Letter from... Vigata

Everyone needs at least one obsession, one of mine happens to be about an Italian detective

Find somebody who is really good at something, or has produced something of great value—however you define that value—and you will find at the heart of that endeavour some sort of obsession. Almost always. There are the rare instances when someone excels at something in passing, or by accident. But those instances are so rare as to be unworthy of deeper analysis. 

So let us just talk about everyday, plain vanilla obsessions. Obsessions involving people immersing themselves wholeheartedly in pursuits that are often personal and sometimes professional but always so intense.

For instance I have a friend, a banker, who has always been a danseuse of great ability. She has a tremendous commitment to Indian classical dancing that has remained unabated for many hectic years. Years that have included long working hours and two pregnancies. And she has yet remained unflappable in her commitment to attend dance classes on the weekends, often travelling long distances to attend them. 

This block of time in her calendar is non-negotiable. She will not waiver. Even if it means skipping parties or turning up late. She has no qualms about saying, “Sorry, but I have dance class on Saturday morning."

This is a pain in the ass when you are trying to organize get-togethers. But the obsession itself I admire greatly. Find somebody with a healthy obsession like that, and chances are that they are well-sorted.

In fact it is something I am trying to bring back into my own life. Little things, no more than one or two, that become little islands of personal obsession in my everyday life.

Right now those two little things seem to be the Inspector Montalbano books by Andrea Camilleri and retro video games. A brief background maybe in order. I discovered my first Montalbano crime novel, The Potter’s Field, in a used bookstore sometime in November last year. There was a little card that recommended the book highly. 

I quickly Googled it up on my phone and discovered that it had won the Crime Writers’ Association International Dagger Award 2012. (The CWA awards are always a fine bet for good crime novel recommendations.) I picked it up. And absolutely loved it. I must have wrapped it up in 48 hours. 

And then I read a few more. And then I watched an episode of the Italian TV adaptation of the books, starring the excellent Luca Zingaretti along with a phenomenal cast of supporting actors. Rarely have I seen a screen adaptation that does such justice to the characters on a page. 

If you’re wondering why I gesticulate so wildly when talking these days… blame the show. (Cesare Bocci, who plays Montalbano’s deputy, Mimi Augello, at Vigata police station, communicates entire lines of dialogue by just jutting his chin back and forth. It really is quite a feat.)

And now I have ploughed through several seasons of the TV series, read half a dozen novels, and watched hours of YouTube videos on the cast and the show. I have even started cooking some of the dishes that Montalbano constantly eats with relish in the books, (These novels are as much about the crimes as they are about the substantial meals Montalbano demolishes every chapter or so.)

Last week, I obtained a copy of the latest Lonely Planet guide to Italy. Why? Because the family and I are planning a week-long holiday in Sicily sometime this year. Perhaps holiday is the wrong way to put it. Pilgrimage is more apt. 

The other day at home I wondered aloud how much a little two bedroom cottage somewhere in the countryside near Ragusa could cost. The wife looked at me and promptly broke the Limca Record for Eye-ball Rolling (NRI). But you see this is the ultimate sign that you are cultivating a personal obsession. When other people don't want any part of it.

My second obsession has a much longer history. I really discovered video games at a comparatively late stage in my life. Perhaps when I was 15 or 16 years old. And because I grew up in a family of modest means I dreamt and talked and read about these games more than I actually owned or played them. 

Eventually we purchased a Sega Mega Drive console and a handful of games that I cherished for several years. And then life and engineering college and entrance exams got in the way and I forgot all about games. Adulthood and salaried employment meant that I dabbled in Xboxs and Playstations, without ever really getting into those platforms. Then, two years ago, I purchased a Nintendo 3DS on a whim. 

Boom. I was transported instantly to a childhood of watching the rich kids play Zelda and Mario. But now I could afford them myself! How the tables have turned you rich kids! Not only did I play these games with relish, but I slowly began to get obsessed with video gaming history. Several books and podcasts have followed. 

Once again this is an obsession that I share with nobody in my immediate circle. Montalbano and Super Mario represent secret little spheres of my life in which I am alone, focused and sequestered from quotidian pressures.

Why do such obsessions matter? I think it has something to do with what Matthew Foley calls the “assault on detachment" in life today. In his excellent book The Age of Absurdity: Why Modern Life makes it Hard to be Happy, Foley writes: 

“What you need is detachment, concentration, autonomy and privacy, but what the world insists upon is immersion, distraction, collaboration and company."

(Ugh. Collaboration. Ugh.)

Foley goes on to explain how modern life imposes a “a diminishing of faith in the individual". All this even as the thinkers of every age and every culture find that redemption comes from within. But how to isolate this within? How to find the stillness to listen to it? How to achieve that mindfulness?

I say it is to be found in solitary little obsessions. When we do things for ourselves, with great intensity and focus. When we do things that are hard and slow and repetitive not because it is a business model, but because we enjoy them. Because it nourishes a secret self. A self that, Foley says, “is a protection against the world and its vicissitudes, armour all the more effective for being interior and invisible, the chain mail providing greater security on the soul than the body".

I recommend you read the book. It really is quite good. 

So let me leave you this weekend with that message. Find something small to be obsessed about in private. And when you do, don’t tweet us, don’t leave a comment and definitely don’t email us about it. I will now go and find a good recipe for Pasta 'ncasciata, before spending a few hours playing Earthbound on Virtual Console.

Letter From... is Mint on Sunday’s antidote to boring editor’s columns. Each week, one of our editors—Sidin Vadukut in London and Arun Janardhan in Mumbai—will send dispatches on places, people and institutions that are worth ruminating about on the weekend. 

Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

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