Sweden-born author Zac O’Yeah believes he is a South Indian reborn in the Arctic Circle due to bad karma. Perhaps that is why he couldn’t shake off the country after his first trip around 30 years ago. So, he stayed and penned a trilogy of detective novels titled Mr Majestic!, where the protagonist traverses the underbelly of Bengaluru, solving crimes and fighting thugs. An interview with the novelist reveals his real-life adventures are no less interesting. By Adila Matra
Tell us about your first visit to India and why you made the country your home.
When I first landed in Delhi, I was a young and ignorant tourist, so the whole bazaar experience was a bit rich from a sensory point of view. Delhi wasn’t as modern then, and there was no internet or GPS, so I kept getting lost. And, of course, June was and is a very hot month in North India. But then I travelled to rural India just as monsoon started, and to the Himalayas, and it was much less stressful. In the end, when I flew back to Sweden, I went on missing everything about India—the food, the chaotic but laidback lifestyle, the hospitable owners of small lodges who treat a visitor more like a distant relative dropping in than a customer, and those old-style Indian bookshops. So, I returned. Again, and again. And then at some point, it started to seem pointless to leave India, so I made it my home.
You were a designer and a musician before you became a writer. Do you give India credit for bringing out the mystery writer in you?
Yeah, I’d agree to that. I used to work in the Swedish music industry and also did design work for theatres, which was fun but ultimately ephemeral. In comparison, books are solid objects. In typical Indian bookshops, you’ll often find books that may have been printed 10 or 20 years ago. In the West, a book is outdated after six months and pulped after three years, and if you’re lucky, you might find it in an antiquarian shop. The bookshops of Bengaluru are absolutely amazing—even if one asks for very obscure titles, they’ll either have it or know how to get it for you. But when I started living here, I noticed that there were no detective novels set in Bengaluru, at least not in English. So, I thought that I may as well write some Bengaluru mysteries myself. After all, I’m Swedish and crime fiction is one of the biggest industries in Sweden.
What was your first impression of India?
Extremely chaotic, disorganised, and difficult to understand—especially as I come from a highly organised country like Sweden, where buses run like clockwork and everything is clearly signposted. But getting to understand India was an interesting challenge. Simply figuring out the complexity of Indian culinary art took years because I’m from a country where food traditionally means meat and potatoes seven days a week, whereas India is the genuine smorgasbord of gourmet sensations. I think I have grown a lot as a human through my interactions with Indians and all things Indian.
Tell us about your adventures and misadventures in India. What has been the most memorable experience?
As far as misadventures go, there’s been a fair number, like falling off a few mountains in the Himalayas, losing all my travel documents and having to improvise my way back home. One time an elephant I was riding drank up a bottle of pungent hair oil and sneezed. I got showered with its eucalyptus-smelly snot. I once had a leg broken during a monsoon downpour when I got flushed into a storm water drain. But any hardships were worth it, for the many rewards of being in India—even the hospital stay when they reattached my leg was interesting and inspired me to write one of my novels. Memorable moments of the more pleasant kind include meeting many fantastic people while travelling. Perhaps my finest moment was spending a morning with R K Narayan, whose books I adore.
What are your travel essentials for exploring the country?
The most wonderful trips can get ruined if one forgets to bring antacids and anti-diarrhoea tablets. I usually take a lightweight umbrella, lots of digene and immodium, toiletries and sanitiser, a sturdy notebook and many pens, a power bank, and adaptors. India is a shopper’s paradise, so whenever you need anything else, you can just buy it—like more clothes.
Apart from Bengaluru, which other places in India get your creative juices flowing?
I’m very fond of the Western Ghats—to trek up mountains, experience the wilderness. Other than the hills, I enjoy coastal Kerala for its lovely food. But I also love going to big cities like Mumbai and Kolkata that are so vibrant—almost manic—and full of culture. I also get very excited when I visit ancient, old-fashioned towns in Odisha or Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, or Uttar Pradesh where there’s a lot of important heritage that tends to get overlooked by tourists who are too busy ticking off the main sites from their bucket lists. So, while all tourists go to Varanasi and Taj Mahal, very few know about Kaushambi, which I found to be an absolutely thrilling excursion. Seraikella in Jharkhand is a remarkable culture village if one is interested in dance, and Dholavira in Gujarat totally blew my mind as I was the only tourist there the day when I walked through its majestic ruins.