[16 December 2011]
Midway through Rahul Bhattacharya’s novel The Sly Company of People Who Care that recently won The Hindu’s Best Fiction of 2011 award, the unnamed protagonist hears about the train bombings in Bombay and reckons with the modern reality of the place he calls home for the first time. It’s a brief moment, but a telling one: “The wretchedness of Bombay trains. You teetered on the edge of life’s urgencies and futilities, a compressed body in a compressed city. The debasement and energy of slums, pools of sewage, bushes of excreta, the utter fact of India.”
Seen through his eyes, India curiously comes to resemble the India of a Foreign Policy pundit – an India of “dirty ambitions, abuses flung, shirts tugged, punches thrown, feet trampled” – an India of people trying to make a life out of the scraps of whatever’s thrown at them, of bare survival, of hardship with the occasional flutters of joy, and in the midst of it all, the sudden boom of a bomb and abruptly ruined, dead bodies.
This is a book about Guyana, but it’s also in part about India, where the protagonist and the vast number of the Guyanese population locate their roots. Guyana, the protagonist informs his readers, “had the feel of an accidental place”. The protagonist of The Sly Company is a 20-something cricket journalist from Bombay who ups and leaves his job to spend a year in this accidental place. Up until this point, this book had only referred to India tangentially through the acknowledgement of the myriad ethnicities that people present-day Guyana. It spoke of a past India seen through the lens of colonialism that brought indentured labourers to emancipated Guyana from Calcutta and Bihar and other parts of India (alongside, in smaller numbers, people from Portuguese Madeira, China, other West Indian colonies). It spoke of a hyper-realised Bollywood India seen through the wistful eyes of Indian descendants of labourers who had never been “back”.
The brief moment where the protagonist allows his memory to linger upon present-day Bombay sheds some light into his inscrutable state-of-mind, and is at once a revelation and a question, Does one choose to run from one form of chaos to another because it is familiar? Or put another way, what prompts one to choose to temporarily escape the familiarities of home by going to a place that burns as a constant reminder of the bright flame of home?
The narrator of The Sly Company is not inclined to indulge in reasons, motivations, and impulses so much as follow where they might lead. His inscrutability is apparent from the earliest pages, where he drops us smack-dab in the helter-skelter of urban Georgetown, the Guyanese capital, and leaves us to find our way amidst the bright, searing, almost oppressive closeness of details, impressions, and experiences. Bhattacharya’s gift for descriptive writing is something that I imagine will lend flavour and colour to his journalism, but in a novel that’s just under 300 pages, this gift tends to be wearisome. Every page is an assault of images, sounds, colours, odours. So much is given to the reader in terms of what Guyana is like, but it obscures the narrator’s thoughts and motivations. Reading The Sly Company is an experience that feels as untethered as the narrator’s experience of Guyana. Occasionally, it can be exhilarating; at other times, unpleasantly baffling.
A combination of lust and infatuation finally allows us to become familiar with the narrator’s quirks and feelings. This comes three-quarters of the way through the book, in the third and final section that leads up to the shattering denouement. Curiously, the narrator’s mercurial object of affection, Jan, is the emotional touchstone of the book. Jan is short for Jankey, a modification of the Indian name Janaki, a fact that takes the narrator by surprise – “She had some Indian in her, that had been certain. It was in her features, her skin. But I hadn’t expected the epic name.” Jan is the first and only woman in The Sly Company who isn’t just a passing figure of female beauty or maternal nurture or, as in one instance, an example of sashaying “African bearing”.
The Sly Company is a man’s adventure story rife with men embarking upon physical adventures and exploits and references to green-stubbled, throaty-voiced “transvestites”, men who are willing to be with a woman of “any race” so long as she had “clear skin”, men boasting of “six wives in one night and not one of them is meet eighteen”. Jan is a welcome reminder of an existence in this world beyond the primal, sexual male with his voracious appetite and crafty, double-dealing inclinations – which is curiously how Bhattacharya depicts most of his motley crew of assorted Guyanese male characters.
We see Jan through the narrator’s desiring eyes: she is sexy yet approachable, with a hypnotising rear end, cascade of wild hair, long brown thighs, and forceful eyes. She is by turns street-smart, tender, avaricious, seductive, and duplicitious. Jan contains feminine multitudes. Much of what we learn about Jan is underlined by her constant remonstrations about the narrator’s lack of ability to care for her: “I thought you were going to care me like a prize bird.” She wants things: new jeans, pricey figurines in tourist stores, makeup and hair clips and highlights; she wants to be pampered and taken to nice places.
Frustrations in this burgeoning relationship are born out of mismatched motivations and impulses; very little conversation of import occurs between Jan and the narrator beyond sudden revelations in hotel rooms. Most of the narrator’s interactions with Jan involve negotiations about what to buy or not to buy, teasing, flirtation, and sex. In one memorable scene, Jan is inclined to chat while the narrator, irritated by her questions, only wants to escape into his book (fittingly, it is a V.S. Naipaul book). In depicting this relationship, Bhattacharya’s exhaustive compilation of details reaches as far as into the bedroom, and the descriptions of Jan’s physical presence are incongruously vivid – stretch marks on her stomach, her breath raw from travel, her “pussy cleaner than her armpits”. This catalogue of traits and senses, almost as if the narrator was documenting a clinical survey, only prompts a cold, resigned detachment.
Much has been made of Bhattacharya’s gift of conveying local Guyanese patois, and this aspect of the novel is largely a treat – there’s none of that awkwardness in the dialogue that would stump a reader unfamiliar with the cadence of the language. One is simply borne along the various threads of the narrative by the strong, pulsing rhythm of Bhattacharya’s prose. Intuitive enough to allow conversations to take place without inserting authorial asides, Bhattacharya’s prose is studded with conversational gems that propel the reader forward, like this one that takes place in the No. 72 Sita Sita bus: “Gal, put the child pon you leg nuh?” “How much child I could put pon me leg, I ga one ahready.” “You gon pay for the second child?” However, the combination of rich dialect and elaborate descriptions is to overegg the pudding, and while Bhattacharya’s writing is energetic and fluid, the unceasing pace of this formula page after page is akin to serving up bowl after bowl of it.
Interestingly enough for a novel dealing with “post”colonial people and places, duplicity and betrayal are the central themes of this book. Despite the narrator’s obvious affection for Guyana and its people, his yearning sentimentality for a connection never quite makes it – establishing an authentic or at least honest connection seems just slightly out of reach each time he tries. The first section of the book, where he goes “porknocking” (diamond-searching) with a character named Baby, ends in confusion and disorientation, as does his adventure with Jan. In both his encounters with Baby and Jan, the narrator is befuddled and overwhelmed. His perpetual observations of decaying buildings, damp jungles, ramshackle houses, and muddy earth is a cacophony that seem to reflect the narrator’s state of dissonance with his surroundings and its people despite his apparent desire to belong.
For this reason, it’s the second section of the book that I found most compelling. Perhaps Bhattacharya’s journalism skills are at work here, because this particular section observes at length the legacy of colonialism and race relations among the people of Guyana. Interracial relations are plagued by mutual suspicion, the seeds of distrust sown during after the slave emancipation of Guyana when indentured labourers were brought in to work on the sugar plantations to make up for the departing Afro-Guyanese slave labour. Labour was needed to subdue and transform the mosquito-infected swamp lands and subsequently turn a colonial profit for the plantation-owning British and Guyanese elite.
What colonialism left behind in Guyana, as Bhattacharya astutely observes, is a “competition of suffering”. Lives are made and remade amidst this competition, and in this section Bhattacharya is adept at portraying gatherings and social interactions between ragtag characters whose racial differences, soaked in rum, melt away under the shade of palm trees only to solidify again as the hazy spell wears off and memories return in full force.
Despite some of the novel’s structural weaknesses, Bhattacharya gives voice to racist and racial diatribes and observances through his fictional characters that allows the reader, in the language of Fanon, to observe people locked in the infernal circle of race – where any and all attempts to break the circle is to merely progress by crawling. The Sly Company bears the marks of chaos, upset, and excess, and the discordant style of Bhattacharya’s prose and the novel’s aesthetics mirrors the continued ramifications of colonial dislocation and displacement between and among the people of Guyana and India.
The Sly Company’s itinerant narrator travelled from one part of the global South to another and found more questions, but perhaps that is the most that each journey can give: more questions, more uncertainty. Perhaps that is meant to be the gift. As I turned the last page of The Sly Company, I could not help but recall Fanon’s words in Black Skin, White Masks: “There are in every part of the world men who search. I am not a prisoner of history.”