Top positive review
13 people found this helpful
Is Gordon Ramsay, OBE, really Sir Vidia Naipaul?
on 10 December 2001
The Mystic Masseur was Naipaul's first novel, and it is probably the best known of his works (a movie has been turned out by Messrs. Merchant & Ivory, although at the date of writing it has not yet been released to the public). The main character is one Ganesh Ramsumair, the son of an Indian immigrant to Trinidad, who seems to be blessed by fortune. Each time he is in danger of taking a wrong turn, his fate steps in and gently nudges him in the right direction. Ganesh first attends school in Port of Spain, where he feels inadequate and has only one friend, clever anglophile Indarsingh, who leaves for Oxford upon graduation. Ganesh then attends a teacher's college, and takes a position as an elementary school teacher. He is not a success and resigns his position for a life of idleness, which is ended when his father dies, bequeathing to him some land and some royalties from an oil company. When attending his father's funeral he meets his formidable relation, The Great Belcher, who is one of these wise elderly Indian women who are accostumed to running funerals, marriages, businesses and lives for their younger folk. He also meets Ramlogan, extremely unpleasant owner of a rhum shop who is quarrelsome but cowardly, and not above any underhandedness (he will turn up again and play a crucial part in Naipaul's "The Suffrage of Elvira"), whose daughter Leela he marries. Much more devious than would appear initially, Ganesh takes advantage of Ramlogan's pride and extracts from him a house in a remote village and a significant dowry. This is fortunate, because at this time the oil royalty checks stop coming in. Ganesh and Leela move into the Ramlogan's house, and quickly become acquainted with the local rhum-shop owner, Suruj Poopa, who becomes Ganesh's true friend and sounding board. Ganesh spends several years doing nothing much except reading and trying to launch a career as a masseur, but he is apparently not very good at it. He even writes a short book on the Hindu religion, but it doesn't sell. Leela, desperate at his lack of direction tries to convince him to take a job working for the Americans in their military base (WWII is now in force), but fate takes a hand when the Great Belcher and Suruj Poopa advice Ganesh to become a mystic. As a mystic he is extremely successful, performing miraculous cures and eventually becoming a public figure. His prosperity communicates to the entire village where he lives, and to his friends the Surujs, and even his father in law, with whom he quarrels again and again. Eventually, after defeating his rival Narayan (peculiar, this choice of a name) he becomes a leader of the Hindu vote in Trinidad, and a Member of the Legislative Chamber. Initially a leftist (he and Indarsingh try to articulate the theory of Socialinduism, a melange of Hindu nationalism and scientific socialism) and a firebrand (frequently arrested for criticizing government corruption), he then becomes a pillar of the establishment, and is finally rechristened Sir Gordon Ramsay, OBE. His Trinidadian dialect becomes the cut-glass accent of the BBC and his Indian garb is replaced by a tailor made three piece suit.
The story, thus told, loses the sense of destiny that Naipaul is able to weave in through the expert use of atmosphere and character. The self-discovery of Ganesh from his humble origins is very well-rendered, and many characters are memorable(especially Leela, Ramlogan, Suruj Poopa and an unnamed boy who helps Ganesh edit his newspaper). The liberating power of reading the great books (which is what Ganesh reads, rather than the lowbrow fare that Mohun Biswas gobbles up in "A House for Mister Biswas") is something that must have rung true for Naipaul (as it did for this reviewer). Several themes (the power of small events to have great consequences, and the almost unlimited scope for personal re-invention) were probably also derived from the author's own experience. This book is a triumph and a jewel.