Little India: Overseas Indian, NRI, Asian Indian, Indian American

The Man Behind Mr. Majestic

Zac O'Yeah

Author Zac O’Yeah, whose third and final book in the Majestic trilogy and travelogue A Walk Through Barygaza: The Ancient Greek Port Town of India, was published recently, has spent close to 25 years in India exploring its culture, country, people, and food. What brought him to India is a need to leave his “small and boring Scandinavian country” — Sweden — behind for more colorful shores.

“I was immediately taken – it is such a rich country with a great heritage, and every new day is an adventure,” he tells Little India. “Also, I found the people I met in India so inspiring and enterprising that I married one of them.”

The Majestic trilogy, first published in 2012, follows Hari, a detective and a hero for hire. The character is an “unofficial trouble-shooter of town, the Mr Fix-It, the person to go to with problems that cannot be solved by any other means,” says O’Yeah. While Hari wants to become a hero on the silver screen, his job as a detective takes him to shady lanes, motels, and the hustle-bustle of the Bengaluru city, which is a character in itself in the novel.

“My books are comical detective novels written in the vein of Bollywood cinema,” O’Yeah says.

Apart from the Majestic series, the Swedish author also writes and translates in his mother tongue. “Working in two languages may seem a lot, but actually anybody one meets in a city like Bengaluru, where I live, is conversant in so many languages that I feel quite inferior: most people speak English and Kannada and Hindi and often some other south Indian languages as well. I think it is this exposure to the linguistic riches of India that emboldened me to write in two languages as well.”

His writing process has evolved since he began the vocation, and now he starts writing in English to show his Indian friends, who help him iron out the small details. O’Yeah finds writing for the Indian audience a liberating experience, since he doesn’t have to explain small details like masala dosa to them, something he has to constantly do for foreign readers.

In his own way, he promotes India by translating interesting Indian books to Swedish so that “people there can get a better understanding of the country.” As a creative person who is fond of traveling, he loves the variety of landscapes that India has to offer.

“There’s such a rich variation in cultures, for example food is so different depending on whether you travel to the north or the south or the east or the west. India is just an endless source of amazement, so I can never get bored here,” he says.

Like his fictional hero, O’Yeah wants to make a name in the movie business in India, but as a writer and not on the screen.

“Someday I might take the step into Bollywood cinema, or Sandalwood, or Tollywood, or Kollywood… In fact, I’m negotiating a new movie project as we speak,” he tells Little India. While he has a few movie projects on the cards, he says that it is much more difficult than writing a book.

O’Yeah, when not working on books or movie scripts, is engaged in teaching a creative writing course at an arts institute called Shoonya, situated near the Lalbagh Botanical Gardens.

“I’ve noticed that lots of people want to write books nowadays – whether it be novels or autobiographies or other types of writing – and so I thought that they might be helped by having a place where they can go and learn the tricks of the trade. So at the institute, some nine writers from the city teach everything from screenwriting to poetry as well as different forms of non-fiction,” he says. He teaches thriller writing and travelogues.

The creative writing workshop has hosted writers such as Ramachandra Guha, Vivek Shanbhag, Sugata Srinivasaraju and Lavanya Sankaran as speakers, and will soon feature Maya Jayapal, Anita Nair and others. O’Yeah also enjoys the literary festivals in the country since writers are approachable here while in the West it is a very formal set-up. One has to stand in a queue for hours to just get an autograph from a favorite author, he complains.

He is looking forward to get the autograph of a Swedish writer who is soon going to visit the Jaipur Literature Festival. Some Swedish authors that he recommends for Indian readers are John Ajvide Lindqvist, Johan Theorin and Kjell Eriksson — all thriller writers.

“Sweden has produced a lot of great thrillers and spooky novels, there’s hardly a village in the country which hasn’t become the setting of some sort of fictional adventure. Actually, one of the things I try to teach in the creative writing workshops is that India is full of exciting locations for fiction writers – because currently most writers set their stories in Mumbai and other major cities, which is sort of getting overused and too familiar,” he says.

The boom in thriller writing has led to an increase in tourism to smaller towns in Sweden. “So if a similar trend started in India, it could be very good for the economy.”

O’Yeah has mostly good things to say about the country except the “bureaucracy around everything.” That he finds a bit mind-boggling and baffling. And “cute” in its own way.