I just finished reading Rahul Bhattacharya’s debut novel The sly company of people who care. The author is from India and spent a year in Guyana. He could be from Mars – my view would be the same. It is a brilliant work, and a landmark. The writer is extravagantly gifted, ceaselessly inventive and has a flair for lyrical description. To my mind, this is the most meaty, enjoyable and important commentary set in Guyana since Edgar Mittleholzer. Anyone with a connection to Guyana should have a copy. Indeed, anyone who loves good writing.
Even though styled as fiction, the writer’s experiences in Guyana illumine the text throughout. Given that he is not Guyanese, the way he gets inside the skin of the country and its people, the authenticity of his observations and the flawless rendering of Guyanese dialect are astounding.
The people portrayed by Bhattacharya are those some would call “the salt of the earth.” Middle-class Guyanese need not be unduly upset about this. They have been adequately covered by other writers. Bhattacharya had no remit to do an academic treatise or sociological study of Guyana. He simply followed his ‘sympatico’ sensibilities, and engages the reader from start to finish. His poetic disposition sparkles and suggests a new category – neither prose nor poetry. Prosetry? Reading The Sly Company, I felt the way I did when I read Bob Dylan’s autobiographical Chronicles. It was a delight, eliciting a range of emotions, and I did not want the book to end. The high point is his encounter with Kaieteur Falls. Superbly rendered.
Notable literary approaches to Guyana range from cold, clinical detachment to tortuous, airy fairy abstractions – obscurity confused with profundity. Both miss the mark. Bhattacharya’s way is immersion. Total immersion in the land, its people and history, without sneering condescension or cloying sentimentality. No mean feat, and it makes for vibrant and enlightening reportage. Added to that, a wicked – or should I say wutlis? – humour leavens the text and has the reader rolling on the floor.
Music is a thread throughout the book. In particular, Jamaican music. On a personal note, this resonated with me, because I grew up listening to and loving Jamaican music, from an earlier era. It is foundation music for me. The cycle of life being what it is, I eventually returned to that music after many years, and now I keep it close. So when Bhattacharya wrote about “riddim” I smiled and thought “So it got you too eh?”
Leaving aside the earlier Martian reference – after all, did not Mittleholzer famously assert “Blood will out”? – it matters that the writer came from India. For decades, amongst the local Indian population, there was dissatisfaction about the ignorance of the situation in Guyana on the subcontinent, and the perceived attitude of the Indian government to its ‘lost children’ – either a wilful blindness to their plight or a studied indifference. Singlehandedly, Bhattacharya – though this was probably not his intent – has done much to close the knowledge gap in India and heal the hurt in Guyana. He did that through the loving attention he gave to the history and peoples of Guyana, including those of Indian descent. It came late – very late – but someone cares, and has shown it. Heart. Dil. Corazon.
My feeling is that this will be Bhattacharya’s masterwork, the book that made his name; a summit which he can try to scale again – but never surmount. And that is alright. It ends with the author’s departure from Guyana, in the word-sentence “Gone.” But Rahul ain railly gone. He lef ah big piece of heself right hey.