So much of fiction is set in Bombay/Mumbai that we have come to love has captured the city’s spirit by telling us the story of its characters – think greats like Salman Rushdie and Rohinton Mistry, or younger writers such as Amrita Mahale and Jane Borges. The Secret of More is Tejaswini Apte-Rahm’s debut work of fiction, and in spinning a sprawling tale of generations, ambition, and all that slips from the fingers when making a life, it says more than it spells out.

Seventeen-year-old Govind Abhyankar, known to everyone as Tatya, arrives in Bombay in the summer of 1899 with dreams of making something of himself. He is hardworking, possesses business acumen, and has a knack for finding the right people. These skills, combined with the excitement that stirs in his chest at every possibility of more – doing, having, being – set him on a path that he must chart on his own. In due course of time, he gets married to 12-year-old Radha, who is prophesied by the village priest to be a bringer of great wealth.

This is no mistaken prediction: as the years pass, Tatya adds one successful business after another to his portfolio, all the while reaching unmatched heights in the textile distribution industry. Sometimes there are momentary hiccups – like the first investment in bioscopes turning out to be a dud – but he reveals himself to be an astute businessman. Intuitive and ambitious, he is able to turn an old iron and steel factory into a profit machine in the years that the First World War rages in, erects a successful company that produces bioscopes of mass popularity, and turns a derelict building into a modern theatre that becomes the talk of the town.

The politics of home

But the heart is its own empire: despite flourishing businesses, a full house, and a stable life that Tatya has worked hard to build, a sense of incompleteness eats at him. Radha is dutiful, committed, and caring, and Tatya cannot imagine a life without her, but it is only upon meeting Kamala bai that he is captivated by a feeling entirely unfamiliar and irresistible. Unbeknownst to anyone – even himself – he falls in love.

Parallel to this runs Radha’s domestic universe, full of worrying about her children and tending to their expanding household. She frets most over the prospects of their daughter Durga, who has a dysfunctional arm and leg, training her to be adept in housework and discouraging education, lest her chances be further diminished. Inside her there are other darker fears that remain unvoiced. Drilled deep into her psyche is the horror of widowhood, having seen her widowed mother face dehumanising behavior and social exclusion all her life. There are also the insecurities that she is too ashamed to admit to: she knows that she is neither as pretty as actresses such as Kamal bai, nor can match their abandon.

The greatest triumph of More is is its ability to evoke a sense of home: its comforts and its walls, its smells and its sorrows. As the family moves from their small two-room dwelling in Khtryachi Chawl to Jamshedji Mansion, and then eventually to their family home Greenglades, the living space increases and is filled with more and more new people – Tatya and Radha are generous, welcoming householders, and the family that they build under their roof is warmly reminiscent of a time so many of us grow up hearing from our grandparents about.

Through all this, lime pickles remain a thoroughfare, as does the celebration of haldi-kunku. Familiar fragrances of incense drift in and out, and some afternoons, the dappled light coming through the curtained, big windows almost makes it possible to believe that this is how it could be, always. But the years wash over people just like that nectary, late afternoon light, and what is left to Tatya in his twilight years is to wonder how all that time had passed, as the fever of more held its grip over him.

The story in More jumps back and forth in time, and the patchworked lattice of narration that it results in almost resembles memory – the remembrance of events is magnified or subdued depending on what they eventually led to, and it is tinged with the knowledge of hindsight. The characters are etched in such wholeness that it is difficult to imagine for them a life any different. They fall into each other rhythms, their insides in a constant push and pull between a complex mix of love, fear and hope.

A peek into the past

Durga wants to continue her education, for example, and Tatya is too fond of his daughter to refuse, but it is Radha’s love for her daughter that we are really left to contend with: she who is determined to ensure a respectable life for her daughter and so pulls her out of school despite her many protestations. How do you begin to contemplate such love, when vocabulary of rightness is too narrow to account for duty and the cruelties of society?

This also translates into some very impressively written scenes where the narrative walks the tightrope between dramatic and believable, creating moments of unexpected tenderness. The first time Radha’s mother sees a newborn Durga, or when Tatya receives for her the marriage proposal of a prince, for example, are sections crafted with such a sensitive finger on the pulse of human emotion that the rooms they happen might well be yours.

At four hundred and fifty pages, More can appear to be somewhat longer than the average book, and sometimes lets go of the tightness that otherwise runs throughout the story, binding together its medley of characters and the onslaught of the years. Only rarely does it slip into indulging its protagonists, but these small moments are not difficult to tide over.

Apte-Rahm’s storytelling skills also shine in her ability to describe places and things that most readers today might well not have seen photographs of, let alone witnessed in person. Her rich descriptions of the bustling Mulji Jetha Market, the technology that went into making silent films, and the magical seeming music box, to name a few, draw the reader in completely. What is this strange place, you sometimes ask; the other times, you want to wander a little longer in those habitats. Not only does it show the depth of her research, but also the exceptional prowess in bringing alive a world long relegated to history books.

On occasion, the mention of a now widely popular event such as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre can feel like a lazy trick to remind readers of the story’s historical location, but largely More sticks to marking time how it knows best: quietly, no fuss, until one day, the weight dawns on you, all at once. The Secret of More is a commendable debut, delivering more than it promises: stories, colors, warmth and pains like pin-pricks, all in one.

The Secret of More

The Secret of More, Tejaswini Apte-Rahm, Aleph Book Company.