At your age you should be singing bhajans, not trying to solve a murder,” an exasperated police officer tells the geriatric residents of the Happy Home for the Aged in the tiny Goan village of Trionim in artist-writer Bulbul Sharma’s new novel, Murder at the Happy Home for the Aged (Penguin, Rs 299). Sharma, 65, however, will tell you that age is really no more than a few physical frailties. When you have a lifetime of experiences behind you, you also acquire the ability to look life in the eye and square up to its designs for the future. And if that includes solving the case of an unidentified body in your front yard, well, so be it!
The idea for the book came to her a little over a year ago in Goa. Sharma would drive past an old age home and watch with admiration the feisty senior citizens who lived there. “I was very impressed by their zest for life. In India, young people are taking over and our society is evolving so fast, what do the elderly do? When I thought about this story, it seemed appropriate that I set it in Goa because I already had my principal cast in place,” says Sharma, when we meet her at her residence in Delhi’s Golf Links. Murder at the Happy Home for the Aged is her first work of fiction in nearly seven years — her last was The Tailor of Giripul (2011) — and her first book since Grey Hornbills at Dusk: Nature Rambles Through Delhi, published in 2014.
This, of course, is not the first time that Sharma has tried her hand at a murder mystery. The Tailor of Giripul, too, involved mayhem in a small Himalayan village and the body count will go up in the book that she is writing at present, set in Simla of the 40s. Even her next book, Love and Learning Under the Magnolia (Westland) that is out in June, has a couple of unresolved deaths, even though it’s about women and literacy. “My stories are cosy murder mysteries — not gory or scary like Scandinavian noir. For me, writing a detective novel is a bit like taking a maths exam. You have to map out the whole thing beforehand and build up a credible mystery. I write at one go and only edit for grammar. For a murder mystery, that does not always work. I wrote this one and then I had to change the ending a little bit, pick up the threads from the characters,” says Sharma.
Most of Sharma’s novels are set out of urban, cosmopolitan cities and that, she says, is by design. She spends a lot of her time out of Delhi, close to nature — three months in Goa, a few more in the hills of Himachal Pradesh in her family’s peach orchard in Shaya village in the Sirmaur district, among other places. As in the city, there, too, she runs art programmes for underprivileged and differently abled children and storytelling and reading projects for their mothers. “I am not interested in the city angst. Once you leave the city, you realize that everything that seemed so important in Delhi doesn’t really matter in those remote hills. There, you are more concerned about when the cow’s going to give birth or if the calf will be male or female. There’s much more love and learning going on there. Even in Siolim, where this book is set, all the city people — and that includes me — are flocking there. Gated communities are coming up on rice fields. There’s bound to be conflict and resentment but the locals are very dignified about the intrusion. These patterns of community life and these interactions between people are very important to my work. I can’t write about the larger life of a nation, I don’t know if I am equipped to, but this is something I can write honestly about,” she says.
When she is not writing, Sharma devotes her time to her artistic career that began with her association with the Garhi artist’s village in the city in the ’70s. Even though she limits herself to commissioned pieces now, Sharma hosts art workshops with neo-literate and differently abled children in the city and across the country. “I really feel that art has the power to let people, especially children, to see things differently. If you leave paint and paper in front of a person, there will be very few people who won’t be tempted to pick up the brush and draw themselves a story,” she says.