The Mystic Masseur
Language and Humor in V.S. Naipaul’s The Mystic Masseur
V.S. Naipaul’s first published novel, The Mystic Masseur, can correctly be described as satirical given the extensive manner in which it employs language in the form of irony, hyperbole, caricature and other techniques to tell the picaresque story of Ganesh Ramsumair, which the frame narrator tells us is the story of Trinidad of that time. While it is true, as Gillian Dooley (20) argues, that much of the humor in the novel derives from Naipaul’s masterly use of language, other elements of the novel also contribute towards producing humor in the novel. Elements of the plot, narration and characterization work hand in hand with the language techniques to convey the story in a humorous way, and in so doing ridicule and critique the Trinidadian society. In this essay, I will argue, with textual evidence from the novel and with additional evidence from critiques and analyses of the text, that Naipaul’s masterly application of these different elements of the novel form, especially language,helps him weave not only a story full of humor but also one that conveys important themes regarding the Trinidadiansociety that Ganesh is part of.
From the onset, it is important to note that the core of the story itself—the absurd plot and the picaresque genre—is essentially comic and that language serves totell this story with a light touch. The Mystic Masseur is the story of the life of Ganesh Ramsumair, the son of an Indian man in rural Trinidad, who moves from being a struggling student in one of the prestigious schools in the capital to being a writer to a mystic masseur to a politician. The numerous career switches and their motivations are funny in themselves. The evolution of Ganesh is told by a boy narrator who was once a “patient” of Ganesh, the mystic masseur, and who grew curious about him and his books. He tells it from an omniscient point of view and therefore has access to Ganesh’s story, his books. As some points, he boy even makes occasional commentaries in the story.Given the challenges that Ganesh finds himself in rural Trinidad after the death of his father and the loss of his teaching job in the city, he has to use trickery to rise to the top and has to battle with the likes of Ramlogan, his money-centered father in law, and political opponents such as Indarsingh and Narayan. The linear and episodic plot chronicling the adventures and tricks of Ganesh in a colonial and semi-literate society bent on mimicry and weak for trusting people with western education and religious understanding is bound to be humorous. Even though the novel, arguably, focuses more on the characters than the plot, the tales of the trickster characters adorned with the satirical style adds humor to the book but also leaves the readers thinking critically about the serious flaws in the characters and the society of the novel.
One of the main language techniques that Naipaul uses, and one that is rather conspicuous to any reader of The Mystic Masseur, is the application of a localized form of English. This Trinidadian English, which is quite broken and often humorous, is spoken by the main characters who are part of a society coming from British colonialism. In a sense, it paints a portrait of a semi-literate society trying to mimic, unsuccessfully, their colonizers.Right from the beginning, the young boy who narrates the story is engaged in a conversation with her mother over which doctor to go. His mother says, “I know the type of doctor it have in Trinidad…they think nothing of killing two three people before breakfast (Naipaul 1). Like the boy’s mother, most of the illiterate characters in the novel such as Leela, Suruj Mooma and Beharry use this form of broken English. In fact, the relationship between Victorian English and the broken English in speech is problematized in a sceneGanesh decides that he will start speaking only “good English” but he finds no audience in Leela and can only manage a discussion on the weather with Beharry. The narrator, however, tells us that Ganesh could write correct English like most Trinidadians but was embarrassed to speak it (Naipaul 65). In addition, the broken English helps to reinforce the theme of trickery as a literate person like Ramlogan says something as ridiculous as “All day the girl sitting down and talking about these puncturation marks (Naipaul 33).” While this broken English adds to the humor, it certainly brings up the themes of imperialism and mimicry in colonial Trinidad.
Naipaul’s extensive use of irony in the novel also plays a huge part in creating the humor in the novel. The irony takes on different shapes, the main ones being verbal irony, situational irony and dramatic irony. Verbal irony refers to the use of words to mean what something different from what the speaker actually says (A.T. Watt). The novel is full examples of instances where characters use verbal irony. For instance, when Ganesh and his father are travelling to the Queen’s Royal College, Mrs. Cooper laughs when she sees them and says, “The boy look like a real smart man, man.” Certainly Mrs. Cooper is not giving the comment as a compliment, especially since the laughter betrays her. On the contrary, she is ridiculing the look of Ganesh’s traditional dressing in an urban setting. The master of verbal irony in the novel is Ramlogan whose words to Ganesh as he tries to get him to marry his daughter, Leela, teems with verbal irony. For instance, Ramlogan says, “I doing my best to make a modern place—as you see—but is hard man, sahib,’ but his efforts with his simple and dirty shop do not seem like a genuine effort to modernize the area but an attempt but all means to make more money. This kind of verbal irony and sarcasm characterizes Ramlogan and other characters in the novel.
Situational irony and dramatic irony are also present in the novel. Situational irony is when there is a discrepancy between what is expected to happen and what actually happens while dramatic irony refers to a situation where the audience is aware of something that the character in the story are not aware of (Watt). A great example of situational irony is the manner in which the school that Ganesh teaches in at the beginning of his career is conducted. While a school is typically meant to educate its students in the best way possible, this one according to the head teacher is meant to “form not inform.” (Naipaul 14) Ganesh does not have the training to be a teacher and the “pep talk” by the head teacher can only make things worse. The other teachers in the school do not seem to be any better either. Another great example is the also at the beginning of the novel where Mrs. Cooper tells Ganesh that he can easily test a license to test other drivers and give them licenses as long as they have money even though he cannot drive himself. This form of irony provides social criticism of a society whose institutions are more or less in shambles, where money and guile wins over excellence and personal integrity.
On the other hand, dramatic irony in the novel serves to accentuate the picaresque elements of the novel, and therefore adds to the humor. A great example of dramatic irony is how Ramlogan pretends to be illiterate and asks Ganesh, who’s oblivious of his ability to read,to read newspapers for him. However, the frame narrator informs the reader of Ramlogan’s illiteracy pretense thus setting up a maneuver between the twotricksters. Ganesh does not know of Ramlogan’s literacy until much later in the novel when the latter reads the title of his first book 101 Questions and Answers on The Hindu Religion. After praising Ganesh on the book which is rather shallow, Ramlogan is annoyed at the fact it is not dedicated to him highlighting his penchant for self-absorption.
In addition to the various forms of irony, Naipaul’s masterly application of hyperbole and embellishment in the novel boosts the comic value of the novel. Characters in the novel from the headmaster in the school to Ramlogan to Ganesh himself overstate what they mean and embellish things that do not deserve much praise. In my opinion, Ramlogan is most hyperbolic character and he uses this as part of his trickery arsenal. For instance, during the funeral of Ganesh’s father, he is extremely emotional, even more than Ganesh and one would expect him to be a caring and moral person. Ironically, he is a con artist only second to Ganesh and his exaggerated emotions and praises for Ganesh as the educated, modern man are means to achieving his own selfish ends to marry off his daughter to an educated man and gain the most money without losing any. Ganesh is also a great exaggerator and embellisher. From the title of his book to the many titles that he gives himself and makes salient—B.A., M.L.C., M.B.E., to Esquire—Ganesh represents a hierarchical society in which status is revered. In order for one to gain respect, or seem to be showing respect, however disingenuous, they have to use embellished titles or descriptions. In fact, Ganesh calls Ramlogan Shri in his advertisement and Ramlogan is always calling him sahib, not for respect but rather in an ingratiating way. In another humorous episode of Ganesh’s exaggeration, he dedicates his “spiritual thriller and metaphysical whodunit” (8) of an autobiography to “Lord Stewart, Friend and Counselor of Many Years” (Naipaul 31) despite the fact that he only spent a few sessions with Mr. Stewart before he disappeared. This language technique augments the humor of The Mystic Masseur.
Naipaul also heavily applies caricature in the book. Caricature is defined by Dictionary.com as picture or description ludicrously exaggerating the peculiarities or defects of persons or things. From Beharry, the shopkeeper, with his nibbling to Indarsingh’s penchant for things English to The Great Belcher’s belching, Naipaul draws humor out of his characters’ peculiarities. While the emphasis of these quarks might cause the reader to laugh, they also push them to think critically about why they are emphasized. For instance, Indarsingh’s English habits are a caricature of the ways in which Western-educated elites returning to places like Trinidad tend to look down upon their own culture and adopt the Western cultures which leave them alienated from their own people that they often think they ought to save. On the other hand, Beharry’s nibbling could be a reference to his conniving ways in that he is always pushing Ganesh to do things like become a writer or a mystic masseur that eventually benefit him as he can sell items to people visiting the Fuente Groove. As such, the caricature draws attention to the characters in a light-hearted manner.
In addition to using language to frame humor, Naipaul also makes use of other elements and themes such cultural differences, absurd events and funny characters. Characters such as Suruj Mooma and Beharry (alias Suruj Mooma) are shown to possess comic characteristics and they always act like sycophants to Ganesh. A character like “the blackest M.L.C. is said to have worn a three piece blue suit, yellows and a monocle (Naipaul 194). The fact that this character is so irrelevant that they are not specifically named yet they wear the most formal attire in mimicry to the Western culture is quite interesting. Also, some of the plot lines that Naipaul uses are quite absurd and make the book even funnier. For instance, the competition between Ganesh’s League and Narayan’s Association to open new offices is quite ludicrous, to say the least:
“On Tuesday – the Sentinel isn’t published on Monday – Narayan said that the Hindu Association had thirty branches. On Wednesday the League said it had doubled its membership and had forty branches. On Thursday the Association had doubled its membership and had sixty. The League was silent on Friday. On Saturday the Association claimed eighty branches. Nobody said anything on Sunday.” (Naipaul 176)
These absurd happenings on the political and social scenes provide the novel with undertones of social criticism and give it more life. It is therefore clear that the humor in The Mystic Masseur derives from many sources, but chiefly from various language techniques. V.S. Naipaul employs different forms of irony, caricature, localized English, absurd plot lines as well as the wits of tricksters to create a satirical and picaresque story which criticizes the Trinidadian society in the early to mid-20th century.
Dooley, Gillian. VS Naipaul, man and writer. University of South Carolina Press, 2006.
Dictionary.com. Definition of Caricature. Available online: https://www.dictionary.com/browse/caricature
Naipaul, V.S.The Mystic Masseur (Vintage International). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Ibrahim Khoja, Hiyam. Community and Customs in V.S. Naipaul’s The Mystic Masseur. 2007
Watt, A.T. The 3 Types of Irony. Types of Irony. 2008. Available online: