Going back home in your mind

Dave Martins, Stabroek News

Getting inside a culture and unravelling it for someone is tough enough if you’re from that culture.  For someone outside the culture, the unravelling is virtually impossible, but a writer from India, Rahul Bhattacharya, has done it. He has written the definitive delineation of Guyanese culture in an enthralling book – “The Sly Company of People Who Care” – that will utterly captivate readers, particularly the ones with Guyanese blood in their veins.

Bhattacharya had come here a few years ago to cover a cricket tour, and intrigued by the Guyanese culture, he returned here around 2007 and spent a year traipsing the country, weaving his way into every corner from the back lanes of Kitty to the drink-ups in the interior, and every corner in between.  Based on those experiences, the book is by someone who clearly immersed himself into Guyanese life, head and shoulders, full bore, soaking it up like a sponge. It shows on every page. Bhattacharya does not criticize or remonstrate; he presents us, almost as a camera would – showing but rarely judging.

The man is not only an excellent writer, but an observer with a superb eye and a keen ear, and he has captured us beautifully. No other writer, including Guyanese ones, has painted such an accurate picture of this culture.  The work is so true that it literally jolts you in the middle of reading with how real it is;  you can see the places he writes about; you recognize the people – from their speech and behaviour you know them.

Written somewhat in the style of a novel, the story is actually spun from the author’s wanderings all over Guyana, but if you’re looking for a puff piece on the place, this is not it.  In fact, “Sly Company” will be criticized because it presents an undoctored Guyana, warts and all, loyalty and deceit, squalor and excess, swampland and Kaieteur; but that is precisely where the strength of the book lies.  It is the real Guyana, and for people who have roots here, it’s a book you cannot put down.  It will bring laughter to your belly, grimaces to your face, and water to your eye.

If you’re looking for reams of political discourse, this is not your book. Bhattacharya does touch that subject, and reveals a good understanding of some of the traumas in that area, but he doesn’t spend much time there; what he’s after is to create almost a video in words (there is not a single photograph in the book) that brings you face to face with Guyana as a culture, as a people strenuously engaged with life, burdened by the problems but not buckling. The sense of struggle and of enduring is constant. Several times reading the book my mind went to that line in “Blade O’ Grass” that says: “We will bend like a bough, but never break.”

I’m sure it wasn’t his intention, but I suspect the book will stir people to come and see this place and these people, and this particularly different way of life, for themselves; for those who know the place already, whether living here or not, you will come back home in your mind.

Time and again the writing throws up aspects of the culture – the punch of the dialect; the machinations of liquor; the majesty of the landscape; the hard life of the interior; the Georgetown trash; the insouciance of the people and their spirited behaviours – in a way that will literally make you stop and reflect, “That is definitely Guyana.”

Although it’s never quite clear what the title means, it is obvious from page one that a strong sense of caring took place between Rahul and this country. Part of it may be the vivid reflection of his own Indian background in this transported place, but Bhattacharya is also clearly transfixed by the turbulent racial mix of our country, with its varied behaviours, cuisines and customs. Even when he’s describing some grinding aspect of life here, his love for the place and its people comes through between the stinging words.

In particular, in the depiction of dialect, a job often mangled by even well-known writers, Bhattacharya shines. Some minor mistakes aside, he captures this intriguing way we speak better than I have seen it presented anywhere.  He has a linguist’s ear for pronunciation, and almost unfailingly makes Guyanese sound like Guyanese.  Often, to read his dialogue is to see the individual speaker in front of you. Even more intriguingly, Bhattacharya not only captures the sound of our dialect, but his characters display attitudes and mores that are so clearly us.  His characters speak and behave Guyanese.

Be clear about one thing: this is not a superficial look; it is a wide and diverse reach.  Bhattacharya confronts the differing racial attitudes; the pervasive presence of liquor in our lives; the inclination to rage and violence. At the same time he shows the subtle interweaving of the races; our instinctive interaction with nature; the value we put on social exchange; the strong sensuality we display; and our ability to cope with and even laugh at outrageous circumstances and individuals. In the words of my Ohio Professor friend Vibert Cambridge, “the book is a tour de force”.

Those who have become cynical about Guyana’s problems will find in this reading several reinforcements for their stance – the depictions are that unfiltered – but by the same token those who remain tied to this land will see their connections, as well; time and again they will find in these pages the things that keep them here, putting up with all the grating aspects of everyday life.

The essence of any country is not its structures but its culture, and the book’s success, ultimately, is that it is like a mirror reflecting this vibrant way of being that Guyanese have created in our sprawling, aggravating and  fascinating country. If anybody asks you to explain Guyana, send them to this book.

I read a lot and give away most books when I’m finished with them, but I’m keeping this one. Even though I live in Guyana, “Sly Company” took me back home.



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