The 'Sly Company of People Who Care' is a book that lives up to its evocative title. Published earlier this year, it's recently won The Hindu Prize for best fiction. A disclaimer at the start -- I've known Rahul Bhattacharya for a few years, meeting him after his first book 'Pundits from Pakistan' was published. But there's a difference between knowing someone socially, and knowing them through their writing, and I'm delighted to say Rahul lives up to the praise he's been showered with.
It's no mean feat - His admirers have evoked Joseph Conrad (Pankaj Mishra's endorsement on the blurb of 'The Sly Company of People Who Care' says there's a "Conradian sense of wonder") and even VS Naipaul (literary reviews) - the jury's still out on what His Vidia-ness thinks of that.
'The Sly Company' picks from Rahul's experience living in Guyana for a year. He'd visited earlier, he says, while covering a cricket tour, and clearly felt a longing to go back. You could ask why Guyana? But I get the sense the reply you'd get would be why not?!
\'The Sly Company\' is something you should allow yourself to sink into, and leave your hectic fast-paced life behind.
He writes beautifully, including detailed observations on the physical settings he's exposed to, drenching you in the environment. The language can be challenging at first, the way dipping into any patois can be ... You start out feeling a bit of the strain, wondering at pronunciation, but have to allow yourself to ease into the drawl. Rahul is skilled, in that you find yourself keeping pace with his main character, someone who's incredibly self-aware.
In fact, the protagonist describes himself as a "slow ramblin' stranger" right at the outset... and then proceeds to take you along on mini-adventure after adventure. From the con artist Baby, to Uncle Lance, to the alluring Jan, the characters are well-defined, the atmosphere clearly set.
Acknowledging his own gullibility, he's far from disheartened by his first encounter with Baby, and quickly sets up a plan to go "por-knocking" (panning for gold or diamonds) in the heart of Guyana...It's quite a hairy tale, matched in some ways by the book's startling climax, in Venezuela.
The narrator's practically the only legit East Indian these other characters have met, and is subject to various questions, as you'd imagine. In fact, the Kamasutra stereotype's clearly more wide-spread than we realise! Called guru from time to time, he's described as someone who's come to teach them the KS!
The writing is gripping, the landscape clearly etched, but as a reader I couldn't help but feel a sense of underlying sadness... Guyana sounds like a place any of us would love to visit - but perhaps not stay too long. It feels like it could lead to an unfathomable unravelling.
I'm sure Rahul would disagree.
'The Sly Company' is something you should allow yourself to sink into, and leave your hectic fast-paced life behind, at least for a while.
(The Sly Company's published by Picador India)