#52Books | December (Week 1) 2011

I hadn’t read Alexander McCall Smith before though I’ve always wanted to read him, especially the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Series. This meant the books would find their way into my Flipkart Shopping Cart (they sell for Rs 200 or so) and then I’d backtrack because I found another shinier exciting book and the McCall Smith books would make their way back into the Wishlist. 

Till I serendipitously discovered 4 Alexander McCall Smith books on my Kindle: Tea Time for the Traditionally Built, The Comfort of Saturdays, The Lost Art of Gratitude and The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party. K downloaded a torrent for Kindle books, these came with it. By now I’d also run out of excuses to not read a AMS book. Whenever I find a book or a film or even an album, I do all sorts of research on the author and his/her books.  I read up interviews, memorize the Wiki article (Ok, not really!), watch Youtube videos, talk to people about, read book reviews and even the ending if possible and after all sorts of excitement has been killed I dive right in. Yes, I’m like that only.  Not with AMS, though. I’d no clue what I was getting into, I only knew I wanted to read him. It must have something to do with my recently acquired African Literature fixation. 

So it was that I started with The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party, the twelfth book in the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency Series. The book is an easy read, sometimes you can even imagine a soap opera based in Botswana simultaneously running in your head but at its core it reminds you of why you read in the first place: To travel to another world, to be magically transported into another time and place so unfamiliar to your own. Botswana as described in the book is not a world without problems but much like in India, the solutions are coaxed into place by gentle persuasion. There’s value in maintaining relationships, peaceful interactions and going the extra mile or even bending over backwards to accommodate the odd self-entitled gentleman. 

The strength of the book is in the characters - there’s Mma Ramotswe who runs the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Mma Grace Makutsi her associate detective, Mma Ramotswe’s husband and mechanic par excellence Mr JLB Matekoni, Charlie the mechanic’s apprentice and a pushy old lady Mma Potokwani. Mma Ramotswe’s Botswana is a sweet beautiful world and in that a great escape from our own chaos.

Though the book would fall into the genre of a crime novel, the book is crowded with intertwining plot lines and ingenious and mostly unexpected solutions(the Botswanian version of the jugaad, if you will) to the myriad problems of the everyday folk.

The main case in The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party involves a man complaining that someone is maiming his cattle, a big deal in Botswana where the size and quality  of a herd defines its owner. Mma Ramotswe takes the case but is dismayed to find out that her client is not a very nice man. She has a dilemma on her hands when someone confides the (probable) truth about the situation to her. She turns to her hypothetical mentor, Clovis Andersen, author of The Principles of Private Detection, to guide her in her quest to solve the case. 

The other troubles are less serious. A tiny white van that Mma Ramotswe had sold off shows up around town like a ghost from her past. Her husband, expert mechanic Mr JLB Matakone had sold it for scrap and she’s now haunted by this ghost of a white van even as she proudly drives around for her cases in a brand new tiny blue van. 

Mma Makutsi is getting ready for her big day- the Big Tent Wedding Party is Mma Makutsi’s wedding with Phuti Radiphuti who is recovering from a tragic accident. She needs a new pair of shoes for the wedding and Phuti has given her free reign to buy what she needs. In a moment of madness that women can only associate with brand new clothes and shoes decides to wear these shoes as she walks back to her office, chase down the (ghost of Mma Ramotswe’s) tiny white van when she sees it exiting the parking lot of the mall and ends up breaking the heels of her new shoes. This is where the plot meanders a bit: Mma Makutsi conflicts about passing on the bill for her shoes to her fiancee and also breaking the news about the accident are not fully explored. It would have been an interesting glimpse into Phuti’s character, especially from a cultural point of view as a Botswanian fiancee/husband. 

The book also gets a little tedious when Mma Makutsi repeats her record score at secretarial school. Her nemesis from secretarial school Violet Sephotho makes an appearance as a budding politician, there’s some talk about running a campaign to tell the truth about Violet Sephotho and then somewhere along the book that story falls to the wayside too. 

Mma Makutsi never too busy with her impending nuptials takes the time out to berate the apprentice Charlie when it seems like he’s behaving badly after discovering that his girlfriend is pregnant with twins. A loud altercation ensues which ends with Charlie calling her a warthog out of frustration. He will eventually come around with a little help from Mma Ramotswe and there are happy reconciliations all around. 

“She looked at him. For all his faults - and she had to admit they were manifold – he was a well-meaning young man. And much as he could be frustrating, he could also be amusing and generous and attractive.

‘Don’t change too much,’ she said gently. ‘We like you the way we are, Charlie.’

He stared at her incredulously, and she realised that he might not have heard many people say that. So she repeated herself: ‘We like you, Charlie, you just remember that.’

She looked down. He had clasped his hands together, his fingers interlaced. It was a gesture, she thought, of unequivocal pleasure—pleasure at hearing what all of us wanted to hear at least occasionally: that there was somebody who liked us, whatever our fault, and liked us sufficiently to say so.

Reading this book was like sitting down with old friends who know each other well enough, faults et al and partaking in their joys and sorrows and delighting with them at the unexpected surprises. Mma Potokwane the domineering matron of the orphanage has newfound regard for Mma Matsuki. In her eyes, a married woman is definitely worthy of respect. These little nuggets from everyday life are what make the book such a delight. I loved how Mma Potokwane wrangles an invitation to the wedding when she was not on the original guest list by talking ominously about the problems most people face at weddings. Once in, she uses her superior organizational skills to ensure the wedding is memorable and there’s happiness all around.

Mma Potokwane noticed the other woman’s uncertainty. “Yes,” she continued. “There’s that problem. And then there’s another problem. Problems come in threes, I find, Mma. So the next one – Problem number two, so to speak – is the cooking of food. You know what I find, Mma, it is this: the people doing the cooking never have enough pots. They say they do, but they do not. And right at the last moment they discover that there are not enough pots, or, more likely, the pots they have are too small. A pot may be big enough to cook your meat and pap at home, just for a family, but do not imagine that it will be big enough to cook for a couple of hundred people. You need big, catering-size pots for that.”

She was now warming to her theme. “And the third problem is the food itself. You may think that you have enough for the feast, and you may be right when it comes to the meat. People usually have enough meat – often rather too much, in fact. But they forget that after their guests have eaten a lot of meat, they need something sweet, and often they have made no arrangements for that. A wedding cake? Yes, but there will only be one small piece of that for each guest – usually not enough. So people find themselves wishing that they had had the foresight to get a supply of ordinary cake for the guests to eat with their tea. And where is this cake? Not there, Mma.”

Mma Ramotswe glanced at Mma Makutsi; this was not the way to speak to a nervous bride, she thought. “I’m sure that everything will work out well,” she said reassuringly. “And if there are any problems, they will surely just be small ones – nothing to worry about.”

Mma Potokwane looked doubtful. “I hope so,” she said. “But in my experience, it never works out like that. I think it’s better to be realistic about these things.”

Mma Makutsi picked up her pencil to add something to her list. “You said something about pots, Mma. Where would I be able to get these big, catering-size pots?”

Mma Potokwane examined her fingernails. “Well, we have them at the orphan farm. Each of the house mothers has a very large pot. I’m sure that we could do something … “

The gentleness of Mma Ramotswe’s outlook, the grace and elegance of Botswana and the dignity of McCall Smith’s characters is what made the book such a pleasant read. There is much to take away: good ol’ kindness and understanding are all it takes to make life a little easier, a little more sweeter. Add to that the happy endings all around and the book leaves you feeling all warm and fuzzy and maybe even leave you looking forward to reading the other eleven books.