Rahul Bhattacharya, who lives in New Delhi, is the author of Pundits from Pakistan, a book of reportage, and The Sly Company of People Who Care, a first novel to be published by FSG in May. He answers some questions about the desire to escape home, the visceral energy of Creole, and V.S Naipaul.
-Eric Chinski, Editor in Chief
Chinski: Your first book was a work of reportage on the India-Pakistan cricket rivalry. Why did you decide to turn next to writing your first novel?
Rahul Bhattacharya: I didn’t, actually. The form came afterward, at the moment of writing. What I was responding to was the impulse to get away. It’s a terribly seductive impulse: What are the consequences? In part I was getting away from writing about cricket as well. But I’m grateful to cricket-writing, without which I may not ever have had a chance to visit the Caribbean.
Chinski: The title is The Sly Company of People Who Care. Could you explain what this means?
Bhattacharya: “Company” is for the colonizing company, in this instance the West India Companies. Colonization is a sly thing indeed, both brutal and subtle. The phrase is also for relationships in the book. It’s a book about betrayal, historical and contemporary, and also about fooling oneself maybe.
Chinski: What inspired you to set the novel in Guyana?
Bhattacharya: Guyana came much before the novel. I had been there briefly when I was twenty-two. It seared itself into me. How did that happen? I’m not sure. Landscapes, streetscapes, light and sound, a sense of rawness, of looseness, the possibility of transgressions. People, of course. It was odd that I should feel so deeply about a place so peripheral to my life. It was irresistible and, ultimately, inevitable that I would have to follow that curiosity. As I worked my way through it I felt more intimately the poignancy of a place not merely colonized but created entirely out of colonialism. Its themes, displacement, migration, race, they were such potent, visceral things.
Chinski: When I first read the manuscript I was immediately struck by the extraordinary energy and force of the language. The locals speak in a supercharged pidgin English (one of my favorites: the word for “dawn” is “dayclean”), and the narrator describes events in a more conventional and familiar English. Was it difficult to find the right balance between these two voices?
Bhattacharya: I thought the two could be good with each other. Creolese is immediate, vivid, visual, and I felt its energy could be woven with some contrast into a lusher standard English. My only aim with this was to create an organic, immersive world. Language is also insight. And the Guyanese patois reveals so much. The entire genesis of a society is in there, the loanwords from Dutch and French and Bhojpuri, rhythms or idioms from Africa, the improvisatory instinct. There is a peculiar poetry to it, and accuracy. A single word, “bruck-up,” describes better than an entire academic paper the condition of any number of “postcolonial states.”
Chinski: The novel is propelled by a series of wild adventures, eccentric characters, and the thrumming pulse of Caribbean music, but below the roiling surface of the story is a serious reckoning with the legacy of colonialism. How did you decide to deal with rather weighty historical and political questions in a novel.
Bhattacharya: The difficulty was not the decision to deal with those questions. Rather it was about how to build the resonances and symmetries—or reverbs, to borrow from dub reggae—that a novel of theme requires: in the narrator’s personal journey, in the lives of the people he encounters, and, most profoundly, in the experience of the society he has become a participant in. This was a matter of structure. I felt the book needed a center around which everything else could spin. I couldn’t have it as a plain picaresque. The narrator would have loved to transform himself into a kind of picaro, but he is unable to break loose from his own limitations. But a point about the eccentric characters. They must feel eccentric to the reader, as they do to the narrator at the outset. The narrator himself might feel a little eccentric at the start. By the end of the book I hope they feel not like eccentrics but quite natural to their history and circumstance.
Chinski: The novel was recently published in India by Picador and has received glowing early coverage. In India Today, you were called the “one true heir” of the great. V. S. Naipaul. How do you respond to a comparison like this?
Bhattacharya: With great humility. He is a master. I feel no need to qualify that, as some of his admirers and all of his critics do. However, I didn’t think of mine as a Naipaulian project. I’m interested in many of his concerns, but mine are not identical. He is relentless and merciless and insatiable in his interrogation of the world. I’m rather more susceptible to the languor or exhilaration of the sensual—music, food, romance. Call it the indulgence of the un-prodigious.
Chinski: Anglophone Indian writers have made a significant impact on the American literary scene. Is there a next generation of Indian writers that we should be looking out for?
Bhattacharya: This issue doesn’t exercise me at all. One reads about it a lot. Sometimes about how good or bad it is. Sometimes about where it lives or who it writes for. I feel nothing about this. To me an individual text is an individual text and I can’t approach it any other way.