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Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Gut Feelings

The moral compass of Alexander McCall Smith’s lovable private detective Precious Ramotswe is determined largely by her instinct and her ability to live in the moment.

New Delhi | Published: October 13, 2013 12:25:11 am

The moral compass of Alexander McCall Smith’s lovable private detective Precious Ramotswe is determined largely by her instinct and her ability to live in the moment.

This is by no means the sum of his total output this year,and just in the past few weeks alone among the books Alexander McCall Smith has published are: The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon (the 14th volume in his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective series),The Slice of No. 1 Celebration Storybook (a short anniversary offering to mark 15 years of the series) and What WH Auden Can Do For You. He has also sent forth into the world,in the past couple of months,for instance,Bertie’s Guide to Life and Mothers,a compilation of the most recent writing for his serial novel for the daily,The Scotsman. But we won’t be detained to be awed by his astounding speed,because by now that’s just a footnote in McCall Smith’s resume. Instead,catching up with his Gaborone-based private detective,Precious Ramotswe,it is a better time than any other to marvel at her capacity to live in the moment,to think it thoroughly through.

McCall Smith is based in Edinburgh,a city where most of his other fiction is situated,and in the Celebration Storybook,he recalls that he was on visit to Botswana many years ago when the inspiration to write about a local private detective came to him. In the country on the invitation of its leading historian,Tom Tlou (who gets occasional mention in Mma Ramotswe’s habitual summaries of Botswana’s blessings,along with the acacia trees,her people’s can-do spirit,the canopy provided by the vast African sky above),to help set up a new law programme at the university,McCall Smith was smitten by the landscape and the people. It was clearly an inflection point in his career — medical law,his specialisation,presumably took a backseat as he embarked on a story set in Africa,and then another in Edinburgh,and then a serial novel,and so it still goes.

But back then,writes McCall Smith: “When I sat down to write The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency I did not have any particular agenda in mind other than the desire to tell the story of a woman who lived in Gaborone and had a small business… Her story is about how kindness and forgiveness may be placed at the centre of a life,lode stars by which we navigate our way through a world that can at times be hard and cruel.” Or as Mma Ramotswe explains in The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon,to be a private detective is to sharpen one’s ability — to discipline oneself — to observe and understand people. And as she goes about her tasks,and sometimes hilariously so — like telling a ladies’ club about the problem of men,examining the identity of a claimant to a rich farmer’s estate,finding out why someone may be sending feathers as a bad omen to the owner of a beauty salon,investigating the appeal of traditionally built women (like herself) — she progressively paints in the detail of the moral universe around her.

It’s this inclination to insinuate oneself purely by the power of one’s observation into the circumstances outside one’s personal affairs that she shares with McCall Smith’s much wealthier central character of the Sunday Philosophy Club series,the Edinburgh-based philosopher Isabel Dalhousie. Isabel has a habit of invoking Auden in this process,and it is difficult to read McCall Smith’s biography of the poet without recalling her affinity for his verse.

Indeed,he makes grand claims about what Auden could do to assist his reader to live a “good life”,to learn how to be grateful: “I believe that if you read this poet,and think about what he has to say to you,then in a subtle but significant way you will be changed. This happened to me,and it can happen to you.”

Mini Kapoor

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