The Mystic Masseur
(1957) by Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad "Vidia" Naipaul (professionally known as V.S. Naipaul) is about an impoverished novelist from Trinidad who rises to great wealth, fame, and power once he pretends to have the ability to cure any illness through his “mystic” massage. The comic novel was the first from the well regarded Indian-Trinidadian novelist Naipaul. It won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize in 1958 and was adapted to film in 2001.
Its themes include the power of stories, deception, superstition and belief, and mass communication.
The novel opens to an unnamed narrator describing how he was “healed” by the protagonist as a young boy in 1939. Ganesh doesn’t heal the boy’s agitated ankle, which had an abscess in it, but the boy’s mother still claimed that it was Ganesh who healed her son. The rest of the novel is described by the nameless narrator. Though technically in first person, the majority of The Mystic Masseur
mimics the third person.
Set in the 1940s, Ganesh Ramsumair is an inept teacher in a relatively small Trinidadian village named Fourways. Though more financially secure than most people in Trinidad, Ganesh wants to supplement his income, so he gives cheap massages to anyone. These massages are the only form of medical aid many of the residents have.
When Ganesh accepts the fact he’s not cut out for teaching children, he returns home to restart his career. He learns that his father has died. His aunt, whom he simply calls “The Great Belcher,” pays for the service and the cremation process.
After the funeral, he meets Ramlogan, a well-to-do owner of several shops. After they talk, Ramlogan offers his daughter, the super-serious Leela, who is just 16 years old compared to Ramlogan, who is in his mid 20s.
Leela (against her will) marries Ganesh. Ganesh shows his lust for money by quietly asking for even more money from the dowry than his father-in-law had agreed to. Ganesh ends up getting 1,500 dollars and a house in Fuente Grove, a quaint village in the middle of nowhere. Ganesh and Leela move to Fuente Grove.
Ganesh soon meets Beharry, another store owner. Under the influence of the autodidactic Beharry, Ganesh decides he’ll become a famous writer. He orders hundreds of books for a library. Leela supports her husband’s efforts at professional improvement but starts to object once she senses that he’s using reading to avoid any writing.
As the years pass, Leela becomes so convinced that her husband is a loser that she leaves Ganesh to live once again under the roof of her father, Ramlogan. To prove his worth, Ganesh cranks out an educational book on Hinduism. He titles it 101 Questions and Answers on the Hindu Religion.
He self-publishes it, and Leela and Ramlogan are very pleased by seeing the physical proof of his labors, but Ramlogan become furious when he sees that Ganesh dedicated his book to Beharry and not to his wife or father-in-law.
Ganesh’s new book sells poorly. Ganesh has the epiphany that his ideas may be best disseminated if he becomes a religious guru. He soon finds success after performing a ritual on a boy whose mother claimed a dark cloud was following him; to get his mother to stop nagging him, the boy claims that Ganesh healed him. This case study is just the start of Ganesh’s upcoming success.
As Ganesh is kind to each of his clients, they eagerly spread the word about the efficacy of this “healer.” His book on Hinduism suddenly starts to sell very well throughout Trinidad.
Ramlogan decides to profit from his son-in-law’s mystic business by charging extra for cab rides to his house (Ramlogan owns all of the town’s taxis). Ganesh is irate by this and threatens to buy his own fleet of cabs if Ramlogan continues to charge ridiculous prices; Ramlogan has no choice but to relent to his son-in-law’s request.
As Ganesh’s wealth skyrockets, so does the economy of Fuente Grove; his moral and economic status endear him to all of the town’s citizenry.
Ganesh becomes president of the Trinidad Hindu Association after members of the group uncover that their current president, C.S. Narayan, has been stealing funds from the organization. They start their own newspaper, The Dharma, to alert the public to Narayan’s crimes. For his efforts, Ganesh is voted to replace Narayan as their leader.
His popularity is so high at this point that when Ganesh runs for an actual political group, the Legislative Council of Trinidad, he wins. Though he soon finds out that it’s difficult to deliver on his people-first campaign promises: many members of the Council favor (foreign) business interests rather than improving the financial welfare of all citizens.
In the meantime, Ganesh has published a memoir called The Years of Guilt
. It becomes an instant bestseller. Ganesh’s potential in a country that falls for benevolent charlatans appears to be unlimited.