On Guyana's streets, you encounter continents. Nationalities, religions and races jostle for space: Chinese, Portuguese, Negroes and a lot of moody Indians. Rogues and saints, scoundrels and innocents, everybody scrounges for a living, equally contemptuous of the locals. The struggle of life is so elemental, its inhabitants don't set much store by niceties. People meet, swap stories, lie, love, leave and don't say goodbye.
It's then alright for a man to be a bit of this and a bit of that, "neither one thing nor the other". In The Sly Company of People who Care, Rahul Bhattacharya creates this transience through several things - the Guyana 'feel' and its vibe of being an accidental place; the randomness with which people criss-cross through each other's lives, the professed ease with which they slip into 'character' ("Tha'is why Guyanese could succeed anywhere. We go New York, Canada, Flarida, we could become jus like them. But they can't become like we!"). And primarily through the narrator - a young layabout Indian who has landed in Guyana because he "came here once, and afterwards had dreams" and will, it seems, ramble through it for a year. Or, perhaps two.
The characterisation is competent, built mainly by what the different players allow themselves to reveal through what they say. The Guyanese by nationality and the Guyanese by aspiration speak a different tongue, and it makes you think that perhaps the author has used language not just to evoke or impart local 'colour', but to capture the real in the reality. The ambition of this novel is actually to address the complex human story of migrants and migration - and this is not a criticism - without epic effects.
The novel employs an ensemble cast. There is the flamboyant and ageless Uncle Lance with his shaky white Toyota who loves to talk of "politricks" and how it will be the death of his country. Action Jackson is the gold-wearing, gum-chewing husband of the narrator's landlady, who could "juice rent" from his tenants, "an act of ambition that drew both respect and resentment". Mr Bhombal is the easily scandalised Indian ("Is this life?" he despaired after he had traversed the single fleet of stairs. "Is this country?"). Add to them the morally ambiguous diamond-hunter Baby ("The way a diamond wink at you, no gal would wink at you like so") and the sentimental Basdeo Kumar, marked by the memory of his grandfather's rejection by his village ("Pure man," he said defensively on being asked if he was mixed. "Pure all the way." He took off his cap, ran his hands over his very short hair… "Watch man, straight. It straight.").
The relationship between the narrator and Jankey, the vixen, masterly at providing imprecise details ("But you only twenty-one." She looked at me in the mirror. "And you said I looked twenty-five"… "So you had him when you were seventeen?"… "Where the father?"…"All over the place, focking skunt") is the final seal of the narrator's experience of brittleness in this makeshift Guyana.
Bhattacharya's earlier work, Pundits from Pakistan, was a cricket tour book. The Sly Company of People Who Care is his first novel. And it is a good one - by any standard.