License to Fret

For several nights in July, the thrilling, testosterone-laden notes of the James Bond theme music filled our family room, as my husband and I and whichever of our boys (twelve, sixteen, and eighteen) happened to be around took in “The Bond Marathon” on Encore. It was the cinematic equivalent of a good beach read, and I enjoyed escaping with my guys into the glamour, adventure, and criminal chicanery of Dr. No, From Russia with Love, and Diamonds Are Forever.

I am hardly a Bond connoisseur, however, so I was startled to read in the Wall Street Journal recently that those swaggering, manly opening notes were drawn from a song composed by Monty Norman for an aborted musical called A House for Mr. Biswas, based on the novel by Nobel Prize–winner V. S. Naipaul.

Mr. Bond and Mr. Biswas? How could this be? What have these two in common other than an initial? Mr. Biswas, born six-fingered and “in the wrong way,” with an unlucky sneeze to boot, bumbles his way through poverty and the depredations of life in the Indian immigrant community in Trinidad. As a child he unwittingly causes his father’s death, as a youth he makes spectacularly clumsy job errors, as a man he is trapped by marriage to his wife and her sprawling, chaotic, and indifferent family. Only the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius bring him comfort.

Then there is Bond—James Bond—unflappable in danger, indefatigable in bed, suave, dashing, and debonair, a man of action who never seems at a loss even in the direst of straits. To compare James Bond to Mohun Biswas is to liken Rhett Butler to Mr. Bean. The incongruity seems laughable. Can the heroic Bond really inhabit the same musical space as the hapless Biswas?

Yes, and here’s why: Each man is on a mission. In his drive to protect Britain and avert world disaster, Bond undertakes exploits that are dangerous and action-packed. His path to success is festooned with beautiful women, dastardly villains, and some terrific car chases. He gets himself into the occasional tight spot, but he always finds a way out (usually accompanied by a gorgeous “Bond girl”). The mission of Mr. Biswas, on the other hand, which he single-mindedly pursues throughout his life, is to have a house of his own, where he can find the autonomy, the peace, and the pride that have eluded him since his inauspicious birth. He patiently endures family chaos, racism, his own self-inflicted wounds—and he triumphs. The house he eventually buys is riddled with imperfections, much like him, but it is indisputably and gloriously his. As the master of his own abode, however flawed, he finally attains the stature of a hero.

Most of us probably know more Biswases than Bonds—men of good intentions who aspire to the virile perfection of the British spy but more closely approximate the hero manqué. Mr. Biswas squabbles with his wife, endures chronic indigestion, even has a nervous breakdown at one point. But he is always, always, Mr. Biswas. Though he certainly suffers the whips and scorns of time, he retains an inherent personal (albeit comic) dignity to the very end.

Would men respond to the “Bond Theme” if it were the “Biswas Theme”? Doubtful: most males of my acquaintance would prefer to look in the mirror as Biswas and see Bond reflected instead. But we might all do well to remember that heroism comes in many shapes, and give a tip of the hat to the next Mr. Biswas we encounter in our lives. One never knows what marathons he might have struggled through.

Published in the 2012-12-07 issue: 

Elizabeth Kirkland Cahill, a graduate of Yale Divinity School, chairs the  board of the Preservation Society of Charleston.

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