Reviewing the Reviews

Responding to Sex and Gender in The Sly Company of People Who Care

• August 2012

Unlike a certain representative in the 1938 Indian legislature who commented that “most of the Guiana Indians have adopted . . . a hybrid, a half-baked Afro-American culture,” Rahul Bhattacharya, author of The Sly Company of People Who Care, clearly delights in the mélange that is Guyanese culture.1 As several reviews have so far been published, instead of merely rehearsing details of the book, we would like to focus on conversations about the book and its representation of women, brought to light in a series of letters to the editor in Guyana’s Stabroek News (2011–12). These letters provide important glimpses into how depictions of gender relations, by an “Indian national,” have been received in the Caribbean. We follow this with our own thoughts on sex and gender both in Bhattacharya’s book and in lived experience in Guyana. We have included conversations from other readers, since in the wake of accolades (winner of the 2012 Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje award and the 2011 Hindu Literary Prize; shortlisted for the 2012 Man Asian and Commonwealth Book Prize) we have heard very little about the book’s reception in the land it portrays. The book's celebrated status positions Guyana on an international stage, but renders the real Guyana mute in the process—observed but not heard.

 

The Book

If as highlighted in our opening sentence, Guyana exists as a complexly hybrid culture, it is perhaps fitting that it should inspire a book that is hybrid in form (though we are certainly not suggesting that it is half-baked). Bhattacharya offers a first-person narrative which has been read as both travelogue and novel. Like Bhattacharya, the narrator of the book arrives in Guyana for a one-year stay, the longest possible duration under Guyana’s tourist visa, with his required return ticket in-hand. His goal is to bear witness to the country that haunts his dreams, with its “red earth and brown water [that] made [him] feel humble and ecstatic” (3). Within the first few pages, we have a sense of empathy and a vision that sets this work apart from typical pronouncements on Guyana. In contrast to those who set out to explore the Guianas (John Gimlette’s Wild Coast comes to mind), Bhattacharya sees Guyana not as a place where time stands still but rather as a land with its own temporal rhythms, distinct from an overarching comparative narrative of development.2

Charles Carnegie has pointed out that a particular form of socializing—liming and rum-drinking—propels the novel’s journey, divided into three parts.3 In part 1, the narrator takes a disquieting journey into the interior with a porkknocker.4 Upon his return to Georgetown, he finds solace in Guyana’s National Library, and here the inter-textual reference of the novel’s title is revealed: it refers to jottings penned in the margins of a library pamphlet, where an anonymous critic “talks back” to the Dutch West Indies Company (89). The writings in the margins constitute an imagined conversation with the past, as well as an unfinished conversation left to future readers to continue. Reminiscent of bell hooks’s argument that the margins can be a place of radical openness, The Sly Company of People Who Care offers us a conversation across the margins of the global south about the possibilities and limitations of connections between India and the Caribbean.5

This leads us into part 2, where, interspersed with stories of wedding house limes, the author delves into the “wound” of the indentured diaspora: an India that has forgotten to remember, and an India that cannot be forgotten. In this section, Bhattacharya discusses the history of Guyana as “deliberately manufactured,” taking us through parallel and intersecting histories of conquest, slavery and indentureship, and their legacies that linger over Guyana (97–99). In doing so, Bhattacharya provides a powerful reminder of the ways in which literature can enliven the bloodwork of history (“What is race is race, what isn’t race, that’s race too” [134]).

The last section is the one we wish to consider (although we realize there are other gender and sexual dynamics throughout the novel that beg closer scrutiny). Part 3 tells the story of the narrator’s “last lap lime” before his visa expires: his fling with a young mixed-race (Indian and Brazilian) woman named Jan. Jan catches the eye of our sojourner who lusts after her. She slips him her address and requests a cell phone to stay in touch, an early sign of her lack of material resources. Although he does not buy her a phone, he does travel to her village. Upon this—their second meeting—he spontaneously asks her to accompany him on vacation. The terms of the trip are negotiated:

 ‘I have to return to India soon. I want to travel. Maybe I’ll never get to come back ever.’

So you want to carry me?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Is where you wan carry me?’

‘I was thinking Venezuela.’

‘Uh huh, we going to make house there?’

‘I’m serious.’

. . .

‘What do I get?’ she said.

. . .

‘You getting me.’

‘You getting Old Year’s holidays.’

We stood under the burning white country roof. I waited.

‘Is joke you making?’

‘No, promise.’

‘You gon treat me good?’

“Like a prize bird.” (201–2)

Although romantic in the gesture of impulsive flight, their mutual expectations are unspoken or perhaps unheard. What is the nature of their relationship? How will they care for each other? What do they owe each other? He expects a no-strings attached sexual affair. She hopes for a longer-term relationship that will result in leaving Guyana—for anywhere else.

The relationship is described primarily through intense sexual encounters, their quarrels when the fantasy of travel disintegrates into reality, and her want of “stuff.” Although they share touching moments, their “one true intimacy” is sexual (230). Knowledge of each other’s bodies does not extend to a deeper understanding of each other’s inner life or aspirations. He does not live up to her financial expectations or desire for commitment. And though he thinks her guilty of “fat-fowling” (225), he does not think himself a sweet-man. Toward the end of their trip they are no longer on speaking terms, and she begins a flirtation with another. Trouble ensues; she is detained by the border guards, allegedly for smuggling drugs, probably planted by the other man. Our narrator is questioned by the border police about the nature of his relationship to Jan. He struggles, hesitating to call her his girlfriend (“She was my— I was with her” [270]). He is given a stark choice, he can either stay to help her, thus missing his return flight to India, or he can leave. He abandons Jan to her fate, later realizing on the plane the gravity of that choice. There is a possibility that Jan is pregnant with his child, since they had stopped using condoms (272). The novel ends on a confessional note, almost inviting judgment.

And judge our letter writers do!

 

Conversations about the Book—Starbroek News

Many letter writers to Stabroek News deemed the book groundbreaking. Sieyf Shahabuddeen, Dave Martins, and Brendan de Caires, respectively, refer to Bhattacharya as “someone [who] cares,” as “an observer with a superb eye and a keen ear,” and as “fuelled by genuine sympathy.”6 However, as Bhattacharya himself writes, “Guyanese are born sceptics. Their foreparents were either forced or tricked into coming here. . . . To take things at face value was considered the most basic weakness” (15). Thus, we think he would appreciate the skepticism of fellow novelist, Ryhaan Shah.

Although agreeing that the book contains “some wonderful prose,” Shah points out several “vile and violent comments about women” that she illustrates through passages that exemplify the racialized otherness of Amerindian and “coolie” women. One presumes this hierarchy of stereotyped essentialism extends to the category of mixed-race women, such as Jan. Shah is sceptical of the book as pure fiction; she calls it a “travel book which is called a novel because he changes names and conflates characters.” She notes that “the book ends with Bhattacharya abandoning the poor, illiterate, young woman—half Indian, half Brazilian—whom he takes to Trinidad and Venezuela for sexual adventure. He then flees Venezuela, Guyana, all of it.” She repeats another three times in her letter the fact that he (the narrator/Bhattacharya) has fled Guyana, thus emphasizing his position as a tourist just passing through; the mundane negotiations of a relationship discarded.7

In another letter, Shah refers to the character of Jan as “a young woman who sells herself for a cell phone,” equating materialism within the context of a relationship with prostitution (and implications of victimhood).8 Shah implies that Jan is complicit in her exploitation, or at the very least a victim of poor judgment. Shah also suggests that in looking to experience Venezuela through Jan, the narrator/Bhattacharya treats her as another exotic experience, like porkknocking or attending a wedding lime. Hence, Shah likens Bhattacharya’s observations to the colonial gaze, capturing Guyana within a lens of simultaneous revulsion and attraction.

Another letter writer/reviewer, F. Skinner, is more sympathetic to the author’s intent. Skinner proposes that Jan represents the collective “plight of a lot of disillusioned Guyanese women.” Addressing some of Shah’s concerns over vulgarity, Skinner notes that liming in rum shops and backdams is a male domain; therefore, some of the dialogue repeated in the book was simply not intended “for the ears of women.” Skinner concedes, however, that this private way of speaking “may be contributing” to a wider societal problem of “the way men now treat women in Guyana.”9 Skinner assumes that the purpose of the considerable number of pages devoted to the story of Jan is to point out her vulnerabilities:

 

A mother at seventeen, having to drop out of school and no support system or organization to help her beyond that first missed step. Her desperation and anxiety to get out of Guyana, her total dependency on a man to lift her out of bondage, so much so that she went with Rahul [referring to the text as autobiographical] on an ill-advised trip to Trinidad and Venezuela, thinking that it would be an eventual trip to India or the US.

Jan, after realizing that Rahul was not saying the right words, declaring his excitement, and not being able to wait to get her out of Guyana, broke off the relationship in mid-vacation. Then she did the unthinkable that would have caused her a strict reprimand if she was dealing with a Guyanese man (“Ah want back me ticket money”), she in desperation, started another relationship—even though she could have been trying to make him feel jealous. The devastating result for her is a reflection of the female tragedies in Guyana.10

Skinner suggests we should not judge Jan by a double standard; rather, Jan’s relationship with the narrator is a reflection of the limited scope of women’s coping strategies in the absence of mobility (i.e., unable to flee/migrate). Therefore, Skinner interprets Bhattacharya’s novel as a call for action to make a Guyana a better place, not as a means to exoticize it.

Although award-winning author and commentator Ian MacDonald, in response to the debate, issues a reminder that literature cannot represent the whole truth of a place or its people, both Shah and Skinner nonetheless raise an important question: What is the ethical responsibility of realist fiction (or fictionalized reality)?11

We wanted to involve other readers in this discussion. Vidyaratha recorded two conversations in Guyana—one with Lenandlar Singh, and the other with Karen Davis and Sherlina Nageer.12 The readers discussed the questions. Lenandlar Singh found the book funny. Upon self-reflection, however, Lenandlar realized that he overlooked the representation of Guyanese women. He suggested that this probably reflects many men in Guyana: they are removed from the harassment and abuse of women, even while expressing concern. Interestingly, Lenandlar said he had thought of Jan as Indian (Vidyaratha admitted to having done the same) and recognized her survival strategies in many of the women they knew. Lenandlar also observed that Guyana continues to clamor for visibility in the world—to attract investors and tourists. For instance, the government and private sector have invested in beauty pageants in a bid that television viewers around the world will visit Guyana, attracted by the women who are participating in the pageants. Vidyaratha joined Lenandlar in wondering, does Bhattacharya’s Jan do as the Miss India Worldwide 2012 and other beauty pageants do—represent Guyana and Guyanese women as sexualized objects to exploit? Karen Davis and Sherlina Nageer spoke about the discomfort of reading—of actually seeing in print—what is a reality for many women already. Sherlina noted that the book is a good read, and that it depicts what is known and what needs fixing. Karen recognized that the novel is a mirror to society; nonetheless, it rubbed her “the wrong way,” preventing her enjoyment of reading it.

 

Women and Sex in Guyana—Further Notes in the Margins

Although, as MacDonald points out, literature provides a subjective perspective, we would like to add two facts to help widen our understanding of what is at stake:

  • The Gender Assessment for USAID/Guyana (2003) report states that “50 percent of Guyanese women are living in poverty, and nearly 30 percent of the households headed by women are living in absolute poverty.”13
  • And, to quote the USAID report again, “Women, particularly young women, are unable to negotiate sexual relations and the use of condoms. The expectation of male dominance and power within the context of poverty and the fluid structure of many households lead to multiple and often exploitative relationships for both young men and women.”14

Bhattacharya’s novel gestures toward these intertwined economic and sexual dynamics, which require further consideration if we are to understand the behaviors and choices he narrates, and follow up on the nagging thought that this novel is more truth than fiction.

Although the description of Jan’s plight on which the novel ends is disturbing, the narrator/Bhattacharya strives to represent Jan as a complex figure with confidence, agency, and vulnerability. However, seemingly missing from the account is Jan’s lived context beyond the individual choice to go on vacation or her desire for consumer goods. While he may not have termed their vacation sex a relationship, Jan may well have viewed it as at least the beginning of one. If so, gift-giving as a token of affection is not unusual.

 Further complicating their ill-defined “relationship” are the structural implications of gender and poverty. Indeed, there is a great deal of academic literature on the notion of “transactional sex” in which consent to a sexual relationship is tied to an obligation to fulfill consumer needs among unequal partners. However, the narrator fails to consider that his irritation around Jan’s consumer desires may also relate to unstable categories and understandings of long-term relationships (the category of “girlfriend”) and casual relationships (“She was my—”). As readers we are left with disappointment that despite his deep sensitivity to Guyanese history, he could not recognize the legacies of poverty, and the implications this might have on their intimate relationship.

Lastly, some readers in Guyana are concerned that Bhattacharya himself has not returned to Guyana, to gift the book back to the country that was the source of its inspiration. We understand from the heartfelt nature of his prose that he did not come “discover” Guyana; rather, he was intrigued by its simultaneous foreignness yet familiarity. He had come to “recover” a part of himself, who in a past life may have departed from the colonial port of Calcutta, rather than Mumbai. We have sympathy for this journey, and recognize it is a different one from the colonial exploitative past. But we had hoped the novel, and its afterlife, would end on a note of mutual respect—between his place in the world and ours.

 

Vidyaratha Kissoon lives in Guyana and works in the application of information technologies for development. He is active on social justice issues and has been involved in work against gender-based violence, violence against children, and homophobia.

Nalini Mohabir is based at the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine Campus, Trinidad.

This short discussion is a product of their shared geographies. The authors would like to thank Ronald Cummings for his feedback, and Alissa Trotz and Phanuel Antwi for the inspiration.

 


1 Rahul Bhattacharya, Sly Company of People Who Care (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011); hereafter cited in text. See Renu Juneja,Caribbean Transactions: West Indian Culture in Literature (London: MacMillan Caribbean, 1996), 136.

2 See John Gimlette, Wild Coast: Travels on South America’s Untamed Edge (Toronto: Random House, 2011).

3 Charles V. Carnegie, “South-South Liming,” sx salon 8, 25 February 2012, smallaxe.net/wordpress3/reviews/2012/02/25/south-south-liming/.

4 Porkknocker is a term for gold and diamond prospectors in Guyana’s interior.

5 bell hooks, “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness,” in Yearning: Race Gender and Cultural Politics (Toronto: Between-the-Lines, 1990), 203.

6 Sieyf Shahabuddeen, “A Brilliant Work,” Stabroek News, 10 August 2011, www.stabroeknews.com/2011/opinion/letters/ 08/10/a-brilliant-work/. Dave Martins, “Going Back Home in Your Mind,” Stabroek News, 14 August 2011, www.stabroeknews.com/2011/features/sunday/so-it-go/08/14/going-back-home-in-your-mind/. Brendan de Caires, “Naipaul Plus Love,” Stabroek News, 22 January 2012, www.stabroeknews.com/2012/features/01/22/naipaul-plus-love/.

7 Ryhaan Shah, “A Completely Different Take on Bhattacharya’s Book,” Stabroek News, 25 January 2012, www.stabroeknews.com/2012/opinion/letters/01/25/a-completely-different-take-on-bhattacharya%E2%80%99s-book/.

8 Ryhaan Shah, “Martins Says Nothing in His Column on Bhattacharya’s Book about Our Society Needing to Be Fixed,” Stabroek News, 1 February 2012, www.stabroeknews.com/2012/opinion/letters/02/01/martins-says-nothing-in-his-column-on-bhattacharya%E2%80%99s-book-about-our-society-needing-to-be-fixed/.

9 F. Skinner, “Bhattacharya’s Book Was a Masterpiece,” Stabroek News, 17 February 2012, www.stabroeknews.com/2012/opinion/letters/02/17/bhattacharya%E2%80%99s-book-was-a-masterpiece/.

10 Ibid.

11 Ian McDonald, “Bhattacharya Should Not Be Praised or Blamed for How His Work Is Interpreted,” Stabroek News, 23 February 2012, www.stabroeknews.com/2012/opinion/letters/02/23/bhattacharya-should-not-be-praised-or-blamed-for-how-his-work-is-interpreted/.

12 Recordings of these conversations are available here (Singh) and here (Davis and Nageer).

13 Dev Tech Systems, Gender Assessment for USAID/Guyana, 2003, pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/PDACG104.pdf, 6.

14 Ibid., 8.

 

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