The Friday night, 15th Jan, Tollygunge Club. The stage was set and almost all the dignitaries for the evening had already made themselves comfortable. A few minutes after the clock struck 7, a sophisticated lady went up on the stage, to welcome the guests, sipping on red wine. Just when she gave up on the social niceties, seemingly drowsy from the wine running in her nerves, suddenly after barely having raised the guests a toast, she choked, to everyone’s horror. Aye, she choked, clutched her throat and staggered right in the middle of the stage! Some dignitaries panicked, some rushed ahead to inspect the collapsed lady and then! A gentleman made an entry, butler-style and announced, oh-so-calmly, that it seems the lady has been poisoned. But fortunately, the antidote to that poison and many similar poisons can now be found in a novel (to be revealed later in the evening) and thus the life of the lady had been saved! While people were caught in a perilous dilemma of whether to exhale in relief or roll back in laughter or just be simply embarrassed by their panicked reactions, the lady in question, with a little help, from the gentleman-cum-butler, strode down from the stage, nodding her head disbelievingly. A loud round of applause and there went the start of the session, entitled “Bloody Scotland and Dame Agatha” held by Apeejay Kolkata Literary Fest 2016, in true Agatha Christie flair, to pay homage to the 125 years of the Grand Old Dame. If the start was anything to go by, the release of Kathryn Harkup’s novel “A Is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie”, with attendance by the lady herself, Dom Hastings, the director of the Bloody Scotland Crime Writers Festival Stirling (to be held from 9-11th September, 2016) and Miss Anuja Chauhan, the lady behind all the great commercials, especially ‘Yeh Dil Maange More’ of Pepsi and a great novelist as well, with the likes of The Zoya Factor, Those Pricey Thakur Girls and such to glow in pride, made the evening all the more better!
Moderated by Sumit Ray, the session opened with Kathryn lauding Agatha Christie’s amazing quality of brilliantly putting scientific elements in the book. The desire to prove justice to her scientific-ness, creativeness and intelligence, was at the back of Kathryn’s mind while writing the novel on Agatha Christie, whom she quoted saying, being the greatest novelist of all time, only to be outbid by Shakespeare and the Bible. On being asked to describe Agatha Christie, Kathryn called her an entertainer. Not only she solves brilliant puzzles, she proves forward little intellectual challenges. Dom expressed his choice of Christie for the timeless classic element of & in her stories, no matter whether you have heard it or read it. Anuja exclaimed saying, Christie gets everything so bang on, even the science as well! Christie could be given any genres and she’d make it ring so very true!
In response to the question that why crime writing as a genre is still popular and what is that still intrigues people, Dom, the director of a crime-writing festival himself, simply put it down saying, “we live in a world of crimes.” Kathryn took it up a step further, saying, it is apparently easy, in fact, frighteningly easy to kill a person. What led a person to commit such a thing is something to figure out. The human psyche and the compulsive nature of it is what is intriguing. Anuja described a whodunit as ‘who does it’ and it is precisely the “propulsive thrust” of any genre, that leads us to reading the same. In fact, it is the ‘little abode’, that is a lovely satisfaction to receive, at the end of a whodunit.
On her justification of using poisons and their applications as the theme of her novel, Kathryn said, her role as a chemist (Yes, she is one!) could make her understand what a poison could do to a person, which was scientifically intriguing and besides, just for the sheer entertainment of it. As of getting all the alphabets of all the poisons (Christie had used 30 different compounds as poisons in her novels!) and whether she intended to take the alphabet series forward, Kathryn was quoted saying, it was a challenge, that unfortunately she is done away with, at the moment. It is otherwise just so exotic. On her interest behind the usage of poisons in her novel, she goes to give the definition of poison as a compound that changes everything in a body. Likewise, she calls everything a poison and thus her interest behind using ‘em. (She even says, too much of a water is a poison as well. Oh my!)
Anuja, on being asked of the lack of visibility of Indian authors in the crime-writing genre, responded saying that Christie’s books are just so available and the bar is just so high (echoing Kathryn’s similar views), that maybe the Indian authors are afraid to tread in on that genre. In fact, Christie herself was an inspiration behind Anuja’s writing of novels and her construction of strong women characters. She wanted to have the power, the control to do anything with the lives of the protagonists. Her choice behind romance as a genre was the propulsive thrust of it, for she loved writing romance and reading ‘em as well, if the book was good enough. Her most interesting response came in the form of how much of her characters are from real life, quoting it as 60%, attributing ‘em as mostly being a result of shameless eavesdropping or just eager personal observations. Most of her characters are from real life, as she finds reality much more strange than the reality itself.
According to Kathryn, the most intriguing poison is Valium, that has such ghastly effects, it is very rarely used, and yet Christie uses it so well. In fact, given that in today’s times, there are antidotes to poisons available, but they are antidote in the sense that they can only correct the symptoms, and not really heal the person himself. In fact, she expresses her awe at Christie’s ability to talk and use those poisons in her books ably, almost 50 years before their application became widely talked-about.
On their choice as their most favorite Agatha Christie novel, Dom chooses the novel Murder on the Orient Express as a classic novel. While both Anuja and Kathryn concur on Five Little Pigs as their favourite novel, but on being asked to choose her most favourite, she chose the novel And Then There Were None as her favourite. And last but not the least, with Black Coffee being moderator Sumit Ray’s favourite, let’s just raise a toast to the Grand Old Dame with our own dose of caffeine! Un-poisoned one, of course. *wink wink*