British writer Alexander McCall Smith on his best-selling series, R.K Narayan’s influence on his writing, and additional responsibility to not misappropriate the cultures he sets his novels in
In the canon of detective fiction, the name of private investigator Mma Ramotswe is a peculiar fit. To begin with, she is far removed from an abstruse life of the West and makes a home in a bucolic Gaborone in Botswana. Neither are her mysteries extraordinary – no homicides or high-profile heist, instead wayward daughters, missing husbands, philandering partners, and curious conmen form her cases. Her modus operandi is not essentially forensic nor does she delves herself in each case with acute objectivity of an erudite detective, and yet Mma Ramotswe is one of the most loved fictional detectives to have captivated the imaginations of readers far and wide for more than 20 years now.
In the universe created by British writer Alexander McCall Smith in his beloved book series The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, the witty, warm, cunning, resourceful, intuitive, and empathetic Mma Ramotswe is conventionally an unconventional heroine. And a lot of it has to do with the puppeteer of her life – Smith himself whose writing takes him far away from the genre that it is often classified under. “I am turning the crime genre on its head and using it to write about society, people and place. Right from Agatha Christie, conventional crime novels are almost always concerned with homicide and the investigation of crime is led by someone who may or may not be a member of the police force, but that’s not really in my books,” says Smith whose heroine is often dealing with life-problems of people in her humble society.
Over the years, Mma Ramotswe has taken her loyal readers on a safari of human nature, and with Smith’s latest book of the series, To the Land of Long Lost Friends, the Botswana’s finest detective is all set to lend her skills to help a family acquaintance whose daughter is involved with a charismatic preacher. With To the Land of Long Lost Friends being the twentieth in the series, the prolific writer, who has written more than 40 children’s books, is reminded of the time when he wrote the first in 1998. “I worked at the University of Botswana for a year when I was on a sabbatical from my job in Scotland, and that’s when I first got interested in the country. This led me to write what I thought was going to be a short story about Botswana and it became a full-length novel, and then it became 20 novels. It just goes to show how long it can be in the beginning when you are planning to write a short story but in fact, you are writing a very long series,” reveals Smith for whom the books are his love-letter to the southern African country.
In recent years, Smith has become a regular delegate at India’s premiere literature festivals. However, the 71-year-old novelist reveals that he shares an older and deeper connection with the sub-continent as one of the most loved Indian writers has influenced his writing tradition. “One of my major influences, especially in writing the Botswana books was R. K. Narayan. He was absolutely a brilliant writer and I think he should have won a Nobel Prize for Literature. His Malgudi novels are lovely,” says Smith. Marked by simplicity and subtle humour, Narayan’s ability to magnify all the worldly lessons of life in the daily humdrum of a small rustic town impressed Smith, which further went to echo in the latter’s Botswana books. “He created life out of small things and I love doing that in my books. People having an argument about a teacup can say everything about life – it’s all about the small things. In a very small space, you can say a lot about what it is to be human, you don’t have to spread it on pages,” says Smith. Hence, one can now discern that Mma Macutsie’s obsession with her lace handkerchief is not just a fascinating hook but also an extension of her ideas about life. “That handkerchief is very symbolic of her idea of beauty and the possibilities that one might transcend the grubbiness of every day, so that little handkerchief is a big symbolic robe,” confirms Smith who also counts Jane Austen, W. H Auden and ‘the 20th Century Jane Austen’ – Barbara Pym as his other influences.
Smith, who is also an Emeritus Professor of Medical Law at the University of Edinburgh, has other book series – 44 Scotland Street – to his name, and is currently penning down the second of The Department of Sensitive Crimes series which is set in Sweden. Further, several of his short stories have taken him to Australia, New Zealand and the far corners of the Commonwealth. As a British writer, Smith accepts that he has to assume additional responsibility to not misappropriate the carefully preserved culture which often gets exoticized under the European lens. “I have never thought of concealing the fact that the Botswana novels are very positive and are written in admiration of a country. It’s a big responsibility to write about your own society or someone else’s society.
You have to be very careful that you don’t misunderstand things and that you don’t do injustice to situations,” he affirms before concluding that there should free expression and exchange of ideas nonetheless.