Zac O’Yeah is the author of the popular comic thriller Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan and Mr Majestic! The Tout of Bengaluru which is the first of the Hari Majestic crime and detective series. He has written twelve other books which have been translated into several languages. Previously, he worked in the theatre and music business in Sweden until he retired early, at age twenty-five, to come to India. His books range from bestselling detective fiction to history and travelogue, and he has also translated Indian literature into Swedish. A veteran travel writer, he is a frequent contributor to National Geographic Traveller magazine, a columnist with The Hindu Business Linenewspaper and is also an influential literary critic. Hari – A Hero for Hire is the second book in the Hari Majestic series. Follow Zac and Hari Majestic at www.zacoyeah.com.
NAW- Tell us about your book Mr. Majestic. What is it about? How did you get the idea for it?
Well, if I hadn’t stepped off the train at Bangalore City Junction in 1992 and checked into the cheapest lodge in the Majestic area, a neighbourhood where practically all the cheaper hotels of Bangalore are located, I don’t think I would have been a successful novelist today. It takes a bit of luck to help us find our true calling. I still recall in vivid Technicolor and wide-angle the morning when I stepped off the train and walked through the roar of the bus stand next to the train station. And there, Majestic was sprawled out like a tattered red carpet in front of the railway and bus stations, its streets crammed with Art Deco cinema halls (in those days it had the largest number of cinemas per square kilometre anywhere), the maddest bazaars for grey market goods – basically everything one might need but wouldn’t have thought of until one saw it there. Before that, I’d been backpacking for some time, doing the mandatory low budget tour of India that westerners do. Bengaluru’s easy-on-the-pocket food, affordable accommodation and abundance of cheap beer came as a pleasant surprise. I decided to break journey and ended up spending a month or two in Majestic. Because I felt it was a lovely place. Back in the 1990s, it was possible to get a room for under 90 rupees a night, which suited my budget. Due to its floating population, Majestic also has restaurants serving up everything from Kerala chicken fry to authentic Bengali mustard fish, so a walk around the area can be likened to a culinary tour of India. Also, there were no special tourist attractions in Majestic, so no sightseeing agendas. I spent my days in bookshops such as Sapna and those nameless second-hand bookstalls that used to proliferate due south of Kempegowda Circle. Only after getting married to an Indian girl, the novelist Anjum Hasan, and settling down in the city in the year 2000, did I learn that Majestic, which by then I was so backpacker-nostalgic about, was something of a terra incognita for the average upper middleclass city-dweller.
So I really liked the area. Another reason why I chose to set my book series about the hero, Hari Majestic, there, is because until fairly recently, detective fiction used to be dominated by Anglo-American locations and concerns, but nowadays you have globally bestselling detective novels set in places like Botswana, Thailand or Sweden. So why not Bengaluru? I strongly felt that every self respecting city should have a shelf full of detective novels dedicated to it. So I decided to do my own thriller series, Majestic style. A detective in a crime novel is something of an urban explorer, so writing (or reading) a detective novel can ideally be a way of getting to know a place better. So for me, Hari Majestic, the private eye, became my key to unlock the city and chronicle it. And at that point, when the idea came to me to have a detective bureau operate out of there, it felt like so obvious! Why hadn’t I thought of it much before? When I started writing the first Mr. Majestic novel around 2008-2009, there was an iconic old Art Deco cinema hall called Majestic – by the time I finished writing it, the cinema hall had been torn down by builders and it’ll probably be turned into a shopping mall. Just when I thought I knew my whereabouts, I took a second glance and the kaleidoscope had shifted.
The Hari Majestic of my novels was a week-old orphan when he was found under a seat in the third row at that very cinema, Majestic Talkies. That’s how Hari got his surname. A reformed tout and former small-time conman, he turns into something of an unofficial trouble-shooter, a Mr. Fix-It, the kind of character I frequently meet in my other job as a travel writer. People come to him with their problems – missing siblings, cheating spouses, suspected scams – and since he knows Bengaluru like his own nostrils, he is the perfect private eye. I doubt I could have imagined the character Hari Majestic without Bengaluru, the city where I’ve lived for the last fifteen years since leaving Sweden. So far I’ve published two books about Hari Majestic: ‘Mr. Majestic! The tout of Bengaluru’ (2012) and ‘Hari, a Hero for Hire’ (2015). A third one is in the pipeline.
NAW- Mr. Majestic is a fascinating read since you have managed to dash liberal doses of humour in a crime novel which very few authors can manage. Given your Swedish heritage, one would expect a more serious approach, I mean the Millennium series is so famous and it’s very dark. How did you develop such a unique style?
I wanted to avoid creating a stereotypical literary detective – the kind you meet in the typical Swedish or Western detective novel: the overweight, middle-aged, divorced cop (if male) or the nosy spinster aunty (if female), or indeed any of the other varieties of “classic” investigator characters.
Over the years, I’d seen plenty of Kannada action movies, which are mostly made in Bengaluru and many of them set in the Majestic area, and I had become a fan of Real-Star Upendra, the king of local cool and one-liners. I wondered what a literary equivalent of such films might read like. After all, Indian cinema follows a different logic from its Western counterparts… while Western cinema remains more uniform (a thriller is a thriller and not a romantic comedy), a classic Indian film is invariably a masala mix of action, comedy, romance and musical. Shouldn’t that masala colour a literary plot and its protagonists as well? I therefore set out to write a romantic tragicomic thriller in Bengaluru. It seemed like the most logical thing to do.
So the nice thing is that in India people have taken to the novels because they seem to reflect a typical cinematic almost Bollywood style of writing, you know, where one can combine a thriller type of story with liberal doses of slapstick comedy. Back home in Sweden reviewers have been a bit more puzzled by the aesthetics, but generally it seems that most readers feel that it is good with something new and different – they’re tired of all those pizza-munching, beer-guzzling overweight cops with bad marital problems. It’s nice with a detective who eats masala dosa and idli-vada washed down with traditional south Indian filter coffee instead. Incidentally, they grow the world’s best coffee in South India, in Karnataka in fact.
NAW- You have also been instrumental in introducing some translated works of Indian authors in Sweden. Can you tell us more about it? How were your Indian works received back in your home country?
I’ve been translating alongside my own writing because it is a good way of keeping one’s language sharp, so I’ve published translations of Pankaj Mishra and Bankim Chandra Chatterjee in Swedish, and also translated some amount of Indian poetry for anthologies. Also translating Indian writing seems to bring me closer to an Indian way of expressing oneself. Although I have to translate via English, some of the texts originate in languages like Hindi, Bengali and Malayalam.
Generally such translations are well received because there is a great deal of interest in Indian writing in a country like Sweden. Although not so many Indians have received the Nobel Prize for Literature, Swedes still are aware of the fact that so many Indian writers have won the Booker Prize! So anything Indian is usually greeted with a great deal of interest and curiosity.
NAW- How did you manage to learn Indian languages and imbibe so much of Indian culture? Were you not apprehensive of India initially as a foreign land with dirt and cows all over the roads?
To be frank with you, I only know a smattering of a few Indian languages. See, I did study Hindi at the University of Stockholm before moving to India, but then I met a student who had been studying there for three years and who told me how he had flown to Delhi… and when he spoke to people in the streets in Hindi, they had no clue about what he was trying to say. Even worse, when they spoke back to him, he couldn’t understand their Hindi. It turned out that the Hindi they teach in foreign universities is a very academic form of Hindi, not really suited to real life. So I quit the university. Also, in Karnataka they speak Kannada, which is a very beautiful language but also, as I found out, very different from Hindi. So yeah, I kind of managed to make some kind of mistake there…
Actually, whenever I go to Europe I feel more alienated by the lack of cows, elephants, camels and other animals in the streets. It is as if they build their cities only for people and try to exclude all other creatures. If a moose walks into a city by mistake, the police are immediately summoned by people to take care of it. But I feel it is good that cows and other animals are allowed to roam the streets freely in India, should they wish so. It is democratic. It gives me a reassuring feeling.
NAW- Why India of all the places in the world? What is it about India that made you come here and write about it?
Hah! First of all: It is better than sitting and freezing at a writing desk by the Arctic Circle in some Stockholm suburb. I love having a desk facing some coconut palms and be able to watch butterflies outside my window for twelve months a year. Any day.
India is also a very inspiring country thanks to its multiculturalism and diversity – somebody told me that every twenty miles you travel in India, you will encounter a new and slightly different cuisine. Just imagine that: there’s so much great food to sample. There is always something new that one can learn as one steps out for a walk after a day of writing. I’ve met many good people here.
NAW- The crime fiction scene in India is not fully explored in English even though it has a huge readership in the vernacular languages. What inspired you to pen down a crime fiction tale set in India? Did you borrow from personal experiences or actively researched for it?
I think to some extent I may have answered this question already, in my response to your first question. In addition, I do like to point out that I’m very much hooked to Indian cinema – the larger-than-life heroes and their heroics, Shah Rukh Khan, Upendra, Rajinikanth, and other big stars. The films by directors like Mani Ratnam, Ram Gopal Varma and Reema Kagti. Their films just blow my mind. So I like to write in such a tradition.
Also, you know, reading the newspapers every day in Bengaluru is an endless source of inspiration, there are so many strange stories reported all the time and for a novelist it obviously sets the imagination going. Makes me think of what Hari Majestic would make out of it, if he were somehow involved in the events I read about. The new book for example, ‘Hari, a Hero for Hire’ is a kind of medical thriller, partly inspired by the hospital gangster comedy ‘Munnabhai MBBS’ which was a huge Bollywood hit some years ago. Then, after watching that, I noticed how every street in Bengaluru has at least 14 pharmacies, 3 super specialty hospitals and 8 piles and fistula clinics. So I thought Hari should explore that world.
I think any detective novel captures a city differently from a more traditional novel. In a detective novel, the hero is made to walk the streets and look for something – the solution of a mystery – and subsequently the rest of the book becomes an excuse to highlight various aspects of a city. A fictional detective can visit both luxury hotels and slums, and everything in between. So a reader gets a very wide perspective of a city through a novel like ‘Mr. Majestic!’ or ‘Hari, a Hero for Hire’.
Anyway, so funnily enough several filmmakers have been in touch about the movie rights to do ‘Mr. Majestic!’ as a Kannada language film. My condition has been that there must be song and dance numbers in the film. So some work is going on now. If it does finally become a movie, it’d be like going full circle in a way.
NAW- Name five things you like about India and five things you hate about the country.
Like: the culture, the food, the history, the landscapes, the people.
Dislike: nothing really… sometimes I get a bit tired of the bureaucracy. People here just love having millions of forms that must be filled in for every little thing. And there’s a little bit too much traffic and pollution in Bengaluru, there are actually millions of cars and other vehicles in the streets of city, and if 90% somehow disappeared magically it’d be a bit nicer to be there.
Most of all I like Bengaluru… in particular, I really dig the cultural scene, there is always something interesting happening, art shows, film clubs, book launches. The bookshops around Church Street are fantastic to just browse in for hours – Bookworm, Blossoms, Goobes Book Republic, Gangarams, Select Book Stall. And there are quite a few writers in town, so the social life is good. One can get together at Koshy’s, a café and bar in St Mark’s Road, and sit and gossip for an entire afternoon.
NAW- Please name your favourite authors. Are there any you’d like to name as inspiration?
I like to read all kinds of books, but I’m a big fan of writers like Amitav Ghosh, Upamanyu Chatterjee and some others of that generation of Indian writers, the ones who started out in the 1980s. But I think my greatest reading experience ever came when I started reading RK Narayan, who was really perhaps the first Indian novelist to write bestsellers in English. I once met him in Chennai, when he was very old. We had a long chat about writing. Actually not so much about writing, now that I think of it, but more about Indian vegetarian food. He was truly great. I hear his house in Mysore is going to be made into a museum. It would be lovely to have a literary tourist sight like that within easy reach from Bengaluru. My favourite book by him is ‘The Guide’ and I guess Hari Majestic is a little bit inspired by the peculiar main character in that book. Not too much, but a little.
NAW- What would Zac O’ Yeah like to be remembered as, a crime writer or a comic writer?
If I’m remembered at all, by anybody, it would make me happy. Though on the other hand I’d be dead by then, so I’m not sure how I like that overall idea. But I do like to think sometimes that if I am reincarnated as an Indian, and reborn in Bengaluru for example, that one day I’ll step into a bookshop and find one detective novel by Zac O’Yeah, maybe a very tattered second-hand copy, but anyway, and that I’ll read it and then it’ll become my favourite book.