Interview: Rahul Bhattacharya

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December 29, 2011 by markstani

Rahul Bhattacharya’s first novel, ‘The Sly Company Of People Who Care’, is a unique and vibrant picaresque of life in Guyana. It has been longlisted for the 2011 MAN Asian Literary Prize. You can read my review here. Fay at Read, Ramble has also reviewed it here. Here is an exclusive Q&A with the author:

An obvious question to start with: to what degree is the main character autobiographical?

A little bit. It is a novel less about the narrator than about the people, relationships and the society he encounters. So the starting point for the narrator – a young man from India, seeking adventure – was me, but that starting point was also a point of departure.

What, in particular, first attracted you to Guyana as a source of fiction?

When I first visited Guyana, it seemed to me already somewhat fictional, this particular mix of Indians, Africans, Portuguese, Chinese and indigenous peoples on the forehead of lush, rain-drenched South America. Yet you couldn’t make up a place like that. The horrors of slavery, the deprivations of indenture, the idea of creating this imperial colonial factory, were too fantastical to be imagined. From this history sprung a society with a terribly attractive spirit of adventure and laughter, a creative and improvisational energy. It’s a naturally picaresque society. I felt I could most intimately capture it in fiction.

You describe a country in which two especially divergent and prominent cultures are constantly jostling for, and claiming, superiority. How do you see that relationship – and thus the nation itself – evolving in the future?

This has proved impossible even for long-standing Guyana commentators to predict! The Caribbean people on the one hand, to quote an academic, ‘in a racial sense . . . have in one way or another faced, and to some extent, resolved, many issues that still divide larger nations and torment mankind’. On the other hand it is a region sharply defined by race. Look at Guyana: you had a master race (the Europeans – by turns the Dutch, French, British), a colonized race (the indigenous tribes), an enslaved race (the Africans), and indentured races (the Indians, Chinese, Madeirans). It takes time and compromise from everyone to come to terms with a past like that. It’s a relatively recent past at that. The word you use in the question is culture rather than race, and the hope many Guyanese hold is that a common national culture will overwrite ethnic differences. Then again there is constant competition on what exactly this national culture must constitute.

Furthermore, you central character describes India as being “paralysed by hierarchy”, and Guyana as promising a kind of Utopia in which caste becomes redundant: do you see any change within the caste system in India? Is it shackling its attempts to be taken seriously as an economic superpower?

The narrator, who has lived all his life in India, is drawn to the spirit of flexibility and transgression in Caribbean society; he is excited by it. One might argue that in Guyana race is caste by another name. About India, it is a country changing fast: this is a cliché because it is true. That doesn’t mean caste is irrelevant, and unfortunately it will never be. But it does mean that there is increasing fluidity in occupation and opportunity, and the rise of lower-caste political parties is a major story in contemporary India.

To what extent did you feel you had to strike a balance in your novel between staying true to the Guyanese patois – and, indeed, the Hindi movie references – and at the same time making your novel accessible to those unversed in those kinds of dialogues and references?

I wanted to write a book organic to the place. I would have felt unfulfilled otherwise. The Guyanese patois, Creolese as they call it, is such an addictive, visual, vivid language. I could not imagine setting a novel there and eliminating or diluting the language. For example, I grew up with the Standard English idiom, ‘To have one’s cake and eat it too’. (This would confuse me in school as I thought both verbs implied the same thing). Besides there was something slightly fusty about ‘having one’s cake’. Now the Guyanese idiom with the same meaning is, ‘He want to suck cane and blow whistle too.’ I feel that! I can see it and I can hear and I can feel it. Mind you, it also works because innuendo is the soul of Caribbean wit, and both the verbs above are perfect fits.

Much of your novel concerns what you might call the country’s underbelly: what kind of reaction have you had from Guyanese people with regard to the way you have portrayed it?

It’s not so much the underbelly as those from the working-class, which is the majority of the country. They were the people I found myself most interested in, and their lives animated the life of the place I was exploring. I’ve come across the odd comment taking issue with this, but on the whole the reaction from Guyana has been extremely generous and touching. And a Guyanese pat on the back means more to me than praise from any other part of the world.

It’s obviously sequel-able, but do you have any specific plans for the future with regard to fiction?

No sequel! But I have been chewing on a few things. I hope I’ll be able to sit down with these thoughts properly soon. It will be set in India, and it will be a novel.

Have you read any of the other Man Asian Literary Prize longlistees, or other recent world fiction of note?

I haven’t read any of the other longlisted books, no. I always have so much reading to catch up on that I’m always late in coming to books. The most recently published novel that I enjoyed was Damon Galgut’s In A Strange Room, which was tender, unusual, sad and beautiful.

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