The world is pitted with pockmarks left behind by colonial powers. Festering black holes of poverty and anger are the hallmarks of countries built upon the backs of slave labour and indentured servitude. While Africa and South East Asia are the areas most often associated with countries still trying to crawl out from the burden of being an European subject, the Western Hemisphere has its own colonial heritage. Unlike in other parts of the world those looking to exploit North and South America weren’t able to do it on the backs of the indigenous peoples. Rather unreasonably they preferred to die rather be forced to slave for those who would be their masters.
Which is why almost anywhere there were European settlements in the Western Hemisphere, from Canada to South America, there were also slaves. If, once the slave trade had been abolished, the land owners still needed cheap labour they used the next best thing, indentured servants. In exchange for the promise of a new life poor people in other parts of the world were given passage to the new world in exchange for agreeing to work as virtual slaves for a period of at least five years and sometimes seven. In Guyana, formally British Guiana, on the North East coast of South America, the scars from these practices are still open wounds.
In his recently published book, The Sly Company Of People Who Care from Picador Press, author Rahul Bhattacharya takes us on a long strange journey into the soul of probably the poorest county in our hemisphere. One of the main reasons for Guyana’s poverty were the practices employed by her former colonial masters, the Dutch and the British. It was the Dutch who brought thousands of African slaves to the country. They did the back breaking work of making the costal areas not only habitable but useful for agriculture by shifting thousand of tons of earth and mud to construct dikes and canals by hand. In theory the former slaves were given the opportunity to buy some of the land they had previously worked. But the government, urged on by their former masters, did their best to make sure the former slaves would fail.
The slaves’ place on the plantations were taken primarily by indentured servants brought in from the poorest parts of India. However, unlike their African counterparts, once the Indians had served their contracts they were given assistance from the government to ensure they could make a go of farming and establishing themselves. This was a deliberate attempt by those in power to create resentment and animosity between the two sets of downtrodden people. For naturally the descendants of the African slaves resented the favours granted the late comers. Political parties were formed along racial lines, and while there were some who attempted to bridge the gap, even today the divide is the biggest cause of unrest and violence in Guyana.
Bhattacharya’s story centres around the experiences of a young Indian national who decided to chuck his career as a sports journalist covering cricket around the world to spend a year exploring Guyana. What he quickly discovers, although there are very few pure blooded descendants of either racial group left, the divisions still run deep. Therefore he naturally spends the majority of time in the company of those who trace their ancestry back to India. Ironically they know little or almost nothing, of the language or culture they left behind and like their African counterparts speak a localized version of the Caribbean patois.
While the book is called a novel, Bhattacharya, was himself a former cricket journalist and spent time in Guyana exploring the country and getting to know its ins and outs as best he could. The impression he creates is of a country of extreme contrasts. From the below sea level coastal area where the majority of the population is crammed into dirty and crumbling cities where poverty and the ugliness that accompanies it is the norm, to the breathtaking natural beauty of the rain forests and exposed and wild grasslands bordering Brazil. While the transition from city life to the rainforest is made in stages; first by bus, then boat and then on foot to small settlements in the bush, on a visit to Brazil he discovers the demarcation line between the forrest and the grass land is much more abrupt. As he describes it, one moment youré amongst trees and the next all your eye can see for miles in any direction is swaying grasses.
Well, the natural physical beauties of Guyana are spectacular, including the Kaieteur Falls, the world’s largest single drop waterfall, Bhattacharya’s book concentrates on the people his character meets and describing their lives. It seems like alcohol and ganja play a substantial role in the lives of the men he meets, which could also explain why it feels like every gathering carries with it the potential for violence. Like any poor community there are those who are always looking for the quick way out — the one scam that will get them ahead of the game. This lends a certain air of desperation to all their actions and contributes to the ever present whiff of danger one senses. Too many people walking the knife edge of seeing hopes dashed time after time but still willing to bet everything they have on some desperate adventure.
The other impression created is of a whole nation adrift. With an economy in tatters, the only people making any money are the ones shipping cocaine from Columbia through Guyana to points further afield and those living off the bribes they pay out. While this is a work of fiction, one has the feeling the characters the author has created are based on people he met during his time in Guyana. Nobody sees any further ahead then how to get through the next little while. There’s no talk of the future or planning ways to get ahead. There might be boasting of things done in the past or far fetched dreams of maybe immigrating to America, but that’s as far as it goes. Depending upon which community you find yourself in, African or Indian, there’s always the recourse of blaming the misfortunes of the country on the other. If it weren’t for them why things would be better.
Like those he falls in with, the lead character in Bhattacharya’s story is seemingly content to drift aimlessly for the year his visa lasts. This includes a rather strange affair he has with a local woman which he falls into apparently from boredom. He knows it can’t last; he has to catch a plane back to India on a specific date or face serious trouble, but at times he pretends to himself there’s more to it than just something casual. She’s not as stupid as him concerning the affair, but in other ways she’s pathetically ignorant. She’s the cause of his one great moral dilemma just before he’s to leave the country — not what you think — and he fails the test quite miserably.
In some ways our narrator is not a likeable person. He’s the ultimate dilettante as he plays at being poor and living the drifting life style of those around him. However, unlike them he has his passage out pre-booked and paid for. He has a life and a career to go back to and the stability of a home waits for him in his native land. While he drinks their rum and talks their patois — and one of the delights of this book is how well Bhattacharya has managed to recreate the various dialects on the page — it’s all a pretence for him. He’s still a reporter at heart and no matter how much he thinks he’s involved with what’s going on he remains sufficiently detached to be able to report objectively on people’s behaviour. His only saving grace is at least he’s honest enough to apply the same critical eye to his own behaviour.
The Sly Company Of People Who Care is an interesting read for the light it shines on one of the world’s forgotten communities. Guyana, like so many countries abandoned by those who exploited its people and natural resources after they milked it for all they could, has been drifting aimlessly in an ever increasing downward spiral ever since its independence. With little or no opportunities for careers the few who are educated leave for greener pastures as soon as possible and those who remain behind sink further into poverty and anger. One is left wondering how much longer it can continue to drift before it runs aground. It sounds like only luck has prevented it from succumbing to the horrible ethnic violence we’ve seen other former colonies descend into. However, unless something happens to enact healthy change soon that’s a tinderbox only the right spark away from being ignited.