Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Sly Company of People Who Care, by Rahul Bhattacharya

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011
278 pp
(hardcover ed)

The Sly Company of People Who Care is Rahul Bhattacharya's first novel,currently  shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize, and winner of the Hindu Literary Prize for Best Fiction in 2011.   It is structured in three parts, told via first-person narrative and set in the country of Guyana. It's also a  hell of a good book that will leave you thinking long after you've set it down. 

The story is told from the point of view of the narrator, who has left his home in India for Guyana to escape the "deadness" of his life.   His plan is to stay for a year, to become a "slow ramblin' stranger." He'd been in Guyana before for a week reporting on a cricket match, and during that time he sensed "moods and images, names and rhythms, contours of a mystery world one could perceive but not grasp."   This time around,  he  finds this place  to have the "feel of an accidental place," a place of "epic indolence," with a multitude of voices to be heard: "chinee, putagee, buck, coolie, and the combinations emanating from these, a separate and larger lexicon."   While  traveling into the interior with a local huckster and "porknocker" (diamond miner) named Baby, he soaks up local life along the way,  and becomes enthralled with Guyana's natural beauty. There he discovers that while he's in awe at Baby's freedom and ability to live off little more than his wits, he also finds witnesses an act of betrayal and something worse that leaves him wondering.  On his return to Georgetown, after recovering from a case of dengue fever, he realizes that
"One escapes one's life for however long, seeking adventure - I think of the Hindi word dheel. That is what kite-flyers in Bombay shouted when they wanted the spooler to let loose the thread...So one escapes one's life seeking adventure, and with enough dheel and some luck, that happens.  But the thread is anchored. You can only go so far. The impulse must change. Instead of adventure one seeks understanding."
Hooking up with a local character named Ramotar Seven Curry, a professional wedding guest, the narrator is at one such event, "where everyone is welcome," regardless of social class, but as it turns out, that blanket doesn't exactly include Africans.  Here the narrator begins to grasp what really lies beneath Guyana's beautiful exterior.  The tone of the novel begins to shift, as the author explores "the wounds left behind," and where the narrator makes a critical discovery about the country he at first thought so "accidental." While discussing India's hierarchical class rigidity and the fact that Indian nationals do not see their fellow Indians in Guyana as Indian at all, in a mix of both fiction and nonfiction, the narrator also relates how Guyana became a nation divided along the lines of race beginning with its European colonization. The narrative  goes back into Guyana's troubled past to make some sense of its troubled present. It is a story of the forced migration of slaves, the end of slavery and the introduction of indentured servants largely from India, and the social, political and economic displacement of one set of people over another via policies set by the Europeans. What's left now is a  "competition of suffering" between the two groups," with  the Afro-Guyanese seeing things from one point of view and the Indo-Guyanese having an altogther different take on the situation.   What Europeans started before leaving the country has left long-standing wounds that continue to inform most aspects of life in this country, and not just the economic and political aspects. And the pattern of movement and displacement continues today, as "there are more Guyanese living outside Guyana than in it."

In another shift of tone, the narrator's story picks up with him becoming a bit bored and restless, ready for yet another journey.   He meets a local girl named Jan, and they're off to Venezuela.  He falls head over heels; she's looking for an escape.   They're attracted to each other by the sex, but otherwise he comes to realize that they have very little in common, and the excitement begins to wear thin.  As his visa is about to expire, the two head back to Guyana, and it is then that he runs into a moral dilemma or two over "wounds left behind" for which he might be responsible.

There's a great deal more to this book, but there's too much to encapsulate in a few paragraphs.  Suffice it to say that the narrator ultimately comes to realize that in Guyana, everything is not so accidental after all -- that everything has been created, seeds have been sown that have taken  root deep within the very souls of the Guyanese people, and they all stem back to the European colonizers.

At first I wasn't so sure about this book, but after finishing it and giving it some thought, I grew to really like it as I considered all of the ironies within.  I'll leave you to figure them out for yourself. The prose is lush and  descriptive, especially in detailing the beauties of the Guyanese landscape.   Some people have criticized the book for having no real resolution, but perhaps the lack of an ending tied up neatly in a little bow is reflective of the content of the novel.  Definitely and highly recommended.  There is a lot of really good fiction coming out of South Asia right now, and this book is no exception.

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