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Thursday, February 25, 2021

Excursions in Guyana

Rahul Bhattacharya’s brilliant first novel journeys through the country’s cultural goulash,its patois and porknorking trips.

Written by Amulya Gopalakrishnan |
February 26, 2011 11:02:23 pm

One escapes one’s life,for however long,seeking adventure… with enough dheel and some luck,that happens. But the thread is anchored.” That’s the kite-flying metaphor employed by Rahul Bhattacharya’s nameless narrator,a young writer who first comes to Guyana to report on a cricket tour. He gets a one-year return ticket to come back,and then devotes himself to scratching his way in to this place of “water and earth,mud and fruit,race and crime,innocent and full of scoundrels”.

And so,brilliant as it is,The Sly Company of People Who Care feels less like a novel and more like thick description,an attempt to pile up detail and translate the culture. He lives in Kitty,Georgetown,for a bit,then tags along on a porknocking adventure (prospecting for diamonds in Guyana’s elemental interior) with Baby,who he sees as a likeable scamp with “an Ahabian glint in his eye”. He comes back to Kitty. He looks around the place some more. He sets off to Lethem,near the Brazilian border. He meets,and is taken over by Jankey,Jan,who is trying to get away to “some place develop”,and he spirits her away to Venezuela. Between the two action-packed,suspenseful sections of Baby and Jan,the novel is content simply observing the racial and cultural goulash that is Guyana.

From thinking of the place as “raw,accidental”,he realises that “everything was brought here” — the land created,the sugarcane transplanted,the people forced,and the society made in the “most deliberately manufactured way possible”. He takes in the tension,the competitive suffering between the former Africans who were brought as slaves and the Indian indentured workers who had been allowed to keep their families,religion,language. “In a situation of such hopelessness,the basest instincts burn. In Guyana,it is race.”

In the Guyanese countryside,he sees the poignant exchange between the Indian national and the East Indian,the “absurd foreignness and familiarity”. The old rupture created by Empire has profoundly wounded the East Indian in ways he knows and does not know. For India,from where these people left as indentured labourers,the numbers and the impact are negligible. The relationship is deeply asymmetric. But when he hears the inevitable whine,“Indians do not consider us to be Indians”,he thinks two things — “you are out here where the Caribbean meets South America under these brilliant stars and you should be f***ing delighted.” And also,“you,brother,are more Indian than I”,having longed for it,imagined it,and never having to grapple with it.

V.S. Naipaul reverberates through the book — once as library-book marginalia (“this man has a Psychosis. The name is Self loathing”) and once,when our hero reads In a Free State on his Venezuela escapade with Jan. But this book is remarkable free of the anxiety of influence — it is confidently its own thing,openhearted,receptive,interesting.

Bhattacharya has a heightened alertness to language,the roots of words,the strange symmetry and evocativeness of “dayclean” (the Guyanese word for dawn) and “godhuli” (a Hindi word for dusk). He clearly revels in the rich patois of Guyana,its saltiness and humour. Sometimes,there’s a disconcerting slippage of registers — a drunken confrontation is described as “two youthman were taking it serious”,just a few lines after a formal sentence like “we engaged in rapturous praise of the premier batsman of the West Indies and the cosmos”.

The book has an episodic quality,perhaps inevitable in a traveller’s tale. But it is also a deeply rewarding read — Bhattacharya’s writing has incredible depth and artistry,a kind of achieved poise that sets it apart from anything else,even when he’s only talking about the experience of being violently drunk or describing house-fronts in Georgetown. The last section,with Jan,has a compressed punch that shows Bhattacharya could do a different kind of novel if he chose — in a few pages,he describes the exaltations,the sulks,the brinksmanship of a love affair. But at the end of the book,that encounter is perhaps too casually disposed of — it is just another point in the adventure,not the emotional culmination.

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