South-South Liming

Rahul Bhattacharya, The Sly Company of People Who Care (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011); 278 pages; ISBN 978-0-374-26585-4 (hardcover).

• February 2012

Rahul Bhattacharya has given us a sweet, magical lime of a first novel. Lush with the irony and warmth squeezed into its paradoxical title—The Sly Company of People Who Care—this travel narrative set in Guyana rewards at every turn. The narrator is a young man in his twenties who has “walked all the way from India” (86) and gotten caught up with the spirit of the place. As a journalist he once covered an international cricket tour in Guyana, and now he has returned for a year of exploration and self-discovery. This “slow ramblin’ stranger” (3) plunges into the everyday lives of his Guyanese hosts, illuminating all he experiences with keenly sympathetic ethnographic insight and rendering these adventures into lyrical description.

With deftness and empathy the narrator sketches the social and spatial-temporal coordinates of the Guyanese imagination: the often cruel local mythologies of race; the sensuous and varied texture of days and nights and seasons of heat and rain; the qualities of light; the intimacies of place. He moves about from his base in Georgetown with its once magnificent wooden buildings, to the “country,” as the densely settled, intensely cultivated coastal strip is known, to the further reaches of the forested “interior,” to the Rupununi savannah. Toward the end, he makes adventurous forays into neighboring Brazil and Venezuela. However, having no command of Portuguese or Spanish and with little attention to the cultural nuance that makes the Guyana sections so rich, the account here becomes thinner, more self-indulgent and less interesting, notwithstanding the protagonist’s torrid romance. The novel’s three main sections follow his passage, and the consequent ripening of his social sensibilities, through these intertwined yet self-contained geographic and social worlds.

But if anything it is the lime that gives Sly Company its underlying structure. Bhattacharya closely studies the conventions and codes of the lime, that ubiquitous southern Caribbean institution of (male) public repose; and his mastery of the medium infuses the episodic tale with warmth and verve. The narrator’s open-ended agenda and the innocence with which he puts himself in the way of life going on about him in this new place makes him a great candidate for inclusion in the lime, whose boundaries, in any case, are always indeterminate. People come and go from the lime and move easily from one to the next. Its fluid, open-ended structure welcomes strangers, especially those with a word to contribute, a tale to tell, a special quirkiness to stir into the mix. Even regular members of the lime are as likely known only by their “call-names” and aliases as by their given names. So it isn’t out of the ordinary that Bhattacharya’s narrator goes unnamed for much of the novel. Now and then he allows his liming partners to name or give account of him. His identity slides, in the devilish flavor of the lime, from “Gooroo” to “Pandit.” On one occasion, a liming partner, Baby, identifies him to an inquiring soldier as having been sent by the government from India to collect botanical specimens in the Guyana rainforest (26). A few pages later the same partner wins him immediate acceptance among a new crew of limers when he introduces him by saying, “He come fuh teach Indian sexual posture to gals in the bush” (39).

Suspended time is the sacrosanct mode of liming, offering implicit but insistent critique of measured, dollar-valued time. The lime transforms dead-time into something pleasurably wiled away in the delicious enjoyment of others’ company. The episodes in Sly Company unfold from one lime to the next around a series of precious characters. Some appear for only a page or two. Others, like Uncle Lance—a “retired” small business owner whose proverbial newspaper reading makes him the center of communal discussion at the apartment building where the narrator first lives—hang around for several chapters or else reappear from time to time and linger more in the imagination. Uncle Lance becomes the narrator’s first instructor in the art of Guyanese liming-talk, or gyaffin. Then there is Baby, the occasional diamond prospector and self-styled ex-con who introduces the narrator to the world of the interior. Or Ramotar Seven Curry, my favorite, whose call-name comes from the Hindu ceremony-food of Guyana (112), and who takes him along from one Indian wedding to another on weekends, allowing him entre to villages and households all along the coast.

As with the lime, the novel’s tempo is well seasoned by music. “All understanding of the Caribbean is available in its music” (131), Bhattacharya suggests, and a Caribbean soundtrack—mostly of Jamaican reggae, of which the narrator displays some knowledge and deep affection, but also dancehall and calypso—forms a shadowing presence throughout. Reggae-talk and cricket-talk punctuate the narrative and, periodically, classic lyrical lines like the proverbial “Sorry for maga dog, maga dog turn around bite you” (78) serve to frame reflective moments. If there is any disappointment, ultimately, it is that, like the lime, Sly Company is so heavily male-centered in its angle of vision and, in this respect, doesn’t break sharply with the tradition of European travel writing. Its limers’ objectifying descriptions of women go mostly unquestioned; its women characters lack the rounded intelligence and wit of their male counterparts.

To its credit, histories and the ways in which Guyanese represent those histories to themselves—of conquest, settlement, uprooting, transplantation (the colonial remaking of the world), and the ugliness of Guyana’s late-twentieth-century racialized politics—weave their way through Bhattacharya’s account, freshened by his ironic voice. “The term Indian in Guyana and in this book,” he tells us in a prefatory note, “refers to East Indians. They are the descendants of the coolies, indentured laborers from India,” now a majority of the Guyanese population. “The indigenous people . . . are called Amerindians. Indians from India are referred to as Indian nationals. . . . Keep in mind that the Guyanese are also West Indians. Like Sam Selvon said, ‘Christopher Columbus must be killing himself with laugh.’” In another instance, the narrator muses over the name of the Georgetown neighborhood he visits to experience a street dance in the Jamaican style: “Werk-en-Rust the ward was called: work and rest, Dutch: another old plantation. Such brutality, such gingerbread names!” (92). In this world where all appears so easygoing, so unencumbered by tradition, then, the reader comes to understand that “each thing seeded from something before, and that from something before, going back to the time the Africans and the Indians were put down brutally on the foreshore of South America” (139).

Perhaps the most charged, intractable legacy of this colonial past is the racial assortment and accompanying mythologies that animate every crevice of Guyanese life: “In the slang of the street there were chinee, putagee, buck, coolie, blackman, and the combinations emanating from these, a separate and larger lexicon” (4–5). With an outsider’s keen detachment and a kindred ex-colonial’s empathy, Bhattacharya probes the calculus and keen sensitivities of race, reproducing for examination (and sometimes wry comment) examples of common understandings and aphorisms. “The lawyer was putagee—of Portuguese extraction. The Portuguese had come to Guyana as indentured labourers even before the Indians and the Chinese. They were light-skinned and independent-minded. They rose up the ranks, and now, small in number and of high position, they could look at race as something they were not a part of” (5). All things political are refracted through the lens of race, and sex-talk and ideas about sex are especially infused with its mythologies. As Bhattacharya morosely observes: “What is race is race, what isn’t race, that’s race too” (134).

But how do their ancestral homelands figure in the imagination of Guyanese? How do Indo-Guyanese, for example, perceive and represent the distant India from which their ancestors were transported as agricultural laborers a century and more ago and, correspondingly, how are they viewed by natives of India? Sly Company lets readers in on a family conversation between the two, a conversation laced as much with puzzlement, misrecognition, and resentment as it is with familiarity and embrace. The narrator and Uncle Lance explore these connections, for instance, on their extended Sunday limes to shop for fish and other ingredients for the sumptuous meals they prepare together: “Over cooking and eating [they] encountered the connections and disconnections with India” (162).

More dejectedly, Bhattacharya tells us that Indo-Guyanese experience their distant uprooting as an unhealed wound. The narrator learns from a Cuban psychiatrist practicing in the countryside that they have one of the highest rates of depression and suicide in the world. By way of explanation, her Indo-Guyanese husband tells him, “‘We are sad because ever since we left India we have a hole in our hearts. Nothing can fill that hole. . . . And yet, brother,’ he add[s], ‘we find that Indians do not consider us to be Indians’” (99). Indeed, as a prosperous Indo-Guyanese businessman looking—as do so many Guyanese—to emigrate, but loath to consider India, observes, “They does treat we like we is blackman” (136). In contrast to this sense of wounding, Bhattacharya remarks, “In the geographical India, that pitiless, unceasing land which bothers not for whom it crushes or expels, there has not been the slightest cut. The numbers have been undramatic, the impact negligible. The people have been of the unimportant kind: nobodies whom nobody remembers, nobody knows of and nobody can be asked to care” (98–99). And the Indian nationals whom the narrator runs into from time to time (professionals, businessmen) all seem at best patronizing in their attitudes toward Guyana: “Beset with the superior sorrow of being here” (91).

Inevitably, the narrator’s own “Indianness” is scrutinized and reacted to in the calculations that figure in interpersonal interactions. Making conversation with an Indo-Guyanese tour guide on a flight back to Georgetown from the interior, the narrator comments, “I felt he looked it and asked him if he was mixed: it was polite conversation in Guyana. I hurt him. ‘Pure, man,’ he said defensively, ‘Pure all the way.’ He took off his cap, ran his hand over his very short hair, buzzed down to the scalp. He pulled the strands up to their exerted millimeters, inviting me to touch. ‘Watch man, straight. It straight’” (80). Though the narrator moves and mingles across the ethnic divides with an ethnographic outsider’s adroitness, his presence nonetheless can both afford privileged access and evoke reserve. As he remarks about his conversations with a leading Afrocentrist public figure whom he had sought out to interview, “He cannot be candid with me as the Indians are (who not only assume I’m on their side, but that I have come specifically to bear witness to their persecution)” (137).

Though welcomed nervously as assayer of Indian purity or more effusively as witness to Indian persecution, the narrator himself disavows ethnic chauvinisms and seeks to escape an India he finds oppressive. He wants to celebrate transformations. Even though fragile and fraught with challenge, what most attracts him is the innovative, distinctively New World, refashioning of selves so characteristic of Guyanese life. On a wedding-crashing lime with Ramotar Seven Curry, the narrator waxes on admiringly about some of the transformations that were initiated in the wake of Indian immigration to Guyana: “Women, so scarce among the coolies, able to in certain cases . . . take dowry! Castes marrying each other! Brahmins conducting weddings for chamars!” A prominent rice-mill owner and pandit who overhears the conversation protests vigorously what he considers this insult to Guyanese and Hindus: “What you are saying, basically, is that we have forgotten our social organization, which is the most ancient and scientific organization the world has seen.” But the narrator insists: “What I am saying is that hierarchy matters less here. . . . It’s a good thing. Like at the wedding, rich and poor people hang out together, drink and chat. India is, you know, paralyzed by hierarchy” (117). This is the India he has sought, at least temporarily, to escape: the place from which he is in flight. And it is the new forms of language, music and other shared social institutions like liming which these castaways from the old world have invented, that draw him to Guyana and that implicitly suggest perhaps the possibility of overcoming ethnic divisiveness.

In the novel’s exuberant metaphor, the narrator, like the kite-flyers of Bombay, has let loose the thread on his kite, has sought to give himself dheel (87). In a year spent hovering over this new and wondrous place, Bhattacharya has penned images that pay tribute to antecedents like Samuel Selvon, V. S. Naipaul, and Wilson Harris yet disrupt the complacent despair of both native and traveler. Would that there were more South-South journeys of this sort to nudge fresh appreciation of each other’s derelict and still distant lands.

 

Charles V. Carnegie is professor of anthropology at Bates College and a member of the Small Axe Collective.

 

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