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Another romp in Botswana


The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party By Alexander McCall Smith Little, Brown 248 pages, Rs 595

A tiny white van moves on the road, it seems a bit too slowly. Snakes blend with the colour of leaves. Cattle walk aimlessly at night. Rampant poverty coexists with tiny islands of affluence. Superstitions are what a bunch of intrusive witches most fear. Innocent, simple and loving people lead contented lives, enjoying what circumstances offer rather than brooding over what they are missing out on. Some wicked persons are there, too. But don't worry, writer Alexander McCall Smith suggests. Lady detective Precious Ramotswe is there to clean up the mess for you.

Botswana welcomes the reader. It does so with an unaffected smile in 'The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency' series. Among the most popular works in progress in the English language, its twelfth book - The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party - is yet another proof of McCall Smith's skills. Those who have read the previous novels will guess what the title is all about. Grace Makutsi, Mma Ramotswe's close associate, is all set to get married.

The plot seems smooth at the outset. But, potholes manifest themselves soon, each adding a new twist to the narrative. On experiencing this book, McCall Smith fans will notice, yet again, how the author has a distinguishing voice for each of his diverse works. If Isabel Dalhousie, his protagonist in The Sunday Philosophy Club series, indulges in ruminations marked by intellectual depth, Mma Ramotswe establishes her identity with her fascinating presence of mind.

The author makes us respond to each and every big and small moment in the book. When Violet Sepotho, a woman with coquettish attributes and Mma Makutsi's enemy, decides to contest the election, we hate the very thought of it. Even the most indifferent of readers get involved with the proceedings, a tribute to the sublime creative genius of McCall Smith.

The Saturday Big Tent Party is brilliant. But it is not unique. Instead, it is a resplendent addition to a sequence of novels that have attained popularity the world over. Ever since he introduced us to Mma Ramotswe, a woman with a failed first marriage to a philandering musician, McCall Smith has been re-creating the tonal quality of his first book time and again. The structural uniformity being equally amazing, one knows what to expect. One gets that, and a little bit more, which answers why the series has been the recipient of enviable critical and commercial success.

The series' USP is its little stories. Many tales are woven into the fabric of each novel. In The Full Cupboard of Life, several suitors wish to marry a wealthy lady. Are they after her money, and nothing else? In The Kalahari Typing School for Men, Mma Makutsi becomes romantically inclined towards a man. Who is he, and what does he want from the relationship? In Tea Time for the Traditionally Built, a traitor seems to be spoiling the chances of a rapidly declining football team. Who is he or, for that matter, does he really exist? Each little story merges with the larger plot seamlessly, resulting in a well-knit and immensely readable texture that holds us captive till the last page.

What lends the stories their distinctive charm is the presence of unforgettable characters. Unmagnified by creative liberties, the characters become our fictional buddies. When Mma Ramotswe speaks, we see a lady traditionally built sipping redbush tea and talking to us. JLB Matekoni, the best mechanic in Botswana and her husband, is an idealistic character whose dedication towards his work makes us respect him. Having conquered the limitations of a more-thanhumble background to secure 97 per cent at the Botswana Secretarial College examinations, Mma Makutsi's innocent ambitions and passion for shoes make her real. Charlie, Matekoni's apprentice, is a person all of us have met: a fellow who isn't serious about work, is worryingly feckless and has a pair of roving eyes.

Written by a man who has a perennial twinkle in his eyes and moulds the language like plasticine, 'The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency' series is a picturesque journey into the heart of a small nation and its people. Although 12 books old, a dozen more may not be enough.

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