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Traveller’s tales

He’s the flavour of the season on India’s literary circuit. At 33, Rahul Bhattacharya has two highly praised novels under his belt and comparisons to V.S. Naipaul are flying thick and fast even from hard-nosed critics. But Bhattacharya is taking it all in his loping stride.

His budding literary career has received a boost recently when he won Britain’s prestigious Ondaatje Prize 2012 for his second book, The Sly Company of People Who Care. The Ondaatje Prize carries a cash prize of 10,000. Sly Company..., a work of fiction, also made it to the shortlist of the Commonwealth Book Prize 2012.

The self-effacing writer makes light of the rave reviews. “It’s a kind of madness to write a book. You don’t know who you are doing it for and are simply following impulses of your own,” he says.

Bhattacharya, started out as a cricket journalist, and that was what first took him to the Caribbean. But he turned earnest traveller in 2006 when he returned to the Caribbean to research The Sly Company of People Who Care. He wandered deep into Guyana (an unlikely setting for a novel) and parts of Venezuela, Trinidad and six other Caribbean islands for an entire year before putting pen to paper.

His earlier book, Pundits from Pakistan, was also the result of his cricketing travels. It was written in 2005, when he was about 25. The book is centred on cricket but it’s a lot more than just a tour diary or chronicle of the historic Indo-Pak test series of 2004. He was covering the series for The Guardian and Wisden (the monthly cricket magazine).

Besides covering the cricket matches, the book was a travelogue, detailing the sights and sounds of Karachi and Lahore and the people he met. In 2010, it was voted among the top five cricket books of all time by The Wisden Cricketer, London.

Recently, Penguin India acquired the rights from Picador for both Bhattacharya’s books. And last year he married Shruti, who edited both his books at Picador.

The fact that he’s is being looked upon by the literary fraternity as the author to watch, has changed Bhattacharya’s life in more ways than one. For a start, it has resulted in a flurry of invitations for literary events both in India and around the globe. Besides being a panellist on literary fests in Jaipur, Mumbai, Chennai and Calcutta, he’s been dashing between US, Trinidad, Singapore and Hong Kong.

One positive result of all the literary globetrotting is that he’s no longer terrified of taking centre-stage as he used to be after his Pundits from Pakistan was published. He says wryly: “I’m not a very natural speaker or performer, and being so young then, I didn’t have many big points to make.”

But he’s putting a halt to his travels for now as he wants to clear the decks for the next book that’s brewing in his head. It’s early days yet one thing’s for sure — this time the book will be set in India. However, he’s not divulging any details.

The switch from writing about cricket to fiction has been easy. Cricket happened to him while he was studying pure mathematics at St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai. “Those were five years of drift — but importantly, I started playing cricket for college,” he says.

He found himself hooked by the game and began working for a cricket magazine soon after graduating. Then he moved to writing for a website and finally landed at Wisden.

In Sly Company... Bhattacharya aimed to get an insight into Guyana’s colonial society — it’s an unusual country with large tracts of semi-explored forest. “The savage historical circumstances like forced migration from Africa and slavery and indenture from India are the underlying truths of life in Guyana,” he says. The book won The Hindu Literary Prize for Best Fiction 2011 and was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2011.

Bhattacharya points out that he’s not the unnamed narrator of Sly Company.... “He only shares my background and some observations,” he says. The narrator is a cricket reporter who goes to Guyana to ‘escape the deadness of the life’.

The book’s 26-year-old narrator embarks on an adventure with Baby, a diamond hunter, and takes a trip into Guyana’s interiors. He experiences its rainforests, lives in its decaying homes and encounters a motley crew of characters, both Indian and African, who have created a new world for themselves. And then he meets — and falls in love with — Jan with whom he takes off to Venezuela.

Bhattacharya’s fascination for Guyana began when he first visited the country as a 22-year-old reporter covering a cricket match. “Guyana is sensory experience — in terms of its topography, music and climate. It compelled me to return,” he says.

When he returned in 2006 it was without an agenda. Travelling in Guyana was rough, he recalls, adding that was also very unstructured. “You could be waiting two or three days for a coach while there are just a couple of very thin highways which run inland or along the coast,” he says.

He returned to India in 2007, freewheeled for six months and shifted away from his parents in Mumbai to Delhi so he could focus on his writing. The book took about three years to complete.

He brushes off comparisons with Naipaul — though he reckons it’s an honour to be compared with him. But he insists that his perspective on the book was never Naipaulean. “Naipaul is a giant and I don’t compare myself with him. He’s also written things about the Caribbean which I don’t agree with,” he says.

He says that he’s not a compulsive writer who is always working on something. “I’m naturally very undisciplined and can’t follow a fixed routine for too long,” he says with a smile.

Though he doesn’t cover cricket any more, he’s written four or five essays on cricket for different publications in the last few months. “I’m a procrastinator who can while away time very easily,” he says, grinning. But he’s not wasting much time as he gets his next project underway.