Book Review | A treat for literary fiction lovers set in turn-of-century Bombay
Columnist| Nayantara Roy
The cover page of The Secret of More.
Set aside time to properly savour this deeply moving story, which, like its chief protagonist, is simple in its complexity. It is the story of Tatya, a Maharashtrian Brahmin lad of 17, whose family misfortunes cause his elder brother to place him with a textile selling agent in 1900s Bombay rather than let him pursue further studies. Tatya ‘s acute business acumen comes to the early notice of his kindly mentor Zaveri, who guides him towards starting out on his own as a selling agent from where his very Bombay story of a rags (which are, in this case, middle class) to riches story takes off.
At one level Tatya’s bildungsroman traverses the textile industry in India during the First World War, crossing iron and steel briefly, to uncharacteristically move into silent films (after all, there was "a man called Phalke who has made a lot of money in it"!), both Bombay hallmarks as it were.
Tatya himself though, while imbued with enough entrepreneurial skill to take a few risks, is essentially a prudent and correct man and follows the advice of Zaveri which is, "if one day you find that you are able to buy your own horse carriage, or even an automobile — don’t. Buy your own horse carriage only when you have the capacity to buy three of them. And even then don’t lose the habit of walking".
But along with Tatya’s story and his life enriched by the world outside family, run the stories of women, cribbed, cabined and confined in different ways, their stories moving along in the shadow of the story of men, because as Tatya’s wife knew, "she and Mai shared knowledge that no man would ever know, the knowledge of how narrow their path was as women".
We meet other women who impact Tatya and his family, like Kamal Bai, the beautiful actress who is envied for the wrong reasons, who courageously strives to maintain her independence and dignity and who "could have triumphed in business, had she not been a woman"; their neighbour, a sophisticated and seemingly liberated princess; Tatya’s daughter Durga who wants to be educated above all else and learn English, in the face of views like her Lelemavshi’s who remonstrates thusly, "I say put a stop to all this immediately. Who is going to marry a girl who knows English?"
This is a story about an Indian family, with the British forming only a backdrop to this India. Even the freedom movement exists dimly in the background, with only occasional references and perhaps a tongue-in-cheek naming of some minor characters. The details are in the extensive research the author has put into the textile industry and changes caused by the War, the coming of cinema and the conventional mores surrounding the life of such a family at that period of time in a changing Bombay moving towards a more progressive independent India. The polished writing delivers interesting nuggets of information and poetic descriptions at a pace that is fluid and compelling.
The impact of social reform in regard to the rights of women forms the pivotal historical context. Professor Karve who married a widow and Anandiben Joshi, the first Maharashtrian woman doctor, find mention as role models for women to escape the terrible fates that await them. An idea is introduced to Durga that women need not helplessly awaitthe hand of fate but that "…only we can save ourselves".
The protagonists themselves are not activists or persons who quarrel with conventions and they function within the traditions set out for them. They are multidimensional as they age within different constructs, flawed even, revealing themselves slowly. But when faced with choices where conventional wisdom goes against their innate decency and humanitarianism, they can sometimes find themselves making surprising decisions, inadvertently nudging progress along in their family. As Tatya said to his wife when she protested against cake and sandwiches from the Taj Mahal Hotel entering their home for guests, "I don’t mean that you should change your ways entirely… but there are some situations in which it is prudent to bend a little. If one does not bend one is likely to break."
This work of literary historical fiction is reminiscent in style of Dickens, Jane Austen and the like, though like Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow, is crisp enough for contemporary readers! While the extensive detailing can be a little unsettling in the beginning, given the attention to even small details, it serves to unwittingly draw the reader into Tatya’s world, gradually forming bonds with the people in it. Finally the reader is left, like one should be, after being immersed in this beautifully crafted novel, feeling all the bittersweet feelings that the joys and shocks of real life unfold at the protagonists.
The Secret of More
By Tejaswini Apte Rahm
Aleph, pp. 451, Rs.899
Nayantara Roy is a lawyer practising in Delhi