Priya Balasubramanian's debut The Alchemy of Secrets unravels a family's long-nurtured secrets
Priya Balasubramanian’s novel is a story about how prejudices can sometimes lead to catastrophic consequences that threaten to destroy the peace within a family. It also highlights the effect mistrust and lies can have on the peace within a family, especially on the minds of innocent but keenly perceptive children.
Priya Balasubramanian’s novel is a story about how prejudices can sometimes lead to catastrophic consequences that threaten to destroy the peace within a family.
It also highlights the effect mistrust and lies can have on the peace within a family, especially on the minds of innocent but keenly perceptive children.
Much of the novel is populated by the people and experiences of the wonderful childhood that I had in Bengaluru, the author says.
Mira is a 24-year-old, settled into her life in America where she has a small apartment, a job and a dog, but all this comes undone when the news of her grandmother's rapidly failing health reaches her. She flies back home to India, where her delirious-yet-determined Ajji wants to reveal everything that has been hidden from her thus far; she employs Mira's aunt Vimala to put pen to paper as she begins to narrate her story.
As relatives and friends gather to bid goodbye to Ajji, we are taken into the past: Mira’s childhood in Bengaluru spent with her grandmother, Ajji’s youth in Malehalli and the mysterious death of Mira’s mother, Radhika, during the Emergency. Through Ajji and Mira, the protagonists of her debut novel The Alchemy of Secrets, author Priya Balasubramanian unravels the long-nurtured secrets of a family and touches upon a range of issues, including caste, politics and violence against women.
The other characters woven into this story, which spans three generations, are Mira’s best friend Anisa, the resilient Vimala and her husband Girish, who hides ghastly secrets to secure his political ambitions, and his mistress Sitara. Added to the mix are morally bankrupt civil servants and corrupt officials covering up a horrific crime. With The Alchemy of Secrets, Balasubramanian tells a tale of how prejudices can have catastrophic consequences, as well as highlighting the effect mistrust and lies can have on the peace within a family, especially on the minds of innocent but keenly perceptive children.
A gastroenterologist and a transplant hepatologist, Balasubramanian’s novel was born out of what was originally a small vision that grew into a sprawling narrative. In this interview with Firstpost, she discusses how the book came to be, and the themes she tackles in her story. Edited excerpts:
The Acknowledgements of the novel suggest that the book was born of a single glimpse ‘of an older white saree clad woman and a young girl who clung to her little finger.’ Could you tell us how and when this image came to you, and how the story took shape?
Long before I had ever considered writing a novel, this image just popped into my head as I was driving home from work. It’s a signal I’ve since learned to recognise, but at that point I had no idea that a story was on its way. The older woman reminded me of my own grandmother but it was clear that she wasn’t. I began to get curious. Who were these people?
I had young children myself at that point and was dealing with some guilt at having to leave them at home or in daycare while I went to work — perhaps that was part of it, but I had already started to wonder why this little girl was with her grandmother instead of with her parents. It was all like a puzzle, and I found myself thinking of this little girl and her grandmother again, and often. And so the story grew from there as I imagined possibilities: the mother was dead, and the father lived far away — surely that could be the only explanation for how self-contained their world seemed? Each of those possibilities led to more questions, and so an entire novel eventually grew out of the single nidus of that image.
Much of the story is set in Bengaluru. Did you grow up in this city? What are some of your childhood memories of what is now a bustling metropolis? Do any of them figure in the book?
Yes, I did grow up in Bengaluru. Much of the novel is populated by the people and experiences of the wonderful childhood that I had there, all transformed, of course, by the alchemy that is fiction. There are so many experiences that Mira and Anisa share that are ones I’ve experienced. Going 'Ganesha-visiting' on Ganesh Chaturthi, or Ganesha-habba, as we called it, is one, and it was one of my favorite vignettes to write. The older Mira and Anisa borrow books at the local lending library. They take the school bus together to a school that is by a golf course closed to new members — all experiences that my childhood contained.
I have wandered into neighbours’ homes and have been fed more interesting things than I would have at home — much the way Mira and Anisa wander together into each other’s. But more than all that is the kind of relationship that they and their families have with each other — it is very typical of what I had seen and known. It was a world where neighbours automatically became friends, where food and stories were generously exchanged, and where you not only knew your neighbour’s family but also their visiting relatives. I believe that the old Bangalore still exists though, right under the skin of the bustling metropolis that it has become, if one has the patience to look for it.
Could you speak about Ajji: who inspired this character, and how do the secrets in the family in fact begin with her prejudice towards her daughter-in-law?
Ajji, from the beginning, had a very clear voice in my mind. Ajji was a clear paradox. It’s true that she is very much a product of her upbringing and her time and steeped in some of the prejudices that were prevalent then. So many of the things she says and thinks are unforgivable, as are the actions that result. And yet, she is a grandmother who loves her granddaughter above all else. To me, that was the key to her. It helped me to think about her as a flawed person who is nevertheless capable of redemption, rather than someone wholly evil. And perhaps that is true of life and people in general — we are all a collection of mostly well-meaning people who are capable both of great good and profound evil.
The book also addresses some questions about the issue of rape. What are your thoughts on the accountability of not only the perpetrators of the abuse, but also the mindset around violence against women?
After an act of violence has happened against a woman, and it is exposed, there is usually an outpouring of sympathy for the woman, and the men involved are universally condemned. This is something that unites all of us. (And it is a huge improvement from before, when even this did not happen — when we questioned women’s stories, and tended to believe the perpetrators over them.) In my view, where we fail women who are the targets of such violence now is not after the incident but before.
What I mean by this is that while we condemn the violence after it has happened, we are quite unaware of all that we do and say that makes it easier for women to be targeted. And it is not just men who are to blame for this, it is women as well. It extends all the way from our double standards for what is acceptable for boys to do and what is acceptable for girls, to our suspicions over women’s motives and character based on the way they dress or act. A lot of this is rooted in our patriarchal ways of thinking where a woman needs to be quiet, modest and have irreproachable conduct, while boys are allowed so much leeway with mistakes.
It is easy to feel sympathetic for a victim — can we extend the same sympathy and respect to women we disapprove of?
Let's discuss the structuring of the book: Mira’s grandmother writes her poignant letters, and each chapter is told from the perspective of a different character. Why did you choose to write it so?
This was again a choice driven by the expanse of the story. What began from a single image turned into this sprawling multi-generational tale that spanned decades — a multiple perspective story made sense just from practical concerns — the story was not only Mira’s, it was also Ajji’s and neither character had access to the experiences or memories of the other. I had initially only intended it to be only from Mira’s and Ajji’s perspectives. But as I began to write it, it became apparent that I would need to include more voices to tell a more complete tale. Not every character in the novel gets their own perspective, but it is pretty close — most major ones do. This did give me some anxiety along the way — would readers lose patience with having to switch perspectives and jump from head to head all the time, so to speak? I decided to go with whatever made sense in terms of telling the story even if it seemed a risky choice.
This book is your first novel. How long have you been working on it? What were some of the challenges you faced while writing this story?
This novel was a decade in the making — from first chapter to final publication. I did not write everyday for those ten years, however. There were periods of intense writing and months were the novel lay fallow. There were also months and years when I had a first draft and was pruning stories and moving chapters to make the story move along better. There were a few challenges along the way — the primary one was of time, and focus. With so much else going on in terms of career and family, writing sometimes felt like an indulgence and something that took away from the more important aspects of my everyday life. This was probably why it took so long. The other, more technical, challenge that I struggled with throughout, was the structure of the novel and the question of how to tell this sprawling story. The beginning was hardest. I was not trying to tell the story of a single pioneering character who walked off into the wilderness — this was a family with secrets, and history, that I was dropping an unsuspecting reader into mid-stream. 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.
Have you already started working on your next book? What can you tell us about future projects?
I’m working on two things at this point. One is a linked collection of stories that is set in the apartment complex that Sitara lives in. It features a few characters who’ve made walk-on appearances in The Alchemy of Secrets that I did not have the heart to let go. Others are completely new and I find them all completely captivating in their own ways. The other project that I have been working on is a novel. All I can tell you about it is that it is set in California, and that it is reflective of an Indian-American immigrant experience.
The Alchemy of Secrets has been published by Tranquebar, an imprint of Westland Publications
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