"If I were to marry a city, it would be Bengaluru": A memoir by Zac O' Yeah

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"If I were to marry a city, it would be Bengaluru": A memoir by Zac O' Yeah

A memoir by Zac O' Yeah

It is strange how cinematically I recall, in vivid Technicolor wide-angle, the morning when I got off the train at the city station, walked across the footbridge above the roar of the bus stand where the BMTC fleet was revving in preparation to take on the potholed streets, as I filled my lungs with the nippy but peculiarly greyish-beery somewhat sambar-flavoured Deccan air of Bengaluru.

It was love at first sight, or smell, rather. It’s hard to explain how one can fall head over heels for a few tumbledown city blocks and a fistful of alleys like Majestic. But truth be told, leaving one’s home country and being distant from its language and habits (in my case Scandinavia and Scandinavian conformity, think IKEA, where according to the unspoken rules one has to behave as if one were a dysfunctional character in an Ingmar Bergman flick), can make a writer nervous, acculturated and even lose one’s way. The loss of one’s linguistic environment is a serious challenge – many a writer in exile has testified to this. On the other hand, settling elsewhere can also be a fruitful and inspiring challenge.

At that time at the start of the 1990s, I’d been journeying for months through the harsher north of India – and had my encounters in the usual tourist traps of Delhi, Varanasi, Agra, Rajasthan – but the sudden, unexpected homely vibe that is provided by easy-on-the-pocket food, affordable accommodation, jolly people and an abundance of cheap beer came as a pleasant surprise. The lodge in Majestic that I checked into wasn’t the best in town, but at the rate of Rs 85 a night, I wasn’t complaining. It wasn’t even the bottommost amongst the rock-bottom hotels of backpacker land, for they had running hot water in the mornings. There were no special tourist attractions in Bengaluru, so therefore no need to carry out any sightseeing agendas. I spent my days in bookshops such as Premier and Gangarams, as well as in those nameless second-hand bookstalls that used to proliferate due south of Kempegowda Circle then, thirty years ago.

Browsing through piles of always dusty and sometimes mouldy tomes, was sure to leave one’s throat parched; a phenomenon that poses serious health hazards to any bibliophile. Luckily the distance between these intellectual havens and the nearest dimly-lit ramshackle pub was rarely more than fifty steps, so as day turned into night my brain would be further stimulated by cheap chilled 650ml bottles of UB lager, with a faintly mildew-scented paperback in my hands and a bladder designed by the almighty bladder-designer to harbour a six-pack, to read for hours.

I decided to break the journey for a bit but ended up spending a month or two in Majestic which was crammed with beautiful art deco movie theatres – once it had the largest number of cinemas per square kilometre anywhere and was the local Sandalwood’s answer to Hollywood Boulevard (but now they, of course, are being torn down or converted into shopping malls at an alarming rate) – and the maddest bazaars for basically everything one might need.

Later I realised I also liked it there because Majestic is large-hearted enough to accommodate pretty much everybody. As if to prove it, I discovered a thriving migrant food culture – due to its floating population, the back alleys featured anything from humble Kerala style eateries serving the coconut-oiliest chicken fry in town in the gully running from Kempegowda Circle to the Gubbi Veeranna Theatre, Andhra Biriyani joints like the one on the corner above the tandoori grill Talk of the Town, and Bengali canteens that were serving authentic mustard fish like the tiny Babu Moshai in an alley nearby, so being there was virtually like doing a culinary tour of India. In the streets, temples stood next to cinemas with their larger-than-life cut-outs of cine gods, separate mythological universes cheek by jowl.

Source : Flickr / Paul Keller
Source : Flickr / Paul Keller

Perhaps due to some karmic coincidence, I might have been a south Indian in a previous life, but whatever the case I kept bouncing back like a malfunctioning email; hardly a year went by when I didn’t, for some reason or the other, find myself in town. If it wasn’t some literary festival, then I was a commissioned writer for a magazine, and in the end, I wasn’t particularly surprised when I got married to a Bengaluru-girl in the year 2000. But even now, living in a more salubrious suburb, I end up sitting on a bus to good old Majestic once a week or so, to wallow in my private urban nostalgia by revisiting haunts of yore.

Only after getting married and settling down, did I learn that Majestic, which I was so backpacker-nostalgic about (the bars, the beers, the yeah), was something of a terra incognita for the average upper middleclass city-dweller: a place where people simply didn’t go unless they were hunting for pirated films or other illicit fun. A bad place. Years later, reading about the underworld after I started writing detective novels, I discovered that the gangsters planned gang wars over plates of vada-sambar and tumblers of filter coffee in the very same Kamat Hotel that I habitually ate at. Besides, several Kannada gangster flicks had taken their inspiration from the area, including one titled Majestic – a 2002 blockbuster starring action hero Challenging-Star Darshan in his debut lead role.

But to tell you the truth, regarding the crime in the area, I’ve experienced very little firsthand. On my first visit, thirty years ago, I once went to the Thomas Cook office in MG Road (which was then by the corner of Brigade Road) to exchange traveller’s cheques (in those days there were no ATMs in India) and carried back a bundle of hundreds the way they packed them then, stapling together 10,000 rupees into a sort of brick. I had it in my pocket when I was returning to the hotel in Majestic and was accosted by 6-7 local gents who all had the body personality (or pigure as they say in Kannada slang) of 1,500-litre capacity Old Monk rum bottles.

I instantly knew they represented the underworld and had come to claim “tourist tax”. After surrounding me, one said, “Give us 20 rupees.” The only thing I could do was laugh because I had been mentally prepared to give up 10,000 and as they got confused by my merriment, I took the opportunity to sneak off even though they shouted, “Come back!”

My second run-in was some decades later and slightly grimmer: as I stepped out of a bar feeling refreshed, I noticed a fellow customer on the pavement, sleeping it off so to speak, which has always been seen as natural behaviour in Majestic. Only this time, I witnessed three street urchins rifle through his pockets and take his wallet. Which again is only to be expected, but when they started pulling off his pants, I felt an urge to object because, in other circumstances, it could have been me and what would my wife have said if I came home undressed from the waist down? As I tried to gently point out the wrongfulness of their deed, the ringleader (who must have been about 8 years of age) pulled a switchblade and suggested that I mind my own business if I wanted to retain my garments. Times had clearly changed.

On the other hand, like no other place I had known, the city appeared to follow a will of its own, growing uncontrollably like a frontier town in the Wild West. In a street corner with a colonial-era hotel and bar, there’d be a glass-and-steel shopping mall with top-floor food court coming up before I drunk up my beer. The kaleidoscopic nature of Bengaluru intrigued me: when I thought I knew my whereabouts, I took a second glance and the kaleidoscope had shifted and everything changed. Writing books is, in fact, a little bit like trying to stay alive in Bengaluru: it is a chaotic activity; you must kill your darlings, tear into pieces what you’ve previously written, and rewrite upon the ruins of your earlier ideas; and you need to stretch your limits, conquer new ground, and attempt the impossible – just like the city itself does each day.

Some people complain about things like these, viz. the lack of heritage awareness and the fact that everything of old-worldly beauty is torn down, not to mention how the city swells by the day at an impossible pace that makes it hard to cope with (water problems, power problems, traffic problems; you name it, we got it), but while I do regret the loss of the city’s past, as an author I can find rapid change incredibly stimulating, as much as it may be unsettling.

At the time, I had published a few novels in my native Swedish but mostly made myself a living off travel writing. Due to my interest in foreign cultures and literature, I searched for Bengaluru fiction, especially such that may have been set in the areas around Majestic. But after a good decade of living in town, I still hadn’t seen a local detective novel in the bookshops. My favourites, Premier Bookshop run by Mr Shanbhag and Bookworm owned by Mr Krishna and of course Blossoms Book House started by Mr Mayi in the Cantonment area, did stock Asian crime stuff – Japanese thrillers by Keigo Higashino, Bangkok 8 by John Burdett, translated Bengali detective story collections, The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction, second-hand copies of out-of-print 1970s pulp classics such as the ‘Jaz Zadu’ series written by Shyam Dave about a north Indian IMFL-guzzling James Bond-like character who ‘attracts beauties and bullets with equal ease’ as well as Khallaas: An A to Z Guide to the Underworld by the father of Mumbai crime reporting, Jyotirmoy Dey. But nothing very typically Bengalurean, nothing much about Majestic, not then at least – I’m speaking of the first decade of the 2000s – though later on, local writers have started doing something about this lacuna. Therefore, one day in 2008, I sat down in my favourite seedy bar and wrote the first lines of what was to become the ‘Majestic Trilogy’, a project which was to occupy me for a decade until the third book was published in 2018.

So, rather than freezing at a writing desk in the arctic climate of Northern Europe, I was spending my days watching butterflies flit romantically among the coconut palms. The eternal construction sites, the suburbs at the city’s edges pushing its limits another kilometre outward with every passing year might occasionally make one melancholic, an emotion well worth tapping into for a writer. But art produced in a city like this might, I thought, also defy ordinary imagination, the way that Bengaluru itself does, seeming to expand fast enough to swallow the entire world.

Until fairly recently, detective fiction used to be dominated by Anglo-American locations and concerns, but nowadays we read globally bestselling detective novels set in places like Botswana, Japan or – somewhat surprisingly – my native Scandinavia, which is otherwise considered to be one of the least crime-ridden parts of the world. So why not Bengaluru?

After many beers too many, I strongly felt that every self-respecting city ought to have a shelf-full of detective novels dedicated to it. In Sweden, for example, there are villages like Fjällbacka, with a population of approximately 1,000 people, which has been the setting of multiple serial-killer hunts in novel after novel. Realistic? How many semi-professional serial-killers would it take to decimate approximately 1,000 people? It defies logic, but you read the books (or buy the movie versions on DVDs) because Fjällbacka is depicted as quaint and yet appears to have a darker side. That, in a nutshell, is the success story of the crime novel and why it is a global sales phenomenon, keeping publishing houses alive and kicking.

Anyhow, these were the circumstances that prompted me to pen my own Mr Majestic! to add something to the bookstore shelves of my adopted hometown. One thing led to another, an idea spawned the next, and soon the matrix of the first novel began to unfold.

A fictional detective is something of an urban explorer, so writing (or reading) such books can be a way of getting to know a place better. The detective character, be it the logic-fixated amateur sleuth Sherlock Holmes of the late 19th Century, the professional gumshoe gunslinger Philip Marlowe in the early 20th or the feminist icon Lisbeth Salander with her super-IQ now in the 21st, has always been an explorer and a bit of a misfit; obsessive and neurotic, constantly probing what goes on in cities after sunset, the stuff that most of us remain blissfully clueless about – whether made up or real, fiction or fact, who can tell? Does it matter?

The popularity of ‘crime fiction guided walks’ grows in the footsteps of the booming thriller industry – whether it be Sherlock Holmes tours in London (to the mock-up at 221B Baker Street, ‘the world’s most famous address’) or Philip Marlowe bus rides in Los Angeles, (The late Raymond Chandler, incidentally, loved showing visitors the settings for his plots.) Trailing fictional heroes and villains is a global pastime. From this follows one important conclusion: Place, milieu, atmosphere is oh so important for a fictional sleuth. In the case of my own creation, the semi-heroic wanna-be hero Hari Majestic, the hallowed ground is of course the Majestic area.

Furthermore, I wanted to avoid creating a stereotypical literary detective – the overweight, middle-aged, divorced cop (if male) or the nosy spinster aunty (if female), or any of the other varieties of ‘classic’ investigator characters. Hence, the Hari Majestic of my novels was a week-old orphan when he was found under a seat in the third row at Majestic Talkies. That’s how he got his surname. Now in his late twenties in the first book, he is a reformed tout who has turned into something of an unofficial troubleshooter, a Mr Fix-It. People come to him with their problems – missing siblings, cheating spouses, suspected scams – and since he knows Bengaluru like I know my own nostrils, he’s the perfect private investigator.

At a fairly early point, having read enough translated Bengali detective fiction featuring the brainy sleuths Byomkesh Bakshi (created by Saradindu Bandyopadhyay) and Feluda (by Satyajit Ray) who seemed to be far too derivative of the Sherlock Holmes persona for my taste, I decided that a reality check was also required to understand what proper Indian private detectives were like. So, one day, spotting a sign for a detective agency, I dropped in. Already on the staircase, I got the vibe that I wasn’t going to find either deerstalker topis or chain-smoking private eyes with rum bottles in their shoulder holsters. There was a notice saying that job applicants must be well-groomed, freshly shaved and with a proper haircut. I touched my own chin and realized that I should have visited a barber first.

It turned out that an Indian detective bureau is like any open-plan workplace; this could be, say, an accountant’s office or even a low-end call centre, if it wasn’t for all the staff looking so ex-army. They also didn’t care much for PR, I found, when I asked for a public relations person. Ultimately, I was ushered into the glass cubicle where the head of the bureau sat behind a desk covered in Sai Baba promotion materials. Brimming with excitement, I asked my first question: What do real detectives work with? The boss replied, ‘That I can’t tell you, because it is secret.’ I tried again: If I wanted to hire you, what could you do for me? He stared out through the window and those all-detecting eyes lost themselves in the distance. ‘Supposing you wanted to buy that house over there and needed to know who owns it, we could find that out.’ I glanced at that very same house, but no, there were no suspicious criminals lurking on its roof terrace. Besides, if I wanted a house, I might go to a real estate agent rather than a secret agent, but I found it wiser to say: So, is that what detectives do for a living? He shook his head vigorously. ‘Not at all; I simply said that supposing you wanted to know.’ And how much would it cost me to hire you to do that? He looked at me doubtfully and said, ‘That I can’t say, it’s secret.’

So instead, I went online, googled and found out everything I needed to know, and of course, also watched movies. I saw plenty of Kannada action movies and became a fan of the wacky ones by Real-Star Upendra, the king of cool and one-liners. I wondered what a literary equivalent of such films might read like. After all, Indian cinema follows a different logic from Western, so shouldn’t that colour the literary plot and its protagonists as well? As far as I had been able to understand, a typical Indian action movie will include elements of comedy and romance, song and dance, without being very self-conscious about it; a comedy will have romantic scenes and action sequences, and a romantic movie is comical as well as action-packed. This has obvious roots in that ancient Indian theory of dance, theatre and music, the Natya-Shastra, which teaches us that any artistic work must have a dominant mood, rasa, without neglecting the eight emotions or bhavas such as comedy (hasya), terror (bhayanaka), heroism (vira) and naturally also love (rati).

By contrast, Hollywood cinema (and Western story-telling by and large) seems to operate according to the strictures of ‘the dramatic unities’ – propounded from Aristotle onwards and refined in the era of French Classicism – according to which credibility in theatre is created by avoiding mixed registers and hybrid art forms such as, for example, tragicomedy. This tendency remains very much alive today in the West. But India is too diverse for something simple like that. I, therefore, set out to write a romantic tragicomic thriller in Bengaluru.

For me, the private eye became my key to unlock the city and chronicle how crazily it changes. When I stroll in Bengaluru, it’s as if I’m roaming across the pages of a magical manuscript – a manuscript forever in progress, one that will always remain in flux. When I started writing the first novel in the series, there was that iconic cinema hall called Majestic – which lent its name to both the place and my hero – but while I was writing, real estate developers tore it down. It was insane.

It’s a curious thought, but had I not broken journey at Bengaluru City Junction at the start of the 1990s and checked into that cheap lodge, I don’t think I would have been a popular novelist today. It takes a bit of luck, and cheap beer, to help one find one’s true calling.

***

Photo Credit : Anjum Hasan
Photo Credit : Anjum Hasan

Zac O’Yeah was involved in Sweden’s theatre and music scene before retiring early at 25 and coming to India. After a successful book debut in 1995, his authorial career has included travelogues, cult detective novels, children’s literature, and he has written for over 90 different publications in Europe, India, China, Russia, and elsewhere. He currently writes songs and directs videos for a disco-punk band known as The Ändå.

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