In the opening paragraph of Rahul Bhattacharya’s first novel, The Sly Company of People Who Care, the unnamed narrator, a former cricket journalist from India, declares his intentions for his life, and thus his story — to be a wanderer, or in his words, “a slow ramblin’ stranger.” That rambling, through the forests of Guyana; the ruined streets of its capital, Georgetown; and out to the borders of Brazil and Venezuela, constitutes the novel’s central action. But its heart lies in the exuberant and often arresting observations of a man plunging himself into a world full of beauty, violence and cultural strife.
It’s impossible, reading Bhattacharya, not to be reminded of V S Naipaul, even if he weren’t referred to several times throughout the story. Naipaul defined the lonely, empty middle ground occupied by the descendants of Indian immigrants living in Africa and the Caribbean who no longer belong to any nation. Bhattacharya’s narrator, despite having been born and raised in India, occupies similar territory, having given up on his country and the identity that was supposed to come with it. By and large, though, the similarities end there. Unlike Naipaul’s disillusioned protagonists, who stand perpetually outside the world they live in, Bhattacharya’s narrator is thoroughly invested in Guyana and its striking blend of cultures, born out of colonisation, slavery and indentured servitude.
If anything, he is more reminiscent of Dante in the case of the “Commedia,” a careful listener and observer who, while in exile, faithfully records the stories that come his way.
For Bhattacharya, that listening and recording means creating a narrative loyal to the traveller’s experience, with all the awe and confusion that attend it. His novel is populated with images and people skillfully sketched rather than fully developed, so that often all that remains in the reader’s mind is the small detail — the upside-down watch on a man’s wrist, the plum-size dimples on a woman’s face. Similarly, the creole animating the novel’s dialogue and the often fleeting appearances of black and Indian characters seem to be incorporated at times less to illuminate than to add an auditory texture to the fictional world.
There is, inevitably, a disorienting quality here. Bhattacharya resists lingering too long in any one place or with any one person. The novel’s seduction, and the reason it deserves close reading and admiration, stems from its expansiveness and the quick movements of its prose, which can leap nimbly from a casual conversation with a con man to a trip into the jungle with that same con man in a single page.
The novel, thankfully, resists offering easy characterisation of a culture that has to be seen and heard before it can be understood, of a place “ripe with heat and rain and Guyanese sound and Guyanese light in which the world seemed saturated or bleached, either way exposed.”
The narrator’s first expedition into the interior of Guyana to go diamond hunting, or “porknocking,” comes about as a matter of chance. He’s driven by whimsy but retains his depth of vision. Bhattacharya avoids the usual pitfalls of writing about a foreign culture with the intention of discovering something about it — a goal that all too often finds writers resorting to sweeping generalisations. The narrator describes the “slow-watching” of a waterfall and stands “alive in the drizzle, filthy-footed.” There is a music behind everything: in nature, the “amphitheatre of leaves;” in life, the rhythms of the local language, and of the reggae whose lyrics of protest are constantly evoked.
In a village of porknockers, a half-dozen people (with names like Dr Red and Nasty) share the page as they drink, argue and fight. They and other characters — including my favourite, Ramotar Seven Curry, known for his devotion to attending weddings — come to life in all their eccentricity, their humanity and flaws intact.
Bhattacharya’s narrator emerges from his adventures seeking answers about Guyana’s past, and the country’s history — from the arrival of the first European explorers and the African slaves they brought with them, to the importation of impoverished Indian workers, or “coolies,” as indentured servants — is gracefully retold. Bhattacharya uses the complicated webs of African, Portuguese and East Indian identity flowing through Guyana to reveal not only how the country was settled, but also how differences in race and class came to breed bitter discord.
One wishes at times that Bhattacharya had tried to include less in order to say more. A second layer of description following the narrator’s move to a new house occupies too much space in an already crowded novel; a journey to the Brazilian border takes too long. By the time the narrator is finally drawn to a single character, a gorgeous young woman of mixed race (mostly “cooliegal,” though “my father got a lil Brazzo in him,” she says), both their romance and their travels together feel artificial, in part because the narrator remains more a guide than a character, one who points the reader’s attention to the hidden corners of a society while keeping the secrets of his own heart at bay. He may occasionally try the reader’s patience, but that’s only because he wants you to see what a remarkable and exquisite world he has made.