It’s a grey morning. The sky is overcast and it seems as though the rain will come pouring down any moment, but of course, this is Chennai where the sun is fiercely protective of its territory, so you never can tell. Still, the air is cool, the neighbourhood is only just stirring to life. The time is perfect for a mug of piping hot Red Bush tea, exactly like Precious Ramotswe likes it. Really, there are few fictional characters like Mma Ramotswe, the brilliant detective of Alexander McCall Smith’s unusual series set in Gaborone, Botswana, about the No.1 ladies’ detective agency.
When my sister visited from London this past month, the best gift she brought me was a box of Red Bush tea. It’s red colour and earthy flavour are perfectly suited to my palate. Best of all, every time I take a sip, I am reminded of the innumerable unforgettable people created by McCall Smith, and the many places he has transported me to through the imagination brought by the sheer lucidity of his descriptions. One time, he even had a crime fiction writer, Ian Rankin, whose books have an attraction of their own, walk down the street and into a pub in a book he wrote, set in Edinburgh — it may have been in either an Isabel Dalhousie novel, or in the series about 44 Scotland Street. Whichever it was, it was exciting to catch a glimpse of a real live writer in a novel!
Born in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, McCall Smith studied law in Edinburgh. While he was teaching at Queen’s University in Belfast, he entered a writing competition with a children’s book and a book for adults. The former won a prize. He taught law at the University of Botswana and was also professor of medical law at the University of Edinburgh. That should make it clear why these two places feature so prominently in his novels; he knows them intimately and his books convey his affection for them. Wikipedia says he now lives in Edinburgh, in a house pretty close to the homes of J K Rowling (yes, Harry Potter!), Ian Rankin (well-known for his Inspector Rebus novels such as Knots and Crosses, The Hanging Garden, In a House of Lies) and Kate Atkinson (Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Life After Life, A God in Ruins, Transcription) whom I look forward to reading. McCall Smith’s various interests are reflected in his writings: Little Bertie who features in 44 Scotland Street, takes music lessons; Jamie, in the Isabel Dalhousie series, is a music teacher, he teaches bassoon; Isabel herself is a philosopher who ponders deeply on the question of ethics; people travel to far-off places, they tango with feelings and are tangled up in complicated relationships, some of them respect the environment, others are city creatures. There’s plenty to discover in McCall Smith’s books, there’s time to think and reflect, there are ‘occasion to savour’ moments and meaning, there are possibilities of considering your own life in light of what a character may have said or done or the circumstances the writer may describe. Every single one of his books, no matter where it features in your list of favourites (almost all of them are up there, way high, in mine), speaks to the reader intimately, lyrically, clearly of lives lived and feelings felt.
Maybe that’s what moved the writer to purchase an uninhabited chain of islets in the Hebrides, called the Cairns of Coll, in 2014 — as pointed out by Wikipedia. Apparently he said, “I intend to do absolutely nothing with them, and to ensure that, after I am gone, they are held in trust, unspoilt and uninhabited, for the nation. I want them kept in perpetuity as a sanctuary for wildlife — for birds and seals and all the other creatures to which they are home.”
McCall Smith has several ongoing series, apart from the two mentioned earlier. There’s the Corduroy Mansions series about people living in an apartment building in Pimlico, central London; there’s the Prof von Igelfield Entertainments series; there’s a series for children about young Precious Ramotswe; then there are books about Harriet Bean, Max and Maddy, Akimbo, School Ship Tobermory; there are children’s novels, adult novels, academic texts and poems. No wonder he gave up teaching medical law to write fulltime!
He was also part of something called the Austen Project, initiated by publishers HarperCollins: this involved the rewriting of six of Jane Austen’s famous novels by contemporary writers. Personally, I think this project was doomed from the start; who can possibly out-Austen Austen? McCall Smith took on Emma. He says it was like being treated to a box of chocolates, but for readers, I’m afraid, the chocolates were too bitter to relish. In a 2015 article called The Austen Fiasco?, Deborah Yaffe writes, “In place of fidelity-to-the-point-of-implausibility, we get an Emma update written by someone who doesn’t seem to much like the original.” She goes on to say, “Here and there, McCall Smith offers glimpses of the playful, irreverent book he might have written. Emma paints Harriet in the nude, scandalising the Hartfield staff. John Knightley is a long-haired, tattooed fashion photographer who sweeps Isabella away on his motorcycle. The aging hippie Mrs Goddard passes out hash brownies at the Box Hill picnic. It’s not Austen, but as long as it’s entertaining in its own right, who cares? I’ll take a lively, lesbian-themed, pot-infused Emma over a blandly faithful imitation any day of the week. Alas, McCall Smith fails to milk his tantalising hints for their full comic or subversive potential… Where Trollope (Joanna Trollope: Sense and Sensibility) and McDermid (Val McDermid: Northanger Abbey) took their updating too seriously, following Austen’s template even when it didn’t make sense, McCall Smith seems not to have taken his book seriously at all.”
Harsh, although some feel his is the best retelling of the retold versions. In my book, this is possibly the only ‘blot’ in McCall Smith’s prodigious output because I must confess, I didn’t take to it either. I found it boring, a word you would never use for McCall Smith. But that only makes him human, doesn’t it? And I know he is that because I met him a couple of years ago at The Hindu Lit for Life, in the author’s lounge, sitting quietly, reading a book. I couldn’t believe my luck. I took a seat nearby, then cunningly sidled up close and said, “Excuse me. I love your books.” He put aside his book, laughed and for the next hour we had the most interesting conversation.
Even as I struggle and tussle with every word while writing this article, I’m not anxious because I know he’s tapping away at over a thousand words an hour trying to complete a new novel so he can fulfill the wishes of hungry readers such as myself crying out: Please sir, I want some more!