A portal to an unknown world

“In such a country, Mma Precious Ramotswe ventures to start a detective agency. Eyebrows are raised and questions asked, but Mma Ramotswe is brave, intelligent and determined,” writes Anantha.

“It says here, under occupation, that you are a detective,” he said in a surly tone. “How can a woman be a detective?” 
“Many women are detectives,” said Mma Ramotswe with dignity. “Have you not heard about Agatha Christie?”
“Are you saying I am not an education man,” the official growled. “Is that what you are saying? That I have not read this Mr. Christie.”


The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, novel by Alexander McCall Smith. Abacus (2003). Rs 499/-.

Set in the country of Botswana, in which racism and misogyny reigned until recent times, a brave middle-aged woman decides to take up a career of solving mysteries. The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is centered around two main characters: first, the country Botswana and second, lady Mma (Madam) Ramotswe who runs a detective agency in Botswana. 

Botswana is one of the interior countries of Africa, with neither the sea side nor picturesque green hills to boast about. It has the featureless land of the Kalahari instead, which seems to stretch to no end. The vast Kalahari Desert is both a boon and bane to Botswana. It is the homeland of many species of birds and wild animals, including the majestic African lions. But the desert also brings about extreme climate and holds the threat of the terrifying bite of the black Mamba, widely spotted in the area. Be it mining underground for diamonds or toiling on the land in the horrid sun rearing cattle, people in Botswana take hardships in their stride.

“If a man is born in a dry place, then although he may dream of rain, he does not want too much and he will not mind the sun that beats down and down.”

But alas! The weather and the Kalahari are just the tip of the iceberg for the inhabitants of this country. 

Discrimination based on the color of one’s skin is a raging issue across the world. People have been tortured and subject to horrible crimes in the name of racism and slavery, and people of Botswana were no strangers to this treatment. They were used to being beaten with whips, imprisoned, and deposed out of their own land if their behavior was found inappropriate by the British during their rule. Even post-independence, racism was widely prevalent until recent times.

Life gets even more grueling for women in Botswana, who have a very low social status and are treated as objects of desire. A single woman, whether unmarried, divorced or widowed, is slighted with contempt and looked down upon with prying eyes for no fault of her own.

In such a country, Mma Precious Ramotswe ventures to start a detective agency. Eyebrows are raised and questions asked, but Mma Ramotswe is brave, intelligent and determined.

She starts off solving trivial domestic cases such as those of missing pets and cheating husbands. As her popularity increases, she encounters more dangerous cases which involve matters of crime of a higher order, both inside Botswana as well as across the border. She gets involved with wealthy people who have dirty secrets. Slowly but steadily, people begin to appreciate her acumen. Her blossoming success brings her several admirers, but there is always danger lurking around the corner.

The narrative is mostly humorous, though there are a few incidents which are poignant and hard-hitting. The vivid accounts of the African miners being flogged by the British, and Mma Ramotswe being abused by her husband paint a grave picture in the reader’s mind. There is one gruesome case, in which they find muti, a medicine used in witchcraft, and they suspect that the mixture contains human bones.  This mystery sends chills down your spine until it is solved.

The other mysteries are cases of illegal medical practices, factory mishaps and absconding husbands. There is one very funny case during which the author mocks a certain way of parenting, especially common among Indians. A super rich influential Gujarati businessman wants to keep an eye on his teenage daughter’s whereabouts and hires Mma Ramotswe to spy for him. Mma Ramotswe firmly believes that spying on one’s own children is not a good method to gain their trust, but she still takes up the job for the sake of her agency. I found myself roaring with laughter when Mma Ramotswe found herself in a very awkward position and was clueless in terms of how to go about it. 

In The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, the two main characters – the protagonist and the country – emerge victorious despite all the hardships and the challenges they face. As we celebrate Mma Ramotswe’s success after every case, we simultaneously witness the significant progress made by Botswana after its independence. The reader gets a vivid picture of Gaborone and its ongoing social, political and cultural conditions as Mma Ramotswe rambles through the city for evidence. 

A book featuring another culture opens up a portal to an unknown world. It gives us an insight into other people, their land and their culture. The horizon expands and perspectives change. The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is the first of a series of novels, and as readers, we are relieved that it is not yet the end of Mma Ramotswe, her detective agency, or of Botswana.

(L)- The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency; (R)- Alexander McCall Smith (Source – The Sunday Post)

Anantha is an IT Professional. Writing is her passion. She writes short stories, book reviews, movie reviews, small stories for children and play scripts for the theater. She regularly conducts storytelling workshops for children.

Read more:

Police procedural writing at its best

When books brought hope to a war ridden town

Engaging with history to make sense of the present



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