I came upon Priya Balasubramanian’s The Alchemy of Secrets quite by accident when I was in New Delhi earlier this year. It was on a high stack of books that my brother had set aside with the intention of reading and reviewing. The bright red, black and white of the cover caught my eye, but it lingered for another reason: Priya was a fellow writer from California who had also spent her childhood in India.
I was on a bi-annual trip home, and the peaceful sit-in protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act at Shaheen Bagh was on everyone’s mind. Conversations with friends were about the rising intolerance of political powerheads and religious fundamentalists in the country and police intervention against students in Jamia Milia University. The blurb on the cover of The Alchemy of Secrets alluded to a narrative about “ripples of religious fervour” and the “tragic consequences” of the lives it touched. It was also a story of “returning home.” I set the book aside to read.
A matter of perspectives
The Alchemy of Secrets begins with a reflection, as memories of a late evening in Bangalore, 1979, form in the main character Mira’s head. Her Ajji, her grandmother, has stopped to buy flowers on their way back home from a visit to the Ganesha temple. Mira remembers that she had a photograph clutched in her hand. Lakshmi the flower seller looks at the tremulous child and asks Ajji why the little one’s mother had died so young. Ajji remains tightlipped. The reader only learns that Mira’s mother “died in an accident.”
During dinner, Ajji tells four-year-old Mira the story of Shravana who carries his blind parents on his shoulders. She says, “He put duty to family above all else and went to heaven because of it.” The little child imagines her responsibilities and role in the family.
The first chapter ends twenty years later with Mira, now in California, preparing to fly to Bengaluru as she has just heard that Ajji is dying. It has been seven years since Mira “fled” India. She is conflicted about her travel back to the place of her childhood, but thinks, “There is no turning back now. I cannot afford to wonder if I am strong enough. I have to be, and it is time.”
The novel proceeds from this early cliffhanger, building suspense and mystery both by moving in time through flashbacks and by foregrounding different characters’ perspectives. The next chapter belongs to Mira’s aunt, Vimala, who is just as fearful of what could happen if Ajji dies. “Ajji could not die. She could not leave her to bear the burden of Radhika and their silence, alone.” What burden? What silence? The reader learns of this conflict long before she knows what it refers to.
In a recent interview, Balasubramanian notes how carefully she worked to build the central mystery of the book: “I had to decide how much to reveal, and how quickly, and who would be the one speaking to the reader at any given time. It felt like braiding a rope from threads, getting all of the different perspectives into order.”
Prescient and timely
Indeed, she meticulously unravels this multi-generational tale thread by thread by allowing different characters to narrate their own chapters. This back and forth, both in voices and in time, spanning decades, is effective. Each chapter reads like an episode of a mini-series, and you don’t want to stop watching.
There is the story of Mira’s idyllic childhood in Bengaluru and her easy and deep friendship with Anisa. There is the story of taciturn Vimala’s closeness to Mira’s mother, Radhika, the mysterious story of Radhika’s tragic end, and then the crucial story of cruelty and dishonour that we learn from Ajji, beloved matriarch, which frames the book.
The tragedies that unfold are told twice, first as they happen and then in memory. The pieces of the story that do not surface in the recollections of the major characters are divulged by Ajji from her hospital bed. “Get some paper and pen,” the dying Ajji instructs. “Write down what I have to say for Mira. So she will know. When I die.”
The Alchemy of Secrets has the masala of pulp fiction. There are star-crossed lovers, unscrupulous, rapacious politicians, unsavoury characters like Girish Uncle who cheats on his wife, and robs the family of their peace of mind, ambitious thugs like Surendra, and murderous mobs that destroy lives and livelihood. But the novel is much more than a quick read. The writer transforms what might otherwise have been a simple story of an innocent, childhood friendship into a powerful commentary on the subjects of family and belonging, as well as the perils of casteism and bigotry.
Balasubramanian is a gastroenterologist and transplant hepatologist based in Sacramento, California. That a gut specialist with these impressive credentials had the time and space in her head to write an intense, gut-wrenching novel is remarkable. She joins a list of doctor-novelists that includes Arthur Conan Doyle, Khaled Hosseini, and Abraham Verghese, whose work collectively suggests that being attuned to living and dying makes for sensitive writing as well.
By the time I finished the book, Delhi was awash in communal violence and tragic deaths. The central events of what I had just read, including a horrific death during the Emergency and the saffronisation of Bengaluru in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition, seemed prescient and timely given the contemporary fever of communal polarisation. The stories in the book about the consequences of political expediency, communal disharmony and caste violence, and the heart-breaking death of a significant character, mirrored the stories in the newspapers I was reading each day in Delhi.
Some months later, I would think of Balasubramanian when encountering the poet Meena Kandaswamy’s description of the writing process as “a kind of alchemy – to take the horror of the violence, to dwell in it and shape that into an intense, moving sentence.” Priya Balasubramanian’s The Alchemy of Secrets is an intense, moving book; indeed, it performs its own kind of narrative alchemy.
The Alchemy Of Secrets, Priya Balasubramanian, Tranquebar.
Shobha Tharoor Srinivasan is a voice-over artist and writer based in California. She is the author of numerous children’s books, including Indi-Alphabet (2018) and the forthcoming How Many Lines in a Limerick?