Prefects

Published: 
Sunday, October 16, 2016
A Ford Prefect E93A, 10 horsepower which would have been almost identical to Mr Biswas’ car which would have been acquired around 1947.

The epic novel of Sir V S Naipaul, A House for Mr Biswas is based largely on the life of his own father, Seepersad Naipaul. Mr Biswas, the ailing and forever futile hero of the book owned two main modes of transportation throughout his entire life—A Royal Enfield bicycle and a Ford Prefect. The Enfield makes its appearance during his sojourn as a contemptible and nervous overseer or driver at the Green Vale estate owned by his overpowering in-laws, the Tulsis. 

This is the bicycle, on the handlebars of which he had carried an expensive doll’s house for his daughter Savi’s Christmas, only to have it destroyed by his wife, Shama, to appease the gossips of Hanuman House. It is also the mode of conveyance which he relied upon during the majority of his time as a reporter for the Trinidad Sentinel (the real-life Naipaul worked for the Guardian). It was whilst assigned to a segment called Deserving Destitutes and being compelled to go into the seedier areas of Port-of-Spain that the bike was stripped systematically:

“His bicycle suffered. First the valve-caps were stolen; then the rubber handlegrips; then the bell; then the saddlebag in which he had transported his plunder from Shorthills; and one day the saddle itself. It was a pre-war Brooks saddle, highly desirable, new ones being unobtainable.”

The actual Ford Prefect Seepersad Naipaul acquired during a short stint at the unestablished Community Welfare Department of the Government was registered PA1192. It was bought from Charles McEnearney and Co, now part of the Ansa McAL group. The thrill of new car ownership is something many of us can relate to as described by Naipaul:

“The rule of the house was followed again. The children were sworn to secrecy. Mr Biswas brought home glossy booklets which had the aromatic smell of rich art paper and seemed to hold the smell of the new car. Secretly he took driving lessons and obtained a driving licence. Then, on a perfectly ordinary Saturday morning, he drove to the house in a brand-new Prefect, parked it casually before the gate, not quite parallel to the pavement, and walked up the front steps, ignoring the excitement that had broken out.”

The fascination of that indescribable new car smell and the shiny nickel trim was soon to be lost. It was in short order the family realised the nuances of new car ownership—how the paint attracted dust and left fine scratches if cleaned with a dry rag, the tinkling of an ill-fitting ashtray cover, the rattling of the ignition key chain on the dashboard, and finally the green-eyed monster of envy as Mr Biswas’ rich uncle, Ajodha, seemed ruffled that his nephew could actually be the owner of a new car and tried hard to denigrate the machine on its maiden outing to Balandra:

“Car?” Ajodha said, puzzled, petulant. “Mohun?” “A little Prefect,” Mr Biswas said. “Some of those pre-war English cars can be very good,” Ajodha said. “This is a new one,” Mr Biswas said. “Got it yesterday.” “Cardboard.” Ajodha bunched his fingers. “It will mash like cardboard.”

The real life PA1192 was a ten horsepower model and this figures in the scene where Anand Biswas points out the fact on an inspection of the car which draws Ajodha’s derision again:

“Six horse power?” he said. “Eight?” “Ten,” Anand said, pointing to the red disc below the bonnet. “Yes, ten.” He turned to Shama. “Well, niece, where are you going in your new car?” “Balandra.” “I hope the wind doesn’t blow too hard.” “Wind, Uncle?” “Or you will never get there. Poof! Blow you off the road, man.”

Eventually towards the end of the novel, the car loses its lustre and becomes just another possession. It did, however, allow Mr Biswas to finally keep a promise he had made to Anand during the dog days of World War II. He had committed to buying his son a bicycle upon the condition of the latter winning a college exhibition or scholarship which was one of 12 offered in the island. Though delayed by the privations of war and his own small salary, the Prefect gave the oath fulfilment as follows:

“On Monday Anand cycled to school on the Royal Enfield, and the promise in the Collins Clear-Type Shakespeare was thereby partly fulfiled. War conditions had at last permitted; in fact, the war had been over for some time.”

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