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Sunday, February 20, 2011

(Published in I-Witness, The New Indian Express, on February 20, 2011 as 'From the Guyana End')

(Photos Courtesy: Rahul Bhattacharya. Unauthorised reproduction of both these images is prohibited.)

Title: The Sly Company of People Who Care

Author: Rahul Bhattacharya

Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan)

Price: Rs. 495

Pages: 281

“They find he antiman sk**t in bed one day with the bowler, wuh he name, Cummins.”

“You only saying that cause of the name!”

“You ever seen how he hug up them other player?”

“Who got de record? Who got de record?”

And so begins an argument about Brian Lara that ends with the narrator of Rahul Bhattacharya’s The Sly Company of People Who Care ‘taking it outside’ with his interlocutor, in a bid to prove his own, and Lara’s, sexual orientation.

In his second book and first novel, Bhattacharya, who’s best known for his writings on cricket, sets out to “describe an encounter with the society of Guyana”. The book does it in three parts – a porknocking trip with a con artist, a lyrical description of the creation of Guyana’s settlements, and an adventurous trip to Venezuela with an Indo-Guyanese woman.

The epithet ‘novel’ turns out to be rather deceptive. The first half reads almost like a travel blog, and the story really takes off with a love affair that begins with a pink strap on brown skin, and a green-and-yellow macaw, and escalates into a bizarre situation that could make the narrator either a hero or a wuss.

Asked whether he set out to write a travelogue and changed his mind later, Rahul Bhattacharya looks perplexed. “No, that’s not the case,” he says, “the moment I started writing, I knew almost instantly that it was fiction, because that’s where the impulse was taking me. But I thought it should read like a memoir, so you should feel like all of this is really happening.”

However, his expression turns to horror when I turn to the acknowledgments and ask, “so, is Uncle Lloyd the inspiration for Uncle Lance? And there’s a Brian P...”

“No, no, don’t try to map characters!” he says, and assures me that Uncle Lance and Jan, the Indo-Guyanese woman, don’t exist. He laughs, “I wish my journey were as dramatic, but it wasn’t.”

It isn’t surprising the author’s often been asked whether the characters were inspired by specific people. Right from Mr. Bhombal, “who had a way of conveying that one was on the precipice of a dreadful mistake” to Baby, who takes the narrator on a diamond-picking trip after hoodwinking him twice, to a lady who bellows, “how them going to stop racial when they cyan stop theyself?” when the bus driver and conductor take a bathroom break, each leaves an impression; perhaps far more than the narrator, who has no name and is given to long reveries about the directionlessness of his life.

Bhattacharya says, “I wanted him to be the eyes and ears and soul of the book, just experiencing everything. To that extent, I wanted him to be anonymous. And then I found that it’s cheaply funny to, like, keep concealing his name in different ways. Also, I didn’t want to call him ‘Ashok’ or something. It’s not easy to write about Indians because immediately you’re like, ‘what part is he from?’”

The beginning of the book reminds one of Naipaul’s The Suffrage of Elvira¸ what with a ‘gyaffin’ interpreter-of-political-news (though he calls it ‘politricks’) and two neighbours waging a “cold war over a small patch of land [at the end of the corridor], leading to sudden and always temporary captures of territory with barrels or scraps of tin”.

But the comedy of manners morphs into a Jamaican adventure in Guyana, replete with dancehall, Rastafarians and a certain herb. As quickly, the boasts of the limers give way to the narrator’s contemplation of climate change.

There are times when the protagonist’s introspection gets too subjective for the reader to be able to relate. But the author sometimes conveys a feeling quite beautifully by using as eccentric a phrase as, “It had the special feel of a small inexplicable place in South America” to describe a restaurant-bar-shop. A charming interlude compares wanderlust to dheel , the word “kite-flyers in Bombay shouted when they wanted spoolers to let loose the thread.” Delightful similes, such as an old woman’s face being “crumpled like forgotten silk”, stand out.

There was one place where I wished the author had been more frugal though. Perhaps it’s the cricket reporter’s instinct to go with a ball-by-ball account that made the sex scenes as graphic as they are. (It didn’t help that I was eating spaghetti when I got to that part.)

On the subject, cricket is conspicuous by absence. “It wasn’t a part of my exploration because I felt it would just intrude on this book,” Rahul Bhattacharya says, when asked about it, “I mean, the concern of this book wasn’t to show all the different facets of Guyanese life; it was in understanding a society like this, which has been created from swampland and forest by colonialism.”

He adds, seriously, “Those waves of migration were so brutal, and all these people have been transported there to make a factory for the colonial powers, which have just come into this land and annexed it and built plantations. They’ve got this mix of Africans and Indians and Portuguese and Chinese and whoever else. The system is unsustainable, they find their voice, they try to emancipate themselves, the powers leave and then what happens, what are you left with? That’s what I wanted to see. When you create something like this, what are the consequences?”

But then, he does sportingly get drawn into an impromptu (and very unscientific) analysis of whether the West Indian cricketers are reflective of the islands they come from. “Carl Hooper is very Guyanese, very enigmatic, the kind of guy who won’t do things if he can’t be bothered. I’m trying to see if someone as mercurial as Brian Lara could have been anything but Trinidadian...Chanderpaul can perhaps be considered typically Indo-Caribbean, very much like the Indian community in Guyana, with his dogged determination, his no-frills style of play. And if you think about the four big Antiguan cricketers – Curtly Ambrose, Viv Richards, Richie Richardson and Andy Roberts, none of them was particularly pleasant. Great personalities, great presence – you can’t ask for a bigger presence than Viv Richards – but they’re not the smiley type!”

In his exploration of race, gender, restlessness and displacement, Rahul Bhattacharya looks at drug-lords, gang-wars, and even the workings of the law. He recounts how a magistrate might ask, “Mr. Nazeer Abeed Ally, on the night of January 21, 2006, at the southern end of East Street, Alberttown, a muskmelon projected by you damaged the windshield of a white-colour Nissan, vehicle licence plate PJJ 2121, belonging to one Mr. Vincent Totaram. How do you plead?”

A man who’d stubbornly refused to leave Guyana finally gives up after a break-in, while a Guyanese man who lives abroad tells the narrator he doesn’t want to live in Guyana, but wants to be die there. With charming innocence, a child lazily shares his lunch of apples with the narrator. Indo-Caribbeans throw their doors open to a complete stranger for the night, just because he’s Indian.

“They live in a hand-me-down India from a hundred years ago, where their only interaction with India is through Bollywood,” says Rahul Bhattacharya, speaking of how a Lata song could leave them in tears and an Amitabh Bachchan movie start a raging fight, “Guyanese TV is really sort of like being in wonderland or something. You’re watching a movie, and then you have one hour of live Headlines Today, and then it switches off and they pick up something else. They steal signals and just run everything. All the latest Hindi movies are playing!”

The other interaction is Chutney music, which sprang from what the author calls a “consensus language” which has absorbed most Indian tongues into it, and contains such lyrics as I ain’t touch de Dulahin (but her belly start to swell).

The author signs off our chit-chat with a couple of Creolese sayings – He waant to suck cane and blow whistle too (A rough equivalent of “He wants to have the cake and eat it too”) and Let’s see who got more seed than balanjay. He begins, patiently, “That’s from boulanger, which is one of the words for baingan, eggplant, which they also call baigan, but then in English, they say b-a-l-a-n-j-a-y.” Suddenly inspired, he says, “it’s like kis mein kitna hai dum!”


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