Much like the book itself, the launch event of ‘The Sly Company of People Who Care’ by Rahul Bhattacharya was all about the Caribbean nation of Guyana – its people, its language and dialect, its colonial history and racial politics, and its decaying wooden splendour.
“It’s such a raw-ly beautiful country, with its red rivers and rainforests,” said Bhattacharya, in conversation with journalist and author Samanth Subramanian at Landmark. “I felt an instant affinity to its colours and dialects – it was so different from anything I’d experienced before.”
Delhi-based Bhattacharya is best known for his work on cricinfo.com and for his popular cricket book ‘Pundits from Pakistan’. ‘The Sly Company…’ is his debut novel and was also, in a sense, was born out of cricket.
“I was on my first international cricket tour to the West Indies, and my first port of call was Guyana,” he recalled. “It was a very boring week of test cricket – it always rains there during matches – but my affinity for the place stayed with me, and I decided to follow that feeling nearly four years later.”
He ended up spending a year there – unusual, to say the least. “No one goes to Guyana,” he said laughing. “Everyone flees Guyana – it’s such a desperate, struggling place.”
But it’s also a fascinating place, with its volatile racial mix of Africans, Indians, Chinese, and Portuguese, its grid of canals and trenches, and its sagging wooden houses with zinc roofs built by the Dutch. “I knew I’d write a book on it, but I didn’t what that book would be,” said Bhattacharya.
The book eventually took the shape of a novel (“I’d start with facts and then tell a whole lot of lies”), but the author still struggled with the non-fiction elements he needed to include.
“So few in India know the historical context of Guyana – how it was created entirely by colonial powers who brought in slaves and indentured labourers, and how its reality is shaped by what happened once the colonial powers left,” he said. “I had to reconcile these non-fictional elements with the storytelling – that was challenging.”
‘The Sly Company…’ tells the story of a young man from India who goes to Guyana in search of escape from ‘the deadness of life’, and embarks on an adventure with Baby, a diamond hunter. Slow paced and filled with dialogue in Guyanese dialect, the book isn’t always easy to read. But it did come alive during a long, dramatised reading by the author, who did a remarkable job in re-creating the distinctive rhythms of Guyanese speech (“I became quite good at it; people could mistake me for Guyanese by the end!”).
“When I came back, the dialect was bouncing in my head so hard – the vivid phrases and the very visual way of speaking were addictive,” he said. “A lot of the narrative in the book was in that style initially; I had to be reined in by my editor who felt it would be incomprehensible to readers.”
Naturally, much of the q-and-a session that followed focused on race and politics in Guyana. The turnout at the launch might have been small, but those present walked away with a deeper understanding of the Caribbean nation.