Monthly Archives: April 2012

‘The Sly Company of People Who Care’ by Rahul Bhattacharya

2011, 281 p

Two things attracted me to this book.  First, the title.  Second, the fact that it is set in Guyana, the country formerly known as British Guiana.  And my interest in British Guiana?  Well, Judge Willis spent several years there as a judge, and I’ll be dealing with this period of his life in my thesis.  I approach the British Guianan section of my thesis with excitement mixed with a degree of trepidation.  Judge Willis was there at a fascinating time, just as the abolition of slavery was actually implemented, albeit fudged somewhat by the imposition of a long ‘apprenticeship’ on erstwhile slaves to protect the plantation-owners’ interests.  But then I think – I know Port Phillip intimately- its layout, its weather, its smells, its air, and I have at least been to York (Toronto) for a month and can start to imagine in my mind’s eye what it might have looked like- helped no end by a small scale model of 1825 York that I saw at William Campbell House in Toronto.  Does it matter that I’ve never been to the Caribbean?

Fortunately, it’s as if this book has been written just for me.  The narrator is a 26 year old Indian journalist who had briefly visited Guyana to cover a cricket tour, and he decides to return to be a “slow ramblin’ stranger”.  It took me a little while to realize that this book is, in effect, a travel book in three almost self-contained parts and that the plot, such as it is, meanders slowly.   The first section was rather disorienting: the narrator’s sharp ear catches the patois, and like him, you need to guess your way through. I was beginning to wonder whether the book was going anywhere and whether I was unable to detect, let alone remember, the plot until I realized that I was approaching it the wrong way. Like the narrator, I just had to watch and listen, and go where-ever it took me.

There is a lot of travel in this book- boats into the jungle, buses, taxis and small planes.  He accompanies some ‘porknockers’ into the rainforest jungle where they sluice illegally for diamonds on the edge of the dank watercourses; he travels to Brazil and Venezuela; he moves from place to place. He is the quintessential observer, he watches carefully and captures images and voices deftly, and he travels light both physically and emotionally.  It is only in the last section that he fleshes out into a character in his own right as he travels to Venezuela with the sensual and demanding Jan, and as their brittle relationship fractures in the traveller’s bad dream of cheap accommodation, poor planning, inadequate language and little money.

There’s a lot of history and politics in this book.  A note on the very first page explains that the term ‘Indian’ in Guyana refers to the descendents of the indentured labourers from India who were brought across to work on the sugar plantations after the abolition of slavery, and who now comprise 43.5% of the population.  The Africans comprise 30.2%, Mixed Race 16.7%, Portuguese 0.20, Chinese 0.19 and Whites 0.06.  The indigenous people at 9.2% are called Amerindians.  Indians from India are referred to as Indian nationals- and this is what our narrator is.  He is well-placed to see and feel the mutual incomprehension that the East Indian and Indian National have of each other, despite the vaguely recognizable physical appearance and the smell of Indian food that they hold in common.  He thinks about the wound that is left behind when someone leaves a village, their family, their country, and yet the inconsequentiality of that leaving for India as a whole.

The mind goes back to the wound.  To the East Indian the wound has been profound, in ways he knows and does not.  But in the geographical India, that pitiless, unceasing land which bothers not for whom it crushes or expels, there has not been the slightest cut.  The numbers have been undramatic, the impact negligible.  The people have been of the unimportant kind: nobodies whom nobody remembers, nobody knows of and nobody can be asked to care. (p. 99)

He observes, too, the racism of these groups, forced to co-exist with each other. Racism is everywhere; race is everything.

His descriptions are drenched with colour, and given that I’m not ever going to set foot in Guyana, they have sated my yearning to experience the weather, the sky, the smells, the air, for myself.

We put on shoes and gathered our things and began walking.  The trail was fresh squelch and the trees were still swaying apocalyptically though the rain was now beating slower.  The immense wetness of the rainforest made one feel submerged, but for the smells.  The smells were many, mud and leaves, heart of trunk and rotten fruit; the rustle of small animals, the slither of lizards, they all came scented.  It was soggy underfoot, thick squelch or big drenched leaves, brown, red and green, twenty or thirty deep.  It was walking on marshmallow. (p. 62)

Or the sight of the city awakening:

The bliss of the city is when it awakens- not the dawn hours haunted by the middle-aged shedding fat or burnt out adolescents returning home, but a little after, when the cleaning machines have brushed away yesterday’s evidence and the fresh day is falling crisp as golden wafers, when reasonable people with reasonable habits are coming out of their holes to dot the world with their strange faces, their gestures, costumes, voices, until bit by bit, by living magic, the grand tapestry is made. (p. 221)

And the title?  Well I’m not sure if I know what it means.  The India that expelled its people didn’t care, but I’m not sure that the Guyana that he describes here cares much either- for all the good will, there is also brutality, venality and suspicion. There is this cryptic aside:

Once I found a curious paean to the Dutch civilizing mission.  It was a four-page fine-print pamphlet, organized in sections, composed by an apparent descendant.  It extolled the courage of the pioneers- ‘who risked life and limb for the sake of the generations to come’. It lamented the passing of the Dutch Reformed Church- ‘which had given the people moral organisation for prosperity’. … The enterprise of the Dutch West India Company itself was honoured with its own subsection.  Here the first three words had been struck out by a blotted, once garish, purple nib.  They had been replaced by a single word. SLY.  In the margin a sentence had been started,  they think like they care- and abandoned there due to excessive blotting.  (p. 90)

Inscrutable.  Like many fragments, it hints at meaning but it’s hard to capture it. The whole book felt hard to capture, and yet by the end of it you realized that it had somehow captured you.

Fashion outlook April 1842

Here’s a heads-up for the new fashions for December 1841, taken from the New Monthly Belle Assemblee and reproduced in the Port Phillip Herald of 22 April 1842. Of course, the news was already outdated by the time magazines reached Port Phillip, although I guess that it was fortuitous that descriptions of winter fashion (if indeed there was such a thing) reached Melbourne as it was moving its its own, much milder winter.   I’m not sure how the fashion described in a magazine like the New Monthly related to the clothes that people actually wore. I think of the catwalk fashion that we see  from the major designer houses todayand it seems to bear little resemblance to ‘real’ clothes that ordinary people wear.  As you can see- I am no expert on fashion at all- not then, not now!

FASHIONS FOR DECEMBER

London Public Promenade Dress- Violet satin robe; a high corsage, tight to the shape, trimmed with three rows of cord and tassels to correspond; a single row is continued down the centre of the skirt.  Long tight sleeve, ornamented from the elbow to the wrist with a succession of knots to correspond.  Drawn bonnet, of deep orange-coloured satin; the brim edged with a ruche of dark green ribbon, and the interior and exterior trimmed with flowers.  Embroidered muslin collar.  Grey velvet scarf, bordered with sable fur.  Sable muff.

Demi-Toilette. Pink pou de soie [sic- should be peau de soie] robe; corsage en gerbe, and long tight sleeve.  White satin chapeau, a round open brim; the interior trimmed with small pink flowers; the exterior with a torsade of white satin ribbon, and a bouquet formed of the tops of white curled ostrich feathers. Green velvet mantelet; it is of a large size, sits close up to the throat, with a falling collar, trimmed with green fringe of a light pattern; a heart lappel, edged with fringe, forms it to the shape of the bust; it falls low behind, descends in front in long and very full scarf ends, and is bordered with fringe.

The promenade dress sounds very colourful, with deep orange, violet and dark green.  I’m finding it hard to shake the image of a rainbow lorikeet.

I’m not sure if the picture below relates to the description or not. It apparently came from the New Monthly magazine, but I’m finding it hard to match the illustration with the description. (I think it embiggens if you click on it).

‘Religion for Atheists’ by Alain de Botton

312 p. 2012

I very much identify with de Botton’s motivation in writing this book about reclaiming the rituals and cultural practices of religion, without actually subscribing to its doctrines.  I have had a rather varied religious history.  After a childhood of Sunday School and youth group at my local Church of England, I still describe myself as culturally Anglican, with a deep love of the language of the old Book of Common Prayer, stained glass and hymns.  A dalliance over several years with born-again Christianity in my adolescence petered out into indifference in my mid-twenties.  My interest in Unitarianism was kindled in my fifties with none other than Alexander Downer (of all people) simpering that our treatment of East Timor over oil revenues could be balanced out by foreign aid “because that’s what aid is for”.  I heard a radio program about Unitarianism and its long history of trying to balance social justice with reason and commitment, and somehow or other that led to the Unitarian Church in East Melbourne, where I have attended somewhat sporadically ever since.  I very much enjoyed the more spiritually-attuned Unitarian services that I attended last year in Canada. They seemed  to capture my longing for community, time and space to think, social justice, music and reflection in a  ritualized setting.  So what do I believe in?  I believe in being human, in fallability, in good will, in humility at life’s trajectory, in community, in goodness, in beauty. God doesn’t really come into it.

Alain de Botton starts his book with the declaration that

To save time, and at the risk of losing readers painfully early on in this project, let us bluntly state that of course no religions are true in any God-given sense.  …the real issue is not whether God exists or not, but where to take the argument once one decides that he evidently doesn’t.  The premise of this book is that it must be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless find religions sporadically useful, interesting and consoling- and be curious as to the possibilities of importing certain of their ideas and practices into the secular realm (p. 12)

And so, he identifies nine contributions that religion – any organized religion- can make to being human and considers them in their own right as human activities, rather than as expressions of spiritual belief. Community, kindness, education, tenderness, pessimism, perspective, art, architecture and institutions are each considered in turn, although there are overlaps between them – especially kindness and tenderness.  In particular he looks at the rituals and settings of religious activity, and suggests secular appropriations of them: museums organized around human traits, ritual sharing of food as a form of community, architecture designed to elicit awe, and art that evokes a sense of awareness of our own fleeting, fragile but precious lives.

His book is not an attack on Christianity, Judaism or Islam, and while it puts some suggestions on the table, it doesn’t really give any guidance on how they are to be achieved.  When he was going through his 9 contributions of religion, he could easily have included “ritually mark life’s transitions”.  It’s interesting that already people have developed their own secular ceremonies for namings, marriages and memorial services, without any need for a god to be involved in them, and without de Botton’s exhortations.

I know that critics have been derisive of his suggestions, but they very much appeal to me, and I think that already in my own way I’m seeking to find them already in my own life.  It’s paradoxical that he ends his discussion with the “visionary, eccentric and only intermittently sane sociologist” Auguste de Comte, who developed his own Religion of Humanity during the nineteenth century, because I feel that de Botton himself has made similar errors:

Comte’s greatest conceptual error was to label his scheme a religion.  Those who have given up on faith rarely feel indulgent towards this emotive word, nor are most adult, independent-minded atheists much attracted to the idea of joining a cult…Comte’s legacy, nevertheless, was his recognition that secular society requires its own institutions, ones that could take the place of religions by addressing human needs which fall outside the existing remits of politics, the family, culture and the workplace. p. 307

Sometimes I wonder if there’s not an element of self-indulgence and preciousness in a search for a non-religious religion.  I hope not.  I’m looking for something bigger than I am, but I want it grounded in being human, with all that entails, and embracing that humanity as something to be celebrated and cherished.