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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

Category Archives: Guyana

The Rum:  El Dorado21-year-old Special Reserve

www.theeldoradorum.com

The Book:  The Sly Company of People Who Care by Rahul Bhattacharya

I know very little about Guyana, other than it was once called British Guiana and is the only English-speaking country in South America. I need to broaden my horizon line.

THE RUM

The impact of El Dorado 21 is immediate. From the bronzed mahogany hue in the glass, to the dried fruit and spice on the nose, to the smooth blend of spice and oak and the touch of smoke on the palate, this rum has exceptional written all over it. It has to be one of the very best widely-distributed aged rums in the world. Sip neat and treasure, and share with the closest of friends. (43% abv)

In the 1700s Guyana could boast of more than 300 independent rum producers. Over the centuries the number waned through closures and mergers, until, by 1998, only one remained — Demerara Distillers Limited at the Diamond Estate on the East Bank of the Demerara River.

Home to El Dorado rums, it can point to over three centuries of rum-making history. One need go no farther than its exceptional range of stills to comprehend just how important that long tradition is to present-day production.

The 21-year-old has been blended from the products of three heritage stills: the Wooden Continuous Coffey, the last working example of this type of still in the world, active since 1880; the Single and the Double Wooden Pot Stills, over 250 years old, constructed of local green heartwood; and the tall, four-column 18th century French Savalle Still. DDL has several more stills and under Master Distiller George Robinson produces a remarkable 9 distinct rum styles (marques), carefully aged, offering Master Blender Amar Seweda an unprecedented inventory from which to choose.

The sugar cane used in the rum production is grown along the fertile banks of the Demerara River. Once harvested, it is taken by barge to a sugar factory where the canes are crushed and the juice extracted. The molasses by-product, produced from boiling the juice, is known for its unique profile. Transported to the distillery, it is pumped into huge storage tanks, awaiting the start of the fermentation process.

The various stills deliver their signature rums which are matured in 45-gallon, hand-coopered oak casks, some for as much as 30 years, bearing in mind that Guyana’s tropical climate speeds the aging process considerably. Warehouse capacity will soon reach an amazing 85,000 casks.

Eventually casks are chosen and the fine art of blending is undertaken. In the case of our rum, the minimum barrel age is 21 years. Slow and steady is the route to bottling. Not a race, but absolutely a winner.

THE BOOK

If the author, Rahul Bhattacharya, didn’t deny it, you might swear this is a travelogue, a rich and entertaining one, but at its heart an account of the author’s year-long stay in Guyana. He is, after all, an Indian national and a cricket writer, like the narrator, and the two are roughly the same age. Both were overwhelmingly captivated by the country. But in interviews Bhattacharya assures the reader the book is a novel. And doesn’t it say so right on the front cover?

A conventional novel it is not. The storyline is loose and meandering. A reader is not left on the edge of any seat, in anticipation of a gripping turn in the plot, with the exception of wondering if the unnamed narrator’s visa will expire before he makes it out of the country.

But, like any book, The Sly Company of People Who Care is better described for what it is than what it is not. It is an exhilarating exploration of a little-appreciated country and its people. It is an all-consuming encounter with what multicultural isolation can do to language. It is at once tender and abrasive, a characher-rich, landscape-rich delight of a “novel.”

At the end of the first chapter Bhattacharya says this of Georgetown, Guyana’s capital city: “It was a lovely raining day, the kind of Georgetown January day that would singe me forever. Clothes flew on the line against a palm. Wooden houses cried on corners. A frangipani dripped over a crook paling. A goat bleated through thick slanting drops. The trenches were aglimmer darkly. Guyana was elemental, water and earth, mud and fruit, race and crime, innocent and full of scoundrels.”

Battacharya has a soft spot for scoundrels and eccentrics, of which there are more than a few in the book. When he ventures into the country’s interior as a “porknocker” (a prospector for diamonds and gold) it is in the company of Baby, an irascible scamp who repeatedly claims he once slashed someone to death with nine strokes of his cutlass.

He’s a forewarning of local colour. Baby declares at one point: “You make what you make so when you dead you can tell the big man you enjai you life.” Then there’s Dr Red, and the Siddiques, and Ramotar Seven Curry (“an extremely short man…with a belly like a perfectly formed vat”), whose mission in life would seem to be to attend as many weddings as humanly possible, his record being nine in one weekend.

The story is woven through with Guyanese history, politics, and music, all with an edge of the surreal. There’s the inevidable mix of drugs. And a misadventure of a love affair towards the end of the book, the closest we have to a storyline. No reader need be surprised when the passion dissipates, and the underlying humour of the situation takes hold. (Rich and unpredictable, humour is a constant charm through the book.)

I suspect there is much of Guyana that escapes this book, including a determined segment of the middle class out to make a better life for themselves and their children, citizenry who speak without a trace of creole. But that is not where the writer’s interest lies. And his perspective, after all, is that of an outsider, an interloper.

It’s one with a deep respect for the characters who truly call Guyana home, for the rhythm and texture of their dialect, for their insight into the ways of the incredible world that surrounds them. It delivers a captivating, generous novel of high order.

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