Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Bhattacharya: The Sly Company of People Who Care

Rahul Bhattacharya (2011) The Sly Company of People Who Care Picador, London; 279 pp.; ISBN 978-1-4472-0378-0

There is a qualitative difference between a migrant and someone who travels to seek a different life. The migrant has a sense of purpose and works to build a new life in the place he has chosen, even if the original choice was limited. The searching traveller lands in an often romanticised destination and hopes for a new life to be revealed and handed to him. The narrator of this novel falls clearly into the traveller category, adrift in Guyana and desperately looking for a life that is better than the one at home in India.

The novel is a thinly fictionalised account of Bhattacharya’s one-year sojourn in English-speaking Guyana, where a slim majority of the population is of Indian descent. Those of African origins make up most of the rest, but there is a gulf of wealth between them, with those of Indian background controlling much of the economy and the political system.

In the first part of the book, the narrator moves into a poor neighbourhood in the capital, Georgetown. The bustle and complexity of neighbourhood relationships, the physical realities of poverty, and the joys and anger of street life are vividly portrayed. Drinking, gambling and theft are common themes, but there is also dignity and persistence as people live out their hopes. The narrator meets up with Baby, a convicted killer, and they head off into the jungle to try some diamond prospecting. As the journey progresses and the prospecting with a partner of Baby gets under way, the haplessness of the narrator becomes increasingly evident. He is useless at most practical things and increasingly he is seen by his companions as a burden. When the venture turns ugly, the narrator averts his eyes and ignores the consequences. Is a dead man left in the jungle?

The second part of the novel gives some explanation of the divisions between Indians and Africans that underpin life in Guyana. The narrator meets up with truck and car drivers who allow him to see more of the countryside in this sparsely populated nation. They take an illegal side trip into Brazil and the difference between Guyana and its much wealthier neighbour is clear in the presence of basic amenities and goods in the shops. But Guyana is where the narrator wants to be and we sense a happiness when he returns there.

In the final section, the narrator has moved to a new location and meets new characters, though they are less well depicted than those who come earlier in the novel. On another trip to the countryside, the narrator falls for a young woman named Jan, and much of the story from then on is about their taking a trip to Venezuela, Jan to escape her life in Guyana and the narrator to continue his endless drifting. She has a purpose and he does not, so the final break-up is a surprise to no one except the narrator. Callow and petulant, he does not handle it well. Their return to Guyana runs into trouble and Jan is abandoned to a fate that we can only guess.

There is a deep disconnect in this novel that almost brings it undone. The narrator is a graduate visiting from India, but the narration is done in the style of Guyanese street talk. At times it falters and occasionally it is juvenile. Why would an educated Indian recount things in this way? It is baffling and at times annoying. I wondered if the author was mocking V.S. Naipaul’s equally ridiculous persona of the condescending Edwardian Englishman, but I think that would be stretching things.

The great advantage of using local dialect in this book, indeed the thing that makes this novel so interesting, is that the language conveys the sounds and smells, the colours and characters, and the beauty and terror of the landscape in a way that is both intense and physical. The world becomes vibrant and tangible, but the choice of a visiting Indian to use this particular dialect almost undoes the spell that a good novel should cast on a reader.

It is hard to sympathise with such a clueless narrator. Part of it is due to his youth – he is desperate to fit in and to make friends, but he has few of the social skills that would allow him to do this. He wants to be in Guyana, but he is a dabbler, playing with the patois and shuffling through his days with no sense of direction. People are at a loss to understand why he is there. Every so often he runs out of the country because perhaps deep down he realises he is not really engaging with it. In his final day or so in Georgetown before flying home to India, he wanders about looking for old acquaintances and familiar places, at times descending into tears. He cannot understand why. This is someone on the edge of a nervous breakdown, a lost soul.

When I was young like the narrator and searching for my way through life, an older friend whom I regarded highly told me to ‘go with the flow’. I took this as a wise Zen-like prescription, but in later life I realised that if you always go with the flow eventually you end up going down the drain. Bhattacharya’s novel has a narrator who is in serious drift in a downward direction. But, truly, the ride is wonderful.

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