Saturday, January 21, 2006

The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency

Just finished reading Alexander McCall Smith’s The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. I must admit, I was drawn in first by the title, then by the blurb at the back giving an outline of the book.
The proprietor of the eponymous detective agency is our heroine, Precious Ramotswe. With a name like that, are you surprised she runs the only detective agency in Botswana? Maybe because English fiction set in Africa seems to be rare, I plunged right into this one.
Overall, the book is a series of cases that Precious solves with her combination of intuition, patience and charm. She has an honesty and integrity that comes across clearly, without her ever seeming holier-than-thou or judgmental. The other characters, like her friend Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni and her secretary Ms. Makutsi, are also strong presences in the book though they don’t take up much of the plot. (However, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni features strongly in the ending.)
There is a strong thread of nationalism running through the book; in fact it almost seems like a sub-theme. The descriptions of the land and the country are simple and elegant. Also present is a continual reference to the bad behavior of men, in a gentle, reproachful manner; however, at times you can almost predict that there is going to be a comment on the unreliability of men in general. Also, I found the recollections of her father and the stories of mines a tad unnecessary, in that they took away from the pace of the narrative as a whole. But still, you can well imagine our Miss Ramotswe in her house at Zebra Drive, sipping a cup of bush tea and listening to Radio Botswana every morning. It is images like these that stay with you; vignettes of authentic African life, which make the book such an easy, pleasant read. The author’s writing style is lovely, and is so simple as to make anyone think that they could write like this.
Other books in the Miss Ramotswe series are the intriguingly titled “The Kalahari Typing School for Men” and “Morality for Beautiful Girls” among others. I would definitely like to read more of Precious Ramotswe and her tiny white van. A good read if you’re in the mood for something light but satisfying.
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A Good Lenj

So there we were, nine hungry folks in the middle of the working week. What to do? Someone came up with the idea of gorging on a good authentic Mallu meal. After all, what is life without a good lenj? (Lenj is also known as Lunch in some circles.)
Eureka! Plans were made, instanter. Only one member of this posse happened to be not from Mallu-land. But who cared? The place in question that served up the delicacies in question turned out to be located in one of those sub-lanes in a by-lane that would defy my navigational skills on any given day. It was someone’s house that was converted into a “mess” for hungry folks like us.
The aroma hit us as soon as we set foot in the dark and crowded interiors, milling with cooks and eaters. The yummy, almost tangible lure of freshly fried fish and hot sambar drew us in like magic. Seating was to be grabbed whenever sighted, on plastic stools under long formica tables.
The service was quick and a tad impatient, if indulgent. The Malayalam was sing-song and rapid. We had no time to dither as in other eating joints. Here, if you don’t order in time, you’re jolly well going to go back hungry.
But the food! The first mouthful of brown rice and fresh fried aila hot from the pan! (This aila is known in English by the somewhat unexciting moniker of “mackerel,” which somehow makes it seem like the nerd in the class.) I normally eat the usual refined white rice eaten in North India, but here I enjoyed the taste of the brown, fat rice with the husk on. Which just goes to show what nostalgia for Mallu-land will do to you, even if you cannot claim to have ever lived there.
For the fish non-lovers among us (such people do indeed exist), I realize this piece must have left them cold. But for other aila-eaters and naimeen maniacs, yes. Don’t we all know just such a place that serves up just the most heavenly version of fish on earth? Or, actually, whatever your favorite food, sometimes all you need is the right place. To hell with ambience, menu cards, bedside manners for the wait-staff! Just eat and get out, and go back with that slightly silly grin on your face that can come only from a truly satisfying meal.
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