No. 1 Lady

No.1. Ladies Detective Agency   | Photo Credit: PHOTO: Spl arrangement


Stories about a detective from Botswana have unexpected resonances for readers from India

Just before the century turned, an elderly writer from Scotland created a traditionally-built lady detective and threw us all back to an earlier, near-idyllic age. Precious Ramotswe, on the death of her beloved father, sold her rich legacy of cattle and started a detective agency, the first in Gaborone, Botswana. Within days, she had an office, filing cabinets, a formidable secretary, and her first doubts about the viability of her enterprise. But then a client showed up, and the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency became a success. As did the book.

For the Indian reader there is something particularly pleasing about Alexander McCall Smith's Precious Ramotswe novels. With the purity of a line drawing, a small universe is created in which decent, humane people tot up small successes and help each other along. They have a strong sense of family ties, look out for each other, and work with a sense of building their nation, feeling the kind of patriotism that is simple love of one's own country, not belligerence toward another.

There is something as familiar as coming home in reading about the dry earth, the white sky, the gratitude that rises along with the scent of wet earth when the first rains of the season come. The way a heavy bird lifts up from the rooftop, the way the yellow stray dogs yap in the streets. The way the good-for-nothing apprentices at Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors look at the girls walking by. The way those girls walk by.

The Indian reader, in fact, inevitably connects McCall Smith's prose with that of R.K. Narayan. “Art that conceals art”, as one reviewer put it. He has the same unobtrusive way of making us laugh, a deceptively ordinary style of writing that can make us weep with just a touch.

“When I … got off the bus at Mochudi,” recalls Obed Ramotswe, “and saw the kopjeand the chief's place and the goats, I just stood and cried. A man came up to me – a man I did not know – and he put his hand on my shoulder and asked me whether I was just back from the mines. I told him that I was, and he just nodded and left his hand there until I had stopped weeping.”

Obed Ramotswe is the father of Precious. His story is one of many that come up in the pauses between her enquiries and investigations. There is no dearth of excitement: snakes coil themselves around car engines, a boy jumps out of an aeroplane in order to impress the girls. But these are not racy, crime-fiction narratives. Mma Ramotswe and her secretary-cum-assistant, Mma Makutsi, do not solve crimes.

They just help people confirm or dispel the many suspicions that arise in their minds in this colourful universe. And they don't search through directories and archives to do it, much less databases. They get their information from people just like themselves.

People, of traditional build or otherwise, who “liked to remember the things that interested them most: marriages, deaths, children.”