“Pa, who was the man talking in the shop this morning? He sound just like a radio I hear in San Fernando.” I tell she, “Girl, that wasn’t a radio you was hearing. That was Ganesh Ramsumair. Pundit Ganesh Ramsumair …”
VS Naipaul’s 1957 book Mystic Masseur is a triumph of satire. In a flowing, narrative style, the author moves us through the stages of the protagonist Ganesh as he finds, and eventually loses, himself.
In portraying the complexities of human behaviour, Naipaul explores their insecurities and hypocrisy, but also their desire to transcend negative opinions.
Additionally, he explores themes such as how easily people are impressed by a charismatic leader, or how their striving for better can remove them from themselves.
This week, a showing of the Mystic Masseur film was held to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the novel. During the discussion afterwards, there was the general feeling that the film missed many of the cultural nuances of TT that make the book so poignant. So, while the acting, directing and cinematography were good, something was missing — essentially the presence of local actors in the main roles. As Ralph Maraj succinctly stated, it was an example of “what not to do” when creating a local film.
But that was the central problem. Directed by the reputed Ismail Merchant, the goal was not to present a story about this country to its people, which is the fundamental point of indigenous literature. Rather it was to create a film based on the book of a renowned author and Nobel laureate, and market it for commercial gain. To achieve this, the main characters were played by foreign actors, the smaller roles assigned to local thespians. At the time, it must have seemed like a winning formula. In hindsight, one may argue their calculation was off.
From those who had read the book, I sensed that the interplay between Ganesh and wife Leela was one of the biggest disappointments. “Ganesh warned Leela off. ‘Don’t touch these books girl, or I don’t know what going to happen to you.’ Leela understood and opened her eyes wide.”
Ganesh’s aunt, “The Great Belcher,” also lost a great deal of her humour and presence. In the book, they offer her Coca-Cola to calm her down, but it makes her “burp between belches.” Finally, she declares, “I done with Coca-Cola. I ain’t modern enough for it.”
The clash between tradition and modernity are present throughout. Ganesh was fortunate to go to Queen’s Royal College, but was laughed at because of his clothes and his name. Even calling himself Gareth didn’t help, because his accent remained that of a “country Indian.”
“I feel I make for something big, yet I can’t see what it is …”
Ganesh and Leela marry, and as his obsession with writing books, giving spiritual advice and politics bring financial success, they begin to change. Leela starts wearing expensive saris and develops a “highly personal conjugation of the verb to be.” “This house I are building ... I wants it to have good furnitures … I are thinking about getting a refrigerator and a few erther things like that.” Eventually, Ganesh physically and psychologically leaves Fuente Drove, the “sad little village.” He has made his choice.
The film-makers chose a happy ending, but Naipaul’s conclusion speaks clearly to his core message. At the end of the book, the narrator of the story runs up to meet Ganesh as he arrives in England.
“Pundit Ganesh! I cried, running towards him. Pundit Ganesh Ramsumair! G Ramsay Muir, he said coldly.”
Dara Healy is a performance artist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN