'There's no manual for writing on sex'
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'There's no manual for writing on sex'

Rahul Bhattacharya, winner of the Hindu Literary Prize and Ondaatje Prize 2012 for his book, The Sly Company of People Who Care, talks to Sonakshi Babbar about writing on sex, his travels in Guyana and more.

india Updated: Sep 06, 2012 16:50 IST
Sonakshi Babbar
Sonakshi Babbar
Hindustan Times

It certainly requires a rare degree of humility to want your readers to pick up the book without being too aware of its award-winning nature.

But that's how Rahul Bhattacharya, winner of the Hindu Literary Prize and Ondaatje Prize 2012 for his book, The Sly Company of People Who Care, wants from his 'ideal' reader.

When I reached the Penguin House to interview him, I had been half expecting a suave, self-centered guy, who would send out a volley of sarcastic replies, clearly OD-ing on the awards and critics adulation.

I never felt better at being proved wrong like this.

Rahul Bhattacharya is a humble man. Basking in the glory of awards he believes that they "are an honour", he goes on, "an award brings a book into the radar of many more people. They might take it more seriously and buy it, but on the flip side, they might come to it with certain expectations or skepticism. Awards are very helpful for a writer, though they don't make a book better."

"And the financial support is valuable", he adds after a momentary pause.

The Sly Company of People Who Care is not a novel which can be described in a few words. On the surface, it could be the self-discovery of a young man during his travels in Guyana, but dig a little deeper and you'll find a multi-layered narrative exposing the brutality of colonization and what it did to people's culture and sense of self. A major section of the book details the political and historical background of Guyana, which according to the author was essential to the story.

"Few people know about the circumstances of Guyana's past or present, and even for the narrator it is a journey of discovery. The history is important because the book is concerned with its consequences", he explains.
He recalls the memories of his visit to Guyana, a journey which comprised multiple revelations and joys. He had first visited the country when he was a cricket reporter at 22. The short stay moved him in ways no other place had. Guyana pulled at him, and he went.
But what led to the transition from writing about cricket to a novel?
"Writing about sport is or can be a very literary thing. My transition was only because of my interests. After being in cricket and writing a book about it, I only wanted to go to Guyana."

Reminisicng about his time in Guyana, he revealed, "In some ways it feels like a time warp to be in Guyana, because it is relatively unconnected and obscure.There's a great endearment to it, and innocence, generosity, exuberance and humour. Beneath that there are also many troubles arising from its history. The more you immerse yourself in it, the more you see or feel its different shades and for me a novel seemed to be the natural medium to examine my curiosities in the most immediate and intimate way."

If intimacy was his aim, it sure shows in the language, the colloquial dialogues, and the visceral descriptions of his surroundings.

Bhattacharya has deliberately abstained from explaining the specificities and context as he doesn't "like to explain too much."

"There's a mystery about encountering things and figuring it out as you go along. To be explained things is boring sometimes. And why should one explain these things? Nobody explained to us many references in English literature. Language in Guyana is as much a living language as in Britain or America. I wanted to pay tribute to this addictive and dazzling language of the Guyanese street."

With layers upon layers of language hiding the harsh realities of the colonial enterprise in Guyana, The Sly Company… is far from being a metaphor. In fact, Bhattacharya asserts that the beauty isn't a camouflage for the harsh realities of the book. It stands on its own.

"Sometimes the physical landscape is a part of the mental landscape too. For example, the forest becomes a site for the freedom and the quest for independence for the diamond hunters. On the coast, in the case of Guyana, the landscape is their actual history. The coast was swampland, reclaimed by the Dutch, and then made into plantations where labourers from Africa, India, China were transported to work. The landscape is a living part of people and societies."

This emphasis on the mixed races living in Guyana - the East Indians, black Africans, Amerindians, Indian nationals and West Indians is a refrain which runs through the book.

The book opens with the joke by Sam Selvon, 'Christpher Columbus must be killing himself with laugh. As I ask him about this, he says with a laugh, "You're the first one to realize that the joke is on Indians!"

He goes on to add, "This nomenclature is so badly screwed up, and all because Christopher Columbus thought he had reached India when he reached the Caribbean. There're so many Indias and Indians in our society because of how stratified we are on the basis of caste, community, culture and so on."

I ask him who he thought was an 'Indian' after his experience with so many 'Indians' in Guyana?

"There's something funny and cruel about that. So there are 'East Indians', most of who originally came from Uttar Pradesh or Bihar, the East Indians are also 'West Indians', as are the 'Amerindians'. And then there are Indian nationals. Indianness is clearly one of the most many-splendored things in the world.

With a range of characters from Gujarati businessmen to African slaves trying their luck with diamond hunting in the forest, Bhattacharya's characters are as unique as they could get.

"The characters are fictional. The social structures of the people who were transported was torn apart by colonizers to different degrees, and these were individuals trying to find themselves in this brutal, unfamiliar world. These are undercurrents in a character's life."

There're characters like Baby, the ex-slave hardened by brutal circumstances yet endearingly naïve. Then there's Jan, the sensual Creolese girl with whom the narrator falls in love.

I was intrigued by a review in Outlook which has lauded Bhattacharya for his 'ability to portray sex in an unabashed, edgy abandon'. And it just happens to be right. There're no exaggerated lovers sighs under the moonlit sky but a very practical yet sensual writing about the intimacy between the protagonist and a Creolese girl. And so I ventured to ask him about the 'inspiration'.

"I don't have a manual to offer anybody on how to write about sex', he says the words punctuated by long pauses while he considers his thoughts, "What's important is to try and summon the feeling of slightly heady lust which you feel but which you can't be over elaborate about and. It shouldn't be done in boring detail."

We move on to other topics such of general importance such as criticism. While the critics have lavished praises, the book has received its share of brickbats from the general audience.
He takes the criticism in his stride and says philosophically, "People are entitled to not like a book. Some people see it through a haze of language which isn't too easily penetrable."

He feels that it wasn't an easy story to tell, nor an easy book to read for everyone.

"If readers are not able to sympathise with what you're trying to do with the book, you can't do much. On the whole, I feel very grateful for the reception of the book. A lot of reviewers have engaged with it, and that's nice because it is easy for a book to disappear. The response from some of the Guyanese critics and readers was very heartwarming, that meant a lot to me because it was the society I was writing about."

First Published: Aug 20, 2012 14:01 IST