For a debut novel, Rahul Bhattacharya breaks all the rules and goes for all things unconventional. Set in Guyana, an ensemble cast, an unnamed protagonist, part travelogue, it is anything but what you expect from an Indian author debuting in the fiction genre. But that’s what makes The Sly Company of People Who Care one of the most fascinating books to have come out in recent times.
Bhattacharya could have easily gone wrong writing about a land far away, its history and the complex characters who live there. Yet, his narrative style is so eloquent that he makes you feel a part of it. He makes Guyana look like a land of illusion — full of beaches, rivers, forests and so beautiful that you want to experience it. At the same time, he manages with utmost ease to take you through the journey of a young man travelling into the land of the unknown.
Much like Bhattacharya – who was a cricket writer earlier – the protagonist of the book leaves his job and comes to live in Georgetown, Guyana. The book is about his journey and how he becomes a porknocker (local slang for diamond miner), falls in love with an East Indian woman, and goes through the various adventures the land of Guyana has to offer — both good and bad. As one of the characters, Uncle Lance, tells the protagonist, “We got embassy, orphanage, vulcanisin, pawnshop, cookshop, rumshop, short-time’ — the by-the-hour humping rooms.”
The characters stand out in The Sly Company of People Who Care. There is Baby the Bandit, with whom the protagonist goes about porknocking and visits some of the most exotic locales that Guyana has. His relationship with Baby and their travels form quite a major part of the book. The protagonist is both in awe of Baby and finds it hard to trust him at the same time.
The characters both men meet are distinct, colourful and wild but they bring out the flavour of the remote areas of Guyana. For instance, even in the forest, while smoking and downing potent rum punches, they can talk about cricket, Brian Lara and everything under the sun. The cricket writer in Bhattacharya comes alive on a couple of occasions in the book. Being an Indian in Guyana, cricket is a topic of conversation between him and a few local people. He argues ferociously on Lara’s greatness when a local tries to play down Lara’s talent as a batsman.
The characters have unique names such as Ramotar Seven Curry, Rabindranath Latchman, Roger Khan and Uncle Red. You can sense that Bhattacharya has an eye for detail. Whether it is the characters or the history of Guyana which he tells the reader at various points in the book, Bhattacharya treads a difficult path with ease.
Like describing a rainy day in Guyana, he writes, “Guyana was elemental, water and earth, mud and fruit, race and crime, innocent and full of scoundrels.”
There are many things that stand out in the book but the highlight is the way Bhattacharya blends the local language into his narrative. Again, like many things in the book, this is unconventional but works beautifully. There are some genuinely laugh-out-loud moments just reading the Guyanese patois. In an interview, Bhattacharya said that when he had written the first draft, it was almost written in that language only. But his publishers advised him that a lot of people might not understand it.
True, some might find the book tad heavy and the use of the local language might not go down too well with many readers. There are times when Bhattacharya does go overboard describing certain situations in the book. For instance, there’s a whole passage devoted to describing swifts flying behind a waterfall. But then, overall his style of writing makes up for it. The way he describes the beautiful Guyanese landscape would often make you wonder it it’s actually a travelogue interspersed with fiction.
Anyone who has followed Bhattacharya’s writings on cricket would know that he is a gifted writer. At a time when young Indian authors are coming up with some average and some above average run-of-the-mill works of fiction, Bhattacharya’s book stands apart from the crowd, especially when you consider the setting and the context of the book. The book has received rave reviews in the literary world and is already being hailed as one of the best books of the year. It’s a book that commands your attention and you are compelled to give it all it needs. As a local Guyanese would say, “It’s a great read, bai.”
THE SLY COMPANY OF PEOPLE WHO CARE Rahul Bhattacharya Picador 281 pages; Rs 495