Travel outside one's culture and country can feel like a hallucination -- nothing and nobody are exactly what they seem or should be. Language turns opaque; the landscape is both strange and familiar. Rahul Bhattacharya's novel-cum-travel memoir, "The Sly Company of People Who Care," captures this surreal aspect of travel, not least because, being from India, he is seeing it through non-Western eyes.
Guyana, on the north coast of South America, has a special relationship with India. Almost half the population is descended from an indentured labor force imported from the Ganges region in the mid-19th century. The other half descended from African slaves, indigenous people, the Dutch, Portuguese and British. The "Indians" still practice Hinduism, eat foods descended from Indian cooking and retain Indian customs; many still consider India home. However, they have taken on their own brand of Caribbean English and, like immigrants anywhere, their culture has adapted to the new country and the people around them.
Bhattacharya came to Guyana at age 22 to report on a cricket match and fell in love with the country, as one might fall in love with a person who resembles an old lover and yet is different in all sorts of interesting and exciting ways. Eventually he returned to spend a year there. In the novel, he creates a nameless alter ego with the same history and profession, who loves the particular brand of English, the peculiar foods, new words and customs. He loves the tropical wildness, the relatively sparse population and the lack of caste strictures, imagining it as an India that has left behind its rigidity.
Yet if the narrator's agenda is to experience the marvels of Guyana, the people around him also have agendas -- hence the "sly" company of the title. A con artist named Baby bilks him out of some cash at their first meeting; this doesn't bother our hero, who sees it as part of the adventure: "[T]here was some delight taken in my man, since scampery was so rampant that the ones who shone amid the competition were reverenced," leaving the narrator "privileged to have been had by a scampion." Baby takes him on a trip into the interior that reads like a gonzo "On the Road" partly rendered in Guyanese dialect, introducing him as "Gooroo" because of his supposed familiarity with the Kama Sutra. After forging documents to give them scientific status for entry into a national park, they end up staying with a "porknocker" -- a diamond miner -- in the backcountry. It's only when Baby nearly slices the porknocker's head with a machete that the narrator considers that he really doesn't know his man very well.
Back in Georgetown, the capital, our hero takes stock of the culture. This part reads like a travelogue -- he accompanies "Ramotar Seven Curry," who is famous for attending every wedding reception in the city and shadows Moses Moonsee, the rat catcher, at daybreak: "[A] name like that breaks open the past straight away. ... I thought of the forebear of Moses Moonsee, a lettered munshi, a Mughal clerk, who had fled to a distant continent to do manual labour, and whose eventual progeny caught rats." He starts to understand the complicated class and racial structure of Guyana, where tension between ethnic Indians and African-Guyanese can be traced back to the days right after slavery. The result? "A section of society was disillusioned with the state so they turned to crime. The state's response was to suppress the movement with more crime. Every act of crime further ruptured the division. Every rupture delivered new folk heroes. ... Beneath the everydayness this was the Guyana I had stepped into. How innocent Baby was in all this!"
Bored with the slow pace of life, he hooks up with a local woman, Jan, and decides to pay for a trip to Venezuela for them both. Other than mutual sexual interest and her Indian ancestry, they don't have a great deal in common. He mostly wants a traveling companion; Jan, however, has her own agenda, wanting to leave Guyana, perhaps by marrying him. In a very clueless-male way, the narrator takes a long time to realize she is interested in more than temporary sex and companionship. His promise, that he'll treat her "good," "like a prize bird," haunts him, until their escalating fights bring him to a serious betrayal just as he's about to leave to go home.
The weakness of "Sly Company" is its lack of resolution -- like almost any travel story, the ending, with the narrator returning to his home country, predictably leaves loose threads. The strength of the book is its description and its language, rendering so precisely Bhattacharya's experience of Guyana. It's also clear that the beauty the narrator sees in Guyana has as much to do with what he's looking for as what's actually there: "One sees what one wants to see." It's a privilege to see Guyana as the author sees it.