Seventeen-year-old Arun Singh, a Class 12 student of Bhopal’s Delhi Public School, is having an unusually thrilling summer. Starting June 3, Singh, organising secretary of the city’s Club Literati, will lead the Agatha Christie Crime Festival. The curated festival wears its vintage tag on its sleeve in a charming effort to recreate a world light years away from the frenzied landscape of contemporary crime fiction. The sessions – headlined by Christie’s world of poison, Indian cinema’s nod to her novels, the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot and the role of food in her novels – appear geared for a bit of literary criticism and dollops of appreciation of Christie lore in popular culture.
Christie in Bhopal
The festival took Singh four months to plan, with help from his father Vikas and support from the club’s president Seema Raizada. To enable widespread participation from students and professionals, the open-to-all event isn’t limited to a single weekend, but is spread over seven weeks in June and July, with one session every Sunday at half a dozen carefully selected venues in Bhopal.
“There are many literature festivals in the country. There is one festival dedicated to crime writing also. But there is no author specific festival where fans of her writings can come together informally and discuss the work.,” said Singh, who is also a fervent collector of Agatha Christie merchandise, which will act as eye-catching props at the event. “Agatha Christie is hugely popular author in India and her books have never been out of print. At one of the Club Literati meetings we were discussing thrillers and I was surprised to see so many members who had read her. That gave me an idea to start a literature festival dedicated to the queen of crime and mystery.”
Singh, who moved with his family to Bhopal a year ago, has been reading Christie’s crime fiction since he was in Class 8, in a school in Delhi. His first Agatha Christie novel, he remembers, was And Then There Were None. “After that I was hooked for life. Our school library used to be well stocked with her books. The ones they did not have, I used to borrow from my friends or buy. The beauty of her writings is that they are timeless,” he said. “Even today after 90 years, in this digital age, some of her stories can hold you in complete suspense and the unexpected ending still thrills. There are several of her books that I have read again and again.”
“Poison has a certain appeal...It has not the crudeness of the revolver bullet or the blunt weapon,” Christie is known to have said, and so the crime festival will begin on an appropriately ominous note with a discussion on “The Poisonous World of Agatha Christie” at Vivekananda Library. It will focus on poison as the most common choice of weapon in her novels and her extensive knowledge of poison as a nurse and pharmacist. “Her book The Pale Horse documents a case of thallium poisoning, with the exact details of the symptoms as written in medical journals. In a real life case in the ‘70s, in fact, a toddler was saved by a nurse who had read the same book and recognised the symptoms as thallium poisoning,” Singh said.
What to expect
Here are clues to how the next few weekends at Agatha Christie Crime Festival will pan out: “Philately and Agatha Christie” will focus on the large number of stamps, first day covers, and postcards that have been issued based on her novels, with many on display, while a session on “The Belgian Detective” will feature a Poirot quiz (with her novels as the prize, naturally). A book reading and talk on “Trains and Murders” is expected to explore the train as the setting for some of Christie’s novels such as Murder on the Orient Express and The Mystery of the Blue Train. The session will, but of course, be held at the city’s train coach themed restaurant Bhopal Express.
Indian cinema’s connection to the very English world of Christie felt irresistible to both Singh and his father Vikas, and so, “Agatha Christie’s Indian Connection” seemed like it would be an instant crowd pleaser. “The Bollywood session will focus on movies that have been inspired from Agatha Christie’s writings”, Vikas Singh said about the session he will lead at the festival. “The Manoj Kumar-Nanda thriller Gumnaam is inspired from her novel And Then There Were None. The 1973 thriller Dhund is based on Agatha Christie’s play, An Unexpected Guest. The 1997 movie Aar Ya Paar is based on Endless Night. Chupi Chupi Aashey, a 1960 Bengali film starring veteran actor Chabi Biswas was an adaptation of Christie’s stage-play The Mousetrap, the longest running play in the history of plays in the world.”
The there’s Shubho Mahurat, a Bengali adaptation, based on Christie’s novel The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, and Grandmaster, a Malayalam adaptation of The ABC Murders.
Not just another litfest
Unlike other literature festivals, this one will run without panels of experts. All the sessions are planned as small informal gatherings where Christie fans will come together to discuss her novels, Singh said. “In some sessions I will be making the presentations and leading the discussions. Basically the readers themselves are going to be panelists.” To bring the slow-burning suspense-filled summer months to a decadent close, the last event “Food and Crime with Agatha Christie” will be held at the Marriott next month, aiming to be a palate pleaser. It rides on the specificity of food references Christie’s novels, such as:
“It does not matter,” said Poirot, not betraying any sign of disappointment. “Now I want to ask you about something else. There is a saucepan in Mrs. Inglethorp’s room with some coco in it. Did she have that every night?”
“Yes, sir, it was put in her room every evening, and she warmed it up in the night – whenever she fancied it.”
“What was it? Plain coco?”
“Yes, sir, made with milk, with a teaspoonful of sugar, and two teaspoonfuls of rum in it.”— From 'The Mysterious Affair at Styles'
Poirot stopped, and stretched out his hand for another boiled egg. He frowned. “It is really insupportable,” he murmured, “that every hen lays an egg of a different size! What symmetry can there be on the breakfast table? At least they should sort them in dozens at the shop!”— From 'The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim'
“Hercule Poirot was extremely choosy about what he ate and drank. So we have planned a special breakfast spread wherein the menu is completely inspired from her writings,” Singh explained. Expect eggs and cocoa, of course, prepared to a Poirot degree of perfection, the chefs at the hotel having been prepped by Singh. The highlight, however, is meant to be a Death by Chocolate cake, taking off from the Miss Marple novel A Murder is Announced which talks about how to make the cake – “rich, rich, of a melting richness” – labelled “Delicious Death” in the book.
Curating a literary festival is not your run-of-the-mill summer vacation project by any account, and Singh says it has been an exciting few months, “right from planning and creating content for the sessions to designing the festival merchandise and posters, to the tie-ups and arranging the venues to doing publicity.” This includes setting up a Facebook page to going around town sticking up posters at cafes and colleges to get the word out. The festival is financed by Singh’s family. When not buried in a book, the teen can be found dribbling a basketball or dreaming up a career in computer science. Apart from crime fiction, he has great love for Tintin and Asterix comics, with a record collection of Tintin comics in 114 languages which he recently exhibited on World Museum Day. Any hopes pinned on this festival? “I hope to see more members join Club Literati. I also hope that after this event, we will have more author-based, intense literature festivals in the country and not just Page-3 party type festivals. This festival should initiate and lead discussions challenging the status quo.”