With its welcome freshness of perspective, Bulbul Sharma’s Murder at the Happy Home for the Aged turns an intimate gaze on society’s flawed perceptions of old age through a simple yet compelling story.
The smug poise of a makeshift retirement home in Goa is shattered when a body is discovered in its garden. Driven by a clumsy curiosity, the five elderly inhabitants of the Happy Home for The Aged — Rosie, Deven, Prema, Cyrilo and Yuri — decide to put on their detective hats and probe the events that have disrupted the calm rhythm of their lives.
Although the premise of the novel is refreshingly straightforward, it isn’t entirely original. A similar motif was used in the American crime drama television series Murder, She Wrote. Nevertheless, the concept settles comfortably into Sharma’s narrative because her characters and their idiosyncrasies have the power to evoke empathy. The five amateur detectives are memorable because their pathos and determination in battling the frailties of old age is conveyed with candour.
Their remarkable ability to enthral readers with their wit and talent never flags. At times, however, they do expose their deepest vulnerabilities and allow their unconfined loneliness to bubble to the surface. Sharma’s warm and attentive style makes it difficult for these characters to become mere caricatures that are often seen in a crime fiction novel. Through prose that is vivid and dialogue that is fresh, she challenges stereotypes with care. For instance, Inspector Chand’s disdainful advice that the five inhabitant stick to singing bhajans (a devotional song) rather than solving crimes, is repeatedly proved wrong at every critical juncture of the book.
Murder at the Happy Home for the Aged skillfully renders the pain and pressures of growing old, and marries them with the desire for respect and dignity. In their clumsy endeavour to solve a mystery, the novel’s five amateur detectives are able to elbow away their unresolved emotions and derive some measure of optimism.
“It was an unwritten rule that none of them asked each other why they chose to live here instead of with their families,” Sharma writes. “It was assumed that the subject was too painful to discuss, a dark, hurtful thing they had pushed to a remote corner of their minds.”
One crucial ingredient in Sharma’s novel is its sense of place. Goa, a popular tourist spot in India, has a sordid and seedy side that is open to dark possibilities. Murder at the Happy Home for the Aged builds on this image to create a strong and enigmatic setting.
But the author’s preoccupation with recreating the locale through near-sociological explanations often give rise to a few compromises. Imbued with Goa’s sights, scents and flavours, the novel resembles a tedious brochure. These intricate descriptions slow down the pace of the book and compel readers to skim through reams of unnecessary details.
The second chapter, which is filled with historical information about Goa and the Happy Home for The Aged, appears long and monotonous. It seems that the author has used this section of the novel to construct the setting and foreshadow the elements of mystery that dominate the narrative. Such attempts are akin to unwanted roadblocks that interrupt the flow of the story and interfere with the suspenseful nature of the book.
Unlike most murder mysteries, Sharma’s novel is practically devoid of cliffhangers and blood-curdling drama. Even shocking events are presented in a meandering — almost ineffectual — manner that makes the reader lose interest in the story. While the author has insisted that Murder at the Happy Home for the Aged is little more than a “cosy murder mystery”, some critical ingredients are lacking in the book. At several points in the novel, the plot sags and loses its sheen. There are moments in the novel when the narrative is delivered through raw and reflective passages that do little to make the story come alive.
Another problem that emerges is that Olga, the villain of the story, is much too stereotypical to be a chilling reminder of Sherlock’s Moriarty. In fact, Olga’s character seems to reinforce the clichéd idea of a self-serving temptress without adding any semblance of nuance or flair. Propelled by motives that are far from unique, Olga leads the narrative towards its inevitable, if not predictable, denouement.
But the author manages to salvage the reader’s interest through the characters that run parallel to the five main heroes of the story. Maria, the thirty-something owner of the Happy Home for The Aged, and Leela, her teenage helper, are an unmistakable presence throughout the novel. Their sundry aspirations add a touch of nuance to the narrative and remind the reader that Murder at the Happy Home for the Aged isn’t just another run-of-the-mill crime novel.
Maria’s isolation and despair mirrors the sadness that lurks in the hearts of the home’s five inhabitants. On one level, she appears to be an anomaly in the story with her romantic exploits and unfulfilled dreams. On another, Maria has an important role to play in diffusing the tension and taking the story to its conclusion. She guides the amateur detectives and solidifies their strategies with her sensitive and strong sense of judgment.
In prose that soars and fizzes with dark, distressing truths about aging, Murder at the Happy Home for the Aged tells the deliciously disturbing story of the not-so-famous five who are no longer in the mainstream for seemingly flawed reasons.
Murder at the Happy Home for the Aged Author: Bulbul Sharma
Publisher: Penguin India