The Alchemy of Secrets by Priya Balasubramanian
Published by: Tranquebar/Westland Publications
Rating: 4/5 stars
‘There is no turning back now. I cannot afford to wonder if I am strong enough. I have to be, and it is time.’
Mira’s beloved grandmother is on her deathbed in Bangalore, a city she fled from seven years ago. She has no choice but to return. But it also means having to face what she has tried to forget all these years. Memories of a lazy summer come flooding back, when she and her best friend Anisa wandered the tree-lined streets in Bangalore. All was not as idyllic as it seemed to them, however: a mosque had recently come down in another part of the country, and its after-effects rippled all around them. As unscrupulous small-time politicians used the rise in religious fervour to grow their own careers, those ripples were soon to engulf these young girls, with tragic consequences.
Back now in Bangalore, in a city even more polarised by religion, Mira untangles the threads—of love, jealousy, political ambition, friendship and family—and finds that they go far back. Not just to when she was a young girl, but further, to the mystery of her mother’s death during the Emergency, and beyond. A vivid, unforgettable story, as relevant today as the time in which it is set, The Alchemy of Secrets explores how the simplest of acts can have the most far-reaching consequences.
About the author:
Priya Balasubramanian is an alumna of Christian Medical College, Vellore, and is now a gastroenterologist and hepatologist in Sacramento, California. The Alchemy of Secrets is her first novel.
*Thank you Westland Publications for the review copy. All opinions are my own.
The Alchemy of Secrets is a very assured debut by Priya Balasubramanian who weaves a potent story of a family in the backdrop of political events happening around them. With a narrative that goes back and forth over different time periods, readers are taken through a myriad landscape of emotions and sub contexts: young friendships, a small town that feels the pressure of politics and religion brought upon by events unfolding far yet come near.
The narrative follows what happens when Mira returns to Bangalore from the US after being told that her grand mother, her Ajji is on her death-bed. Mira is loath to return, for heading back means coming face to face with painful memories from her childhood. As it turns out, it not just Mira who has to find solace from confronting a fragmented past: there is Ajji who has been bearing burdens too heavy on her conscience.
We are taken through Ajji’s life, starting out as a young woman married to an idealist who worshipped a Mahatma and who placed his nationalism over his family and himself then becoming a young widow who brings up her two sons only to see them going on different paths and then her ties to her two daughters in law – Vimla and Radhika.
All the female characters are fleshed out well and play integral parts in the plot structures: Ajji’s emphatic rules in the household, strong and resolute in her ways and yet finding it in herself to bend down (literally); Vimla, stoic till the point she uses her silence to cold shoulder her husband whose ways she does not agree with; Celia, the one who gathers Mira when she is lost and broken; Radhika, whose brief but strong presence pushes the plot of the story and many of the characters to react as they do and Sitara, the ‘other’ woman, a has been star who must stay hidden and voiceless but one you clap for when things come to a head. Then of course, there is Mira whose journey brings all these characters (and more) alive with their foibles and dilemmas.
Each character has a part in the larger narrative that looks at how personal ties are intertwined with the politics of religion and the quest for power and how it impacts women as targets and victims. When the resolution comes, you will have to try hard not to cry. Strongly recommending this book as much for the story and the characters but also for the way it takes you to a few vignettes of what Bangalore was like in the 70s.