The Case of the Missing Asterisks – The Big Four, Agatha Christie; 1/5

(Unobtrusive spoilers ahead)


This book stands somewhere in the middle of the spectrum bookended by Agatha Christie’s interesting And Then There Were None and the morbid The Secret Adversary.


The number 4 appears every four pages “organically” in the story – and if it doesn’t, Poirot draws it on the table because he doesn’t trust Hastings’ memory (and thereby ours).


I yawned every time Poirot elaborates on the powers of the titular group. The chapter where he explains his theory to two high officials and how one of them is convinced right away is a scene straight out of a comedy. I can’t help but wonder how this template of saving the world from a scientific secret society has crossed into this century.


The twists are either too convenient or unbelievable. Considering the stakes throughout the book, the ending felt quite simple and unbelievable.

However, I loved the little subplots and their simple resolutions, especially the one concerning a leg of mutton. These vastly interesting subplots made me wonder if this novel is at the crossroads of not two, but three, of Christie’s formats – Poirot, adventure thrillers, and short stories. Fortunately, she seems to have fleshed each of them as the years rolled by. I’m glad four that.

Amalgamation

The desert wind was howling.
“I sense an omen,” the little boy said to himself.
“Alchemist!” he called the Alchemist.
“I sense an omen. My bladder is full,” he said rubbing his hands below his stomach.
“A call fromb Nature can never be postponeb,” the Alchemist replied, as he tried to turn a handful of sand into food by swallowing it.
The little boy looked around and in a distance there was something that looked like a palm tree. He decided to head there.

“When you desire to pee, the whole universe conspires to stop you!” the old man had said and it was coming true.
He thought of relieving himself then and there, but the old man had also said, “always choose destiny over desire.” So he started walking towards the palm tree.
“Goob-bye!” The Alchemist said.
“Good-bye!” said the little boy.

——-

He could not stop thinking of Preethi, the girl who worked in the same floor as him in Oho, a company that worked in the cloud. Her name was imaginary, he made that up because he was too scared to ask her. “It would have been a breach of her privacy to talk to her,” he assured himself. When he tried to remember what he was pursuing, his bladder ached ever more. “When I go back a successful man, she’s sure to talk to me on her own,” he thought. “Won’t that be a breach of my privacy?” he pondered for sometime as he walked in the direction of the palm tree.

“How you doin’?” It was a familiar voice. As he turned around he saw the Englishman who he’d last seen at the oasis. “Yo!” he said.
“Hi! Did you find your Philosopher’s stone?” the little boy asked, his bloodshot eyes twinkling with curiosity as he struggled to hold his bladder.
“Nope. I discovered that my interest was in music. I’m a fullmetal alchemist now,” he replied with a wink. He was wearing a strange thing over his ears, which gave out a faint sound which the boy thought was the work of the devil.
“Why do you look so troubled?” The Englishman asked him, secretly happy that the boy was in trouble. ‘That stupid Alchemist,’ he cursed inside his head.
The boy spoke in the Universal Language – which is to raise one’s pinky finger, and shake it as much as he wanted to pee. The little boy created a small swirl-wind with his pinky finger, trying to convey his trouble to the man.
“There’s a toilet around here somewhere,” the Englishman said, suddenly feeling the need to relieve himself.
The Englishman tried to think. But he came up with a suggestion instead.
“You speak the Language of the World from your heart. Why don’t you ask God himself?”
The boy was amazed. This idea had not occurred to him.

———

The boy contacted God through the Soul of the World.
“Hello!” he said to God.
“Hello, who’s this?” God replied.
The boy was stunned. “Doesn’t He know my name?”
“How may I help you?” God asked next.
“I want to know where…” the boy stopped midway as the sandstorm howled louder across the desert.
“Good God!”
“I can’t hear him,” he said to the Englishman.
“Well, then, try this.” The Englishman offered an iPhone X from his bag. He called God and gave the boy the earphone.
The little boy was scared but once the Englishman helped him, he could hear the ringing.
“Hello, shepherd boy!” God said.
“How did you know me now?”
“Well this app is really good. This shows your entire life here down to every deed, good or bad, and it takes care of rewards and punishments. Now it’s not like the old times when I’d accidentally mix up the names and award people cancer, or IBS, or enlightenment incorrectly. Credit to these genius developers. The setting up required a lot of support–,” God replied.
“I want to know where the nearest restroom is,” the boy cut in.
“Well, man. Just think of the difference it has made. No more unfairness in the world thanks to this new app. The world has gotten fair. At least, that’s what the exit interviews say.”
The boy was of the feeling that there was a grain of worry in God’s voice.
God continued, “Look at what humans are doing. I wish I was more productive. I wish I’d thought of these simple app ideas in all the eons of free time I had. Can’t blame myself, though. I had a lonely, orphaned childhood.”
He continued lamenting for sometime.
The boy gathered his courage, “Can’t you stop complaining. You’ve got everything,” the boy said.
“Same to you,” God said and hung up.

————
“What he was trying to teach me was inconclusive,” the boy said, as he was relieving himself. He looked at the palm tree in the distance.
It must be a mirage, he convinced himself.
“Well… I’ve come up with something that makes your life infinitely more easier and it’s very simple to remember,” the Englishman said pissing beside the boy.
“The best way to live life is to live life,” he said. “It means to do whatever you wish to do at all your phases. Make the mistakes you’re supposed to make…”
“What about worrying then? Should we worry?”
“Yes,” he said, but doubtfully.
He started after relieving, “Well one should not worry for more than 3 days for anything. For the death of a human it shallt not exceed a month and for the death of a pet no more than a year. Oh! It ain’t simple ain’t it?”

At these words, the little boy ran towards the palm tree without bothering to zip.

Greying

The barber, in whose salon I had to wait for hours for my turn as a kid, was seated forlorn on the bench. The walls must’ve been painted recently, and the place looked even more spacious which I remarked to him as soon as I entered. Right after I settled in the salon chair, he asked me why I don’t come to the salon these days. He said it must be around four years. I dodged it with a lame excuse.

Wrapping the hairdressing robe around me, he began narrating what I believe was a slightly fictionised tale of how a school-going kid went to one of those fancy, air-conditioned salons, got a fancy haircut, and was almost thrown out of school. He was of the opinion that these air-conditioned salons were only cheating people. They have a TV, a sofa, but aren’t the scissors the same, was his argument. He seemed like a critic of the undercut too.

I paid him with a hundred-rupee note, asked him how much and he said 80. As if there weren’t enough dilemmas in life, I began working out how cheaper this was compared to the air-conditioned one I’ve been going to for the past four or so years and if the difference was significant. He must’ve sensed this.

“Is it too much? Tell me if it’s too much -“

“60 or 70 would be reasonable,” I mumbled.

He didn’t seem to hear it.

“Is it too much? If it’s too much I can-“

“No, no. It’s fine.”

I realized the salon wasn’t the same place it was years ago. Back then, it was a messier place with loose newspaper sheets shared by people occupying every inch of the bench. It was a real frustration to wait. Today, it looks newer, cleaner and more spacious. While that salon of yesteryear felt all young and alive, this one feels like it is greying.

Tonight’s the night

Into a hundred nights
I have stared
But not once
Did nights repeat.

All these terrestrial stars
Have their images
Stretched as far
As the brink of lakes.

All the celestial ones
Play peekaboo
Tearing the night and
Hiding in darkness.

Tonight’s the night
That is dearest of all
Tonight’s the night
The wind won’t stall.

These moving images
The mind wants stopped
To rest with one
And etch it forever.

The distant clouds
Are moody and dark
In so many ways
Like the stuff of dreams.

Tonight’s the night
This music was born
Tonight’s the night
Thoughts took form.