“Guyana had the feel of an accidental place. Partly it was the epic indolence. Partly it was the ethnic composition. In the slang of the street there were chinee, putagee, buck, coolie, blackman, and the combinations emanating from these, a separate and larger lexicon. “On the ramble in such a land you could encounter a story every day.” And Rahul Bhattacharya does. The result is the exquisitely written novel about the year that he spent basically liming in Guyana, The Sly Company of People Who Care. The rich, riotous prose, the sublime turns of phrase, the penetrating eye that he casts on the characters he encounters, have led to comparisons–some deserved, others not–and claims that here, finally, is the heir apparent to VS Naipaul that the literary world has been waiting for. The 32-year-old Indian national, on his fourth visit to Trinidad, read from his debut novel at the second installment of the Bocas Lit Fest at the National Library last weekend. A cricket writer since 2000, and a contributing editor with Wisden Asia Cricket, whose first book, Pundits From Pakistan, was named one of the top cricket books of all time by Wisden, Bhattacharya also took part in a discussion “From the pitch to the page: the literature of cricket” at the literary festival.
It’s impossible, reading Bhattacharya, not to be reminded of Naipaul–even if he weren’t referred to several times in the book, concluded the New York Times review of The Sly Company of People Who Care. But this “mongrel Indian,” as Bhattacharya describes himself, brings a subcontinental perspective to his observations about race and class in the Caribbean. “My father was Bengali, from the east…” he wrote in The Observer (UK) last year, shortly after the publication of his novel. “My mother is Gujarati, from the west, born and raised in Bombay… At home we spoke a little Bengali and a little Gujarati, but out of a reflex neutrality, mostly a [local version of] Hindi, the language of our daily transaction, and English, the medium of our education.” So, when Bhattacharya arrives in the torridly humid, racially dissected world of Guyana, he is neither fazed nor contemptuous of the odd assortment of humanity he encounters. He marvels at the intricate blends of African, Portuguese and East Indian identity flowing through the vast South American country, and captures, delicately, how the differences in race and class came to breed bitterness between the groups.
Here is his description of the Guyanese “putagee”:
“Portuguese had come to Guyana as indentured labourers even before the Indians and the Chinese. They were light-skinned and independent-minded. They rose up the ranks, and now, small in number and of high position, they could look at race as something they were not a part of.”
About the people of a coastal settlement, he comments: “The folk at Menzies Landing were black, or more often red… In the direct Guyanese way a red person was a direct visual thing. It implied mixed blood and, obviously, a certain redness of skin. Black and Portuguese could be red. Black and Amerindian could be red. East Indian and Portuguese could be red.” This is not the small-island Naipaul setting foot on the subcontinent for the first time and seeing “an area of darkness,” “a wounded civilisation” and “a million mutinies”—or returning home, after studying at Oxford, to conclude disparagingly in The Middle Passage: “There was nothing new to record. Every day I saw the same things—unemployment, ugliness, over-population, race—every day I heard the same circular arguments.” Bhattacharya, for one, is less burdened by race and caste issues, though he, too, is Hindu and supposedly of a high caste. And he’s way less cantankerous. “All manner of Indians made up the building,” he writes about the Bombay apartment building in which he grew up. “There were Punjabis, Kachchis, Sindhis, and Gujarati businessmen of varying degrees of competence and ambition.
“We had a rubber baron from Kerala and a strict joint family from Uttar Pradesh. We had a Christian naval officer, a Parsi harmonica teacher, a Maharashtrian air hostess and a humble Iranian family whose children for no reason other than that of difference were damned with ill repute.”
Although he has already won The Hindu Literary Prize for The Sly Company of People Who Care and made the shortlist of the Man Asian Literary Prize, the annual award given to the best novel by an Asian writer, either written in or translated into English, Bhattacharya remains outwardly humble and self-effacing (characteristics that Naipaul, if he harbours them, also hides them well.) When asked how, perhaps, he thought the contemporary relationship that Indians in the Caribbean had with India affected their interaction with blacks, Bhattacharya looked startled–and slightly alarmed. “Well,” he responded slowly, “That’s a really big question, eh.” Neither of his books looked at Indian masculinity, he hastened to clarify, even though they’re both from the perspective of a young Indian man. While The Sly Company of People Who Care with maleness on a broader level, with the world of men, their interactions, bonding, how they perceive and treat women, especially when it comes to matters of sex, their boastfulness, and “very often the disrespect that you encounter in males all over the world towards women,” he emphasised.
He was reluctant to make any grand statements on race and Indianness in the Caribbean. In truth, his own Indianness seems relevant only as it allowed him easier access to intimate, open interactions with Guyanese Indians. His affection for the music of the region, for instance, is unbridled and unbiased. He revels in Sonny Mann’s Lotay La as much as Peter Tosh, Toots and the Maytals and a pan side. Here’s how he describes the Neal and Massy Steel Pan Orchestra playing Woman on the Bass, which he has named as part of a music playlist that relates to The Sly Company of People Who Care: “A gentle shake--- three-minute soca is turned into 11 minutes of operatic, orchestral pandemonium. Steelpan, developed by the poor of Trinidad from discarded biscuit tins and oil drums, is the ultimate celebration of Caribbean artistry created from desperation of circumstance. I was reminded of this spirit every time the pan coursed through my bones.” While writing his novel back home in Delhi, Bhattacharya says “To escape the cement mixer and the wailing babies and the Delhi fights over car-parking, and to enter the world I was writing about, I would put on my headphones. Music penetrates deepest into Caribbean reality. “It catches everything, the brutalities of the tortured past, the casual violence of the present, the wit and comedy of the street, the politics and politricks of high office, the reveries of Carnival, rum and ganja, and the gorgeous vulgarity, the duttiness and slackness of daily life.” In that statement alone, he distances himself from Naipaul, who declared irritably that Port-of-Spain is “the noisiest city in the world.” As Bhattacharya succinctly summed it up, when asked what he had learned on his journey through Guyana: “Well, the Brits screwed all—a universal truth.”
• The Sly Company of People Who Care, published last year, is available at all leading bookstores.