To the question posed by young writers as to how they might find a subject or story for an early book, sometimes the answer may be to get away as far from home as possible. The late and great Bruce Chatwin once told me that, tired of his life as a Sotheby’s auctioneer and as Sunday Times journalist in the 1970s, he cobbled together funds and suddenly left with a rucksack for South America. The result of that journey was In Patagonia (1977), a classic of modern travel literature.
Rahul Bhattacharya, the Indian cricket journalist, was gripped by a similar desire: “To reinvent one’s living, to escape the deadness of the life one was accustomed to was to be hungry for the world one saw.” He bought a one-year return ticket and went to Guyana, on the northern coast of the same continent, a land bound by the Amazon and Orinoco rivers, that he had briefly visited as a 22-year-old while covering a West Indies cricket tour. The country’s “low sky, red earth and brown earth made me feel humble and ecstatic. The drenched wooden houses on stilts wrenched my soul”, writes Bhattacharya, as his alter ego ventures into Guyana’s bush, rainforest, coast and mountains and finally into Venezuela on a disastrous love affair.
Around Georgetown, the capital, there are Atlantic villages called Kitty and buses have names like “No. 72 Sita Sita”. A madcap cast of original characters abound—layabouts, scoundrels, wedding cooks and others—with names like Rabindranath Latchman, De Jesus, Roger Khan and Ramotar Seven Curry. Their explicit, rum-infused patois, more potent than V.S. Naipaul’s Caribbean-speak, is addictive. Here’s Dr Red talking: “In Kamrang I get six wives one night, and the remarkable thing is that none of them is meet eighteen. Like fourteen-eighteen. Akawaio girls. All the wannabe girls say, You give me a chile, man, Uncle Red, you my chilefadder but still you don’t love me. I say, I love you with all my heart, I love you, but I lie...”
Guyana’s pungent masala mix of reggae, Bhojpuri and Bollywood music, and racial hybrid of “chine, putagee, buck, coolie and blackman” are descended from waves of slaves and indentured labour imported by Dutch and British colonists from the 17th century to tame a riverine land of mangrove and mosquito. They came from Africa, Portuguese Madeira and China but mostly from Basti and Buxar. Distinctions between East Indians (descendants of coolies) and Indian nationals (Indians from India) exist but it is polite in Guyana to ask if you are mixed. As a character points out, “Drop a lil single drop of black in any colour, see how much the colour turns black. Anytime you got a little black in you, you is a blackman. Eh he. That is the power of black.”
With his acute eye for landscape and character and his sharp ear for the cadence of slang, Rahul Bhattacharya’s expeditions are travels in hyper reality. But he does not shape his work as a memoir-travelogue (emphasising the word “novel” in the title). When the publishers received the manuscript, they sent it to the editor of a leading Guyana paper for vetting. The editor wrote back to ask where he could locate Ramotar Seven Curry. Answer: he is a complete fiction.
Among the many accomplishments of this exceptional book is Bhattacharya’s ability to portray sex with an unabashed, edgy abandon. Unconvincing passion is the bane of much of Indian fiction: often lewd and surreptitious, it can be as coy and mechanical as coitus interruptus. There is a wild complicity in the protagonist’s affair with the shop girl Jan (short for Jankey, partly Indian but “my father got a lil Brazzo in him”); their enraptured escape to Venezuela and heady couplings as they travel from small town to big city carry hints of duplicity from the very start, for there is something at once legit and illicit about the affair. Time is running out for both, and Bhattacharya, the novelist, shrewdly raises the pitch to the final deception.
How much of this mesmerising fictional debut is real, imagined or a roman a clef is left to the reader’s choice. It is certainly the best first novel by an Indian I have read in a long time. The word “sly” in the title could be read as a conceit.