“This is the story of a wife, a daughter, a daughter-in-law, a grand daughter who entered a family, believing them and embracing them as their own,” writes Anantha.
We look up at the sky in the night, a dark canvas studded with stars. We build stories around the stars and let our imaginations run wild. They are called constellations by astronomers; the believers personify them as angels. For the bereft, they embody the loved ones whom they have lost and are now smiling down at them from the sky.
One little girl Mira imagines that the stars are the bejeweled sequins studded on her mother’s saree, which is draped like a canvas over the night sky.
The Alchemy of Secrets, a brilliant debut novel by Priya Balasubramanian, revolves around Mira, who loses her mother in infancy and is raised by her grandmother, her uncle and aunt in a quaint little neighborhood in cosmopolitan Bangalore. She later relocates to US to move in with her father and her step-mother and is living a quiet life there, until one day she gets a phone call from Bangalore that her grand- mother is on her death bed.
Flurry of thoughts from the past flood her head, the lazy summers, her childhood friends, her teenage crush, her grandmother’s orthodox yet liberal beliefs, her aunt’s savory snacks and then the fatal night which blew it all, but nothing prepares her for the story of her grandmother’s past and the venomous secret the old lady was about to reveal lying on her death bed.
What could that deadly secret which is capable of turning someone’s life upside down, be? What is the sudden urgency, that the mind seeks to unburden before the body breathes its last? Can it be the answer to the complex riddle which people have been trying to solve for ages? Is it a balm to clear one’s own conscience, or is it a thorn to get rid of, before the final journey?
Is this really an Alchemy, a magic potion, which can cure the society of a disease? A disease inflicted by religious divide, lust, greed and political power. A poison which can break a child’s dream and a woman’s pride. A venom which can separate two friends, two lovers and two religions.
Set in the backdrop of murky politics, the plot shifts back and forth over a span of seven decades. Mira’s grandfather, Mr. Srinivas Murthy is a true Gandhian and a freedom fighter. He marries a beautiful girl Meenakshi who bears him two sons, Girish and Kishore. Girish joins politics after his father’s death and is looking for an ambitious opportunity for a ticket in the Chief Minister’s office. Kishore, studies hard, marries and then flies abroad on a job. After his wife’s death, his mother Meenakshi, and his brother Girish take charge of raising up his only daughter Mira.
Mira’s childhood is as dreamy as it could ever get. She is pampered by her Ajji (grandmother), uncle and aunt. Her best friend is her Muslim neighbor Anisa, whose family considers Mira as their own daughter. Despite the religious differences, the two families live in harmony. It comes as such a surprise that Ajji, so orthodox and rigid in her beliefs, treats Anisa as her own daughter and takes her to temples and feeds her delicious food. Anisa and Mira watch Yakshagaana together, celebrate both Ganesha festival(or, Ganesh Chaturthi) and Ramadaan with equal zest and fervor. The Neer Dosa and meat Biryani are served with equal love and both the families are liberal to grant the freedom to the daughters to do what they like.
The reader is in for an even more pleasant surprise when Mira gets attracted to Anisa’s young uncle, Adil, who is four years older to them. Those brief glances and subtle cues are sur to melt anyone’s heart away. The reader just wishes that the romance would continue a little longer, but fate shows up with its ugly fangs just in time to spoil their budding love.
Mira’s uncle is launching a political campaign for a potential deputy Chief Minister candidate, who desires to rope in a right-wing Hindu activist, a religious God -man, to strengthen their party’s chances to win the elections. This Godman promotes hate speeches against other religions, and is rigid on his views about feminism. One fatal day, when one of his goons, who is infatuated with Mira, spots her and Adil together, and all hell break loose.
Infatuation leads to rejection, which develops into religious hatred. One night, when Mira and Anisa are walking down the quiet lanes of Bangalore, a fatal incident ruins their lives and Mira hears the words “shameless like her mother”.
Distraught and shocked, Mira is taken back home and is sent to her father to US in haste by her Ajji. But after a few years, when fate plans Mira’s tryst with Ajji’s past, she finally understands why her childhood was so dreamy and accommodative.
Set in the fictional picturesque town of Malehalli in North Karnataka, Ajji’s past narrates a detail account of the Indian Independence, the Hindu Muslim riots during the partition, Gandhi’s assassination and later the period of emergency during Indira Gandhi’s rule. Mira’s grandfather, Srinivasa Murthy is a dedicated Gandhian reformist who insists that his bride wears Khadi for the wedding. He also vehemently condemns the caste system. He is very attached to Mahatma Gandhi and dies the same day Gandhi was assassinated.
Ajji is critical towards Gandhian values because her husband puts their domestic happiness and her own conservative value system at stake. When her husband dies, her anger towards Gandhi increases more and she seeks shelter in her orthodox beliefs. When a young and rising politician comes to their house to seek her blessings, she sends her older son Girish to join his political wing. Girish is then introduced to the ugly face of Indian politics, which does not spare anyone. Slowly and steadily, he loses all his value system and starts putting lives at stake. He cheats on his dutiful wife Vimla and keeps a mistress. Without any conscience, he turns into a slave dog doing all the dirty work of the wily politician. With his immoral ways, he manages to earn a stable income with which he tends his family.
The younger son Kishore goes to college and falls in love with a Christian Orphan, Radhika, which does not go very well with Ajji and her orthodox values. When Radhika marries Kishore and enters the household, hell breaks loose. Even after Radhika gives birth to Mira, the arrival of the baby does not diffuse the tension in the house. Radhika becomes a damsel in distress and one day, she disappears. The reason and motive behind her disappearance is the mystery around which this book is based.
Author and narrative Style
The book grips the reader right from the first page and it is impossible to put it down even across the widened plot transitions from Mira’s dreamy childhood to the gory past. The author says that one of the key aspects of writing a good book is to weave the story with beautiful sentences. This book is a piece of art, and the words are both lyrical and soulful.
The charm of Bengaluru runs in the background as an undercurrent throughout the book. The bustling streets filled with flower sellers and vegetable vendors, a temple on a hill top in the middle of the city, an old theater decorated with big posters of the upcoming movies, the city’s central library is seeped in the essence of the city. Dialogues brimming with salutations and greetings in Kannada, the liberal mention of the local savories, the customs, rituals and little traditions speak volumes of the culture of the city. The book has a touch of the authentic local Bengaluru to it.
The changing political landscape of our country, right from the struggle for Indian Independence to the current Hindu- Muslim divide is also prevalent throughout the book. The perception and the reaction of two middle class families, one Hindu and one Muslim, to the changing political circumstances makes it a very interesting read.
The tender love and the softness of the romance between Mira and Adil is so nicely captured that at one point of time you really wonder how beautiful the story would be, had it been a romance novel. It is rare for such love to be described in such tender and precious words in recent literature.
But the author has no intentions to weave a romantic fairy tale. Like a roller coaster, she first takes the readers through the up-hill smooth ride to glimpse the beautiful views before plunging deep into the sea of miseries. The very words which can take the reader into a dream world can also rip their soul apart. They will shatter one and break one’s heart.
To summarize, the power of the words and the choice of the language are the key strengths of this book. The reader will first rejoice and later bleed, it is a very interesting situation to be in where we experience both elation and dejection in the same book.
People who have lost their morals can go to any extent to cover up their faults. They cannot be condoned. But what about those people who supposedly lead a principled life, hiding their jealousy and ego behind the veil of caste and social dignity? In the name of tradition, caste and gender, people step up the social ladder, trampling the lives of those underneath them. This is the story of Mira and her mother Radhika, who were victims of the social order of our conservative society. This is the story of a wife, a daughter, a daughter-in-law, a grand daughter who entered a family, believing them and embracing them as their own. But what we see towards the end are two women, who are deceived by those whom they value the most. In the end, what remains is that bejeweled Sequin saree, draped like a canvas over the sky, smiling down at all of us. And you can only pray that it stays there, unscathed and unharmed by the impurities of this world anymore.
Anantha is an IT Professional. Writing is her passion. She writes short stories, book reviews, movie reviews, small stories for children and play scripts for the theater. She regularly conducts storytelling workshops for children.
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