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Sunday, May 31, 2020

The political and the personal come together inextricably in this debut novel

The central events of Priya Balasubramaniam’s book play out during the socio-political churn in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition in Bengaluru

Written by Sukrita Baruah | Published: April 26, 2020 7:15:52 am
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The Alchemy of Secrets
Priya Balasubramanian
Tranquebar
312 pages
Rs 399

The week I read The Alchemy of Secrets, 85-year-old Akbari Begum died inside her burning home in northeast Delhi. It was later found that amongst those arrested for setting her home ablaze were two brothers in their twenties. These young men were her neighbours, who would greet her when they would see her in the locality.

As the debris of horrific violence was swept from the narrow lanes and blood scrubbed off the floors of houses in the weeks following the riots in the national capital, also found were the charred remains of a body barely identifiable as that of a human. Till this week, the family of 23-year-old Mohsin Ali were yet to receive a medical confirmation that those remains — found inside his gutted car — were indeed his. He was an office bearer of the BJP’s minority cell in Uttar Pradesh.

The central events of Priya Balasubramaniam’s book play out during the socio-political churn in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition in Bengaluru — far away from the physical theatre of the demolition. Earlier this month, the steady build-up of communal polarisation in our country once again reached a fever pitch and erupted in blood and fire. The deaths of aged Akbari and young Mohsin reflect the thread at the very core of this book: the chilling proximity and consequences of political, communal and caste violence.

Though different chapters of the book are told through different characters, the central character is a young woman, who was brought up in a Brahmin household in Bengaluru and moved to California.

She is at the intersection of the narrative, that is both an intimate memoir and a family history disfigured by
this violence.

While three different timelines unfurl simultaneously through the book, there are two primary storylines set in two different times. In one, the violence plays out primarily in the domestic setting — through the deeply entrenched casteism in a home in rural Karnataka. In the second, the stage is larger — in the form of the mobilisation of militant political Hinduism — but the ripples are felt just as closely.

We read the dramas of the storylines through various eyes of the same family in a shifting narrative — an elderly proprietorial Brahmin matriarch who is also a nurturing grandmother; a harrowed and subdued wife and daughter-in-law; an insecure opportunist bearing the sense that he has been wronged by the world; and the displaced young woman alternately scratching and healing her scars. They are our eyes but they are also all either complicit in or responsible for the horrors we witness. And those who are not directly complicit can be whisked away to distant lands to forget, while the Muslim and lower-caste victims bear the full brunt of the drama.

There is a marked difference in how the violence born of social fissures treats our protagonist and those dear to her but located differently in the social map, something that requires a deeper acknowledgment. This complication is truest for me in the treatment of who I read as the thorniest character in the book — Ajji.

It is an absorbing read, made all the more real by the news cycle from Delhi last month before the pandemic took over the world. Structurally, both the primary storylines climax far before the book ends, making it drag beyond its life. There were multiple points at which this story could have been concluded.

Yet, it ends at what struck me as a disingenuous note — hinting at a better tomorrow latent in the youthful energy of metropolitan bustle. Our winter of discontent and spring of carnage indicates a far more troublesome link between that time in our nation’s past and our present, and our present and our future.

The book’s shifting narration also falters when the point of view inexplicably shifts a couple of times to other characters for dramatic effect. This could have added more texture to the narrative, bringing in a new standpoint, an additional layer to the turmoil we witness. However, the device comes off as gimmicky without adding to the storytelling.

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