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Category: Reviews Date: 17 Dec 00

‘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 his mouth.’


My 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.


The doyen of film producers, Ismail Merchant of Merchant and Ivory Films, is making The Mystic Masseur into a film.


Who 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?


The 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.


There 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)


Then 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.


Between 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 Masseur.


The 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. 


Merchant 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.


But 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 nationalists.


He 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.


On 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 his mouth.


No 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.


Now 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.


The 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 must.


There’s 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.


‘The Mystic Masseur’

Set 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.


This 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 repute.


Ganesh, 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.


There 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.


It 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. Although 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.


The 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.

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur