I confess that the eponymous first book in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, featuring the traditionally-built Precious Ramotswe in Botswana, left me with mixed feelings and a good deal of suspicion.
This was in 2008 and the detective series was almost a decade old, but I did not know that. I did know, however, that there was something odd about the story. It was short, it was simple, it was sweet, there was no blood, the detective herself was given to holding short philosophical soliloquies to solve her cases through sheer common sense and general good will. So I read the next one, then the next and the next. Gradually it dawned upon me that Precious Ramotswe and her creator, Alexander McCall Smith, professor of medical ethics, resident of Edinburgh in Scotland, together comprised a unicorn in the publishing world. Literally, what you see is what you get.
Since then, the lending library which started me off on the series shut down but my own collection just grew apace and I waited impatiently for the next offering. None have disappointed, all have contributed to my early acquaintance and now deep friendship with Precious herself, a sane, matter-of-fact voice in a world gone mad about extreme positions.
Two days ago, I finally met him, courtesy Tata Literature Live. Invited to dinner, the moment I entered the venue, I spotted him. Then, like a heat-seeking missile, I homed in on him and did what I loathe doing. Introduced myself.
In the next ten minutes, I acted like an unabashed groupie, a fangirl, a Book Club member desperate to out-do the other members by getting a picture with author and posting it on FB, an autograph hunter…..in other words, as a reader who meets her favourite author and is delighted that he’s everything she wanted him to be and was sure he was not! And I forgot to tell him something very, very important. That our seven-member book club, which is now six and still grieving, is named The No. 1 Ladies Book Club in his honour.
During those ten minutes, as we hunted for a pen to sign the book I was carrying (No. 7 in the series, Blue Shoes and Happiness), we talked. He in unhurried, equable tones, much like his writing, me in excitable spurts because my moth couldn’t keep up with the questions. Plus I expected him to be spirited away at any minute, and there were anxious-looking people hovering around.
We talked about why his books were so simple. To make people feel good after reading them, was the answer. We talked about the miracle of a country like Botswana, an oasis of decency and kindness and good governance, where fiction meets fact every day. He had first visited it in the 80’s when a friend who was a doctor there, running a small hospital, invited him to spend some time. Someone wanted to send the doctor a chicken for lunch the next day, and a lady in a red dress, “traditionally built”, caught the chicken after a “kerfuffle”, swiftly wrung its neck and handed it over. At that time he thought he might like to write about the people in Botswana and in 1998 he began the continuing story of Precious Ramotswe, whose father is not dead but just Late, and still with her in spirit every day.
I shut my eyes and can imagine them all, complete with voices. There is the courteous and gentle JLB Matekoni, the husband of Precious, and Mma Grace Makutsi, her doughty assistant. There are Charlie and Fanwell, Mr Polopetsi, quiet and sometimes suffering, businessman Phuti Radiphuti, and the heartbreakingly real Motholeli and Puso.
And of course, the driving force behind it all, Mr Clovis Anderson. No, I am not going to elaborate on a single one, read the books.
We talked about how he goes to Botswana at least once a year, and how his books have sort of put the country on the tourist map, as it were. Except that he demurs at being accused of contributing to its perception in the world community. McCall Smith is like that. But his eyes lit up when I reminded him of a recently-written-about theory that perhaps Botswana is the real cradle of humankind, so we might all be related. I think he liked that.
This was his first trip to Mumbai, though his fourth to India for various literature festivals. Mumbaikars will be glad to know that he thinks the city has terrific energy and is almost certain to come back again.
By now we had found a pen so, hand poised over the title page, he said, “What shall I write?” and, overexcited as I was, I suggested – may you preside over ever larger and larger fan clubs.
He paused and gave it real thought and then said, “Oh no, that wouldn’t be right, would it? Promoting myself.” But he said it so kindly and confidingly that it didn’t matter, and he went on to write something much better, in a tiny, self-effacing hand. You have to really peer to see it but it’s there.
Then I let him go.
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