Only printed matter matters

``THE MYSTIC Masseur" could well be the first comedy about books and bookishness. It has the funniest scenes put on screen about a writer's relationship to knowledge, books and learning. That's the special charm of Ismail Merchant's adaptation of V. S. Naipaul's first novel: in the life of it's hero, Ganesh Ramsumair, the reading of books and the task of writing one become comical.

In reviewing the movie, critics have rightly pointed out that the second half of the movie — which is really the crux of the story, when Ganesh abandons his ambition to be a writer and turns to religion and politics — falters. But the first half — when Ganesh sets out to write a book — manages to get the comic tone of the book just right. "The Mystic Masseur" also offers something we haven't seen too often in movies — a peek into a little seen corner of the world: the Indian immigrant community of Trinidad. And the actors get the West Indian accent spoken by this community pitch perfect.

Ganesh -- Asif Mandvi, is a young, ambitious young man from a small town who decides simply one day to be a writer and sets out to become one. When the film begins, he is a schoolteacher rooming with Mrs. Cooper (Grace Maharaj) in the capital city, Port of Spain, Trinidad.

When he learns of his father's death, he travels back to his country village and there meets Ramlogan (Om Puri) a wily shopkeeper who talks Ganesh into marrying his daughter, Leela (Ayesha Dharker) by persuading him that what he needs in order to write his book is a wife. Our hero decides to stay in the village and write his book.

But his book, more a tract of 30 pages or so entitled, "101 Questions and Answers About the Hindu Religion" is not a best seller.

His father was a masseur, and quite by chance Ganesh discovers that he has psychic powers to interpret people's dreams and solve their problems. So he puts up a board saying: `Mystic Masseur'. He becomes famous, people from near and far come to see him, and his book begins to sell.

You can see that the story of "The Mystic Masseur" is almost R. K. Narayan-ish in its comic irony and quaintness — but a sharper, subtler Narayan. I know Naipaul didn't think much of Narayan, but there's something about the movie version (scripted by the Caribbean writer, Caryl Phillips) that reminds you of "The Guide". Specially its Don Quixotic hero and his relationship to books and writing. Ganesh's book and the writing of it become different things for different people in the village. For Ganesh, books are magical things that will bring him luck, fortune and respect.

``Do you think I can write de book, Auntie?'' Ganesh asks old Zohra Segal, who replies: ``Go on, mon, I know you can write de book. But get yourself a wife first because books won't cook and clean for you.'' So Ganesh marries and sends for books by post from far off libraries and bookshops. Leela sees these books as the means to getting rich overnight. And the tired, thin postman who lugs these boxes of books on his bicycle, trudging for miles to deliver them, sees it as a sacred duty.

A local shopkeeper called Beehary (Sanjeev Bhaskar) moves in and Ganesh is thrilled to discover the man is an intellectual. He worships books. ``Books! books! books!'' screams Beehary's wife (Sakina Jaffrey), ``you can't eat books!'' ``Be quiet, woman'', shouts back Beehary, ``the man and I talkin' about intellectual things.''

Beehary appoints himself as Ganesh's agent and bodyguard, and sits outside the writer's room from dusk till dawn. But Leela grows impatient with the accumulation of books and Ramlogan notices that months have gone by and Ganesh is still to conjure up the book.

It's about time, he thinks, that his son-in-law started making money from this business of writing. For him, Ganesh and his book are investments that are now not paying off. So he decides to sit beside Ganesh everyday, urging him to write. ``Man, you are not talking to me anymore,'' complains Leela. ``Don't you see that damn book is coming between us?'' Finally, the book is done. The day the printed books are to be delivered, Beehary and Ganesh wait with great expectation. The book arrives. It has a large photograph of Ganesh on the cover. Even Beehary's wife is impressed. ``I like de book.'' Ganesh grabs a copy and cycles to Leela's house. The moment she sees the book, she forgives him. Ramlogan says: ``I always knew it. It is a nice book, Sahib. Even I can read it.'' The books are now to be sold through Bissoon, an old man in a hat who travels on foot selling books door to door, taking a small commission. His motto: ``Only printed matter matters.''The comedy arises from all these characters seeing the book as a means to something else, as an important business enterprise. A na�ve respect and awe for words and literature. Books and writers are exotic. All the characters seem to have got beautifully into the spirit and mischief and pathos and compassion of Naipaul's humour.

Om Puri and Ayesha Dharker are particularly good, and there are excellent supporting performances from Zohra Segal, Jimmy Mistry and Grace Maharaj. I disliked Merchant's "Cotton Mary" but in this hilarious and moving Naipaul adaptation, he's gone beyond the Merchant-Ivory territory. The film falters in many places but Merchant still manages to get the comic tone of Naipaul's first novel just right.


( visuals by Netra Shyam

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