November 24, 2011 by markstani
Rahul Bhattachariya’s sprawling, ambitious debut novel The Sly Company Of People Who Care (pub. Picador) charts the adventures of a 26-year-old Indian cricket journalist who, smitten with the country during a previous Caribbean tour, quits his job to return for a year to Guyana in search of aimless adventure.
Bhattachariya’s (presumably) partly autobiographical character – his previous book about a cricket tour, ‘Pundits From Pakistan’, was rated the sport’s fourth best ever by ‘Wisden’ – delves deep into this sparsely chartered, thickly jungled society, retracing the steps of the so-called coolies who set out in their boatloads from Calcutta and Madras in the mid-19th century, lured by tall tales of a land of gold.
The descendents of the coolies and the emancipated slaves who were brought there before them have evolved an extraordinary Guyanese culture, and Bhattachariya, through a narrative hotch-potched with Rasta patois and Hindi movie excerpts, does a fine job of bringing that colourful, cross-continental maelstrom to life.
His unnamed character travels in search of a kind of unclear fulfilment which he discovers, even in a land where ‘days pass slow and voluptuous’ and rivers ‘drift by your feet like molasses’, remains tantalisingly out of reach.
‘One escapes one’s life, for however long, seeking adventure – I think of the Hindi word ‘dheel’. This is what kite-flyers in Bombay shouted when they wanted the spooler to let loose the thread. I could not fly a kite, as unnavigable to me as chopsticks, but I liked giving dheel, and I liked very much the thought of dheel. 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. It comes with a heaviness. The only way to be exempt is to resolutely not ponder, but I was given to pondering.’
Bhatticharya’s admirable desire to remain true to this country’s easy, abstract rhythms makes his book an occasionally impenetrable and often disorientating read; what passes for its plot is hinged around two central, unconnected adventures: first, hunting diamonds in the country’s thick, dark interior; second a tumultuous, impromptu trip to Venezuela with the captivating Jan, whose face is ‘cut like a rough heart.’
At a time when US colleges spew out earnest MFA students by the bucket-load, this fresh, loose approach to novel-writing is to be celebrated. It brings to mind the raw, disjointed ‘Dirty Havana’ of Pedro Juan Gutierrez: each providing its own unique picaresque of a vibrant culture’s ignored underbelly.
‘The Sly Company Of People Who Care’ – longlisted for the 2011 MAN Asian Literary Prize – is part history lesson, part travelogue and part love letter. More than that, it is a bewitching meditation on youthful restlessness and our never-ending search for self.
You can read further reviews by my fellow MAL Prize jury member Fay at Read, Ramble here.