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An Agatha Christie mystery on the Kerala backwaters

Image: Getty Images/ iStock

Image: Getty Images/ iStock  

Christie’s ghost continues to haunt people who are continents away from her prim English countryside

Twelve of us, gathered for a weekend of books at a homestay on the Kerala backwaters. Coconut palms rise into an azure sky, a houseboat’s moored to the jetty, a yellow hammock’s strung across trees. Now all we need is a murder, à la Agatha Christie.

High above the coconut palms a Brahminy kite soars and dives, and on the water, herons skim over the hyacinths. Less than a kilometre away in the wetlands is the notorious Cerbera odollam tree, whose green apple-like fruits cause instant death. On this still sunny early Friday evening in the backwaters, everything seems calm. But calm has never been particularly reassuring in a Christie novel.

I look around at the other 11, and it strikes me how little we know about each other. We could — all of us, anyone — be characters in a Christie novel.

There’s A, whose travels take him for Vienna to Varanasi. In between he makes stopovers at the capital, where the powers-that-be accept files full of market reports from him.

There’s R, who learnt Russian, because he fell in love with Dostoevsky and wanted to read him in the original. A son of the soil, his friends and acquaintances range from Polish, Czech and Canadian fellow students to chess grandmaster Kasparov and possibly even Putin.

Cosmopolitan cast

And D, who interestingly enough, works with the U.S. government, in the Department of Education, holding a position that sounds like the codeword for a spy. D seldom shrinks from speaking her mind. This sometimes draws her into controversy with her northern neighbour, the Canadian. A tall bluff man, hearty. He has a keen knowledge of the country and is well networked, being a member of two book clubs and a regular at little-known conferences. And if this sounds too John le Carré, there’s also the Artist. She travels. Exhibitions in Paris and Dubai this year, in unknown other places coming up next year. Perhaps she is more than what she seems.

The last few to complete this motley mix are the Doctor of Development, the Tech Titan, the Chocolate Man, the Ghost Writer and the CEO. The Doctor of Development is Scandinavian, her work takes her to the smallest districts in India; the Tech Titan’s travels are more international. The Chocolate Man commutes too, weekdays in Singapore, weekends in Mumbai.

Everyone’s read Christie, starting from when we were about 10. Christie, like Enid Blyton, sells more in India than in England. Agatha Christie gave us our first lessons in psychology. We were mesmerised by Miss Marple, the elderly aunt who unerringly sniffs out out homicidal tendencies in a roomful of strangers. Christie gave us the first warnings about false news, with a tutorial on unreliable narrators. And all this complexity in such simple language.

Someone’s missing

Back to the homestay, where teams are being drawn up for a Christie quiz. We realise someone is missing. It is the Ghost Writer.

We call out, we walk to the houseboat moored alongside. If this homestay were an English countryhouse, surely this houseboat would be Dead Man’s Folly. In the Agatha Christie novel of that name, a game of guess-the-murderer turns sinister as a local girl turns up dead.

Thinking about this can spook us out, so we don’t. We call out instead and there she appears, the Ghost Writer. She’s been musing over the murders in And Then There Were None. Her edition looks unfamiliar, because the original had a title deemed racist now. Set on a lonely island, where a group of 10 fall prey to multiple murders, the book was called Ten Little Niggers.

It’s dark by now: dinner has been served. The herons, kites and cormorants have retired for the night, only a frog or two croaks. Time to make our way through the darkness to our bedrooms.To sleep through the night, to come back to appams and coconut chutney for breakfast. And to a complete count of the original 12 of this cast, all alive and arguing still.

The writer is the author of Career Rules: How to Choose Right & Get the Life you Want and founder of the Juhu Book Club.

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Printable version | Feb 22, 2020 12:58:11 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/an-agatha-christie-mystery-on-the-kerala-backwaters/article30821477.ece

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