Book Quote:

“Bai, in Guyana it have pandit and it have bandit and sometimes it hard to tell the two apart.”

Book Review:

Review by Poornima Apte  (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 Bengal’s most revered sons and cultural icons. It stands to reason that years after Ray’s death, the incredibly talented Rahul Bhattacharya (a fellow Bengali) would use Ray’s famous bildungsroman, Pather Panchali, as the inspiration for his debut novel.

At its most basic essence, Bhattacharya’s The Sly Company of People Who Care is also a bildungsroman—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 “a one year visa—to reinvent one’s living, to escape the deadness of the life one was accustomed to…to be hungry for the world one saw.”

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: “If you stay too long in a place, you become petty. It has happened to me.”

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 unknown—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: “One escapes one’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,” 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: “They think like they care.”

If there’s a problem with this novel, it is that Bhattacharya’s spectator view of Guyana is too rosy, too often—a tourist’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 story—that of the protagonist rediscovering himself—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 (“Our days passed slow and voluptuous”). It wouldn’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 isn’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 wouldn’t be too much of a wild call to predict that this immensely talented author will soon make the magazine’s prestigious “20 Under 40” list.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 6 readers
PUBLISHER: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (April 26, 2011)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
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



May 22, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: 2011 Favorites, Debut Novel, South America, World Lit

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