_ I swear, Billy makes my eyes well up every time I think of him.
Published in 1971, Arun Joshi’s The Strange Case of Billy Biswas is worth your time, soul and conscious. Having read it for the fifth time and feeling Billy, feeling for Billy very often without further reading, let me confess, Billy is one of the rarest character created ever by a novelist. Few in-completions in the novel, yes, but the character of the protagonist,Billy is more or less complete. Created then, it has all the quint essentials of the modern century’s most discussed, thought about subjects . Racism, Romance, Humour, Friendship, Politics, all in one plus one of the few characters I have read who does justice to himself forgoing his family, his social network realising what actually he wanted to do, where exactly he belongs to.
Billy Biswas, the US based(Harlem, for reasons he explains) Anthropologist returns to his homeland in Central India having sensed his intuitions without letting anyone to intrude, without expecting anybody to understand him. Young and rich, he chooses to live a tribal life in the Saal forests, leaving behind his family, creating an impression of being killed by a Tiger. All he chased throughout was the meaning of things which he see through, hear through, clear and well-defined. There could be a question on his sense of moral responsibilities towards his wife and son, but as he himself explains to Romi, his friend, on questioning,
‘ But don’t you think you had responsibilities towards her, towards your son?’
‘ I have greater responsibilities towards my soul!’
The way he looked at the Whites of America, his own super rich Father who’s a supreme court judge, his wife Meena who’s after money, what friendship actually meant to him , his views on Justice and Politics are specimens of what we see around. Being one among the aristocratic, rich class of Delhi, his mind and soul always was with the ordinary, uncivilised tribals of central India. He dreamt different, thought different, dressed different, spoke and smiled different, acted different and hence became ‘Strange.’ The way Joshi explains Billy’s eyes and his grin, I swear again, anybody would fall for him. ‘Hello old chap,’ the way he greeted Romi remains at the tip of the reader’s tongue and later gets deposited into their minds as a fixed one.
The second half of the novel is sensational as the novelist explains the commotions surrounding Billy’s disappearance, how he reacts to the call from within, from Nature. Hair raising illustration of the Tribal woman, Bilasia who becomes Billy’s wife this life as she was in the previous, a lot of beliefs around superstitions, how Billy happens to meet Romi, the collector, in the collector’s bungalow, ten years after his disappearance, his justifications and explanations for his actions, the metamorphosis the Doctor Anthropologist undergoes, are wonderful illustrations to be remembered forever.
New definitions to the word friendship is sought towards the concluding chapters. Even after Billy asks Romi not to reveal about his presence to anybody including his very family, circumstances pull Romi to act otherwise and as Billy warned, what havoc it created with his life there! Billy’s father, with all his political influence tries to find Billy out through his civil servant friend, Romi, and Romi resists and hesitates. Soon things go beyond his control and the search for Billy Biswas turns to a man-hunt.
Bilasia’s questions to Romi and his answer less face haunts a true reader. The terrified face of Billy’s younger son and the intelligent, the shrewd face of Billy’s elder son with a hint that he would become like his father is a positive note before the novel ends. As Billy meets with the inevitable end, the emotional heart of the reader too floods up.
A character complete in almost all the senses, I often wonder about another possible end to the novel. Perhaps, that end could satisfy the soul of an ordinary reader, not the elite. Billy with his strangeness has become a part of my sensible thought. Hope he becomes a member of yours too, if you let… Have a read.