How a trip to Guyana became a short-listed novel

Bored with cricket, Rahul Bhattacharya goes to the Caribbean and discovers an India that Indians don’t know about. Samantha Leese writes for CNN International.

What does it mean to “really travel” in a world where so much is connected and so little seems new?

One answer may be to spend a year in a place that everybody else seems to have forgotten. And, from there, to write a novel so adventurous and beautiful that it reminds us how much of the earth there is left to see.

Former cricket writer Rahul Bhattacharya does just that. The result of his year-long stint in Guyana was “The Sly Company of People Who Care” — short-listed for this year’s Man Asian Literary Prize.

The debut novel follows the picaresque travels of a young Indian journalist who goes to Guyana to escape the “deadness of his life.”

Of mixed Bengali and Gujarati descent, Bhattacharya is no stranger to relocations. The 32-year-old author compares his childhood to that of an army cantonment kid.

Bhattacharya’s father worked for a cement company, which shunted them around a lot. The family moved from the small town of Secunderabad to Mumbai when Bhattacharya was nine years old.

“With a background like mine, you don’t fully possess any of the worlds in which you’ve lived,” says Bhattacharya.

“At times it’s frustrating and at others you find it’s a useful itch. It can provoke a certain amount of curiosity and action, and maybe that’s a good thing as a writer.”

Fiction would allow me to make an intimate, detailed and far more intricate world. To make it a travelogue would deny all the layers I wanted to explore.

Rahul Bhattacharya on his choice of form for documenting travels in Guyana

Bhattacharya’s narrator of “Sly Company” befriends a diamond hunter named Baby who leads him on an expedition to Guyana’s interior and across South America.

Guyana is “elemental, water and earth, mud and fruit, race and crime, innocent and full of scoundrels.” Its history of colonization centers on the sugar industry and began with the Dutch who came with African slaves and then indentured laborers shipped over from India.

Motley other people, including Chinese and Portuguese, came or were forced to come and help the Europeans run the show. The land passed to the British, who ruled from the capital Georgetown until decolonization in 1966.

Today, Guyana is a co-operative republic on the northern coast of South America, which is culturally part of the Anglophone Caribbean. The population, created almost entirely by the colonial enterprise, comprises mostly East Indians and black Africans.

The author and traveler tells us more about this “elemental” place while he visited Hong Kong for the Man Asian Literary Prize announcement.

CNNGo: What was it like to first visit Guyana as a cricket journalist?

Bhattacharya: I was 22 and it was my first international tour. Landing in a place like Guyana was a mind-enhancing experience because it was so far outside my imagination of the world.

Especially given that almost half of its people are of Indian descent and Indians don’t know about this migration and the kind of society that migration has spawned in a world seven seas removed from them.

Because of that and because of the topography — this very raw South American topography and a really mixed-up Caribbean culture– Guyana stayed with me.

CNNGo: Has anywhere else you’ve traveled affected you that way?

Bhattacharya: I think people who like traveling can be transformed in trivial ways as well. If I spent half a day wandering around Hong Kong I’m sure I’d encounter a moment when I felt that stirring of something.

But no, I’d never felt anything as intimately as I did in Guyana. Nothing where I felt that if I didn’t go back and live there for awhile I would just regret it.

CNNGo: What was special about the place?

Bhattacharya: When you throw together, under brutal circumstances, all of these civilizations and energies — of Africans, Indians, Portuguese and Chinese — it is already completely unique. Their ancestors were transported from all over the world and basically asked to run a factory of sugar cane plantations.

Guyana has a “brukup” quality that I found alluring. I know this sounds like a cliché but there is a great lust for living there — the sense of generosity, of food and drink and dance. There’s a freedom to that. They feel very disconnected from the globe.

Here we are in Hong Kong, and I know I’m in one of the nerve centers of the world and that it’s connected to everywhere else. Whereas in Guyana you are free of that absolutely. That is very lovely, to live a life that is not so hectically networked with so many other things in the world.

CNNGo: Why did you choose to write a novel rather than a travelogue?

Bhattacharya: I thought fiction would allow me to make an intimate, detailed and far more intricate world.

There are books where you know the writer has learned something and to my mind those are good books, where you feel the engagement with the subject has been at the closest possible point. And I thought that to make it a travelogue would deny all the layers I wanted to explore.

Fiction allows you everything.

CNNGo: How did you go about research?

Bhattacharya: The thing is that while I was there I was so anxious. There were days when I’d think what the f**k am I doing here? Nobody comes to Guyana. The Rough Guide to South America or something says you can do Georgetown in half a day so you need three days for Guyana. And here I am in my third month.

Here in Hong Kong I know I’m in one of the nerve centers of the world and connected to everywhere. In Guyana you are free of that absolutely. That is very lovely, to live a life that is not so hectically networked with so many other things in the world.

Sometimes I’d wake up in the morning with this mild perspiration on my forehead wondering how on earth to pass the day: What else can I buy from the market? What part of the country can I take the bus to today?

On another level, I thought that to follow your curiosities is good. What happens then is the next step. So I just did that, and eventually I started to feel closer to the place and that I did belong there. And I became less anxious.

There was research when I was there in a very scattershot manner. I would go to the library and read whatever took my fancy. I’d read newspapers, talk to people and travel. I thought, ‘You can’t take this world for granted. It was so foreign to you, just imagine how unfamiliar it will be to other people. You can’t take the setting for what it is.’

So I started to build up these fictional themes and you realize that you have to ground it in something, so people understand what it is — this place you are talking about, in which all these adventures are set. Nobody else is going to draw those connections.

CNNGo: What are your thoughts on colonialism?

Bhattacharya: It’s difficult to make broad statements about colonialism because its echoes are everywhere in modern Indian life. For example, you have generations of Indians who are no longer good at speaking any language because English — as the language of colonialism and now the language of the globe — has become the language of aspiration.

So whereas my grandparents might have studied in their regional languages, that tradition is being lost and with it a very intimate bond with our culture. There’s a sense among a lot of urban Indians especially — and I include myself in this — of not fully understanding the different Indias we could have known.

No matter what you look at, colonialism has had very strong consequences in India. And of course, there’s the argument for infrastructure and the fact that the British had this great talent for laying down cities and railways and botanical gardens and hill stations and clubs.

So two hundred years down the line, when you realize your country is ruined and you’re unable to do anything, you thank God for small mercies: They ruled us but at least they left us this.

“The Sly Company of People Who Care” is published by Picador.

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