Review: Murder at the Happy Home for the Aged by Bulbul Sharma
A body is found hanging from the tree in the garden of an old age home in Goa and it gives the bored residents something to do. The premise is a good one and with a series of publications behind her, Bulbul Sharma’s book promises to be a good airport read. And then it turns into one of those bizarre Tinder-date type experiences which looking back makes you wonder why you went through with it. Tinder sets out a perfectly straightforward premise. It is an unfussy dating app and if you hook up with someone on it you can expect a good, clean one-night stand with no complications and no fuss. The book is in that space or at least that is how it’s presented. And then like a man who knows nothing about foreplay but artlessly drops his clothes and expects you to be impressed just by the fact of his existence, Bulbul Sharma presents a cast of characters that do nothing to your imagination.
The most cliched in the book are the two Russian characters, Yuri and Olga. You don’t know much about them except that they do drugs, are mixed up with the mafia and dream of getting rich or getting laid or both. “Olga…had to wash her hands at least twenty times a day. She was afraid of catching an infection in India if her hands became dirty,” Sharma writes. To round off, she adds – “Once she got this idiot to marry her, she could flee to England and she would not have to wash her hands any more.”
The back story of the other Russian is more entertaining not only because of the cardboard cut-out character but the adjectives: “The war had ended long ago, taking his father and uncles in its cruel, bloodthirsty jaws, but the people of Russia were still starving. Yuri’s mother had brought him and his younger brother to the old hut that had once belonged to her parents, who were both dead – killed by bandits who had stormed the country, looting and murdering people. They thought they would starve to death, but suddenly everything became alright…”
By this point, you decide to read the book either out of basic politeness to yourself for having bought it and perhaps being stuck on a plane or in a meeting that has not yet begun. Or perhaps just out of sheer curiosity, since there is a murder that has taken place on the very first page. And I urge you to power on as you would if you were watching Ek Tha Tiger or most any Rajnikant film. The suspension of disbelief has the magical ability to transport you out of almost any emotional state and on this, the book does deliver. I am placing my favourite scenarios here in order of preference. The one I like most appears at the end of the book. “Before she hit the ground she threw a handful of chilli powder in the air. It made a rainbow of red, orange and crimson as it flew in an arc over the car. Her head hit the ground…” A close second appears just a few lines later and is part of the same drama that unfolds after the chilli rainbow. “…The crows began to screech hysterically as if they had been shot, though the bullet was wedged in the roof of the car.”
Here’s another from the middle of the book. The thing to notice here apart from the obvious surreal charm is the pacing of the scenario. “ ‘Oh! Good. He is alive.’ Prema pulled his toe again. ‘Have some amla juice, Yuri.’ ”
And then for the aficionados, there is the romantic-bizarre. It makes me envious as hell, this one because I do realize that it can only happen in Sharma’s magic-real prose. “The trees smiled down at them and the frogs croaked suddenly, as if they were offering congratulations.”
Some of the descriptions, I guarantee will produce a sensory potpourri unlike anything on or off Tinder. “The little van hiccupped, breaking the afternoon silence.” And also, this. “When we brown people die you can tell at once but one can never be sure with these foreigners.” There are many precious moments where you feel like Sharma must have been inspired by Keats’s Ode to A Nightingale and lines such as, “beaded bubbles winking at the brim.” What she wrote instead was this. “A chandelier with pieces of shining glass leaves winked at her from the ceiling.”
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There are moments in the book, especially in the first half, where you do see Sharma start an interesting thought or two on the predicament of people growing old and the macabre way in which a murder brings purpose and urgency back into their lives. If only she had rounded off her characters and not reduced Goa to cliches and little nuggets of Wikipedia-type inserts of information, it could have been a really gripping book. Now, it is entertaining mostly for the wrong reasons as, “life shimmered in front of her like a mountain,” and “Ziriko hardly ever spoke and only grunted out short replies but he sang all the time.”
Bulbul Sharma may never have been on Tinder. But I have and I can absolutely swear that this is what it feels like. A bit shimmery with a few grunts thrown in.
Revati Laul is an independent journalist and film maker based out of Delhi, who tweets @revatilaul