Author – Rahul Bhattacharya
Publishers – Picador India
Pages – 281
I’m usually a little wary of picking up books that nobody’s recommended to me, especially when it comes to Indian titles. No, this isn’t because I’m snooty; you wouldn’t even ask me that question if you’ve seen some of the shit that’s being published these days. And yes, that includes Chetan Bhagat’s output.
That is why when a senior colleague asked me to go meet Rahul Bhattacharya and plonked his debut novel, The Sly Company of People Who Care, on my desk, I felt my heart sinking a bit. I have little patience with bad, amateurish writing – and that is why I’m not in the publishing industry – and since I hadn’t heard any buzz about this particular book, I didn’t think I had any reason to be optimistic.
Turns out, I was wrong. The Sly Company of People Who Care is lyrically beautiful only in the way a true love story can be. Here, its the love that Bhattacharya has for the tiny Caribbean nation of Guyana. When I met the author, he said he couldn’t explain why he left a regular job to go and live in Guyana for a year after having spent only a week there once before. “There was something about it that really connected with me. Like when you hear a song you love; it was very similar,” he said. At that point I had read only a quarter of the book, but even then it was evident to me that he spoke the truth. I, as the reader, could almost see and feel the fragile, melnacholy beauty of Guyana – a bit like raindrops on a spiderweb, if I were to get as poetic as Bhattacharya does in some portions of the book. In other words, he successfully conjured up not only the beauty of a distant nation that most Indian have not even heard of, but he also managed to convey a realistic picture of the deep impression that it left on him.
For the most part, this is clear through his use of Creolese – the peculiar Guyanese mix of English, French, Hindi and many other languages. He informed me that he’d written the first draft almost wholly in Creolese – “I couldn’t imagine writing it any other way” – but was advised by his editors to change large portions to standard English, in order to make it more accessible. I’m glad he acquiesced; as it is the book was a little slow going for me, although I enjoyed it immensely.
The book is populated by many colourful characters – the bandit Baby, the alluring Jan, the eccentric Uncle Lance and the quirky, lovable Ramotar Seven Curry. The narrator, like Bhattacharya, was a cricket writer who left India to find himself in Guyana. His personal evolution and his understanding of Guyana grows through these people he meets. The author hasn’t bogged the book down with Wikipedia-like portions on Guyanese history and culture, but there’s enough detail for the reader to get a clear picture. Its in these portions that Bhattacharya the Journalist really shines. And of course, no one can miss the nod to Naipaul, whose own early, evocative prose is echoed in this book.
I really don’t want to write about the plot here because frankly, there isn’t one. It’s episodic in structure, but even those can’t be simply described in basic ‘he-said, she-said’ sort of paraphrasing. So far, this book is certainly my discovery of the year. I hadn’t really thought I’d get this excited about an Indian author of my generation, but yes – I do see this book being nominated for a lot of awards. I hope it is; good prose deserves all the recognition it gets.