BOOK EXCERPT

The residents of an old age home in Goa band together to solve a mysterious death in this novel

When a body is found hanging in the garden of an old age home, the unlikeliest detectives in Goa get to the case in Bulbul Sharma’s new murder mystery novel.

Deven spread out a large sheet of paper on the table as the others watched. They were sitting around the dining table, not eating for once but discussing the murder. Deven had declared he was in charge and when no one protested he appointed Rosie as his assistant. Prema was not pleased at all but after giving Rosie a dark look as if to say, “You wait and see what I do to you”, she kept quiet. Maria had agreed to help them, though she was not sure how. “You get information from the inspector for us. He is so infatuated by you and will tell you every detail of the case,” Rosie told her. Maria was surprised to see the sparkle in her faded eyes.

Cyrilo had already been to the village and found out from the grocer that the dead woman was a stranger and no one knew where she had come from. A few people said they had seen her driving around in a big car but they hadn’t spoken to her.

“Why should we? We have nothing to do with her kind of people,” they said. “They come and go like summer flies. Why should we care?”

“I asked everyone at the market too but they said they had never seen her in Trionim before this summer. The grocer said a rich woman had come last week to his shop to order a large quantity of bottled water and five family packs of ice cream but sat in the car the whole time so he didn’t get a good look at her face. The driver paid and he could hear her scolding him in Hindi for taking so long. She used some really good abuses which the grocer hadn’t heard before. He was quite impressed. She was the only stranger around here except for the foreign tourists hanging about near the beach,” said Cyrilo. “Imagine buying five family packs of ice cream in one go.”

“So at the moment we don’t have anything to start with except this.” Deven wrote the following down in bold letters.

  1. Woman found dead in Happy Home (hanging from mango tree)
  2. Woman’s identity not known but could be from Delhi
  3. Seems to be very rich

“Why Delhi? How can you be so sure?” asked Yuri. He had not yet told them about the photograph. He wanted to see it once more and then reveal it but he could only do that if Olga called him to the villa. Maybe he would go and hang about there. If that Rana fellow came out, he could always pretend to be a Russian tourist looking for a hotel.

“I know why you wrote that. You think she’s from Delhi because she spoke in Hindi and abused the driver. Only people from Delhi are so free with bad words,” said Prema, giving them a gleeful smirk.

“You should know, since you are from Delhi,” muttered Rosie, keeping her voice low. She knew that Prema was hard of hearing and the barb would not reach her.

“I heard what you said, Rosie. I may be from Delhi but I come from a very respectable family. My father was a senior officer in the railways,” said Prema.

“My father was also in the railways,” said Rosie.

“Well, I’m sure he was a railway guard. My father was the station manager in Saharanpur. We always travelled first class. Our cook travelled with us in second class,” Prema retorted.

Rosie kept quiet. Her father was indeed a railway guard and she wondered how Prema had known. He was a brave, honest guard and had been awarded a medal by the local mayor once. She wondered if she should tell Prema that and shut her up.

“If you ladies have finished telling us your family history, may I continue?” asked Deven, looking at them sternly like a schoolteacher. His glasses were perched on his nose and his eyes looked very bright.

“Inspector Chand told me that the woman had been drugged and then killed. She was already dead when they brought her here. It was definitely murder. The body has been sent to Panjim to a forensic team,” said Maria, looking at them. She thought it was very brave of them to help solve the crime but she felt uneasy. Should she allow them to get involved? What if they got hurt? What if the killer was still around? But she had never seen them look so happy and excited. They had huddled together all day talking to each other, planning things. It was sad that an unfortunate woman’s death had brought them together but that was what life was like when you got so old.

At their age, anything – a broken-down car, a petty theft, a funeral and even a death – was exciting. It broke the monotony of their everyday lives.

One day she too would become like them and get a thrill every time she heard of a death in the neighbourhood.

“MURDER.” Deven wrote this in big, bold letters and looked at them. “I knew that for sure. I knew it was murder the moment I saw the body. I noticed her fingers were badly bruised. She must have put up a fight,” he said quietly.

“Write that down too,” said Yuri. “What for?” asked Cyrilo.

“Just like that. It’ll fill up the sheet a little bit. I hate seeing a blank sheet,” he said.

“Maybe you can draw a dead body hanging from a tree.” Prema threw him a nasty look.

“Good idea. Here, take my pen,” said Cyrilo with a smile, sliding his pen towards Yuri, who quickly picked it up. He began to draw a long, wavering line.

Deven snatched the pen away. “Don’t be idiotic, you two,” he said angrily. “We must draw up a plan. Enough of this rubbish talk. I will give each of you a task and you must report back to me in the evening. You have to talk to people, find out every little detail. We must follow each clue and link them all together to reach a conclusion. The most important thing is to find a person with a motive. Who gained from this woman’s death? We also have to find the boy who saw the body first. He could lead us to other people. Someone must have seen the body being brought into the garden of the Happy Home at night. We have to do this very carefully. I don’t want any of you to make mistakes.” He glared at them.

“He thinks he’s back in his office and we are his employees,” whispered Rosie to Cyrilo and giggled. Deven was suddenly looking taller and smarter, like a general in the army. Rosie smiled at him, twisting her curls with her fingers and thinking that marrying for the third time might not be a bad idea.

Excerpted with permission from Murder at the Happy Home for the Aged, Bulbul Sharma, Penguin Random House India.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.