'The sly company of people who care' is the last sentence in the book. Used as the title as well, what does it signify?
The title appears at the end not as a sentence but as a final sign-off, to reprise the theme of the book. Its appearance in the text comes earlier. In a scene in a library, the narrator encounters in a pamphlet extolling the virtues of the Dutch West India Company, someone's scrawled marginalia. The colonial companies were very sly, and so is the company people keep in the book.
The sound of the words when spoken, along with the music, lends an auditory quality to the novel. Does that suffer when those who have neither heard the music nor the cadence of Guyanese speech read the book?
This is for the reader to say. I suspect they hear it in a different way from what was intended — but they do hear something. By now I've gathered that people have read this book through a kind of haze of language. I imagine it could on occasion feel opaque, especially early on, but perhaps it is progressively transparent. Somebody told me that they heard the line of dialogue ‘don't speed me head in the morning time' quite easily in Hindi as something like ‘dimaak mat kha subah subah'.
Your novel is set, refreshingly, in a place no one wants to go to. Did it worry you that people might not want to read about slaves and indentured labour, marshalled there by the forces of history?
No, and I don’t think of writing in that way. I did not go to Guyana because of an interest in slavery or indenture as an area of study. I went there because I was curious. As a reader and a writer, I find the lives of people interesting, and people’s lives are shaped by history. I worry about many things, but looking at the question again I’m certain that the one thing I didn’t worry about was whether someone would want to read about people who have emerged from this particular past.
Humour is one way in which you connected with the Guyanese. Is it a mechanism, you think, for coping with the brutality of life there?
They're funny as hell and they have flair. There is a great sense of emancipation in Caribbean life, of laughter and liming. I use the word emancipation which is, of course, also the proper term for ‘freedom from slavery'. Perhaps humour is a way of responding to the epic tragedies of their history — which is after all a very recent history. It's also to do with a sense of adventure and even pure recklessness. Being provocative is almost a duty in the Caribbean, so that the great calypsonian Mighty Sparrow can write the wonderful ironic lyric: ‘provocation is against the law!'
Don't you think the metaphor of exploring a country and knowing it through intimacy with a woman, Jan in this case, is a tired one?
Well, a character is not a mere metaphor, and neither is the narrator's exploration of that society contingent on intimacy with a woman.
You refer to Naipaul in the book, and insouciantly invade his territory to write about it in your way. Were you aware of your own bravery in doing this?
It does not strike me as brave. At any rate, to avoid Naipaul territory would be to eliminate half the world! I feel uncomplicated about Naipaul. I don't seek to emulate or distance myself from him. His Caribbean books are a brilliant body of work. I tipped my hat to him in the text, but then there are little homages like that to several writers and musicians. There's a fictional folk-song named for a character in a Roy Heath novel.
The freshness and irreverent exuberance of tone and language in your book, how did you sustain it while writing the book in Delhi? Had you made notes?
I tried to keep a journal. Now, I'm an awful journal keeper, so that was one problem. My handwriting is appalling, so to understand it was another! I did use those notes to plug into a sense of being in Guyana, as I did music and books and online newspapers and forums.
You researched the book in Delhi, after you had lived and limed in Guyana. Were your raw perceptions altered by this process?
I could not have started the book while I was still in Guyana. The distance was necessary. I needed to balance my raw perceptions, to use your phrase, with a more measured appreciation of what I was dealing with. Looking back, I suppose I was aiming to be in that tricky place from where one can see the woods as well as the trees.
You talk about having accidentally become a writer. Will this prize change that state of being continually surprised by life?
I doubt it. I mean, winning the prize itself is a surprise! I like to think that for a writer life begins all over again with every book.
Tell us about the romance, real not imagined, that occurred during the writing of this book.
Oh but then how would it be romantic any more?
“A prize like this means a lot”
I was in the room when the prize was announced but I could have easily been outside. I was drinking a cup of tea and feeling rather relieved that my last event of the festival was finished, when I was called in. My anxiety in Chennai had to do with the events. I had practically forgotten about the prize. I was more concerned about whether I was going to address Shashi Tharoor as Dr. Tharoor or Mr. Tharoor or Shashi during our session.
I was blissfully calm about my prospects because I was certain I would not win. There were proper giants on that list. People have mentioned my Amarnath remark. It occurred to me afterwards that Amarnath had dismissed the West Indian tail. Madan Lal it was who’d removed Richards, Haynes and Gomes! I don’t think my family rated my chances either. My mother and sister were watching “Ra.One” in Mumbai and learnt of it much later. My wife, who was also the editor of this book, was eating dinner in Delhi’s Goa Niwas and said she’d forgotten about the announcement.
To win a prize like this means a lot to a writer. There is new interest in the book, which is wonderful. The purse is generous and buys you time and space to think about your next work. It’s easy for books to disappear. Sly Company for instance is set in an obscure land, written in a somewhat obscure tongue and has not had a big publicity campaign. So I feel very grateful to critics, the reviewers and in this instance, the judges, who have spread some love for it. And I appreciate sincerely The Hindu’s efforts to support writers and writing.