Magazine 2013
International Peer-Reviewed Journal  
RH, VOL. 3 JULY 2013  
“The Strange Case Of Billy Biswas” –  
A Turbulent Journey Of An Existentialist  
Renuka Devi Jena  
Existential angst is an universal issue which is extensively discussed by a large number of novelists.  
The preoccupation with this pressing issue by existential novelists highlights its magnitude and need to  
be discussed to understand it in the right perspective. Life today is more complex and these complexities  
are here to stay until one stops judging and expecting. The existential novelists deal with the problems of  
the modern man, his existence, freedom and choice and responsibility in every field. The objective of my  
paper is to critically examine the restlessness and existential dilemma of Billy Biswas, the protagonist of  
Arun Joshi’s novel, The Strange Case of Billy Biswas. Among the Indian English writers who qualify as  
existentialist, Arun Joshi is the first and finest one. His novels are strongly influenced by the existential  
philosophy of Satre, Albert Camus’ and Kierkegaard. Arun Joshi unravels the facets of crisis in modern  
man’s life.  
Keywords - Existential Angst, Modern Man, Billy Biswas, Facets of Crisis  
Arun Joshi is one of the most significant contemporary Indian Novelist, who has not just focused on  
social or political problems but on the deeper layer of man’s being. His choice of themes like expansion of the  
human spirit in the atmosphere of freedom, agony of the lonely soul lost in a hostile world etc., typify universal  
experiences rather than national or cultural idiosyncrasies. Imbibing of the new ideas and concepts and gaining  
a new imaginative fillip from the achievement of earlier writers is integral to the blossoming of artistic instinct  
and Arun Joshi’s case best illustrates this. It is more in the nature of exploring ‘fresh woods and pastures new’  
rather than of servile imitation that writers like Arun Joshi draw freely from continental writers like Kafka and  
Camus. Arun Joshi’s novels unfailingly record the novelist’s perception, evaluation, determination and declarations  
about life. As a novelist he is also a profound thinker, his concerns are different. He writes about the destruction  
of man’s native innocence by experience, about his rootlessness, restlessness and existential dilemma, about  
the crisis of his identity in the present day world.  
Arun Joshi in his second novel The Strange Case of Billy Biswas, seems to give a further extension to  
the theme of alienation he dealt with in his first novel, The Foreigner. He presents in this novel, as pointed out  
by Naik, “A protagonist alienated from the higher middle class society in which he is born and brought up and  
in which he is compelled to live, though he finds in himself an overpowering urge to march to a different drum  
altogether.” The first few chapters of the novel are about Billy’s social and intellectual life and his strong primitive  
urge and his gradual spiritual decay, his rejection of social values. Billy Biswas, the protagonist of The Strange  
Case of Billy Biswas is a typically privileged young Indian, son of a Supreme Court Judge, educated at Doon  
School, St. Stephens and Columbia University, New York. Bimal Biswas known as Billy, has everything a man  
can wish for to lead contented life- money, brilliant academic record, well connected marriage alliance and a  
respectable position in society. As son of a supreme court judge he did not lack material comforts. As an only  
child he had all the attention of his doting parents. He had his share of love and loyalty in Tuula and Romesh but  
all these were offered to him on a platter so to say and that left him with a nagging sense that his life lacked  
fullness and purpose. The most futile cry of man is his wish to be understood. The attempt to understand is  
probably even more futile.  
Romi, Billy’s friend is a detached narrator, he is unable to comprehend the mysterious urge that impelled  
Billy to shun the so-called civilized society. Unlike Sindi Oberio in the The Foreigner or in The Apprentice Billy  
is a rebel, he never makes compromises, he never falters, and he courageous faces the crisis of life. Billy is from  
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RH, VOL. 3 JULY 2013  
a elite sophisticated family. He has a beautiful wife and son but in spite of his having all the material comforts  
he does seem to relish them, his strange quest makes him uneasy. This strong spiritual urge, the intense  
primitive cravings h existed in Billy since his childhood days. Even at the age of fourteen a tribal dance makes  
him extremely restless. His natural aptitude for anthropology made him give up engineering for a Ph.D degree  
for Anthropology. The only two people who understand Billy’s excessive sensibility and profound obsessions  
are his friend, narrator Romi and his Swedish friend, Tuula Lindgren. The following paragraph explicitly explains  
this- “Billy feels something inside him, but he is not yet sure...... A great force, urkraft, a...a primitive force. He  
is afraid of it and tries to suppress it.”p.23.Billy’s strange love for primitive life is reflected in his letters written  
to Tuula, he had once written to her after his return from an expedition, that – “When I return from an expedition,  
it is days before I can shake off the sounds and smells of the forest. The curious feeling trails me everywhere that  
I am a visitor from the wilderness to the marts of the Big City and not the other way round.”p.96  
Billy’s decision that marriage would resolve his problems was a great mistake, as he and his wife are  
quite different from each other, the alienation of Billy further intensifies. The marital relationship between Billy  
and Meena, their lack of understanding and the rift between the two different worlds they occupy. Meena  
occupies a world that insists on social positions and respectability to be maintained at all costs, she is unable  
to understand Billy’s irritation, his existential angst. She mentions this to his best friend Romesh, “He comes  
home angry with somebody, something. He sulks around, and then starts snapping at everybody. He snaps at  
me, at the child, at the servants, until I can’t stand it and butt in, and we have a full-scale quarrel.” p. Billy on  
the other hand finds his wife to be less involved with his life. He realizes that Meena has very little to offer him  
any comfort or relieve in his search for meaning in life. Meena is frustrated with Billy’s aversion to modernism  
and materialism. His aversion is mainly at the upper class society to which he belongs. Arun Joshi propagates  
that the existential issues can only be resolved within the self.  
Billy’s irresistible fondness for primitive life is reflected in his letters written to Tuula, he had once written  
to her after his return from an expedition, that – “When I return from an expedition, it is days before I can shake  
off the sounds and smells of the forest. The curious feeling trails me everywhere that I am a visitor from the  
wilderness to the marts of the Big City and not the other way round.” P.96  
The intense desire for the search of his true inner self forces him to escape into the forests, in search of  
meaning of life, to be one with himself, to express his individuality freely without any superficiality. He felt  
alienated even when he was in the company of his wife and father. At first glance Billy’s disgruntlement with life  
appears unverified as he has everything in life. Fascinated as he is by the primitive way of life Billy finds in all his  
attainments only a superficial gloss that fails miserably to satisfy his hunger for the peace and the adventure  
that only life in the jungle can offer. Arun Joshi best illustrates this with Billy’s confession to Tuula, “It seems, my  
dear Tuula, that we are swiftly losing what is known as one’s grip on life. Why else this constant bluring of  
reality? Who am I ? Who are my parents? My wife ? My child? At times I look at them, sitting at the dinner table,  
and for a passing moment I cannot decide who they are or what accident of Creation has brought us together.”  
P. It brings out Billy’s existential anguish, his alienation and loneliness. He does seem to belong to the  
civilised society. Tuula and Billy’s occasional discussions reveal the understanding they have of each other. In  
the first part of the novel the author brings out the inner conflict and disturbed psychology of his protagonist,  
Meena’s conversation with Romi explores the futility of their relationship, the misunderstanding, physical  
distances, mental barriers, sense of alienation and the vacuum. The confusion and compromises lead into  
intense suffering. Billy experiences communication problems with his father and himself, his wife and himself  
and the society around him. His letters to Tuula confirms his confusion, boredom and meaningless existence.  
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The second part of the novel deals with Billy’s transformation through his contact with primitive life, his  
meeting Romi once again after ten years and his death. He escapes in to the primitive world of Bilasia. His  
withdrawal from the modern, civilized world is almost mysterious. His alienation from the sophisticated society  
and family creates suspense. His case clearly delineates the problem of post- independence Indians with  
education abroad. The uprooted people suffer from spiritual vacuum, evils of materialism, identity crisis and  
loss of faith in human values. Billy’s going away from the world of civilization is neither an act of renunciation  
nor a cowardly running away from responsibilities. His is not a blind or blundering quest for happiness in life. In  
his case the question of giving up the “struggle’’ does not arise as his whole discontent is centered on the fact  
that struggle in his life was conspicuous by its absence. Billy’s identity crisis seems to be resolved when he  
reaches Dhunia’s hut and sees Bilasia for the first time. A sense of belonging appears to emerge, he felt that he  
would find meaning of life. His Ph.D from an American University, his association with the intellectuals of upper  
middle class society in America or in India could not help him to find meaning of life. He always felt alienated.  
To Billy, Bilasia represented primitive society. She is simple, honest and unsophisticated. In the Maikal hills  
where Billy settles with Bilasia, nature brought meaning to his life.  
Arun Joshi’s novel is a mocking assault on the materialistic civilized society and an exaltation of the  
primitive culture. His hero, Billy suffers from spiritual up rootedness, loss of faith and crisis of identity, which  
society refuses to understand. Happiness cannot be realized through mere possession, true happiness can be  
attained only through self-realization. Billy could not help seeking something out of the way in the formula  
made contentment offered to him by his social milieu and when chance takes him to the Satpura hills as  
teacher escort in an educational tour for students, he realizes that his true home is there in the hills. In a short  
while he gains the friendship of Dunia, the leader of the gang of Bhils, who happily grants Billy’s wish to join  
them. How well Billy fitted into the new background and the new way of life is brought out in the following  
passage – “They were waiting for the rising of the moon. And he suddenly discovered that he, too, was waiting  
for the rising of the moon. That just about summed up the catastrophic change that had been wrought into him  
in two days. Never before in his life had he waited thus. He had admired lakes and monuments and snow-  
capped mountains gleaming under a luminous moon, but never before had he actually waited for it to rise. All  
of a sudden it was not just the side attraction of life to be taken for granted, but the very reason for being  
present on the earth that night. He was waiting for the moon, just as sitting with me he was waiting for the dawn,  
as he had waited for the love of a woman, just as some day he would wait for death. Earlier he had waited for  
degrees, for lectures, for money, for security, for a middle class marriage, for the welfare of his child, for  
preserving the dignity of his family, for being just, for being well dressed and for being normal and all these  
things that civilized men count as their duty or the foundations of their happiness or both. Sitting there, the  
ebullient chatter of half-drunk tribals swirling about his ears, he could for the first time see clearly the change  
entering him. While he sat in the purple shadows, he had the first terrible premonition that he might not go  
back.” P. Deep in the forests, life for Billy is more authentic without the affectation of order, sophistication and  
decorum. The tribals are people who live a life where there is no schism between the precepts and the practice  
of life. The forest which is the antithesis of civilization, by appearing to have its own order, an essence, and a  
purpose, becomes for Billy his destination where he will make his tryst with destiny.  
Billy’s sudden exit marks not an erratic decision taken on the spur of the moment but the cumulative  
effect of a series of little acts of protest. When Billy goes against the social norms his very own people give no  
second thought to understand the cause for change. The society has no time for individuals, the individual of  
whom the society is made of.Billy’s joining in the Anthropology course rather than in Engineering as desired by  
his father, his spending his spare time in the slum areas during his student days in America are subtly used by  
Arun Joshi to prepare the readers for Billy’s final opting to live with the tribals. Billy’s sterling qualities which  
were never appreciated in the civilized world in its preoccupation with ‘making and spending money’ came to  
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full flowering in the new surroundings and won for him the unstinted admiration of the tribals. The following  
tribute paid to Billy by Dhunia best illustrates this, “He is like rain on parched lands, like balm on a wound.  
These hills have not seen the like of him since the last of our kings passed away.” P.3  
Billy’s deep love for Bilasia and the easy grace with which he assumes the mantle of leadership of the  
tribals, the sense of fulfillment he feels while watching the beauty of Nature proves beyond doubt that his love  
of the primitive life was not an idle journey but an overpowering passion. Thus in his choice we find not a  
helpless succumbing to a passing impulse but a positive assertion of a deeply felt desire. By going away he  
might have flouted the norms of familial obligations but by remaining within the fold of the artificial set up of  
civilization he would have isolated the highest moral norm of all, the duty to be true to one’s inner prompting.  
Finally Billy deserting the modern world comes out in a new role that of a healer, a priest and a magician .He  
cures diseases, wards off tiger, helps in wading problems and spiritual troubles. He develops a sense of  
belonging while glorifying the simple life and abode of the noble savage, he celebrates the thought that the  
virtues of the so called uncivilized men may at as a corrective to the money minded, dehumanized society.  
What could easily appear as the selfish satisfaction of a capricious whim had to be bolstered by Arun Joshi with  
the strength of conviction and he succeeds in it by carefully interspersing in the pages of the novel interesting  
little details that underscore Billy’s highly individualistic temperament and unassailable integrity? Romesh’s  
accidental running into Billy and Billy’s warm hearted consenting to call on Romesh to see his ailing wife lead  
to a sequence of circumstances that calls a halt to Billy’s life of idyllic happiness. Learning of Billy’s whereabouts  
from Romesh’s wife, Billy’s father appeals for police help in tracing his missing son and in the police hunt that  
follows Billy is inadvertently shot dead. Billy’s tragic death is due to his own inner struggle, his determination  
to make his own choice to stand up against the rigid principals of society. The issue of Billy was disposed of  
”In the only manner that human society knows of disposing its rebels, its seers, its true lovers”.  
Billy’s love of the primitive not only voices forth the human yearning of something “afar from the sphere  
of our sorrow” but is an artistic vindication of the home truth that when the law of the jungle is rampant in the  
civilized world, a votary of humanism like Billy has no other option than to retire to the jungle to find inner  
peace. The Strange Case of Billy Biswas records an existential protest against superficial, materialistic and  
imitative western culture. Billy’s life seems to be a dramatization of Gide’s conviction that – “One must always  
follow one’s conviction provided it leads upward”. The novel is about the existential protest against modernism  
and materialism, it is about the simple longing for the rustic life of the primitive people as against the complicated  
life style of the sophisticated urban people.  
Bhatnagar,O.P. “Art and Vision ofArun Joshi”. The Fictional World of Arun Joshi. ed. R.K. Dhawan. New  
Delhi: Classical Publishing Company, 1986. Print.  
Joshi, Arun. The Strange Case of Billy Biswas. New Delhi: Hind Pocket Books. 1971. Print.  
Prasad, Madhusudan.ed. “Arun Joshi. Indian English Novelists: An Anthology of Critical Essays. New  
Delhi: Sterling. 1982. Print.  
Naik, M.K. A History of Indian English Literature. New Delhi : Sahitya Akademi. 1982. Print.