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The Mystic Masseur – A Look into the Smallness of Trinidad

June 19, 2008

The Mystic Masseur was Naipaul’s first novel. And indeed it looks so. One could not think of so great a writer to begin so humbly. This is not a novel with a grant theme, or an aim or mission. Yet it is not like the modern novels which take their main aim to be aimless.

What strikes us is the genuineness of Naipaul in accepting his humble subject. He takes his Trinidad, his birthplace as his subject. The intellectual honesty, which later became the hallmark of Sir Vidia, was not an attribute which was acquired or which evolved over the course of time. It was there from the very beginning of his career, from his very first novel, The Mystic Masseur, from his very first book of non-fiction, The Middle Passage.

In his last book of non-fiction, ‘A Writer’s People’, he discusses about his initial quest for a subject. When he reached England, in 1950s, he had to choose his subject. Having chosen writing as a vocation, the choice of his subject was yet to make, not only the subject, but also the style of writing. After looking for inspiration to many writers, one day he came to a conclusion which would make him, the V S Naipaul, we know:

“I bought a copy of The Painted Veil from a W H Smith news-stand, read some pages standing up, and soon came to the conclusion that Maugham was not a writer I could go to for instruction. Not because Maugham was bad. My material was too far away from his; it was my own; I had to adhere to it and do the best I could with it, in my own way.”

We can see our future writer coming into his own. He chose to imitate nobody. He chose to go for what seemed to him his own, original, not yet written, however simple that maybe.

This is what we see in ‘The Mystic Masseur’. It is not concerned with global politics, not specifically with politics, religion or society. It speaks in small but honest way about the small society of Trinidad. In effect it speaks about smallness, the smallness which pervades the Trinidadian society so completely.

The hero Ganesh gets an idea into his mind of writing a book about, India, Hinduism and his heritage. He takes upon himself the enormous task to write a book explaining everything about Hinduism, ‘101 Questions and Answers on the Hindu Religion’. The book itself is quoted, which heightens the comedy of the whole episode.

You get a sense of boredom while reading the novel, a boredom of a people who have nothing much to do, nothing much to think about. They have no history, a past only vaguely memorable, a religion remembered only in rituals. They have no native writers. Ganesh earns his fame by becoming a masseur. He then discovers that a little taste of mysticism adds to its charm, and so he becomes a mystic masseur. But the wish of his life is fulfilled only when he writes the book and becomes famous.

But then he engages himself in politics, and later on leaves his job of massage.

This is a world which Naipaul chooses as his subject. True it is small, but it is real and honest. It reflects the people of Naipaul’s world at that time.

“I myself believe that the history of Ganesh is, in a way, the history of our times; and there may be people who will welcome this imperfect account of the man Ganesh Ramsumair, masseur, mystic, and, since 1953, M.B.E.”

We read in ‘The Mystic Masseur’, of a world, which is half and small, forgotten and poor in ideas. A land where there is no intellectual life, where people just try to live up to some social success, trying everything which comes into their way.

The reader doesn’t need to know the geography in order to sense the smallness of Trinidad. It is too pervading in the novel.

From his very first novel, Naipaul conveys his tragic-comic style. This is not to refer to the classical Shakespearean one. There is no Shylock in ‘The Mystic Masseur’. The tragic sense of Naipaul is not concerned with characters, but with history, with geography and with life itself. Naipaul’s is a sneer of man who sees life as on outsider, who sees the world as it is, accepting all its faults and drawbacks. But the final sense is not one of despair, but of true detachedness, objectivity. This paragraph illustrates it well:

“It was their first beating, a formal affair done without anger on Ganesh’s part or resentment on Leela’s: and although it formed no part of the marriage ceremony itself, it meant much to both of them. It meant that they had grown up and become independent Ganesh had become a man; Leela a wife as privileged as any other big woman. How she too would have tales to tell of her husband’s beatings; and when she went home she would be able to look sad and sullen as every woman should.”

Even in this early novel, he takes a dig at Gandhi. Discussing a difficult situation, Ganesh says:

“What would Mahatma Gandhi do in a situation like this?”

Then answering himself:

“Write. That’s what he would do. Write.”

The language itself conveys a very comic sense, at least to a person who is either native English speaker or comes for the subcontinent. Naipaul remains honest even to the grammar of Trinidadians, which is appalling. I was afraid of imbibing some wrong English from these novels of Naipaul.

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