Interview

The detective from Majestic

Print edition : March 16, 2018

Zac O' Yeah at the launch of his book "Mr. Majestic the Tout of Bengaluru" in Bengaluru in March 2013. Photo: K. Bhagya Prakash

A view of the Kempegowda bus terminus in Bengaluru's Majestic Circle. Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

Through his trilogy of detective novels set in the Majestic area of Bengaluru, Zac O’Yeah has added to the growing genre of crime fiction set in Indian cities.

IT seemed appropriate to interview Zac O’ Yeah in the Majestic area of Bengaluru as his series of crime fiction is set there. Zac chose the rendezvous as he knows the area like the back of his hand. It was a shady bar close to National Market; you had to enter it through a non-vegetarian takeaway. Inside, dim lights hung over the tables and cartoons of Paul Fernande, which evoke the Bengaluru of the 1970s, adorned the walls. In the late evening, the place was not crowded, but walking in with a white man who wore a trilby and sunglasses attracted some attention. The other tables were occupied by an assortment of characters nursing their evening drinks while having keen conversations over plates of chicken kababs and boiled peanuts.

Zac spoke in Kannada to the waiter and ordered a beer. The waiter, who was perhaps used to all kinds of characters trooping in and out of the bar, did not seem ruffled by a foreigner speaking the local language. As we sat there and began to discuss his books, I half expected the zany hero of his novels, Hari Majestic, to jauntily sidle in through the door and ask “Had coffee?” as he always does in Zac’s novels irrespective of the time of the day or seriousness of the situation. The feeling was strong because Talk of the Town, the bar’s name, is mentioned in the novels as well.

Zac first came to Bengaluru 25 years ago, without anticipating that the city would become his permanent home a few years later. It was known as Bangalore then and had not transmogrified into the unwieldy metropolis that it has become. Like the rest of the country, Bengaluru was also negotiating the transition to a liberalised economy. It was an interesting time as an epoch was ending and a different Bengaluru would soon emerge, buoyed by tenuous linkages with international finance. Bustling Majestic lies bang in the middle of this city: it is the node that connects the city to the hinterland and to the rest of the country with its railway station and bus terminus.

Originally from Gothenburg in Sweden, Zac kept returning to India and to Bengaluru. When he went back to Gothenburg, a city of half a million people, he had a “reverse culture shock” on seeimg the empty streets. “I got confused about reality. Is India the real world?” Zac recalls. He eventually settled in Bengaluru in 2000 as the “beer was very cheap and the climate was pleasant and my wife [the writer Anjum Hasan] was here and refused to move out”. His fascination with the Majestic area would pay off: he would go on to write a crime trilogy set in that part of Bengaluru with a wacky hero, the likes of whom could perhaps be encountered only in the chaotic morass of Majestic. The third book in the “Hari Majestic” series, Tropical Detective, was launched recently and is, like the earlier volumes, an ode to the city that Zac now calls home.

Crime fiction thrives in the setting of a metropolis, and with his “Hari Majestic” series, Zac has ensured that Bengaluru is represented in the fast growing genre of crime fiction set in Indian cities. In Zac’s books, the seediness and the griminess of Bengaluru seep in, providing the template for convoluted plots to unravel themselves amid the (sometimes dark) humour that runs through his stories. Some readers may call his novels “pulp” as there is a certain rawness in his style, but Zac makes an effort to move beyond this appellation as he focusses on solid literary constructions throughout.

Tout as hero

When we are introduced to Hari Majestic in the first book of the series, he is an irrepressible tout on the lookout for a naive foreigner and has several scams running simultaneously. Why did Zac choose to make a tout the hero of his novels? He explains: “As a foreigner, you end up meeting a lot of touts. They want to take you to a Kashmiri curio shop or a cheap hotel. So I’ve met hundreds of such characters. When I began working on my book, I realised that kind of person would be perfect to be a detective. He would know the fancy hotels and the seedy joints. In the Indian context, he would be perfect.”

Hari is also a passionate fan of kitschy Kannada cinema, especially the films of the superstar Upendra, and has a variety of equally quirky friends, each of whom evokes a certain shade of Bengaluru. There is Doc, a computer expert; AC Gaadi, a rakish auto driver; and Triplex, a purveyor and connoisseur of pornography who sells pirated DVDs. Hari’s backstory is that he was abandoned in the Majestic cinema with only a train ticket from Katpadi junction (in neighbouring Tamil Nadu) and was raised by Uncle Mamool, a lawyer who once tried to burn down a court.

In the first book, Mr. Majestic: The Tout of Bengaluru, Hari transitions from a tout into a detective as he is drawn into a convoluted mystery while investigating the disappearance of an American girl of Indian origin who is lured by the prospect of stardom in the Indian film industry. The plot is plausible because it is an entrenched scam, and we often read about such stories in the crime columns of newspapers. This is something that Zac does well: while his plots are fictional, the events are drawn from real crime stories that are reported. His second book in the series, Hari: A Hero for Hire, for instance, looks at the racket of organ donation, with Hari, obviously, in the thick of things. Tropical Detective, which takes Hari to Sweden, is about the theft of antiques that eventually reach foreign museums via multinational fences. This is also a lucrative criminal enterprise. Hari is an unusual character. He does not abandon his touting even as he continues to solve crimes.

Over his writing career, Zac has written more than 15 books, many of which are in Swedish. His first book, way back in the mid 1990s, was a travelogue about India. Before the publication of his “Hari Majestic” series, his book Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan established his reputation in India. The book is a take on a futuristic Europe that is colonised by India.

While talking to him, it is not possible to ignore the overwhelming reputation of the two Swedish giants of crime fiction who cast a long shadow on the genre: Steig Larsson (author of the Millennium trilogy) and Henning Mankell. Zac says that crime fiction in Sweden became respectable with these two writers: “If we trace it historically, Sweden was famous for its film-makers like Ingmar Bergman in the 1950s and 60s, for pop music groups like ABBA and Roxette in the 1970s and 1980s, and from the 1990s, we are known for our crime fiction.”

Paradigm shift

So how did he conceptualise his Bengaluru-based stories? Zac, who is a great traveller and is well known as a travel writer, likes to discover cities through their detective novels. “They are really good guides to the city,” he says. When he tried to do the same in Bengaluru, he realised that there was no crime fiction set in the city, which provoked him to bring Hari Majestic to life. As he began to work on his book, he also became part of the crime fiction writing scene in India, which has come of age over the past 10 to 15 years. Crime fiction has acquired centre stage in Indian writing in English now. “A paradigm shift has taken place, and a large chunk of Indian writing is crime fiction now,” Zac says.

Writers like Vikram Chandra, Ashok Banker and Jerry Pinto have been part of this turn in Indian writing in English, although it is Tarquin Hall and Anita Nair whose crime fiction is often compared to that of Zac O’ Yeah’s. Hall’s protagonist is an overweight Punjabi detective called Vish Puri, and his stories set in Delhi have outlandish titles ( The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken, The Case of the Love Commandos, and so on). They are often compared to Zac’s for their humour and their bizarre characters.

In the case of Anita Nair, the prolific Bengaluru-based novelist, the city of forms the setting for the Inspector Gowda series; her stories are set in the city’s Shivajinagar neighbourhood.

Apart from making a valuable addition to the genre of crime fiction, Zac has also made Bengaluru the centrepiece in his stories. His observations of the city are bang on and will resonate with Bengalureans. Sample this sentence about crossing a road: “Normal pedestrians who wished to cross a street went and stood halfway out from the kerb, like pins in a bowling alley. One plunged through whenever there was a gap in the traffic. Only fools and foreigners waited on the pavement for the traffic to abate.” On hippies, Zac writes: “Hippies... had natural dreadlocks like tropical mould growing out of their scalps, and as soon as they landed on Indian soil they bought themselves ultra-cheap, hand-woven, mirror-work jholas.”

Starting from evoking the hustle and bustle of Majestic in all its chaotic splendour, the plots traverse the invisible line that divides Bengaluru into two parts, leaping over into Cantonment, which Zac presents as an upmarket version of the city. The far-flung suburbs of the city, like Whitefield, weakly linked to the metropolis also make their appearance. Hari’s bravado even takes him to the hinterland, and on one occasion Hari walks 40 km from a mofussil town to Bengaluru. The dialogue tries to stay faithful to the kind of English that one hears in the city.

As I walk out of the bar with Zac, he points to a decrepit but functional three-storey building of a “localised art deco” style housing cubbyhole-sized offices: “I imagine that Hari Majestic will have his office in a building like this. When I first came to Majestic, the streets were full of buildings like these but all of them have been knocked down. The whole area is changing now,” he says. While he spoke brusquely, it was clear that Zac was becoming nostalgic. His novels have chronicled Majestic as it was at a certain point of time, which makes them valuable literature. As we part, Zac adds: “This trilogy is a co-production between me and Bengaluru. That is the artistic project. The books are a kind of love declaration to the city. The beauty of it, the craziness of it, and some of the ugly parts as well. Twenty-five years ago, I just got off the train and I liked the city. And now the city likes you back. Even a couple of Kannada film producers have shown interest in making films on my books. What more can one ask for as a writer?”

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