Lush and languid
For all its undeniable talent, Sly Company is a little vain, trying too hard to be clever.
The Sly Company of People Who Care, Rahul Bhattacharya, Picador, p.281.
Halfway through this book I realised that I didn't really know where Guyana is. I'd always thought of it as a little Caribbean island, the home of Rohan Kanhai, that most artistic of batsmen, probably across the water from Trinidad, home of V.S. Naipaul, that most felicitous of writers. When I looked it up on the map I learned that it's actually in South America, wedged between Brazil and Venezuela but, as I was drawn deeper into the book, those first, serendipitous associations with Naipaul and Kanhai seemed to become curiously apt: The Sly Company has the masterly spirit of place of the former and, in some elliptical way, the effortless, silken artistry of the latter.
Guyana is also, of course, the place where Rahul Bhattacharya, the well-known cricket-writer, came to spend a year. To live, to explore, to feel, to write. And the result is this highly-acclaimed book, as lush and as languid as the rain-forest after an afternoon storm. It's probably not a coincidence, though, that on the cover, just below the title, the publishers decided to print the words, “A Novel”, because otherwise you could so easily mistake this for a travelogue: its ravishing descriptions, its eccentric assortment of local characters; its rambunctious patois and reggae-chutney sound-track; its near-absence of any real story-line; its creation of an entire tragicomic world which you, for now, come to inhabit yourself, living with Bhattacharya's alter-ego on Sheriff Street, in that “green room by the avocado tree”.
But then travel literature is sometimes like that, walking the fine line between fact and fiction. Is Naipaul's A Way in the World, the former or the latter? On one side of the Atlantic it was published as fiction and on the other side as non-fiction.
“Guyana had the feel of an accidental place,” Bhattacharya writes, “Partly it was the epic indolence. Partly it was the ethnic composition…. there were chinee, putagee, buck, coolie, blackman, and the combinations emanating from these… on a ramble in such a land you could encounter a story every day.” He encounters, too, a succession of quirky characters. Like Lancelot Banarsee, who “gyaffs” him at length on subjects from “politricks” to the hard realities of Guyanese race relations: “Don't speed me head in morning time, banna. Blackman think he can plant rice. Give he one square yard and is ganja you gonna find there.” Like Ramotar Seven Curry, the wedding freak, who takes him to hard-drinking Indiaman weddings where the rum is accentuated by the rum-chutney music on the sound systems: songs like “Rum me brother seh (Bring de fire-water)” and “I ain't touch de dulahin (But she belly start to swell)”. Like the sad-eyed Chabilall, singing an emotional, mangled, creolised “ Suhani raat dhal chuki, na jane tum kab aaoge”, whose words he doesn't understand, explaining, “Mohammad Rafi you ain't got to unstand words. Rafi in we blood.”
And, of course, like the gorgeous, sluttish, yet vulnerable Jan (short for Jankey Ramsewack), with her copper-tipped whiplash curls, her burntsugar skin and her shocking-pink bra strap showing. If there is a ‘Bad Sex in Fiction Award', there should also probably be a ‘Good Sex Award'; Bhattacharya would surely be a contender. He writes of his affair with Jan, with the sensibility of a poet mixed with the horniness of an adolescent: “Caracas mornings of morning baths, wet towels and unmade beds. Burgundy negligee. Eyeliner, her eyes energised to ferocity. Days sunk in quicksands and intimacies. The ooze of sex and obstacles. Friction and revelation. Resentments burnt out in furtive fucks.” The affair ends with an inevitable betrayal. But who really betrayed who? That's the eternal question, isn't it?
Wait for the real thing
For all its undeniable talent, Sly Company is a somewhat vain book, with a sub-text of “See how clever I am.” Hence the self-indulgent, sometimes tiresome excesses of prose; hence the sometimes over-stretched riffs of poesy (“The untoothed aged into children pink of cheek natural as hopping on to a bicycle and skimming over glassy trails of water”); hence even the deliberately, arrogantly, incomprehensible title of the book itself (yes, it does have an explanation — see page 90 — but does it have any meaning?) I look forward to Bhattacharya's next novel: now that he's demonstrated how clever he is, he can relax, enjoy his enormous talent and produce the really great book he has inside him.
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