|Volume No. 1 Issue No. 34 - Monday, December 30, 2002
| Search for Place in Mystic Masseur
by: Dr Emanuel Finn
Trinidadian born and London based noble laureate, Sir V.S Naipaul wrote his fist novel, the Mystic Masseur in 1957. The central theme of the novel deals with the disenchantment, displacement, mental damaging effects and dynamics of the postcolonial Trinidad and the Caribbean half-made societies.
This masterpiece novel demonstrates how demoralizing the effects of slavery, indentured servitude, and colonial exploitation continue to have long lasting repercussions on generations of West Indians.
In the Mystic Masseur, Naipaul traces the unlikely successful career of a poor Trinidadian Hindu Indian, Ganesh Ramsumair, who was born and raised in a small backward village in the Trinidad hinterland.
Ganesh mounts through trials and tribulations to become a successful mystic. In the 1940s in Trinidad, a Mystic Masseur was the islands medical practitioner of choice. He was also a writer, pundit (psychological advisor), politician and an elected member of the Legislative Council of Trinidad.
He was a little man, who achieved success only in the end to fall to the colonial trap when he was in the best position to defy it. Ganesh turned his back away from the local people when he finally achieved undenied success.
Inevitably, Ganeshs rise not only resulted in the betrayal of his people, but arguably, also of himself. When he was finally appointed (not elected) as an official Member of the Order of the British Empire (O.B.E.) in 1953, he changed his name from Ganesh Ramumair to G. Ramsay Muir, O.B.E.
With his newfound status, it was now much easier for him to identify with an Englishman from Essex, London or Oxford rather than a Trinidadian from San Fernando, Maracas Valley or Arima.
Naipaul obliquely demonstrates how cultural disorder; confusion and the emergencies of a melting pot third world society make demands even on one so humble, tolerant, charitable and likeable as Ganesh.
He illustrates in a brilliant way that at the height and popularity of his powers as a rich and respected mystic, he cannot see how universalizing instincts laid the groundwork for his ultimate fraudulence.
While Ganesh was an elected Hindu Indian member of the Legislative Council (M.L.C) of Trinidad, he was a champion of the people. One of his top priorities was to ensure that government worked in the best interests of the masses.
Later his sympathy turned the other way when he tried to negotiate a sugar cane strike in South Trinidad and was handled roughly by the angry and frustrated strikers and the police.
From this point on, he began adopting the attitudes of the British Colonial Government. When the colonial governor appointed him as a Member of the Order of the British Empire (O.B.E.), his new job was to defend the British colonial system in Trinidad.
With the lowering of his status as an Indian cult figure and hero of the less fortunate, he was now mocked in calypso songs. Naipauls psychological attitude about Trinidad and the rest of the Caribbean comes through with marked cynicism. The novel poses the paradox that early marked the author as being nothing but cynical about his birthplace.
It shows the teeming, breeding, heterogeneous polluting world of Trinidad and the entire region breaking down into a disorder (as usual) that has serous effects on its heroes. Ganesh was no exception to this rule.
The novel expresses Naipuals own fear, ambivalence and that of Ganesh. In a speech delivered in London, Naipaul said that he had only expressed his fear of Trinidad (and the region) in his novels. Trinidad was uncreative, unimportant and cynical. Power was recognized but dignity was allowed to no one. Every person of eminence was held to be crooked and contemptible.
He continued by saying that we live in a society in Trinidad (and the rest of the Caribbean) which denied itself of heroes. Trinidad is a place where a recurring world of resentment was felt by anyone who possesses unusual skills.
Such skills were not required by a society which produced nothing, never had to prove its worth and was never called upon to be efficient.
Given these circumstances and attitudes, it would seem that anyone with a bit of vision and ambition would stay in Trinidad or continue to fight for the people unless he was a fool.
Ganesh was an unsophisticated and aspiring man who was trapped by the disorder of his culture and home. He was also spurred on by itching egos. In being appointed as a member of the O.B.E., he became something more but also something less.
Ganesh unshackled himself from his impoverished environment by severing links with his culture. He won a new identity by losing the vitality of his old self. No one (the little man least of all) can resist that first taste of power and prosperity that nourishes the starved ego. That ego is far more substantial than the handles of horror and friendship.
While respecting Ganesh for his decisions and triumphs, Naipaul makes it abundantly clear that success bought at the expense of spirit through evasive means of fraudulence and betrayal must be counted as the grandest of all failures.
The snobbism of those who succeed in this manner, sounds to a cultural bastardation and isolation, far more damaging than the insulation of those who never succeed, tried or fail.
Naipaul probably wrote the novel as a sort of disease, sickness or rebellion against the ineptness of West Indian society. It is a form of incompleteness, anguish and despair. The Mystic Masseur not only portrays Ganeshs life and career, but of the society of which it is representative that finally gives an air of unreality.
The novel is an account of the history of an island, people and region wrestling with profound dynamics in a postcolonial and modern era.
This writer also thinks that the compelling other reason that Naipaul wrote the novel is because of his overwhelming and surprising success as a Caribbean (foreign) writer in England and the world in the 50s.
What are the chances of a country boy from the colony (like Naipaul) penetrating the tight highly selective and closed British class system and achieving unparallel success during that period?
Naipaul did just that in 1957. He was not the ordinary immigrant and British subject living and working in London like so many of his country men who held menial jobs building back Englands infrastructure after it was destroyed by Hitlers forces in World War 11.
He had achieved success among centurys time treasured powerful signs and symbols of British colonial power and world dominance. The giant and majestic reminders like Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, St. Pauls Cathedral, the statues of Lord Horatio Nelson, Sir Francis Drake and the powerful residence at Number 10 Downing Street, all conveyed in the 1950s that the sun never set on the vast, mighty and untouchable British Empire.
It is easy to see that the narrator in the story is Naipaul himself revealing his surprise success, experiences and ambivalence and indifference to Trinidad, the Caribbean and third world society. Sir Naipaul, like Ganesh, is an Indian who was born and raised in a small Trinidadian community.
He migrated to London in 1950 and attended the prestigious Oxford University where he socialized and competed with his rich and powerful classmates. The sons of the white elite class colonial British society.
One must therefore conclude that the author focussed on the worst aspects of West Indian life and society. Not because they are uniformly degraded, but because he can only see the worst. In his view, he remarks on the saddening elements in West Indian and in particular Trinidadian history. It is a history whose only lesson is that life goes on with only a series of beginnings, with no final creations.
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