Volatile Reactions

The Alchemy of Secrets, by Priya Balasubramanian

Originally published in Biblio India.

I read The Alchemy of Secrets on the first really scorching day of India’s nationwide Covid-19 lockdown, feeling dehydrated, irritable and headachy. At a time when everything else passing before of my eyes—the news, the Twitter news, the creative ferment on Instagram—seemed to demand immediate attention, all I really wanted to read was something completely escapist. A fat French Restoration novel about class and frivolous love affairs maybe. Or a gentle food memoir from the first half of the last century. Something as remote as possible from the approaching pandemic, the badly botched lockdown, or the months of communal violence, particularly in Delhi, that have preceded these current crises. To escape is a privilege of course, but on some days reading about India’s trash mountain of problems feels especially futile, doing nothing to mitigate that privilege.

I was not encouraged by the inadvertent (or savvy) echoes of both The Alchemist and The Secret in the title. Yet once I started reading, I couldn’t stop, despite not wanting to hear another word about all-too-familiar strains of violence and oppression. That I kept turning pages is a testament to Balasubramanian’s writing skills, and the amount of labour that went into her debut novel.

Completed over ten years (Balasubramanian is a California-based doctor, who also produced a couple of kids in the interim), The Alchemy of Secrets is 300 pages long, and a quick read thanks to its careful structure. Balasubramanian deftly juggles multiple voices and points of view through the story of a Bangalore family with more than its fair share of tragedy. We follow Mira, her parents and her grandmother across half a century, watching their lives intersect with significant moments in Indian history. The varied pacing keeps things interesting: a few paragraphs may encapsulate months or years, while the events of a few days are spread across several chapters. As we shuttle back and forth between the 1940s, the 1970s and the 1990s, we encounter the familiar fault-lines of religion, caste and gender in each period.

The book begins “in a Bangalore that now exists only in faded newsprint and memory”, but the family’s story begins earlier, in the town of Malehalli, “a place so small that mapmakers and travelogues ignored it, not pausing to draw breath in their gushing litany of larger places: Mangalore, Karwar, Belthangade and Udupi”. Meenakshi (aka Ajji, Mira’s grandmother) is a young bride whose well-meaning and educated husband alternately patronises and ignores her. He loves his wife, but his involvement in India’s freedom struggle eclipses all of his other responsibilities. Despite his best efforts at enlightening her intellectually through Gandhian thought, in the face of his absent-minded emotional neglect, Ajji retreats further into her disappointment and her own prejudices.

When she hears about the communal violence during Partition, she wonders:

“What if your [Mira’s] ancestors, the ancient Havyakas, had gone north instead of south? What if that king who wanted atonement for his sin had dreamt of the river Yamuna instead of Kaveri? I imagined our home and the small grove of trees that I fought to keep, in another place, surrounded by Muslims. Hardy, hot-blooded people toughened by beef and wheat, at our door, brandishing blood-stained knives, while we cowered within, our rice-and-vegetable-thinned blood ready for the spilling.”

Politics within the home continue to be interspersed with the political life of the nation. The family’s circumstances force them to become reliant on Ajji’s elder son Girish, who makes up for his lack of success at school with an instinct for survival on the streets, finding his way into a rising politician’s pocket. Girish supports his brother Kishore, but doesn’t condone his choice of a bride: a woman of unknown caste, who has been raised in a Christian orphanage. Kishore argues that their Gandhian father would have accepted Radhika. “It does not matter what he would have done,” Girish said. “And you never know. People change as they get older. It is different when it comes to their children. You might go clean latrines for the untouchables, but it is another matter to bring their filth into the house.”

As the Emergency approaches, there’s another impending shift in the family: “And so it was that Radhika went up to tell Ajji about her pregnancy right around the time the unrest around them boiled over, and Indira Gandhi suspended democracy with a 2 a.m. stroke of the president’s pen.” For Ajji, the pregnancy is the far bigger trauma. But both she and the state bear responsibility for what happens to the family next.

By the time Mira is 17, in 1992, Ajji accepts, even embraces Mira’s Muslim friend, Anisa, taking the two girls regularly to the local Ganesha temple. But the city is changing too, with political forces threatening to stoke the embers of communal hatred into a full-blown flame. To an extent, Mira and Anisa are innocent of these changes. As summer holidays draw to a close, Mira doesn’t yet know that she will eat Rehana Aunty’s “famous mutton biryani one day, leaving the meat untouched in little piles on my plate, or that the forbidden food will flavour my mouth the promise of another, more forbidden happiness”.

Despite their closeness, Mira and Anisa know that there are lines they cannot cross, and invisible chasms in the world around them. There’s Vinay, a flower-seller’s son, who “was a playmate on the street for several years when we were too young to know any better”. They learn to be wary of a new group of saffron-clad men at the temple, though “Some of the most fervent TV serial-watchers of the years before seem glad [to see them], however, as if all this is an extension of the Ramayana they loved and watched every week.” The passage continues, with Mira (or perhaps Balasubramanian) explaining, “Just as the television drama supplanted varying regional retellings of the story with a gentle and unifying authority that bemused people like Ajji, so too do these fervent saffron youth. This is being Hindu, they say, not all the other nonsense you’ve thought it was.”

At every point, Balasubramanian shows how violence motivated by caste or religion tends to turn on the bodies of women. Mira and Anisa are constantly negotiating between small inconveniences and potentially enormous consequences. At the local theatre, which screens titillating films that have suddenly become controversial, another crowd of young men presents yet another obstacle to be either avoided or ploughed through. At every turn, there are men who use violence to prop up their masculinity, by controlling women and their sexuality and using the concepts of shame and honour to justify their actions.

Yet while women’s bodies repeatedly bear the brunt of violence, Balasubramanian also implies that women, more so than men and especially in the domestic sphere, have the ability to create solidarities across differences, and to transcend their own prejudices. In 1999, as Mira travels back to India from the USA for the first time in seven years, she revisits the events that precipitated her departure. Meanwhile Ajji, who is on her deathbed, undertakes a different kind of journey, of confessing her wrongs and seeking forgiveness for them.

Some books inspire sympathy for their characters, others identification with them. The Alchemy of Secrets seems to fall within the former category (though the vantage point of the reader could have something to do with it). There are a few definite villains here, but most of the characters, like Ajji, experience the impulse to do good, and set right what they have done wrong. Each character has their own cross to bear, though some of them are too weak to carry theirs. Institutions that exploit and perpetuate this weakness, the book suggests, are as culpable as those people who are unable to stand up to them.

While the questions Balasubramanian raises are thorny and her characters complicated, she ties the novel up neatly, which many readers will appreciate. Timely books can sometimes be bitter medicine, but the satisfaction of a tight structure and ending sweetens this one a bit. As someone who tends to see reading as a fundamentally sybaritic activity, I worry that pointing only to a book’s ‘urgent’ political importance too often equates reading about the ills of society with having dealt with them substantially, effacing the pleasure involved in hearing a story.

I wince a bit at the use of the word ‘urgent’ in book reviews. It smacks a little of the commercial imperative of publishing and the harnessing of literature’s moral appeal—books as corrective, transformative, and redemptive. I sometimes imagine the reviewer stepping into the role of doctor or priest, prescribing a novel like medicine for mental ills, or penance towards spiritual salvation: ten Hail Mary’s and this urgent novel. (There are also so-called urgent books I’ve disliked intensely because they seem exploitative, a platform for the author to broadcast his virtue while satisfying his vanity.)

Even when dealing with serious subjects, good fiction requires imagination, lyricism, empathy, and a hint of the unexpected; novels are not the news rewritten, even if the words share overlapping etymology. The Alchemy of Secrets combines many of these literary elements to show how India’s current wildfires of hate have generations of dried kindling fuelling them, and how our most recent episodes of violence erupt from the systemic forms of discrimination that we allow to continue. The Alchemy of Secrets is an urgent book, but it might also be an enduring one.

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