“The reader, once hooked, wants to know what happens next. (Her books)... deal with myths, fantasies, obsessions shared by people of every sort: quests and conquests, death, sex, money, murder, conspiracy, transformation, power, the triumph of the simple over the complex, the importance of the mundane as well as the cosmic.”
Janet Morgan in Agatha Christie: A Biography
It was as bad as it could get for a teenager, flush with his first boosters of sex hormones. The subtle but steadily accumulating changes in his body, as he entered that supposedly most carefree period of human life, brought along immense desire. Not just the sexual kind. He wanted acceptance.
At a minimum, he wanted an acknowledgement of his existence: people, it seemed to him, looked right through (never at) his emaciated, stick of a body.
He wanted justice: no matter how hard he tried to blend into the august company of ‘good guys,’ he would often find himself at the wrong end of the battering ram, his scrawny palms routinely caned by ruthless teachers game for punishing the whole class for the mistake of a lone ass.
One day, the incorrigible ass, much to the amusement of the backbenchers, squirted a healthy dollop of ink on the Tide-white shirt of our beloved math teacher when his back was turned; King Cobra Sir’s ensuing fury was far worse than his tenuous hold over algebra.
Luckily, it was also the time he discovered three amazing friends. They did everything together: they would pack off to Sundarijal on a whim, run away to Gopi Krishna Hall for the latest Govinda flick, pack in at a friend’s for one of those smoke-filled, alcohol-sleaze-anything-goes jamborees. They studied together before exams.
During exams, they connived to sit (and cheat) together. When one of them suggested that since the four were so close, they should all get married on the same day in similar clothes, the proposal was accepted without second thought.
But what if the likeminded friends all fell for the same girl? ‘By turns!’ The cafeteria resonated with a whoop of carefree laughter.
Yet not everything was fine. Much like him, the other three could not be anything but teens high on testosterone, that they were more likely to gush forth on the birds and the bees than given to sharing the ups and downs of their lives.
The impatience among guys in our class for mush was legendary. He needed a girl he could relate to. Too bad. He never found her.
But he did, one day. In ninth standard, out of sheer whim, he had decided to join the AWON Library at Kupondole. Never an eager reader, his pick of books to the point had been strictly limited to course material.
The reason he was there was that on a previous visit with friends, he had spotted some Tintin and Superman comics. Somehow the images of the fluffy yellow-haired boy-wonder and the weirdo with red underpants over his shiny blue suit had stuck.
On his subsequent visit to the library, he started rifling through the comics section straightaway, and wondered: why had he even bothered?
He wandered about, to the bookracks filled with Nancy Drews, Famous Fives, The Secret Sevens... Kiddish!
After another frustrating trawl around the floor, he settled on a Tintin and a Spiderman. Now was the time to go fetch something from the ‘adult’ section. Utterly lost for options, he dislodged a well-thumbed volume from amidst a jam-packed ‘mystery’ rack: Murder in Mesopotamia.
That night, slumped on his bed, he riffled through the yellowing pages of the novel, the musty aroma of timeworn pulp almost blissful. He then hunkered down.
Before he even realized it, Agatha Christie had hauled him in alright—hook, line and sinker. He could never have imagined someone could read through a whole book at one sitting: page one, two, three, 50 (gasp), 100 (gulp), 150 (this ain’t happening); going, going, Christie numero uno, GONE.
The next day, he got up around eight (having hit the sack at six), ran the couple of kilometers to Seto Pul, boarded one dhunwa-belching Vikram tempo, then another, before finally hopping off at Kupondole. The library was closed. It wouldn’t be opening for the next couple of hours.
He didn’t care. He would happily wait for the whole day—if he could only lay his hands on another Christie. So when at long last the library door swung open, he made a beeline for the third-floor middle-rack jam-packed with the goodies: Dead Man’s Folly, Problem at Pollensa Bay, The Big Four, Cards on the Table, The Mysterious Affairs at Styles... The titillating titles on offer seemed endless.
He was now reading at a stretch for four, five, six hours. He would reel off a book in a day when he had school, two or three when he did not, before tossing them over to his sister, who, a chip off the same old block, was also mesmerized from the word go.
He would fetch AC’s books from every imaginable place: when he had torn through AWON’s by no means puny collection, he scoured bookshops, scanned for dirty old volumes among the secondhand books sold outside the then RNAC building.
It seemed his affair with the mystery queen would never end, but for a little hitch: AC had written just (!) 81 books. He had run through 70, the eleven he could not find, he would later rattle off the rest online.
Those were the times. Whenever he looks back at those tumultuous days, he contemplates the bittersweet stupidities of his youth: that girl he was ready to lay down his life for – if only she would look at him, once, just once, pray, please! – the whoosh of whiplashing canes on his clammy palms, and most memorably, the discovery of Agatha Christie, the first love of his life.