Saturday, 18 April 2015
The Mystic Masseur by VS Naipaul
[Ganesh, a Trinidad Indian, wants to be a pundit or mystic and is being advised by his friends on how to get customers]
‘Ganesh. Me and Suruj Poopa been thinking a lot about you. We thinking that you must stop wearing trousers and a shirt.’
‘It don’t suit a mystic,’ Beharry said.
‘You must wear proper dhoti and koortah. I was talking only last night to Leela about it when she come here to buy cooking-oil. She think is a good idea too.’
Ganesh’s annoyance began to melt. ‘Yes, is a idea. You feel it go bring me luck?’
‘Is what Suruj Mooma say.’
Next morning Ganesh involved his legs in a dhoti and called Leela to help him tie the turban.
‘Is a nice one,’ she said.
‘One of my father old ones. Make me feel funny wearing it.’
‘Something telling me it go bring you luck.’
‘You really think so?’ Ganesh cried, and almost kissed her.
She pulled away. ‘Look what you doing, man.’
Then Ganesh, a strange and striking figure in white, went to the shop.
‘You look like a real maharaj,’ Suruj Mooma said.
‘Yes he look nice,’ said Beharry. ‘It make me wonder why more Indians don’t keep on wearing their own dress.’
Suruj Mooma warned, ‘You better not start, you hear. Your legs thin enough already and they look funny even in trousers.’
‘It looks good, eh?’ Ganesh smiled.
Beharry said, ‘nobody would believe now that you did go to the Christian college in Port of Spain. Man, you look like a pukka Brahmin.’
‘Well, I have a feeling. I feel my luck change as from today.’
observations: The Mystic Masseur was VS Naipaul’s first published book: nearly 60 years later he is weighed down with awards and titles and accomplishments – including a Nobel Prize - and recently appeared at the Jaipur literary festival. I think if you knew him only by reputation you would expect him to be an intimidating, difficult writer. Some of his work is complex, but always worth the effort: The Enigma of Arrival (1987) is wonderful, but close to indescribable – it’s hard even to say what kind of book it is.
So it is nice to go to this one, which is a hoot, very funny and readable and entertaining. The book tracks the progress of Ganesh, who wants to be important, and wants to be cultured, and wants to be an intellectual. It’s a long path, but he eventually does become someone. He is set on the way when he eventually finds success as a mystic masseur – a kind of faith healer.
I’m sure there are many areas where the book is a satire on life in Trinidad, and perhaps there are recognizable figures in it, none of which I could comment on. But even for the most overseas reader, it would seem to be a very convincing portrait of life on the island at the time. The dialogue, like that above, is amazing: it sounds so authentic, the rhythm is wonderful, but it has total clarity, there is never any problem understanding it.
The question of whether to wear traditional Indian dress (saris for women) or more Western dress comes up frequently throughout the book. The dhoti is a leg covering, the koorta a long loose shirt.
The picture is of an Indian man in Trinidad, and comes from the Southern Methodist University collection.