Swedish by birth, reborn as Indian. His authentic South India accent and pseudonym leave one puzzled, making it hard to figure out the spices in Zac O’Yeah’s marinade.
A playwright, director, performer and musician he retired at the peak of his career at age of 25. He then went on write 11 books and became a literary critic. He talks to DW about his latest book ‘Mr.Majestic' and the crime fiction trend in India.
DW: Who is the lead character/detective?
Zac O'Yeah : The protagonist is a young Indian man, Hari Majestic, who has made his living as a tout and small-time scam operator, mainly tricking tourists into going to expensive souvenir shops and suchlike; basically the kind of person I've encountered millions of times while travelling around India. Then he is dragged into a case of a vanished tourist, manages to kill her boyfriend by mistake, and he has to track her down... or die.
His name is Majestic because as a child he was left behind in a cinema hall called Majestic in Bangalore, and adopted by the lady who cleaned the theatre.
What inspired you to write the book?
I've been waiting for a long time to read detective novels set in Indian cities, but there haven't been so many of those, so finally I decided that I'll write the book I would love to read myself.
How does India work as a backdrop for Crime Fiction?
SPLENDIDLY. Cities are big, there are dark alleys and seedy dives serving potent beverages, all the mysterious places a novelist could dream of. Lots of strange things going on all the time, day and night. The problem almost becomes the opposite, that it is hard to limit the scope of the story. In my own new novel I've used Bangalore as a backdrop and in the process of charting the town, walking through all its streets and different parts, it is as if one gets too much material. I'm also really happy to be able to say that there's more and more detective fiction coming out of India, just during the last one week I've read Swati Kaushal's "Drop Dead" set in Shimla in the Himalayas, Anita Nair's "Cut Like Wound" set in Bangalore, and Madhumita Bhattacharyya's "The Masala Murder" set in Calcutta.
What sets Indian crime fiction apart from the International Crime Fiction?
There are cultural aspects that make India different, a certain complexity in society, the family system in India is tighter, stronger. detectives have to think more of their personal honour than a typical Western private eye who lives outside the system as a loner; an Indian detective is more connected to his or her clan and the larger social concerns of family life. Then there is non-violence, a strong tradition, and a belief in karma: a detective can't just shoot anybody just like that - or he or she might be reborn as a cockroach in his/her next life.
Why the large appetite in India for Crime Fiction?
It's always been there, if you go to the smallest Indian towns, if there's a book stall at the bus stand or railway station, there'll be guaranteed to be Agatha Christie and "Sherlock Holmes" - these perennial bestsellers. The difference is that now we're getting home-grown Indian heroes in fiction. I think perhaps the best example is Sartaj Singh, the cop hero in Vikram Chandra's fabulous feat of imagination, "Sacred Games", a massive crime novel set in Bombay. In it, Sartaj Singh is a decent hero, he's a little bit corrupt but he does his best to manoeuvre through a very complex society where one sometimes can't tell the underworld apart from the normal world.
How does the Indian Crime Fiction reflect the changes in the urban landscape of India?
I have this feeling that over the last decades, as Indian cities have grown or shall we say exploded, there's an increasing sense of rootlessness and people are torn from the safety of belonging to any one place: a person may have a notion of a native place and may go back there occasionally, but one is constantly negotiating a very vast and complicated here and now, a city with so many tricky factors built into it that even day to day survival can seem a near-impossible prospect. Some examples from my own daily life: travel through chaotic traffic where few seem to follow traffic rules and suddenly one falls, as one steps aside, into a sewer; or the fact that you can't always trust what you eat - I've gone to restaurants where spurious food additives have caused allergic reactions that makes my head swell like a balloon. Stuff that is made for putting into novels. A good book that seems to capture an Indian city really well, is "Sacred Games" by Vikram Chandra.
Are the readers drawing rolemodels from contemporary crime fiction or just reading them for entertainment?
Crime fiction isn't exactly a genre I'd recommend people to look for role models in. Mostly it is pure entertainment, like the way we go and watch a Bollywood movie for the thrills, but I think there's a bit of psychological training involved too when you read entertainment fiction - crime novels tell you something about how to survive the Big Bad City with its everyday threats and traps. I've noticed that a particular genre of thrillers that seems more popular in India than others or elsewhere (as in, more authors writing them, more titles published, and perhaps more readers too) are those that deal with terrorists.
Does the growing trend of Crime Fiction in India reflect the subconscious will to get justice in a corrupt society?
I think it is more likely to be a matter of therapy; one can read a detective novel and feel lucky that one isn't in such a bad situation as the characters in the novel find themselves in. But yes, maybe you have a point there. Though I personally don't think that India is particularly corrupt compared to many other countries, but maybe there is a complexity in Indian society that demands more of the people living here - it isn't easy every day to be an Indian, but it can be rather exciting. Maybe too exciting sometimes.
Who is your favorite author?
I quite like writers like James Ellroy, Martin Cruz Smith and John Burdett if we're talking of international crime writers. When it comes to Indian writers I'm really a very devoted RK Narayan fan.
What are you reading right now?
"Old Shanghai: Gangsters in Paradise" by Lynn Pan, because I just spent a couple of months in Shanghai.