Rahul Bhattacharya's beautiful novel The Sly Company of People Who Care has seen resounding success so far. Here is an extract from the novel for you to see what all the fuss is about.
LIFE, as we know, is a living, shrinking affair, and somewhere down the line I became taken with the idea that man and his world should be renewed on a daily basis. Those days I liked thinking in absolutes – life, man, the world – but people like to be specific about things. Hence, my actions were a little difficult to explain. To be a slow ramblin’ stranger! It made perfect sense to me.
I still had to make friends, and my first one was Mr Bhombal, a waterworks technician. Mr Bhombal was, like me, an Indian national. Bhombal was his first name, yet I took to calling him Mr Bhombal. He just had that vibration. He wore polyester trousers. His steel watch faced up palm side. To read the time he would raise his forearm to his eyeline.
Ordinarily I would deflect the question of why I was in Guyana: ‘Nice girls, eh’ or ‘The people here are all leaving’ – wholly correct – ‘so somebody had to come’. But as Mr Bhombal was so sincere in his effort to play elder brother, I told him the truth. I told him I came here once and afterwards had dreams. The low sky, red earth and brown water made me feel humble and ecstatic. The drenched wooden houses on stilts wrenched my soul. I told him I’d be here for a year.
Mr Bhombal had a way of conveying that one was on the precipice of a dreadful mistake; however, not to worry, with practical thinking one could make something of the situation. He had gloomy eyes, a fat, melancholy face, framed precisely by drooping eyebrows and defeated lips. He was not bald or even balding, but his hair was extravagantly spaced. He would consider the facts sociologically (was his word), then logistically (at this stage he asked detailed questions and closed his eyes as the replies came). My needless arrival here, he contended, could be swiftly rectified by application to another country: each time he called up a different one. Ultimately, after much deliberation, he would conclude – indeed, it was Mr Bhombal’s conclusion for any issue
– that the secret of the resolution lay in discerning ‘how much goodness there is in the good, how much badness in the bad’. His facility to believe this was a fresh insight each time amounted to genius. I would insult Mr Bhombal and he would take it well, in fact with glee. He felt he had provoked thought.
Such triumphs were fleeting. Soon Mr Bhombal would return to his cocooned misery. ‘Up-down,’ he said wearily of his days, from the engineering office below to the shared living quarters above. He made the journey in green gumboots – longboots they were called in Guyana. When he did venture out, it was before dark, to the seawall or to the young Sindhi assistants of the variety stores on Regent Street who deflated him with their sad ambitions of owning shops here. Being an Indian-national sort of Indian national, Mr Bhombal struggled in this kind of place. He was scandalised easily. He was aghast when I told him that many reggae songs were a bhajan for an Ethiopian king. The Africans were one thing, but what of the East Indians? At least Trinidad had malls and cinemas. ‘Is this life?’ he despaired, donned in longboots hours after he had traversed the single flight of stairs. ‘Is this country?’
Guyana had the feel of an accidental place. Partly it was the epic indolence. Partly it was the ethnic composition. In the slang of the street there were chinee, putagee, buck, coolie, blackman, the sly company of people who care and the combinations emanating from these, a separate and larger lexicon. On the ramble in such a land you could encounter a story every day.
Take the one recounted to me at the bar in the cricket club by the lawyer. The case was of a lady he’d once badgered so hard in the witness box that she fainted. A year after the event she knocked on his door. ‘Thick Indian girl, country manners, powder on chest.’ He was not good with faces, but he remembered her on account of the fainting. She wanted to retain him. She had been accused of killing her own baby. Everybody suspected that the child was by a black man. Certainly her behaviour was odd. She would shave the child’s head every week, so nobody got to see its hair. And when the child died she didn’t report it, she buried it. She claimed he choked on his vomit. They proved the presence of vomit. He won her the case. But he had no doubt whatever she killed the baby. No, why the arse should it bother him? It was not his to decide guilt and innocence. He was a professional. Anybody could kill their baby.
The lawyer was putagee – of Portuguese extraction. The Portuguese had come to Guyana as indentured labourers even before the Indians and the Chinese. They were light-skinned and independent-minded. They rose up the ranks, and now, small in number and of high position, they could look at race as something they were not a part of.
I walked plenty in the early days. There were no shadows in Georgetown. A young town, poetic and wasted, its exquisite woodenness going to rot or concreted over, it was cleaved and connected by trenches which fumed, blossomed and stank. There were no tall buildings. Under the high equatorial sun, shade trees, some so large and spreading as the saman, rarely crept beyond their own peripheries. When ‘sun hot’, as them boys said, it had no place to hide.
One day, idling in town – Sunday, quiet – I sat to rest on Carmichael, one of the streets that spoke out from the big church, when a man with a rice sack over his shoulder approached me. ‘Gimme a lil t’ing nuh, soldier,’ he said.
His hair was browned with dirt, a face like shattered dreams, idealistic and corroded equally. He made one want to say, ‘No man, don’t worry, it’s not you, it’s the world.’ He had come out of jail, done time for murder. He was a porknocker. He went into the interior and hunted for diamond. One night, sleeping with his kiddy at his crotch, he found his own pardner trying to get into it. He always slept with a cutlass under his head. He grabbed it and chopped the man’s face nine times, till the man dead.
I bought him a juice and gave him the fare to his home in the Cuyuni, three rivers west. In return he handed me a hideous plastic pebble. He had made it by melting toothbrushes in the big prison on the Mazaruni.
‘You could keep that,’ he said, as I studied the grotesque glory of the object.
He offered his fist for a bump. ‘Baby’s the name,’ he said and slid away.
In less than a fortnight after my arrival, Mr Bhombal was gone. He told me only hours before. A matrimonial match had been found for him in Bhubaneshwar. The matter needed to be settled at once. I saw him off at his house. He departed with hasty clumping movements, leaving behind nothing, only the prints of his green longboots on the wooden stairs.
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. A frangipani dripped over a crook paling. A goat bleated through thick slanting drops. The trenches were aglimmer darkly. Guyana was elemental, water and earth, mud and fruit, race and crime, innocent and full of scoundrels.