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The Sly Company of People Who Care - Journey into the Heart of 'Slyness'
I approached Rahul Bhattacharya’s The Sly Company of People Who Care with a hint of trepidation caused by the ways in which people from “elsewhere” view those of us living “here” in the Caribbean. My trepidation strengthens when I read the jacket cover which describes Guyana, the story’s locale, as a “forgotten colonial society” the kind of erroneous description which echoes pronouncements that we were “discovered” by Columbus. Yet a few pages in, the effortless poetry of the narrative voice quickly drew me in, making me forget my caution. The result was a wonderful journey of discovery.
The Sly Company of People Who Care is Bhattacharya’s debut novel and it is a glittering one. There is fluidity, poignancy and poetry in his language, whether he is describing the people or the landscape. The book is pregnant with vivid imagery that allows you to dive into each scene. The Sly Company of People Who Care is a wonderful exploration of Guyana: its past, its present, the land, the people. The narrator is clearly fascinated by the country and its people and this fascination is captivating. Under his pen Guyana lives and sparkles, even the dark despairing bits.
The novel follows an unnamed narrator who, like Bhattacharya, gives up his regular job in India and journey’s to Guyana where he spends a year. While most of the of the novel is dedicated to the characters who populate the narrator’s journey through Guyana, and into Brazil and Venezuela. The Sly Company of People Who Care also includes much of Guyana’s history and yet, the novel is not burdened by this. Instead, it is clear that the country’s history is a huge part of what shapes these sly but often caring people who sing from the pages. The characters arrest the imagination, even when seen only in passing and through them the novel explores racism, politics, crime and the relations between the ‘East Indians’ in Guyana and Indians.
Bhattacharya writes this novel with the keen eye of an outsider who has the rare pleasure of being an insider. The novel is also filled with insights into Caribbean music, especially Reggae but also Chutney and Jonkunnu. Bhattacharya’s understanding of music as a way of making meaning probably explains the musicality of his language.
Bhattacharya’s use of Guyanese Creole is a beautiful part of the linguistic landscape, which is as captivating as the rainforests he describes. He does more than merely give shades of authenticity by peppering the pages with bits of phrases. Bhattacharya does more than use Creole when the characters speak. Instead Guyanese expressions become infused with the narrative. So he speaks of Dayclean rather than sunrise and he refers to giving people "raises" rather than bribes as his language falls into stride with those around him.
The Sly Company of People Who Care is in many ways a travel narrative, but it is also a journey to self, and truly that is often the point of travel because it is when we are elsewhere that we truly discover who we are. When speaking of his decision to travel to Guyana the narrator says:
"So 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. It comes with a heaviness. The only way to be exempt is to resolutely not ponder, but I was given to ponder."
And The Sly Company of People Who Care will make you ponder.
Title: The Sly Company of People Who Care
Author: Rahul Bhattacharya
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux