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Staying places

books Updated: Jun 15, 2012 18:41 IST

Indrajit Hazra, Hindustan Times
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Swagat in south Delhi’s Defence Colony market is a restaurant I expect Rahul Bhattacharya to be comfortable with. It’s known for its Konkani sea food, but it also serves North Indian khana, not to mention Chinese — the kind of place I think the winner of the 2012 Ondaatje Prize, awarded to a writer for evoking ‘the spirit of a place’, could relate to for its aromatic confusion.

The Sly Company of People Who Care was published last year and was feted for its dexterity in describing tumultuous and difficult lives in Guyana with humour and care. But with the Ondaatje Prize last month, I had an excuse to ask a gin-sipping Bhattacharya how important it was for him to set a place at the core of his debut novel.

“The first impulse of the book was to render the place you’re writing about on a page, just as you render, say, a sports event on a page,” says Bhattacharya, whose first book, Pundits From Pakistan, recounted the Indian cricket team’s tour of Pakistan in 2004. “Once you start rendering it, it requires a deeper dimension. So when you start trying to understand a place and to capture it, then you are automatically led to questions about who makes this place, what are the things that worry them, what are the anxieties of their lives, what are their special affections and their impulses. And you get totally entwined in that.”

Bhattacharya first went to Guyana — which, for the armchair-trotter, lies on the northern coast of South America next to Venezuela and above Brazil — as a 22-year-old cricket reporter for Wisden on his first international tour in 2002 (“The one we lost 1-2 to the West Indies”). Guyana was in a different part of the world which he knew very little about. “But then we heard this Bhojpuri music coming from somewhere. In that addictive landscape and language, the thought of a society of Indians in a very ‘South American’ place with rainforests, it was quite amazing,” he says.

The idea of going to a place “so distant and obscure” had always attracted for Bhattacharya. It wasn’t as if he just picked Guyana out of a map. “I knew I always wanted to go there” and cricket provided him the physical entry point. He, however, had no interest in writing a kind of personalised ‘Rough Guide Guyana’ on the sly. He didn’t do much research before he went again for the book in mid-2006, this time returning only after the World Cup in mid-2007.

He knew it was going to be a novel pretty much when he started writing the first line (“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.”). He realised that he would be able to create the sort of “intimate sense of this encounter” only through fiction. “I wanted this thing to be clear-eyed and intimate without being patronising. For this, and the range of width and depth that fiction can bring, it had to be a novel,” he says before destroying a piece of fried bombil. (“The book starts with a character called Mr Bhombal,” he adds matter-of-factly.)

For most readers, an Indian writing about the West Indies draws comparisons with VS Naipaul. I ask Bhattacharya where the older author features in his mental landscape. He admits being an admirer of Naipaul, but points out that he has never felt “any obsession with him or a need to emulate him”. He finds in his body of work — Miguel Street and the masterpiece A House for Mr Biswas — “a lot of sensitivity about the Caribbean condition”.

“Both The Middle Passage and An Area of Darkness are books I admire very much. But, as CLR James said, what Naipaul says is very important, what he leaves out is just as important.” He disagrees with Naipaul’s belief, as articulated infamously in The Middle Passage, that “nothing was created in the British West Indies… There were only plantations, prosperity, decline, neglect; the size of the islands called for nothing else.”

“Not one, but a lot of cultures were created [in the West Indies]”. Bhattacharya talks about the language, the music and “the energy between cultures” Guyana is brimming over with. “So I didn’t come from a Naipaulian point of view, or a Walcottian point of view, or whatever else the ‘anti-Naipaulian’ point of view may be.” Washing down his appam-mutton stew combo with gin, he laughs and says, “I can’t imagine Naipaul giving himself to rum and ganja.” If Naipaul is marked by his desire to clean the ‘swimming pool’ of cultures, Bhattacharya wants to submerge in it.

I see him off at the car park hoping, in the Delhi blaze, that we will return to Swagat soon to ‘evoke more spirits’ from the place.