Area of Brownness: An Indian writer encounters Indian-ness in Guyana

Words by Rishi Bonneville

A young English-speaking Indian writer travels halfway across the world to write about another group of English-speaking Indians.  In 1964, it was Trinidadian V.S. Naipaul’s passage to India, an experience he documented in Area of Darkness. Almost a half-century later, The Sly Company of People Who Care –a new novel by Rahul Bhattacharya–inverts Naipaul’s journey, following a cricket writer from Mumbai to Guyana, where 40% of the population are of Indian extraction, people left behind by the brutal British indenture system.

The first third of the book is the strongest; a series of vignettes, in which the narrator describes sights and sounds—familiar and unfamiliar, safe and unsafe—during his travels in the capitol Georgetown and a sojourn into the rainforest. This tension is perhaps best embodied by the mystical Dr. Red, a “veveve very” spiritually rich elder of Amerindian ancestry whose mellow demeanor is perpendicular to his capacity for vengeance. “I lash him in all respects,” Dr. Red calmly states while recounting how he axed up a friend who raped an Amerindian girl.

Bhattacharya writes impressionistically, with wide, bright strokes.  In the midst of downpour in Georgetown he says: “It was a lovely raining day, the kind of Georgetown January day that would singe me forever. Clothes flew on the line against a palm. Wooden houses cried on corners.”  These vivid moments often provide the scaffolding of a larger point, for when the narrator boldly says “water is the essential truth of Guyana” or “it was the uniform, universal contempt for indigenous people everywhere” the reader can absorb it; a strong case has been made.

The novel also employs a lively rendering of Guyanese creole. When a local flimflam man called Baby implores “you cyan be saaf, bai, you cyan be fockin’ saaf” the reader senses them floating down a Guyanese jungle river. Creole also enters the narrator’s own diction, slowly, at first, and later in clumps:  “A presidential candidate appeared. Nobody gave an ass.” In spite of this free indirect style the narrator retains an outsider’s sense of humor—for example when recounting the anger of a woman watching television: “You see how much encouragement blackpeople them get because of jokey mout’ like Sharma? The man so stupid he don’t know how to say the word becaas. He call it becaize. Yes, he say becaize for becaas.”

The narration begins to lose crispness in parts two and three. Part two is a brief history of the British indenture system in Guyana in the 1800s, appended to a digest of recent activities of the paramilitary death squad of Roger Khan. For those who know the work of Basdeo Mangru, the former will be as familiar as the latter is to those who keep abreast of news from Guyana. Part three finds our narrator falling for a local part-Indian girl, Jankey, and absconding with her to nearby Venezuela before things fall apart. It is during this section that the narrator begins to become unreliable. His sexual desire, explored in his jousts with Jankey and explained in painful detail, blind him to the predicament of his companion, who has a child by an older man who neglects her. “But what was the problem? There was no problem…the trip was fab. The girl was sexy,” he says.

As women characters (other than Jankey) receive scarce attention, black Guyanese, too, are little studied. When they are, the narrator’s admiration of reggae music imbues them with a Jamaican, reggae-centric worldview. Baby, who (improbably) fills out quiet moments humming Beenie Man gospels, befriends the narrator only after talking about reggae. Calyspso/soca references dot a few conversations, but, he concludes, “reggae was the brotherhood.”  No attention is given to the African Guyanese culture that would have and still exists outside of these imported vibes. This is a significant omission, and surprising.

The novel, however, is a serious exploration of Indian identity. Jankey, confused by the narrator’s use of creole, is surprised he was born in India. He, too, is startled at her name, from the hindi Janaki: “We stood in the flush shade, surprised by one another’s Indianness.” When inquiring with a local about rampant Guyanese depression, he is told bluntly: “we are sad because ever since we left India we have a hole in our hearts. Nothing can fill that hole.” The narrator writes “you, brother, are more Indian than I.” Later he muses “hierarchy matters less here…rich and poor people hang out together, drink and chat. India is you know, paralysed by hierarchy.” These sentiments–this gradient of Indianness, and the possibility of new, fresh social arrangements so far from home–are Bhattacharya’s, and where he deviates from previous viewpoints.

Writer Dinaw Mengestu, in a recent New York Times review of the book, speaking of Naipaul and Bhattacharya’s parallel subject matter says: “By and large, though, the similarities end there.” This is not entirely accurate. Nobelist J.M. Coetzee once wrote of “a mode of writing that Naipaul has perfected over the years, in which historical reportage and social analysis flow into and out of autobiographically colored fiction and travel memoir.” This is precisely the style Bhattacharya uses. Furthermore, echoes of Naipaul works like Miguel Street, The Middle Passage, and Enigma of Arrival abound.

But if A Sly Company of People Who Care operates and innovates on several levels, it is difficult to know what this book is about. What does this title refer to? Taken from some notes the narrator finds in a pamphlet by the Dutch West India company, it is meant to remind us that the Guyana is a result of brutal colonial games played by the Dutch and British under the guise of civilization. On another level, it is mean to capture the survivor’s psychology of Guyana—Lance, Baby, and Jankey never reveal their true intentions; they are to be watched and trusted, simultaneously. However, there may be a more subtle meaning that can be ascribed to the title and the narrator who chose it.  At the beginning of the story, our unnamed narrator describes his motive by saying “he came here once and had dreams.” Later, when Jankey, unconvinced, says to him “It got to be something that make you choose Guyana,” she pierces through the canopy of confusion under which our unnamed guide has been travelling. At the end of the book, he prepares to leave, notes on Guyana in hand, destined perhaps, as he indicates, for National Geographic (or ambitiously, a novel) while her fate is desperately uncertain. One realizes then, that perhaps he is the slyest of them all. While Lance, Jankey and Baby are worn down slowly by history and circumstance, for our narrator, tomorrow is a new, bright day. In the Guyanese vernacular: dayclean.