It was love at first sight. It’s hard to explain how one can fall head over heels for Majestic and its mean streets, the way I did. But it happened to me. Majestic and I have been dating for longer than I’ve known my life – oh sorry, I mean my wife. And you know what the best thing is? She isn’t even jealous that I have another love.
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Because it would be silly to be resentful of a few tumbledown city blocks and a fistful of squalid streets. Am I telling the truth or a tall story?
Well, let us call this autofiction. You ask: What is that? Something that an autodriver in Bengaluru might tell you when he tries to cheat you a little? But to tell you the truth, leaving one’s home country and being distant from its language, in my case Sweden and Swedish, can make a writer nervous. 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 fruitful and inspiring.
One of the moments I remember best, save for when I first set eyes on my wife (who at that time, luckily, was still unmarried), was when I came to Bengaluru (then known as Bangalore). It is strange how cinematically I recall in vivid Technicolor wide angle, the morning I got off the train at the city junction, walked across the footbridge above the roar of the bus stand where the BMTC fleet was preparing to take on the potholed streets, and breathed the greyish air of Bengaluru. The lodge I checked into wasn’t the best in town, but at the rate of ₹85 a night, I wasn’t
I decided to break 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 are being torn down or converted into shopping malls at an alarming rate) – and the maddest bazaars for dubious DVDs and jeans with hotshot names like ‘Bofors’. Due to its floating population, Majestic also featured an abundance of restaurants serving up everything from Kerala chicken fry to authentic Bengali mustard fish, so a walk there was a culinary tour of India. Also, there were no special tourist attractions in Majestic, so no sightseeing agendas.
So, 25 years ago, I spent my days in the city’s many fine bookshops, browsing through piles of always dusty and sometimes mouldy tomes, which was sure to leave one’s throat parched; a phenomenon that poses serious hazards to any bibliophile. Luckily, in Bengaluru, the distance between any bookshop and the nearest pub is rarely more than fifty steps, and so as day turned into night, my brain was further stimulated by extremely cheap beer in some seedy but friendly bar.
I took an instant shine to this city and perhaps due to a karmic combination of bibliomania, Indophilism and alcoholism, 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 here. If it wasn’t some literary festival, then I was a writer for a travel 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 different and more wholesome part of town, I find myself sitting on a bus to good old Majestic once a week or so, just to wallow in my private urban nostalgia by revisiting old haunts.
I, born by a faraway cold fjord dotted with polar bears on ice floes, feel that I’m at last getting what I deserve whenever I, after browsing in some bookshops, settle down on a hot day in one of those dimly-lit ramshackle bars, with a faintly mildew-scented paperback, a chilled 650ml bottle of lager and a bladder designed by the almighty bladder-designer to harbour a six-pack, to read for hours. But despite years of browsing and reading, what I didn’t find was a local detective novel depicting the streets that I had come to love.
After getting married and settling down in the city, I also learnt that Majestic, which I was so backpacker – sentimental about, is something of a bad place. Years later, reading the memoir My Days in the Underworld: Rise of the Bangalore Mafia by Agni Sreedhar, I discovered that local gangsters planned gang wars over plates of vada-sambar and tumblers of filter coffee in the very same Kamat Hotel in Majestic that I habitually ate at. Of course, several Kannada gangster films had taken their inspiration from the area, including one titled Majestic – a 2002 blockbuster starring action hero Darshan in his debut star role. But there were no Majestic novels that I could find. So, 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 labour of love of sorts which was to occupy me for the next ten years.
There were other good reasons why I chose to set my novels and locate their hero, Hari Majestic, in that very place. 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 Sweden.
So why not Bengaluru? After a few beers too many, I strongly felt that every self-respecting city ought to have a shelfful of detective novels dedicated to it. A detective in a crime novel is something of an urban explorer, so writing (or reading) such books can be a way of getting to know a place better. For me, the private eye became my key to unlock the entire city and chronicle it. And how crazily it changes. When I started writing the first novel, there was an iconic cinema hall called Majestic – which lent its name both to the place and my hero – but while I was writing, the theatre was torn down by real estate developers. It was insane. Just when I thought I knew my whereabouts, I took a second glance and the kaleidoscope had shifted.
But that was also the charm of it, to try and describe the indescribable – and three novels later, I’m still at it. It’s a curious thought, but if I hadn’t stepped off the train at Bangalore City Junction in 1992 and checked into the cheapest lodge in the neighbourhood, I don’t think I would have been who I am or a novelist today. It takes a bit of luck, and cheap beer, to help us find our true callings. So, it can be said that the pub city provided me with the perfect mix of intellectual and physical stimuli, making for great compatibility between the two of us. In fact, I sometimes think that if I weren’t already hitched, and if Bengaluru was a woman and our horoscopes matched, I would probably marry the city.