The kindness of strangers

By Brendan de Caires

The Sly Company of People Who Care, by Rahul Bhattacharya
(Picador, ISBN 9780330534734, 352 pp)

Rahul Bhattacharya

Rahul Bhattacharya. Photograph courtesy the author

Georgetown — at least, the Georgetown of my childhood — is not for the faint-hearted. For practical purposes, I grew up there twice. First in a quiet nook of Campbellville, safely distant from the fleshpots of Sheriff Street, then downtown, a few blocks north of the prison and the arson-friendly stores of Regent Street. Before I was ten I had watched Walter Rodney mesmerise the crowds at Louisa Row, and Viv Richards dismantle the Aussies at Bourda. I had seen corpses floating in canals, and half-naked mad-people living in cardboard boxes and drinking trench water. My black nannies, whom I loved, were kind enough to take me to all the wrong places, most memorably into matinées at the Plaza, the Strand (“the cinema in command”), and the Metropole — sometimes to House and, on one red letter day, to Pit. Nobody needed to tell me that lil’ Putagee boys had no place on the streets after a certain hour — some evenings I’d hear screams of Tief! Tief! as the choke-an’-rob boys plied their trade — for we all had a natural sense of the perils and the pleasures of the city.

Very few outsiders see beyond the obvious decay. V.S. Naipaul, our self-appointed flagellator, made several mean-spirited forays into the city, and issued large statements about it and the menacing, mythical forest beyond, not just in his early pessimistic travelogue The Middle Passage (1962), but decades later, when assessing Cheddi and Janet Jagan not long before their return to power, in an essay published in 1991 in The New York Review of Books. Naipaul’s prescient grasp of Forbes Burnham’s cunning and Jagan’s naivety are remarkable, but his cursory treatment of Georgetown — drunks everywhere; slow, stupid waiters; undrinkable coffee; uppity Indians drinking wine on the rocks — has always, for me, slotted too easily into his general vision of a Caribbean slouching towards Bethlehem after its troubled colonial splendour.

But Georgetown can no more be understood by a spectator ab extra than a brothel can be enjoyed by a eunuch. Naipaul was too fastidious for the necessary dominoes and rum-drinking in Kitty, or conversational ganja with the sages of South Ruimveldt. Had he paused a little longer among the surplus children who so unsettled him in Albouystown, he might have caught more of the colour and the pathos of the place. And yet, over the years, writers familiar with the subcultures he ignored have never, to my knowledge, attained a style that bears serious comparison with his. So while Georgetown has been granted a few vivid cameos in serious literary fiction, I cannot recall reading anything — especially among the submissions for last year’s Guyana Prize for Literature, for which I was a judge — that gave me the shock of recognition you feel when Martin Amis writes about Notting Hill, Philip Roth about New Jersey, or when the great man turns his own unforgiving eye towards the Indian subcontinent, or the deeper darknesses of Africa.

Rahul Bhattacharya is the writer we’ve been waiting for, and his debut novel, The Sly Company of People Who Care, is that very rare thing: a great local fiction written by an outsider. On every page there is something to marvel at, from the dead-on dialogue — as good as anything in Lovelace or Selvon — to his terse, lyrical grasp of landscape, buildings, and people. He is just as perceptive outside the capital, too — at ease among pork-knockers (small-time gold prospectors) and cane-cutters, clued in to dancehall and chutney, capable of situating the chaotic present within larger patterns of migration and displacement. (Bhattacharya also notices things that few Guyanese would: that clothing stores on Regent Street are run by Sindhi families; that certain last names and dialect usages are actually corruptions of Hindi originals; and he can translate Bollywood lyrics which are often sung here with little sense of their real meanings.) Unburdened by our history, he travels light and sees further, noticing nearly everything with a charmingly self-deprecating comic sympathy. If the young Vidia Naipaul hadn’t taken himself so seriously when Eric Williams dispatched him to write up the Caribbean, he might have produced a novel like this.

The Sly Company of People Who Care opens with our narrator — an Indian cricket journalist whose backstory is close to Bhattacharya’s own — coming to terms with a whimsical decision to spend a year in Guyana. (Although this is his first novel, Pundits from Pakistan, Bhattacharya’s impressionistic account of the 2004 Indian cricket tour of Pakistan, was published seven years ago to wide acclaim. He has stated that although Sly Company’s narrator’s age and background are similar to his own, the experiences recounted in the novel are not. Full disclosure: Bhattacharya cites several Stabroek News staff in his acknowledgements, including my parents, but I have neither met nor corresponded with him.) The narrator finds a boarding house in Kitty and dives right in to the local scene. Bhattacharya wastes no time in establishing himself as a trustworthy observer. His ear for local speech is pitch perfect, and his use of dialect spellings very clever (“here” and “boy” become heye and bai). He is sensitive to registers too: the slight pomposity of semi-formal talk, the self-delighting use of obscenity, and our incurable fondness for puns.

One afternoon his housemates discuss the news, under the amused guidance of the resident intellectual, Uncle Lance. They read a sensational item reprinted from the Barbados Nation, about a vengeful white Englishwoman infecting black men with HIV. Guyana is cited as one of the region’s “island-nations.” To this provocation, a “man with hair buns” responds: “The problem with island is they from I-land. Is only I they unstan, not you or we.” Then they consider an impassioned letter in the local papers, written by a known provocateur. It complains of a “rice advertisement on television, in which an obviously Afro person is featured as the Dhulahine, and an equally Afro individual acts as the Dhulaha.” This prompts the following exchange:

“Prapa talk, bai! Dah prapa talk!”

“Don’t make stupid, banna. You know how that man go make racial out of anything. Besides is not blackman who getting insult, is Hindu.”

“Hold on, hold on. You even wonder why it have Blackman with the rice? Is because till now coolie don’t accept that it was African who bring rice to Guyana.”

“Don’t speed me head in morning time, banna. Blackman think he can plant rice. Give he one square yard and is ganja you going to find there.”

Sensing a teachable moment, Uncle Lance distills these insights with the parable of Robert Waldron, an ambitious black man from Wakenaam. Emboldened by his success at selling milk in Georgetown, Robbie

“. . . decide fuh mind cow heself. Everyone in Wakenaam big they eye. You ever hear of Blackman or fulaman minding cow? Is only Hindu who can mind cow. Bam, inside two months they all dead out. One cow ketch disease, next one get mash down by van, next one die at chilebirth, next one feel lonely and take he leave for heavenly abode. And Robbie back to where he start.”

To which someone responds, “So what that have to do with rice?”

Vignettes like this assure us that our narrator gets the drift of local argumentation, and its humour. Wisely, he leaves off there, having conveyed the flavour of his “restless early days in Kitty, ripe with rain and Guyanese sound and Guyanese light in which the world seemed saturated or bleached, either way exposed.”

After Kitty, the action moves to the Interior, where the narrator finds himself prospecting for diamonds with a ne’er-do-well acquaintance named Baby. Some of the writing here is worthy of Evelyn Waugh. Several times I laughed aloud at Bhattacharya’s eye for the comedy of bush life. When Baby saunters into Menzies Landing, an outpost on the Potaro River, the arrival is observed with an ethnographer’s precision:

People came and went all the time from the settlement, lives temporary as the whistling wind, so nobody reacted much to an appearance unless it was a complete stranger. The folks seemed to know Baby. Some gave him a hug or a fist-touch, some simply muttered “all right?”, and some did not care. They called him all manner of names, Cookup, Aubrey, and one man greeted him with “Baby saw you raw you raw you raw.”

(Readers of a certain age may miss the allusion to the dancehall performer Beenie Man’s opening line in his 1995 duet with Lady Saw, “The Healing”.)

Four days later, our narrator gets a baptism of fire when a group of pork-knockers turns up unannounced. They curry labba, play cricket, and launch a long session of competitive drinking. By evening “there was already a latent madness in everybody’s eyes.” Bhattacharya observes the ensuing comedy with Naipaulian equipoise, his tone hovering on the edge of judgement but never quite getting there. In fact, it becomes clear that, no matter how keen his sense of the despair beneath the surface of things, his comic gift is fuelled by genuine sympathy. He relishes the pork-knockers’ excesses because he understands their need to dispel the tedium of life — the physical strain, the vicissitudes of their quest, the boredom and occasional terror they wish to escape:

Somebody also came along with high wine. This was a cheap colourless spirit of sixty-nine per cent alcohol. If you peered into the bottle the vapour singed your eye. Spilled drops burnt holes in the wood like acid. We drank the five-year, but along with that the loser in each game of Rap was to down a capful of high wine, two capfuls for a particular kind of loss. Also there were these very fat joints floating about. The whole thing was doomed from the start.

The games proceeded apace, with people gaily threatening each other, “I gon drunk you skunt tonight mudderskunt.” Soon the high wine capfuls were making dents in everybody. I felt the bones in my head softening. I could not escape the feeling that strangers were lifting me by the hair and dropping me for laughs. In a faraway corner bench Dr Red leant back against the wall and stared at the powis on the beams and said, “I would feed you, powis, I would feed you in a natural manner.”

There are so many exquisite passages like this, for the first time in years I wished a book longer. Not just because of the prose — which is as good as anything by the major modern West Indian (or, indeed, Indian) writers — but also because of the authenticity of Bhattacharya’s impressions. Had he been so inclined, I believe Bhattacharya could have followed his intuitions even further and written not just the finest Guyanese novel in a generation, but one of the great West Indian novels to date.

The second section of Sly Company (the novel’s enigmatic title comes from a cryptic observation which the narrator finds pencilled into a library book) steps back from these adventures to take a wide-angle view of Guyanese history. Though this, too, is well-trodden ground, Bhattacharya handles his material deftly, using his research to illuminate his narrator’s fieldwork, as it were. He speculates about the ways in which our bleak history has shaped the national psyche. Here, nothing is taboo. He wonders, for instance, to what extent the rise of the drug lord and gun-runner Roger Khan was due to a long-simmering Indo-Guyanese wish for retribution against Afro-Guyanese violence (the narrator wryly notes that locals say his name as though it were “Rajah” Khan). Bhattacharya walks through this potential minefield with characteristic aplomb, using his encyclopedic grasp of regional music to raise the issue with an insider’s knowingness:

All understanding of the Caribbean is available in its music. There is a brilliant satire from fifty years ago, “No Crime, No Law”, by the calypsonian Commander. It rings open with the striking lines I want the government of every country / Pay a criminal a big salary. The logic is established early on. If somebody don’t lick out somebody eye / The magistrate won’t have nobody to try. The fast-powering lines keep rolling out, each funnier, more visual, women parting men’s faces with poui, boring out their eyes with saws. Through the humour the essential truths behind the comedy gather a terrific force. The entire rapidfire exposé is done inside three minutes. So when a man kill, instead of swinging he head, Commander concludes, They should make him Governor General instead.

Roger Khan, basically, was made Governor General . . .

Twenty pages later, the same question is tackled by Uncle Lance, as he returns from the funeral of an Indian businessman. The man’s body has been dismembered by bandits and dumped in the D’Urban Backlands. Asked whether he knew the victim, Lance replies:

“Everybody know everybody bai. It had a time when two or three murder a year was a big big thing. Now we getting one hundred, one fifty . . .”

“Politricks rip apart we country. When I was a bai in Wakenaam” — he held his hand absurdly low, by his ankle — “black people kwarril if they see me barefoot. They make me put on something on me foot! Tha’ is how much love there was. Then we get the race riot and the same people hold their nose when they pass we house.”

This section also contains bravura passages on the Indo-Guyanese encountered during a “Canal lime,” including an unsparing account of one man who screams racial epithets at any black face on the television. Bhattacharya’s double perspective — as a “genuine” Indian among diaspora Indians — allows him to read more into some of these scenes than a local observer might, and his conclusions are often fascinating. Hearing locals hum a half-understood chutney song, he writes:

Phulorie bina chutney kaise banee? I had thought of chutney as a music without pain, but I had begun to see I was wrong. Reggae was the music of slavery. Its impulse was resistance, confrontation, a homeland severed so absolutely, seized back by the force of imagination or ideology. Chutney was the music of indenture. Its impulse was preservation, then assimilation. There was a pain in this act of attempted preservation — a homeland part remembered and protected, part lost and lingering.

The memoirish aspects of the narrative are unobtrusive for most of the book, but they present a critical challenge in the final section, after the narrator takes up with a local girl and completes her seduction with a brief trip to Trinidad and Venezuela. Their gradual entanglement is brilliantly described, as is the cross-cultural frustration that follows soon after. As the romance falls apart, there are tantalising hints that the failure of the relationship may symbolise a wider disillusionment with Guyanese or West Indian culture. We are told that the narrator is reading Naipaul’s In a Free State while he and Jan, the girlfriend, drift into spontaneous, unprotected sex. As they do so, we also notice that they abandon themselves to the freedoms of creole speech. Yet this passionate mutual groping for common ground ultimately leads nowhere.

Once again, Bhattacharya uses a musical reference to convey complex emotions. After one of their quarrels, the narrator finds comfort in Thunder Road, a classic Bruce Springsteen song, particularly the lines “Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night / You ain’t a beauty, but hey, you’re alright / Oh and that’s alright with me.” But instead of taking his point, about their shared fallibility and his qualified hopes for the relationship, Jan hears a personal insult and assumes he is criticising her looks. When this leads to further quarrelling, he too starts to feel shut out, worried that he is little more than a source of ready cash, shocked to learn she has a hitherto unmentioned son, and irked by her “mollish” makeup and hairstyle.

Here the reader must decide whether the narrator’s final disappointment with Jan is merely personal, or whether Bhattacharya intends it as a larger gesture towards the anxieties and misunderstandings that occur when one culture reaches a serious reckoning with another. I incline towards the second reading, but the book itself leaves the question unresolved.

Over the years, I have bored anyone that will listen with the idea that The Human Stain is a great West Indian novel — even though it is set in the United States and based on the life of the American literary critic Anatole Broyard. That is because I find Philip Roth’s novel to be a perfect restatement of a classic West Indian anxiety: the need to appear worthy of an unexpected or precarious social elevation. Roth’s hero is a classics professor named Coleman Silk, who fears that any disclosure of his carefully hidden black ancestry will undermine his hard-won progress through the world of professional academia. In my experience, this fear of being caught out, of being exposed as a cultural sham, is one that West Indians in many different settings carry throughout their lives. Ultimately, I believe, it is a fear of the panoptical eye of the absent colonial master, a dread that occasionally drives our longing for cultural acceptance to pathological extremes.

Both the fear and the longing find their most poignant expression in V.S. Naipaul, whose hypnotic prose has always out-Englished the English, but the dilemma goes even deeper than the beauty of his style. In a moment of critical inspiration, the critic James Wood once compared Naipaul’s literary attitudes to those of Frantz Fanon, another postcolonial writer who feared and loved the culture bequeathed by a former master. In what may be the single most illuminating critical utterance on Naipaul, Wood writes:

That double assessment — pride and shame, compassion and alienation — is the stereoscopic vision of A House for Mr Biswas, and, in a sense, of all Naipaul’s fiction, and it is why he is a writer who has a conservative vision but radical eyesight. The Wounded, radical Naipaul burns with rage at the cramped, colonial horizon of his father’s life, and seeks to defend his accomplishments against the colonist’s metropolitan sneers, but the conservative Wounder has got beyond the little prison of Trinidad, and now sees, with the colonist’s eye and no longer the colonial’s, the littleness of that imprisonment. Naipaul is enraging and puzzling, especially to those who themselves come from postcolonial societies, because his radicalism and his conservatism are so close to each other — each response is descended from the same productive shame.

Bhattacharya’s gift is a productive empathy that verges on complete absorption. He too can see with radical eyesight, but appears to feel no need for a compensating sneer. He has access to the anxieties of all postcolonial people, yet finds a way to suspend these during his immersion in a strange and strangely familiar foreign country. The result, in its simplest formulation, is Naipaul plus love.


The Caribbean Review of Books, January 2012

Brendan de Caires was born in Guyana and now lives in Toronto. He has worked as an editor for various publishers, and written book reviews for Caribbean Beat, Kyk-Over-Al, the Stabroek News, and the Literary Review of Canada. He is programmes and communications co-ordinator for PEN Canada.