I liked the narrator’s voice from the very beginning of this deceptively simple story. The Sly Company of People Who Care is the tale of a young man who stumbles into a new culture and is beguiled by it. It’s a coming-of-age for him, and it’s about the coming-of-age of a decolonised country as well. And perhaps the question asked by that enigmatic title is, who cares about the cultural identity that’s formed from the wreckage of colonisation?
This cunningly structured book longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize explores an aspect of the Indian diaspora not well-known. Indians have settled in large communities around the world: they are famously in Britain, but also in Africa, Australia, Asia, throughout SouthEast Asia and the Pacific, and the Americas. The Sly Company of People Who Care is set in Guyana, where East Indians make up the numerically dominant 43.5% of the population in this former colonial possession of the British, the Dutch and the French. Guyana has four distinct population groups: there are descendants of this ’master race’; of the original indigenous population , of the enslaved Africans; and of indentured races – from India, China and Madeira .
As the novel begins the nameless narrator celebrates the way these peoples rub along together in reasonable harmony; it is easy for the reader to be carried along by his insouciant attitude. He’s enchanted by Guyana’s ‘epic indolence’. He reports flippantly about the partying which appeals to a footloose young man: there is fabulous loud music; almost heroic drunkenness; and apparently victimless drug-taking. He is non-committal about the men carelessly boasting about conquests of one sort or another; girls are easy-going (or else they hide out in the back of the bar so that there is no unpleasantness). He makes no judgements about the relaxed attitude to crime and punishment; nobody worries too much about old-fashioned magistrates courts; paperwork can be sorted out with the right kind of bribe and the laws of a far-away bureaucracy are there to be ignored or circumvented. The environment is glorious, the scenery sublime. He even likes the weather despite the unseasonal rain caused by ‘the white man and his policies and his gluttonies were mashing up worlclimate’ (p46).
He seems to have pockets so bottomless that he doesn’t mind getting ripped off by everyone from transport operators to diamond miners. It’s part of the culture: the locals are ‘born sceptics’ because of their history: one way or another they (as slaves or indentured labourers) were tricked into going there and ‘scamped‘ after that by men black, white or brown. ‘To take things at face value was considered to be the most basic weakness’ he says (p15).
I should have noticed this warning from the author, but I too was charmed by the relaxed attitude to time, money, the rule of law, and the future. I loved the descriptions of Caribbean music; I was intrigued by allusions to Bollywood movies I haven’t seen. I let myself enjoy the merry patois as the narrator gradually learns (and teaches the reader) the Creolese that is said to unite these people of disparate backgrounds. Yes, in the rough-and-tumble of the exuberant narration it was easy to be only momentarily disconcerted by too-casual references to violent deaths or allusions to (very) unpleasant male sexuality. The novel was a 21st century version of a Boys’ Own Adventure and it seemed churlish not to be swept along with the fun.
But towards the end of Part One, my unease erupted, and as if the author had anticipated my misgivings about what seemed to be an idealised portrait of harmony in Guyana, the structure of the book catapults into the moment when the narrator makes the same discovery. The tone shifts in Part Two, and the novel explores ‘the wounds left behind’ by the past. In this section, the narration seems more like sober non-fiction.
As the settlements developed there was an almost striped pattern to the coastal villages. A thin highway ran along them. You whizzed by them, now an Indian village, now, less frequently, as African village. At first I could see only the raw loveliness of these villages and all in between: the coconut groves, the grazing pastures, the blackas, the cemeteries, the broad-hat sky pressing down. Afterwards I could only see the raw simmering histories they contained, canals and kokers, Africans who had perished swimming out into the ocean hoping to reach Africa, Indians who had lost their way trying to find India via the interior. (p109)
Now we learn that
- The Indo-Guyanese yearn for their Indian identity but the India they’ve never seen has barely registered their absence, and they would not ‘belong’ if they went there. This sense of ‘belonging elsewhere’ is linked to very high rates of depression and suicide. Mental health services are wholly inadequate.
- There is lingering resentment between the landless Afro-Guyanese and the landed Indo-Guyanese which expresses itself in a ‘competition of suffering’ arising from those ‘small, simmering histories’ (p109). African ideologues label the Indians ‘economic migrants’ who took advantage of a country where Black Slaves built the C19th infrastructure with their bare hands and (unlike the slavers) received no compensation for their losses when slavery ended. Indo-Guyanese, on the other hand, were subjected to exploitation by Europeans and hostility from the Afro-Guyanese. They suffered prejudice when they tried to enter the professions but had succeeded through sheer hard work. They think that the Afro-Guyanese are lazy and stupid.
- The politics of class (worker v master) held the country together before independence and the politics of race split it apart afterwards because of Western interference. The economy collapsed – leading to a Guyanese diaspora, ‘so that it is said with confidence that there are more Guyanese living outside Guyana than in it’ (p128).
And now the pieces fall together. The narrator starts to see the ironies, and so do we:
- The apparently joyous Hindu wedding where anyone is welcome does not, as far as Mrs Jagroop is concerned, include the Blacks. Ramostar Seven Curry is just as racist towards them as she is. Bibi Rashida Rawlins (aka Annie the Coconut Lady is a ‘dougla’ i.e. of mixed-race, and not ’accepted by either family’.
- The flippant attitude to life, death and mutilation is a way of exposing the life-is-cheap attitudes retained from the days of slavery and indentured labour.
- The careless way that men talk about the exploitation of women represents the way colonists spoke about slaves and coolies, as if they were mere property. (Every woman who bristles at what is written here understands – just a little bit – about being regarded as a body to be used and a thing with no feelings).
- Crime and banditry is a kind of bravado, a way of getting respect. African bandits hunted to extinction by police in the jungle were heroes of a sort; their admirers claim in their ‘Five for Freedom’ handbills that they are fighting for the ‘African-Guyanese nation just as sea bandits Walter Raleigh, Francis Drake and Henry Morgan had fought for England and been honoured by the queen’ (p137). On the other hand the Indians are ’sorry’ when Roger Khan is extradited to the US because he had made Africans afraid of Indians. Previously their reputation had been for ‘internalising violence’ against their wives and neighbours, against the self (p133).
- Mr Singh, for all his wealth, is paralysed by a legitimate fear of the violence that has beset his friends and family. He lives, isolated and unable to enjoy his success, in a Gated Community.
- The narrator, bemoaning that he’s ‘missed a grand bank heist’ as if it’s entertainment laid on for his benefit (p124) won’t have long to wait for another. Drug-running, corruption, extreme violence and state-sanctioned executions are a way of life.
And so we come to Part Three. The tone shifts again, he falls in love, and with the beguiling Jan he sets off for Venezuela where he can’t fail to enjoy the luxuries of a ‘developed’ society but finds its materialism an irksome responsibility all the same. Once again he finds that ‘what seems natural is not’ . He learns that with money and connections he can avoid the damage caused by his ‘little holiday’ but that there are wounds left behind for which he remains morally responsible.
This is a remarkably clever book; I’m not surprised that it won the Hindu Literary Prize.
 The indigenous peoples constitute only 10% of the population. They are the Arawak, Wai Wai, Carib, Akawaio, Arecuna, Patamona, Wapixana, Macushi and Warao. See Wikipedia.
 Indentured labourers also feature in Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke – see my reviews here).
For descriptions of all the books (with links for where to buy them)
and all the Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize Team’s reviews
(updated as we write them),
Author: Rahul Bhattachariya
Title: The Sly Company of People Who Care
Publisher: Picador, 2011
Source: Personal library, purchased from The Book Depository.