Sunday, 27 September 2015

Murder She Wrote...

I have been feeling deeply satisfied as I have watched my son this past week. He has finally succeeded in doing something that he had been trying to do for the last two years. He is now immersed in an Agatha Christie book! He is in 6th grade and is eleven years old. That's how old I  was when I read my first Christie book in Guwahati, Assam but surrounded by voracious readers in the house and knowing the fact that she is one of my favourite authors, he tried early but could not proceed beyond the first few pages. He has finished all the Harry Potter books and the entire Percy Jackson series before he turned ten, though! I guess Rowling is an easier read than Christie! But he is half way through the book already during this attempt and a few days ago, when I went to turn off his room light at bed time, he said," Mom, please. Just five minutes more, the murder has just happened." I knew right then and there that Dame Agatha had got her claws in him and I felt totally content! I actually smirked, so pleased was I!
And then, last Friday I opened last Sunday's Times Of India. It is delivered to us every Tuesday as it comes from Mumbai, India, but I got around to it only then, such is my schedule these days...My on line students have all but taken over my life and the kids and my husband claim the remaining bits. A chunk of this goes in telling my son to START studying and my daughter to STOP studying and go to bed! # IndianMothersAreNeverSatisfied! Believe me, I am one of them and I deal with scores more in my classrooms, both concrete and virtual! But who's complaining? I'm savouring this phase in my life to the hilt!
But I am digressing from the core topic of the day! I read in the paper that Agatha Christie just had what would have been her 125th birthday, on 15th September 2015. My son had borrowed his book from the school library but I , of course, have almost all the sixty six murder mysteries and some of the short story collections that she wrote in her life time, lining my book shelf back home in Pune. I also have most of the books that she wrote under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott and these are rather autobiographical in nature. This fact comes to light when one reads Christie's autobiography, titled just that! I remember I had bought that particular book just before my then four year old daughter and I embarked on our journey to Dar Es Salaam, where my husband was based. I like to have a thick book in hand while travelling. Then the many waits and the delays that are inevitable during a journey cease to affect me because I am too busy reading!
On this occasion, when we reached Dar, my immediate neighbour kindly offered to send lunch so I could recoup after a night of travelling with a young child. I eagerly and gratefully accepted, not because I was too tired to cook, but because it meant uninterrupted Christie Autobiography time! I spent the rest of the day immersed in her life of more than a hundred years ago and finally finished it by evening! The delicious lunch my neighbour sent us went well with the book!
Agatha was born to a British mother and an American father. Was that the reason, I wondered, that the American school library has so many of her books? They certainly don't seem to patronize other British authors! Or is it because she is in the Guinness Book Of World Records as the world's best selling author? Her works are at number three in the most widely published books list, coming in behind only the Bible and William Shakespeare. She is also the author of the longest running play ever, the Mousetrap.
Two years ago the High School Drama group had performed one of her plays in the children's school. It was the first time I had ever seen a Christie play being performed. This one was based on her book 'An Appointment With Death' and I was enthralled. Agatha was clever to tweak the endings of the plays that were based on her books so that her fans had to go out and watch the play even if they had read the book because the murderer was a different person altogether! The drama sets transported us to Petra near Jordan and we rapidly forgot that it was school children that we were watching, as they enacted and brought to life Christie's well fleshed out characters. I wanted to write about her and the play then, hard core fan that I am. I wrote it out in my head but never got around to putting it into cyber space. I am doing it now, two years after the play , triggered by the book in my son's hand and the article in the paper! May be, deep down, I believed it would be terrible presumptuous of me to write about this widely acclaimed, record breaking author who was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1971.
I have lovely memories of staying up till 4:00 am in the school holidays, reading a new Christie book, simply because I could not bear to sleep till I found out 'who done it'! I have memories of buying her books at railway stations scattered across the length and breadth of India from A.H Wheeler book stalls! The Times Of India article says these book stalls still sell her books!  Like a plane journey, what's a train journey without a good book in your hand?
Her books take us back to a long forgotten era of trains that ran on time, (4:50 from Paddington), of elderly women shopping at the Army And Navy Stores in London and gardening on their knees in well laid out gardens, all the while keeping a sharp watch on the neighbourhood,(Miss.Jane Marple), of lavishly served ten course meals,( Dead Man's Folly), Of Christmas being celebrated the old fashioned way,(Adventure Of A Christmas Pudding), and an era when affairs and pregnancies were very discreetly hinted at , unlike the throw everything in your face attitude, seen today.
Hercule Poirot, her most famous Belgian detective is treated as a 'foreigner' in old fashioned England and keeps lapsing into French! This was influenced, perhaps, by Agatha having to leave her childhood home at a young age and travel and live in France with her parents. Her father's income from America had drastically reduced and so it made financial sense for them to lease out their sea side home and stay in France, Staying on the continent then , it is apparent, was cheaper than living in England! Her au pair was a French girl and little Agatha soon became as proficient in French as she was in English.
During the First World War she did her bit for her country by working in the hospital pharmacy and this was when her quick brain absorbed all that knowledge about poisons and chemicals that years later would spew out onto the pages of her books! Agatha Miller, for that was her maiden name, says in her autobiography that she almost ended up marrying the son of close family friends but at the last minute was swept off her feet by dashing Archibald, 'Archie' Christie, whose surname she would later make so famous and who would be the father of her only offspring, her daughter, Rosalind.
Here is an extract from her autobiography where she meets her husband in an attempt to reconcile with him, after he has left her. It is followed by my own take on it, as part of a Creative Writing project I did for a diploma, a couple of years ago.
 "Archie and I met by appointment. He looked ill and tired. We talked of ordinary things and the people we knew. Then I asked him what he felt now; whether he was quite sure that he could not come back to live with Rosalind and me. I said once again that he knew how fond of him she was and how puzzled she had been over his absence."
By the time her husband decided to leave her for another woman, Agatha had already published a few mysteries. Here she indicates her willingness to take her husband back mostly for the sake of her daughter but Archie Christie was too besotted by the other woman to take heed of Agatha’s words. So Agatha began living the life of a single mother and soon began to become more and more successful! I often wonder if Archie would have left her had he known how wildly popular Agatha Christie would become and how much financial success she would enjoy! Agatha Miller, being married, wrote under the name of Agatha Christie as was the norm in those days, but the man who gave her his name, by his own early wrong choice, would never enjoy the fruits of her labour! She, to me, proves you do not need a man’s blessings to succeed in life!
Agatha did  remarry a few years later. Her second husband Max Mallowan, like me, was an archaeologist and many of her subsequent books were based in archaeological excavation sites and around middle eastern towns most of which, unfortunately, today, are in the throes of violent civil war. As a school girl, my already deep interest in this field was further fuelled by all I read in her books! 
This "Grande Dame" of murder died the year I was born and I am so glad I can say I walked or rather crawled, on Earth at the same time as her for a few months at least!
And the book that got my son Addicted to Agatha? 'The Murder At The Vicarge', one of my personal favourites. Well, actually, I just love them all!

                                                (source visual via The Times Of India)

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