(Published in Fountain Ink, March 2012 issue, retrieved from http://fountainink.in/?p=1327)
Rahul Bhattacharya looks and sounds rather disoriented every time he learns he’s been longlisted, shortlisted or selected as winner of an award. His second book and first novel, The Sly Company of People Who Care, won the Hindu Best Fiction Award 2011 and is among seven novels shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2011. At a time when aspiring novelists have already set up Facebook fan pages and are rushing to the Jaipur Literature Festival in the hope of cornering gullible publishers, Rahul doesn’t Facebook, tweet, or blog. Even as he settles down to the interview, Rahul, who began his career as a cricket writer, is far more preoccupied with what he calls “our ritual slaughter Down Under”, and a dropped catch, than his Man Asian hopes.
Your first novel’s done so well. Does it feel surreal, or did you know when you saw it on the shelves that it had potential?
You know, you don’t think about these things at all – at least I try not to! (Laughs) You wonder while you’re writing how good or bad it is. You’re thinking about every decision you make, every word you choose, every character or movement you develop. It’s full of anxiety. But thinking about what’ll happen in two-three years’ time, how it does, or what prizes it may get nominated for...well, my strategy is not to expect it at all, and so that if it comes along it feels lovely, like a stroke of good fortune, and you go, “Hey, that’s brilliant!”
But do these awards impact the sales of your book in a big way?
Oh. I don’t know, you’ll have to ask the publisher. They affect how the title becomes to people, in that a lot more people know about the book. The ‘recall’ as marketing people call it. That’s a big help. I don’t know how many of those people actually go out and buy the book.
And you still don’t have a website, a blog, a Facebook account or Twitter?
No! I don’t think I’ll ever have a blog or a Facebook account, but I’ve been trying to get a basic site up for about six months, and it’s gone to various people, and then something happens, and it falls off their radar. So, that’s not up yet, and as of now, I have nothing. (Laughs)
I know you’ve said the idea for the book came to you when you were following India on tour in Guyana. But what was it that made you decide okay, I’ll come back for a year and actually write this book?
No, the idea for the book didn’t come to me when I was on that tour, not right then. But there was something about Guyana that stayed with me, and I wanted to go back and see why. I didn’t know what I would be doing, and if I’d be writing, what I’d be writing. I just went with the idea of exploring whatever it was that drew me back there. And you start with simple and elemental things – the texture of a day, an encounter you might have had ... those are the things stayed with me. So I went back, and I followed these curiosities, and I started writing only about six months after I came back to India.
When you told people you were going to take off to Guyana of all places for a whole year, did they think you’d gone nuts?
Of course. I didn’t tell a lot of people. I didn’t even tell my mother until three weeks before or something. I think some people had given up on me already, when I chose cricket reporting for a career. (Laughs) I remember my mother paused and said, “Why don’t you go to the UK instead?” But, she’s actually very cool – well, she does stress, but she’s very open minded. She’s allowed me my eccentricities.
At a recent literature festival, you spoke of this vague plan of yours to travel from Gujarat to West Bengal the other way, across the world. You think you might attempt that anytime soon?
No, no, I’m not planning that trip. (Laughs) That would require me to win maybe six prizes, including multiple Man Bookers. If I won six Man Booker awards, and maybe six Man Asians, I might have enough funds for that trip.
How did you put together the funds for this trip to Guyana? The air tickets must be crazily expensive from here to a place like that, where hardly anyone goes!
Luckily Guyana’s a cheap place to live in. The air tickets are expensive, but their currency is very weak, and the rupee actually goes a long way. It’s not comparable to the touristy Caribbean, where your money just evaporates away in the sun. In Guyana, money stretches. I also had some financial support from my publishers – they had published me before in India and the UK. But it wasn’t a funded trip, and by and large the investment was mine. Journalism commissions helped. I covered the 2007 World Cup, for instance.
You speak of this warmth there, of how Indian Guyanese would just throw their doors open to a complete stranger, just because he’s from India. What was their attitude to India, especially those who’ve never visited?
They were astonished that anyone would come there and spend a year for no reason! And the fact that I was Indian, that I had come here with a genuine interest and affinity for the place, that, I think, made their response to me all the more warm. Their attitude to India, it’s mostly a kind of distant attachment. Some think of it as a site of pilgrimage, which is many worlds removed, but they might one day make it there. Very few do, because it’s expensive. The “mother ship” was a term I heard more than once. Mother ship, that’s how they see India. India is also the source of their religion – though there’s been a lot of proselytisation, a big percentage of the Indians there are Hindus. When you think about this not only as a place that their ancestors migrated from, but also as the source of their religion, it makes it a very intimate bond. They’ve built their own India there, and it’s very different from the India here. It’s a largely Gangetic-plains peasant culture which has gone to the Caribbean and interacted with a West African culture and colonial rule, and it’s evolved into something very particular. I don’t think they’re aware of how different India is from their India. Because they haven’t been here I don’t think they fully know the kind of place India is, really.
You speak in The Sly Company of People Who Care about how the Indian-Guyanese listen to Lata, and watch Amitabh Bachchan films. Are they stuck in the sixties, then?
Oh, no, they keep up, and because of piracy, they know all the latest Bollywood movies. You only get pirated movies in Guyana, because the market’s too small for distributors to go there. You find pirated Indian movies and CDs in the shops, and on the street, and on TV. The generation that grew up listening to music of the fifties and sixties, they were people whose parents would have spoken the language a little bit; and they themselves would have understood the language more than the generation today. That was also a generation which had lived through Indian Independence – Indian Independence was a big thing in a colony like Guyana, and many colonised countries all over the world, actually, who were fighting for independence themselves. For the Indian Diaspora in the Caribbean, Gandhi’s movement, and the eventual achievement of independence in 1947, was a very significant thing. The cultural and emotional ties, the idea of others also fighting for emancipation against White Rule, and all the things that were flowing from India to here – music, the movies – it strengthened those bonds a lot. Even today, people who don’t understand the language, except for the obvious words, might know all the lyrics to popular old songs. I find that extraordinary. Many people can sing entire Hindi songs without knowing exactly what they mean.
Did anyone ask you to explain what these lyrics meant?
(Laughs) No, not really. They could understand the emotion of the song, and that’s enough.
What I find surprising is that even before film and music piracy started, way back in the fifties and sixties, Indian films were popular there.
Well, see, the cinemas came to Guyana in the 1930s and 1940s, and they would arrange for Indian movies, especially in the countryside, where the majority of the Indian population lives. I came across this lovely story once when I was travelling in the countryside. I met an old woman, who told me that her husband was a “cinemaman”, and he would take her out to the cinema once a week from their hut in the ‘backdam’. She was married to him when she was fifteen, had never met the man before. Once she saw a film where the hero dies, and she cried and cried, and she was all cut up about it because she thought it was all real. The next weekend again they went to a film, and she saw the same ‘starbai’ on the screen, and she wondered what the hell was going on! This was from the early 1950s probably, and at that time there were already plenty of cinema halls. Most of them have now shut down, as they have in many villages and towns of India, because the TV sets have taken over. But they had a significant cinema-watching public, and Indian films would get there.
Would you say that the whole of the Indian Diaspora in the Caribbean has a similar mindset, because of this shared heritage, this view of India as a sort of pilgrimage site, or did you feel the Guyanese Indians different from the ones in, say, Trinidad?
Well, I don’t mean to be generalising. For one, not all Indo-Caribbean people see India in those terms, especially not the younger generation. Some do. For another, identity is a political idea as well. Do you see yourself as Indian or African or Caribbean? Or some of all? The consensus culture tends to locate itself somewhere between different ethnic shades. Guyana and Trinidad are the only territories in the Anglophone Caribbean with a significant Indian population, though there are smaller groups everywhere. Trinidad has a far stronger French and Spanish influence than Guyana; Guyana was built primarily by the Dutch. Both of them of course became part of the British West Indies. All those territories have a very particular local culture. And that varies a lot – their patois is different, their cuisine is different, because their racial composition is different. Their experience of being colonised is very different. Trinidad had a relatively minor experience with slavery, which just lasted a few decades, and wasn’t as brutal or prolonged as slavery in Jamaica or Guyana. All these things have an effect. That’s why Jamaican music is much more resistance and violence than Trinidadian music, which is more humour.
Did any of the people you met ask you how they were perceived in India?
Mmm...well, they wouldn’t really ask, but they might occasionally bring it up, and sometimes with a sense of great hurt. I remember being told by somebody that “Indians think we’re like the blackman” and that was quite a telling remark at many levels. Those who have been to India, and those who have interacted with India, feel like they’re looked upon as not really Indian. This hurts them because their Indianness is such as a big part of their Caribbean identity. For them to encounter India, and find India rejecting this Indianness upsets them.
In The Sly Company of People Who Care, there’s a sense of Guyana being perhaps not as well-documented as places like Trinidad or Jamaica, or even St. Lucia, which produced Derek Walcott. Would you say the literary tradition of Guyana is not as rich as these other places?
No, actually Guyana has a very fine literature. If you go back to the fifties, and on to the sixties and seventies, there was a generation of Guyanese writers who made a name for themselves among the Caribbean voices of the time – people like Wilson Harris, and Edgar Mittelholzer, who wrote Corentyne Thunder, one of the earliest novels dealing with East Indian life. Afterwards a novelist like Roy Heath, who has written some wonderful novels about Guyana, which I read with pleasure and also with a sense of instruction, about how he might capture Guyanese psychology, and everyday life. Poets like Martin Carter, later Ian McDonald, who’s written some lovely collections. If you look back at the Caribbean writing boom, I think Guyanese writing was perhaps as much a part of it as Trinidadian and Jamaican writing was.
There’s this very poignant remark in the book, where a character says he doesn’t want to live in Guyana, but he wants to die there. Do you understand that remark in terms of the economic context, or the social context?
I can understand absolutely anybody wanting to return to die from where they came. You leave because of compulsions, and there are many in Guyana, but you want to come back. Leaving, yearning, home, these are some of the themes of the novel.
The overarching theme of the book is the enormous effort that went into salvaging this country from forest and swamp, and building a life for themselves once the plantation owners left. And these people who worked so hard to build a society find it’s not always sustainable, and they leave. Did you sense frustration or weariness among these people?
Yes, but having made the society, they also – and I mean not the individual, but as a community, political parties and so forth – they also conspired to push it into a situation where leaving was the most viable option. It became a society completely polarised by race, to a greater degree greater than any other in the Caribbean because of its particular demographic mix. That is the short answer for why Guyana is where it is – because it hasn’t been able to rise above the politics and the differences of race.
In the book, there’s this lady who bellows, “how them going to stop racial when they cyan stop theyself?” when a bus driver and conductor take a bathroom break and delay the bus journey further. How much is the Caribbean society affected by race relations? How would you describe the dynamic?
The fact of race is not just the fact of racism. It’s about race overwhelming other things. I mean the Caribbean is also an example of a society that has very successfully evolved a hybrid culture, and taken from different races and assimilated them together. You don’t see genocide and civil wars that you see in other parts of the world, in Rwanda, or the Balkans, or in the subcontinent for that matter. They have a sort of dual attitude towards race – on the one hand, it’s something they accept, and it’s a source of humour and laughter, as in the dialogue above. But race is also a defining feature because of how this society evolved. You had a master race in the white people, a colonised race in the indigenous tribes, an enslaved race in the Africans, and an indentured race in the Indians and Chinese. So a society like that grows up with its own sort of class system. It was a plantation society, people came at different times to fulfil different purposes. They came almost blind to a place they don’t know anything about. So race becomes a defining feature. Political parties are aligned along race, and cultural activities are aligned around race, and geographically, different races live in different parts. And so there is this constant tension, and a sort of competition as well. To me race is also a central preoccupation of the book.
The book sort of oscillates between narrative and history, and in the first half of the narrative, it’s a very male story, with this porknocking trip, and the second half brings in a romance. And along with all of this, you had to capture the essence of the society and bring it to a world that was largely unfamiliar with it. Was it hard for you to reconcile all these elements when you were writing the book?
Yes. That precisely was the hard part, which is why I spent a lot of time working on the structure. It’s difficult to be familiar about an obscure place, it’s difficult to dangle these events up in the air and assume people will know the context, because they won’t. Also the narrator wouldn’t, because the narrator himself is a stranger. The movement which I grew into developing was one which takes the narrator from being an outside adventurer, an explorer, to an observer, where he’s watching and understanding. And finally to a participant, where he starts feeling part of the place almost. It’s a fairly compressed experience – but then encounters like these can sometimes more vivid to a person than an entire life lived at home.
A year is a rather long time to spend in absorbing a place and then coming back to write about it. So did you keep notes, so you’d remember the things that struck you?
Well, yes, I tried to keep a diary. But I was not very good at maintaining it. I was always about twenty-thirty days behind, you know. (Laughs) I would write stuff in there, and I’m glad I did. Sometimes, it was also about being able to do something, you know – when you’re writing longhand, you feel like you’re doing work. Ideally, I would keep a journal and write in it everyday, no matter where I live. But then ideally I’d also like wake up at 6 am every morning and exercise! Some things are perfect as ideas.
When you came back, I guess there was the sense that you’ve got to know the society quite well, given that you spent a whole year there. But while writing the novel, did you ever feel a sense of panic, that this wasn’t really your story to tell, that perhaps it should be someone who’s been born into that society, born into that shared history and those shared memories, who should be telling it?
Yes, of course. Of course. I imagine that happens to many writers. There was a sense of panic, and I think will be with me through whichever book I write, ever. But the particular sense of panic you’re talking about is having to write a novel about a place you’re not of,in a sense. Here, what you don’t know about a place is as important as what you do know. And you have to figure out how you can use that to your advantage – there are those things you don’t know and you will find out about, and there’s a sense of discovery in that for the writer and also for a reader. But there are also things you will never find out, and there’s a certain appeal in being able to render something as a little unknowable, a little outside your reach. A lot of life is that way, a lot of our daily encounters with the world are that way. I thought that was a valuable thing to try and render.
And does this make the narrator subdued, especially in comparison to the colourful characters he meets?
I didn’t think of it as a book about the narrator. I did think of him in a very proper way in one sense, because the reader was seeing the world through his eyes. It’s also about him in a fundamental way that there is a change in him as he confronts an unfamiliar place, through a series of adventures and encounters. But what I wanted to illuminate was a society like Guyana’s, and how this place was made in the manner that we’ve already talked about, this absurd throwing together of civilisations into a colonial factory, and what are the consequences of that. I wanted to look at that at a human, everyday level.
Your story’s fictional, your characters are fictional, but there must be some real people who stand out as examples of what the society is. Is there anyone, or any encounter, you think of in this way, in relation to your understanding of the culture?
Uhh...no, I can’t think of one or two people. I don’t know whether it’s true of other writers, but I think if you get too close to somebody, you can’t really write about them. They leave nothing to your imagination. I tend to get more out of people who, in a passing encounter, sparked certain thoughts, or a reaction, or an idea. When I think of the people I became friendly with in Guyana, I think of them as friends, not so much as people who gave me specific insights about the society. I think of those who were very generous to me, and there were several people like that, some in small ways and some in very big ways – people who provided me with hospitality and warmth and who let me spend nights in their house when they barely knew me and people who’d give me things to use in my house. Since you ask about encounters, I can tell you about one incident that happened the first time I’d been to Guyana, in 2002. I was coming out of a restaurant, and there was this man on a crutch, a beggar, he wanted a piece of chicken. He had a quarter of vodka in his back pocket. We began chatting, and he said there would be no cricket tomorrow, he could tell from the direction the clouds were in coming in from – and he turned out to be right – and at some point, he said his father was a Test cricketer called John Trim, a fast bowler who played for the West Indies in the 1940s. At first I thought he was lying, and then I thought ‘Why would he?’ He talked with great familiarity about cricket in that time, and he said his brothers had all died, and his father had as well. He was a vagrant. I asked people whether it was possible, and they said of course it’s possible. I tried to research the story while I was there in 2002, and I tried to find out more about John Trim, tried to find his village in Berbice. An encounter like that in the Caribbean is not rare, it’s a very small society, and to run into these stories and these situations can happen. I can’t think of myself running into a vagrant in India who’s the son of a Test cricketer – not that India is without vagrants, but the chances that he’d be the son of a Test cricketer, and that you’d run into him in a crowd of 1300 million people is pretty slim. I think of this now because it was perhaps one of those encounters that made me curious about Guyana.
It’s been a few years since you were in Guyana, right? And a while since you actually wrote the book. But now that it’s doing so well, and you’re being asked about your experience in Guyana all the time, do you ever want to go back, and reacquaint yourself with that society?
Not yet, that’s my instinct. I’d like to go there, maybe after some years. I was there in 2006-2007. I just feel like it’s quite soon, as in when you’ve gone to a place, and then left it and written about it in an intimate way, the departure from it and the writing about it feels like a very profound separation. I don’t know how it would be to casually confront it again so soon. I don’t know how I would deal with it if I went back so soon.
What are you working on now?
I haven’t started anything. There has been something that I’ve been wanting to sit down with and scratch my way into. It’s not happened yet, unfortunately.