his knighthood, his many books, his literary friends, his travels, his
celebrated, civilised life, he can’t quite escape from his people - his
mimic men and women - because
we are etched in the bitter lines about his mouth.’
heart pounded with juvenile expectation on the way to the press conference
organised by the Tourism and Industrial Development Co (Tidco) to meet
Ismail Merchant, who has achieved in his famous partnership with James
Ivory, the near impossible over the past 30 years.
doyen of film producers, Ismail Merchant of Merchant and Ivory Films, is
making The Mystic Masseur into a film.
can forget the sybaritic, and intellectually correct adaptation of EM
Foster’s A Room with a View produced by Ismail Merchant, directed by
James Ivory and written by celebrated writer Ruth Prawer Jhabwala?
film, shot in Italy, was a triple Oscar winner (out of eight nominations)
and a huge international success. Merchant and Ivory also produced the
sexually-charged, elastic-band restraint of Emma Thompson and Anthony
Hopkins in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, set in a stately
home in England that won eight Oscar nominations.
is a bias towards Indian films, since Merchant is India-born, such as
Shakespeare Walah (1966); The Guru (1969); Bombay Talkie (1970); In
Custody (1994); Heat and Dust (1983) and The Householder (1963)
there are the European films: Henry James’ The Europeans; Jean Rhys’
Quartet; Jhabwalas’ Heat and Dust; Foster’s Howard’s End; Surviving
Picasso and Jefferson in Paris.
them, Merchant and Ivory have produced some 70 films, received 20
nominations and seven Oscars. Such voluminous excellence sustained over 30
years is astonishing. We can expect no less from Merchant’s screenplay
adaptation written by Caryl Phillips (a West Indian) of The Mystic
film is to be shot in eight weeks’ time, beginning on January 4. The
main characters - Leela, Ganesh and Ramlogan - have been handpicked by
Merchant, and are even now, in New York, in India and in London, busy
learning the nuances of our dialect, digging into the psyche of our
language, mastering a rural East Indian Trinidadian accent.
himself is a pukka Muslim gentleman from Bombay: beautifully spoken,
gracious, with fine, worldly, literary and artistic and culinary
sensibilities, (he is the author of an Indian bestseller “Passionate
Meals”) unpretentious, considering his achievements these 30 years.
behind the amiable exterior is the granite core of a driven achiever. He
dislikes being pigeon-holed, takes exception to being branded a
“period” filmmaker, or to the suggestion his films have Old World
nostalgia about them. His range and capacity are broad, he implies, citing
his feature film, In Custody, which deals with the erosion of the poetic
language of Urdu spoken by India’s Muslims, by fundamental Hindu
is bringing in his own principal actors because he wants the best, and
although he wants our co-operation, in the end, it is the product not the
popularity contest that matters.
inquiring about a particular Naipaul novel in a bookshop sometime back and
drawing blank look in response, I remember thinking: “Poor Naipaul.”
Despite his knighthood, his many books, his literary friends, his travels,
his celebrated, civilised life, he can’t quite escape from his people -
his mimic men and women - because we are etched in the bitter lines about
matter how many times he holds his satiric mirror up to us, it doesn’t
matter, because nobody’s looking because we are not a reading people.
He, in the end, has been lost to Trinidad because we are largely
indifferent to him.
Naipaul’s won and so have we. Now we will see ourselves and the world
will see us - in the mirror of the big, glossy screen in October 2001.
Trinidad’s rural and urban landscape will be made famous beyond our
wildest imagination. Our unique wit and dialogue, our riposte and foibles,
will be displayed to the world under the spreading damask of the renowned
Merchant and Ivory partnership.
Mystic Masseur will pluck us out of obscurity’s way beyond our wildest
imaginations. Way beyond the fame of Wendy Fitzwilliam and Brian Lara, the
infamous Muslimeen, Dole Chadee and his gang, and the Miss World
competition. We should back it all the way. Tidco is, Duprey might, but we
nothing like the prospect of an Oscar nomination, nothing like cinema
telling a unique but universal story about a simple man like Ganesh,
nothing like a Merchant/Ivory production to allow us to be seen, as we
are: bigger than sun, sand and crime - worthy subjects for the finest
writers and filmmakers of our time.
in the 1940s in rural Trinidad, Naipaul’s novel, The Mystic Masseur, is
about Ganesh Ramsumair, a young man of East Indian decent with rural
roots, an urban “college” education (an experience he found
uncomfortable) and a small, inherited income which gives him some status
on his return to his village.
is the story of how Ganesh, partially propelled by the village people
around him, partially by his own inchoate longing to be something bigger
in his small world, takes advantage of the ignorance and susceptibility of
the people of his island and becomes a self-appointed “Mystic” of
laughable, limited, of mediocre intelligence, endearing in his yearning to
be a writer and scholar, with a wily understanding of human nature and an
ambition which solidifies as the book progresses, is able, in this
half-formed world, to gain bona fide acceptance in politics and academia.
is a love story somewhere there, too, and the story of unarticulated
stirrings for something beyond the dreary everydayness of rural life,
where the physicality of books, the texture of paper, the font and print,
represent and replace the vast possibilities of knowledge books contain.
is a novel of a vast blank page of human potential, of possibility that
has little vent, direction or recognition in rural Trinidad in the 1940s.
through Ganesh, Naipaul pokes fun at the calibre of men who “make it”
in these islands, his legendary contempt for his mimic men is almost
wholly absent here.
foibles, humour, kindnesses, ambitions of these largely unlettered,
ignorant children of indentured labourers, are universal, intact, even if
their world and language is makeshift, half-remembered India,
half-embryonic in Trinidad.