THE SLY COMPANY OF PEOPLE WHO CARE by Rahul Bhattacharya
“Bai, in Guyana it have pandit and it have bandit and sometimes it hard to tell the two apart.”
Review by Poornima Apte Â (MAY 22, 2011)
First, a quick background about Indian (specifically Bengali) cinema: The great Indian filmmaker, Satyajit Ray, was from the state of West Bengal and is one of Bengalâ€™s most revered sons and cultural icons. It stands to reason that years after Rayâ€™s death, the incredibly talented Rahul Bhattacharya (a fellow Bengali) would use Rayâ€™s famous bildungsroman, Pather Panchali, as the inspiration for his debut novel.
At its most basic essence, Bhattacharyaâ€™s The Sly Company of People Who Care is also a bildungsromanâ€”it traces the growth and coming of age of its protagonist in a country far away from home, Guyana. The protagonist in the novel seems to be modeled after Bhattacharya himself. Like Bhattacharya, the protagonist is a cricket reporter who decides to take an extended yearlong vacation in Guyana. Gooroo, as the protagonist is referred to by others, has â€śa one year visaâ€”to reinvent oneâ€™s living, to escape the deadness of the life one was accustomed toâ€¦to be hungry for the world one saw.â€ť
While in Guyana, the protagonist travels to many places and tries his hand at many jobs. One of these exotic jobs is that of a porknocker, prospecting for diamonds with a local bandit called Baby. Gooroo soon tires of this and moves on. He watches Pather Panchali at a local cultural center and remembers what one of the characters in the movie says: â€śIf you stay too long in a place, you become petty. It has happened to me.â€ť
Towards the end of the book, the protagonist is mesmerized by a woman he meets, Jan (short for the Indian Jankee). He is so taken by her that he invites her to travel with him to destinations unknownâ€”they eventually end up in Venezuela. This portion of the book, the interaction between Gooroo and Jan, is easily one of the most nuanced descriptions of a romantic relationship I have read in a long time. The slow tempo with which the relationship rises and eventually falls is just superb and in a sense, mirrors the languid surroundings that always haunt the book.
Gooroo eventually knows he has to stop wandering and find some ballast to his life: â€śOne escapes oneâ€™s life seeking adventure, and with enough dheel and some luck, that happens. But the thread is anchored. You can only go so far. The impulse must change. Instead of adventure one seeks understanding,â€ť Bhattacharya writes.
The author incorporates a lot of Guyanese history into the novel and this serves to explain just how and why such an ethnically diverse set of people are described within the pages of Sly. Guyana was once a Dutch colony and waves of indentured laborers, including Africans, Indians and even Chinese, helped settle this South American country. The title for the novel comes from a book Gooroo spots at a small local library. It was a book about the Dutch West India Company and someone had written a single word on one page, possibly in an attempt to describe the colonial power: Sly. In the margin, a sentence had been started: â€śThey think like they care.â€ť
If thereâ€™s a problem with this novel, it is that Bhattacharyaâ€™s spectator view of Guyana is too rosy, too oftenâ€”a touristâ€™s adoring gaze, if you will. The book is also less of a novel and more of a travelogue, even if the overall arc of the storyâ€”that of the protagonist rediscovering himselfâ€”becomes clearer at the end.
Yet these are extremely minor drawbacks in a debut fiction work that will be long remembered for its voice and for its superb sense of place. Bhattacharya has said that voice is one of the most important elements in fiction and that he devoted a lot of care in making sure that the voice in Sly really came to life. This attention has paid off beautifully in his debut novel. Sly teems with rich voices everywhere and they together create a beautiful tapestry.
The country of Guyana comes alive in these pages (â€śOur days passed slow and voluptuousâ€ť). It wouldnâ€™t be too much of an overstatement to say that you can almost feel the humid air and the mosquitoes swarming around, when you read this book. Between the voice and the passages describing the gorgeous countryside, the reader is completely transported. And isnâ€™t that after all, the central thesis of fiction?
To think that the immensely talented Bhattacharya is only 31! Still plenty of time for the New Yorker to sit up and pay attention. It wouldnâ€™t be too much of a wild call to predict that this immensely talented author will soon make the magazineâ€™s prestigious â€ś20 Under 40â€ť list.
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 6 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux (April 26, 2011)|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||YES! Start Reading Now!|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Guardian article on Rahul Bhattacharya|
|EXTRAS:||Reading Guide and Excerpt|
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||More fiction about travel:
In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut
Away by Amy Bloom
- The Sly Company of People Who Care (April 2011)
- Pundits from Pakistan (2004)