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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

It’s Majestic, with Some Masala: The private eye is the key to unlock a city and chronicle it

Majestic has been explored cinematically in several Kannada films, including an action movie called Majestic. But every time I go to Majestic, I’m reminded of the time, 25 years ago, when I first set foot in the area, long before I planned on becoming a detective novelist.

Written by Zac O'Yeah | New Delhi |
Updated: July 15, 2018 6:00:42 am
Bengaluru, Majestic, Agra, Rajasthan, migrant food culture, Kerala eateries, Bengali canteens, indian express Citylights: An evening in blue; and giant cutouts of film actors loom over Majestic.

Though the rest of Bengaluru does feature in my novels, the city’s Majestic area remains the central inspiration: an embodiment of the wonderful and the weird, the place where small sins are no sins. The last time I went there, on the weekend, I stepped into a shady bar and a ragged, fellow customer handed me a flyer describing some new method for alcohol deaddiction. Great idea to promote such services in this kind of joint, I thought to myself.

Every time I go to Majestic, I’m reminded of the time, 25 years ago, when I first set foot in the area, long before I planned on becoming a detective novelist. In those days, I was figuring out how to survive on less than a shoestring. I’d been travelling through the harsher north of India and had my encounters with touts and conmen in the tourist traps of Agra and Rajasthan, and so the laidback vibe of Bengaluru’s downmarket hotel zone came as a relief. Back in the early 1990s, it was possible to get a room for less than hundred rupees. If I stuck to vadas and dosas, I could last out a month on practically nothing.

Majestic was cosmopolitan enough to accommodate pretty much everybody, I realised as I discovered its thriving migrant food culture — back-alley Kerala eateries redolent with coconut oil, and Bengali canteens serving authentic mustard fish. But it took years until it dawned on me that it’s an area that needs its place on the bookshop shelves. In the meantime, I’d migrated from my native Sweden — a country widely known for its bestselling crime fiction production by literary superstars such as Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson, Liza Marklund, Kjell Eriksson and Carin Gerhardsen — to settle in Bengaluru.

But after a good decade of living in town, I still hadn’t read a local detective novel. My favourite shops, Bookworm and Blossoms, did stock the aforementioned Swedes as well as Asian pulp: delicate Japanese thrillers by Keigo Higashino, the steamy Bangkok trilogy by John Burdett, translated Bengali detective story collections, and The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction. But nothing typically Bengalurean. Of course, Majestic has been explored cinematically in several Kannada films, including an action movie called Majestic, but after a lot of thinking, I decided that I must write my own Majestic trilogy.

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So, as I started plotting and planning around what sort of hero to write about, and what milieu to put him in, it was obvious that it had to be a man called Majestic in a place of the same name. I wished to write a literary equivalent of a full-masala Kannada flick. Why not indeed — until recently crime fiction used to be dominated by Anglo-American locations, but nowadays you have globally bestselling detective novels set in places like Botswana (admittedly written by a Scot)? So why not Bengaluru?

At the same time, it would afford me a reason to explore town. Once you imagine a crime and send your fictional detective off to solve it, he or she will have reason to knock on many doors, visit the slums, the fanciest hotels, and everything in-between. So, the basic idea here is that writing (or reading) can be a way of getting to know a place better, and naturally, whenever I go to Los Angeles, I read James Ellroy to feel I’m in town, while Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra does the needful in Mumbai. It doesn’t matter that much of Chandra’s cityscape can’t actually be found on the map.

Indeed, every self-respecting town these days seems to have a detective series set in it. Back in Sweden, even the village of Fjällbacka (population: 859) has been the setting of multiple serial killer hunts in novel after novel by Camilla Läckberg. How many semi-professional killers would it take to decimate 859? It defies logic, but you read the books because Fjällbacka is depicted as quaint and yet appears to have a darker side, and tourists flock there to see where the books are set.

For me, the private eye thus became a key to unlock the city and, perhaps, chronicle it. And how crazily it changes! When I started on the first novel in the trilogy, there was a beautiful old cinema hall called Majestic — which lent its name both to the place and my hero — but while I was writing the second, that iconic theatre was torn down. Just when I thought I knew my whereabouts, I took a second glance and the kaleidoscope had shifted. But whatever happens, Majestic always retains some of its distinctive character: here, people habitually park their vehicles in front of “No Parking” signs or overtake from the wrong side with a video-streaming smartphone in one hand and a quart of Old Monk in the other.

Atmosphere is crucial for a fictional sleuth. In general terms, one can say that a choice of location sets its own rules. Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X, with its cold-as-sushi intellectual chills, is totally unlike some hotblooded Italian plot where the detective tipples on Chianti, or Swedish pulp where the cop has a mandatory beer belly and eats way too much pizza. Similarly, a south Indian thriller would be flavoured by sambar and smelling of filter coffee with too much chicory — and could not possibly feature any poisonings by butter chicken or other non-veg gravy items. (Coincidentally, while reading the 2013 memoir My Days in the Underworld: Rise of the Bangalore Mafia by Agni Sreedhar, I discovered that local gangsters frequented the very same joints as I did in Majestic, hatching plans over plates of vadai and tumblers of coffee.)

So, I thought it’d be interesting to explore the possibilities of a vada-sambar hogging filter-coffee guzzling sleuth. I certainly wanted to avoid creating a stereotypical literary detective — the overweight, middle-aged, divorced cop (if male) or the nosy spinster aunty or single-mother (if female). It was crucial to avoid superficiality: I wanted him to be a recognisable type, and, yet, rare. In my job as a travel writer, I’ve met many Mr Fix-Its who turn up around bus and railway stations to take you to the cheapest but best hotel or a shop where, before you know it, you’re the owner of a Rajasthani carpet. I thought that such a street-smart character might be an apt go-to person for clients with their problems — missing siblings, cheating spouses, lost valuables — and since he knows Bengaluru like his own nostrils, he makes the ideal investigator, but one who is as far away from Sherlock Holmes as can be imagined.

Once I reached that conclusion, I went with the flow. Mr Majestic took on a life of his own, while I simply became his disciple and, conversely, he was my personal guide to the streetscape. Which is apt, as I anyway had made him a tout who switches careers and takes up sleuthing. He showed me around Majestic, which is sprawled like a red carpet in front of the railway and bus stations, its streets crammed with Art Deco cinemas (although many have been torn down to make way for shopping malls, several gorgeous standalones survive with towering cut-outs of superstars garlanded out in front), dive bars (out of all the bars in Karnataka, 38 per cent are located in Bengaluru, mostly concentrated in Majestic itself), and intriguing shopping experiences that include pirated books, spare handles for broken suitcases, ‘Bofors’ jeans (thus named after the controversial gun, presumably to enhance a rowdy-sheeter’s self-esteem), cigarette lighters made in the shape of toy handguns, vintage movie posters, and dubious DVDs (before downloading became the trend, Majestic was a hub for piracy). Certainly, it was a gamble to write about it all, yet the fact that I’ve received movie offers both from Kannada filmmakers and Bollywood, suggests that people think it works.

A strange thought often haunts me. If I hadn’t been lucky enough to get off the train in Bengaluru that day in 1992, and discovered Majestic, I might not have been a novelist today. So it is true what I have heard people say — in Majestic, you will find just about everything, including the meaning of your life.

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Zac O’ Yeah is the Bengaluru-based author of the ‘Majestic Trilogy’: Mr. Majestic, Hari — a Hero for Hire and Tropical Detective

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