In many ways, Rahul Bhattacharya’s atmospheric debut novel, The Sly Company of People Who Care, is more travelogue than work of fiction. Its young Indian protagonist, never named, is likely a stand-in for the author himself, who fell in love with the South American backwater while traveling the world and reporting on cricket—travels that produced an acclaimed work of nonfiction, Pundits from Pakistan.
In the novel, his fictional incarnation returns to Guyana in search of adventure and a carefree life unattainable amid the overpopulated hustle of his native country. Postcolonial Guyana, one of the poorest nations in the world, is populated by the descendents of African slaves, Portuguese, Chinese, Dutch and English settlers, and some indigenous people, but the largest percentage of the population is East Indian, descendants of indentured laborers who emigrated there in search of work. This cultural mishmash infuses the country’s music, food and language with a quirky singularity.
Our hero wants to be participant rather than mere observer, and he settles into a squalid room in a Georgetown warren where he mingles freely with the diverse citizenry. Hooking up with an ex-con named Baby, he ventures into the interior on a diamond-hunting expedition that ends badly—like so many of his misadventures. With an East Indian named Ramotar Seven Curry, he samples a series of local weddings. He moves lodgings to a Georgetown strip noted for its prostitutes, nightclubs and rum shops. Sneaking across the Brazilian border, he meets Jan, the girl of his erotic dreams. He finds her again back in Guyana, and together they embark on a journey to Trinidad and Venezuela that ends in heartbreak.
Picaresque in structure, Bhattacharya’s first crack at a novel is a bit episodic, and lacks strong overriding dramatic tension—although some delightful individual scenes carry the narrative forward. The true virtues of the book lie in his talent for capturing the absurdity of daily Guyanese life, which he accomplishes by tapping into the casual everyday humor—much of it off-color—and also by expertly conveying the local patois. Unfamiliar territory for many of us, this small South American country certainly comes alive through Bhattacharya’s lush description, whether he is describing the tropical terrain, communicating the delights of the local brand of reggae or observing the incongruous goings-on through a ganja-fueled haze.
Bhattacharya’s alter ego makes numerous references to the few writers who have ventured into this territory before him, particularly V.S. Naipaul and Evelyn Waugh. While the author shares a sense of irony with these literary forebears, The Sly Company of People Who Care has a wide-eyed innocence one doesn’t associate with their work. It has much humor, to be sure, but not much bite, perhaps because Bhattacharya is so enraptured by Guyana that he is reluctant to seek its darkest underpinnings. In the end, the book is an unabashed love letter to an eccentric people and their culture.