R K Narayan inpires me, says British writer McCall Smith


Renowned as a wildly prolific author and the mind behind the best-selling "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" series, Alexander McCall Smith says he is not really a crime writer but instead takes his inspiration from beloved Indian writer R K Narayan.

Naryan, said the British author, succeeded in creating small, self-contained worlds for his quirky characters which gives him an avenue to explore their eccentricities and problems.

"I don't really regard myself as a crime writer. People call me one because one of my books is set in Botswana and is about a woman who solves crimes. They don't have much crime if any crime in them. It is more concerned with problems in people's lives," McCall Smith, who is attending the ongoing Jaipur Literature Festival said.

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Calling Narayan one his literary heroes, McCall Smith said that the Indian author's book have stood the test of time because of its universal values.

"I was very influenced by R K Narayan and his work. He is one of my literary heroes and I think he is a wonderful writer. His books have stood the test of time and they haven't dated. They are universal," he said.

The renowned British writer also talked about the dangers of writing humour at a time when people were quick to take offence.

"As a writer you would never really want to hurt people and try and avoid giving gratuitous offence. Words can be very hurtful. There is a difference between humour which is gentle and humour which is cruel. And I certainly wouldn't want to be about the cruel kind of humour."

At the same time he said, people shouldn't take offence too readily.

"If that happens there can be no humour. Then you cannot write anything and the world would be avery dull place."

Several of McCall Smith's books, much like Narayan's "Malgudi Days" series, are humorous, set in self-contained environments and mostly deal with the human nature. The titular agency from "the number one ladies detective agency" for example is located in Gaborone, capital of Botswana.

Its founder is a Motswana woman, Mma Precious Ramotswe, who features as the stories' protagonist and main detective. Apart from solving mysteries, the episodic novels are more about the adventures and foibles of different characters.
McCall Smith said, "People like my books like Scotland

Street and Number One Ladies Detective Agency where everyone seems to know each other. That is because people like going into a comfortable, contained world. It makes them feel secure because of the anonymity of the modern world."

"I also refer to bigger and historical issues. I think the thing about writing novels like that is you are writing stories about people's lives and that includes social and political aspects," he said.

When asked why he chose to set his series in the remote African nation, McCall Smith said,"I lived and worked there for a while. I got to know the country, its interesting and peaceful. Found myself wanting to say things about it."

The writer, though is aware of the pitfalls that come with an outsider writing about historical and social issues of a different country, and the potential to cause offence.

"I have accepted that I am an outsider writing. But one of the things you should develop is an understanding and you must be able to put yourself in the shoes of other people.

"There are things that an insider takes for granted and does not comment upon. But an outsider can say certain things, as long as you admit your limits of understanding. If you are an outsider writing critically, you might get it wrong. So one has to be very careful while talking of other people countries," he said.

First Published: Jan 22 2016 | 3:42 PM IST

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