Tuesday, May 22, 2007

ALEXANDER MCCALL SMITH AND HIS TRADITIONALLY BUILT LADY FROM GABORONE (1)

Welcome to the world of Precious Ramotswe, Botswana's only female detective. Precious or Mma Ramotswe as she is called is the daughter of the late Obed Ramotswe, Botswana's famous cattle owner. So knowledgeable was he about cattle (2); so kind, dignified, and wise, that Mma Ramotswe holds him in the highest regard and considers herself privileged and lucky to have been born of such a father. Besides Obed, there's one other person whose memory Mma Ramotswe worships. And that is Sir Seretse Khama, the good man who founded Botswana from Bechuanaland Protectorate, and who, Obed had had the singular good fortune of having shaken hands with, eons ago.

Mma Ramotswe runs her The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency from Gaborone, the capital of Botswana. Originally her office was at Lobatse Road but since her engagement to J.L.B. Matekoni, Mma Ramotswe has moved to Tlokweng road and now shares her office with J.L.B Matekoni's Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors garage. About Matekoni, the finest mechanic of cars, it can safely be said (at least as far as engines go) that he's scaled heights of excellence similar to that of Obed Ramotswe's in matters of cattle. While the professional arrangements have changed for Mma Ramotswe post engagement and marriage, the domestic front has not. J.L.B Matekoni has left his old house to live in Mma Ramotswe's lovely home on Zebra drive. Here along with the couple live their two adopted kids, a wheel chair bound quiet and dutiful daughter and a boisterous son. Evenings are family time when Precious Ramotswe cooks pumpkin and meat and fish. While her daughter often helps with the cooking, J.L.B. Matekoni attends to odd jobs at home and takes care of the garden.

The other important person in Mma Ramotswe's life is her able assistant Mma Makutsi. Mma Makutsi is a record holder, a 97% er in short, from the Botswana Secretarial College. She is very proud of it too. And rightly so. After all, how many girls from such backwaters as Bobonong can claim to have made it to the capital's popular detective agency. And so her degree with the clearly legible 97% hangs right above where she sits, putting most visitors at unease.

The two sleuths often get very busy with cases that range from finding lost American men (Tears of the Giraffe) to handling errant husbands (The Kalahari Typing School for Men) and truant businessmen and intruders (In the company of Cheerful Ladies). Amidst all this, there is the hullabaloo of adopting the two children, Mma Makutsi's budding romance with the kind and nice, stuttering and stammering Phuti Radiphuti and Mma Ramotswe's dark secret from the past in the form of the jazz musician, Note Mokoti.

Alexander McCall Smith has come in for a great deal of criticism for his portrayal of this simplistic life in Botswana. For inventing a land where people take endless tea breaks, watch lovely sunsets, and spent hours upon hours ruminating on life.

True, these are simple lives led at a slow leisurely pace. And there are no major twists in the plot, no complex characters. Not much of literary worth either. Why do thousands of readers, like myself, enjoy the series, then? The answer lies in the comfort, joy and succour such stories of ordinary humdrum existence can bring to most of us leading a harried overworked life.

As for me, Mme Ramotswe and her ilk bring back memories of those sunny winter afternoons spent with a book in hand. They remind me of the cacophony of the other kids playing around while I watched, the sun streaming on my face and hair. Of the gentle chatter of mothers and aunts while their knitting needles went clickety-click. And above all of that all pervading fragrance. Of oranges. Yes, that would be oranges.

(1) With thanks to AT for introducing me to this series
(2) McCall Smith probably missed telling us this; but had circumstances permitted, Obed would easily have authored the one and only encyclopedia on cattle. And thereby in one stroke, have put Botswana on the bovine map of the world.

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