Reading Priya Balasubramanian’s The Alchemy of Secrets during Covid-19 pandemic left a strong afterthought. While fierce debates rage on if the deadly disease is airborne and if community level transmission is observed at places, I wonder if those questions hold for discrimination based on grounds like religion, caste, gender and skin colour in our society—are these ills airborne too? Do they spread like fire at community level? Quite like the coronavirus that plagues this society, aren’t these social evils—communal hatred, caste prejudices always lurking in the air making it heavily polarized, causing damage and death?
The Alchemy of Secrets is an immaculately crafted debut work, a powerful family saga that tackles lives of women from three generations against the socio-political backdrop in India, starting from the time of Independence to the Emergency and little beyond, after the demolition of Babri Masjid.
The book begins with Mira, in her early 20s, flying down to Bangalore, a city she fled from seven years ago, to visit her critically-ill grandmother/Ajji in the hospital. Harrowed by painful memories from her past, she has just begun life afresh in America when the news arrives. Mira, Ajji’s only grandchild cannot turn back now and musters courage to fight her inner demons as she lands in Bangalore along with her father Kishore, Ajji’s favorite son with whom her relationship has always been fraught with difficulties. As the narrative switches between different characters and moves back and forth in time, we realize that Ajji herself has a huge burden to unload, the weight of which has squashed her for years, vital secrets that she could not pass on as legacy to Vimala, her elder son Girish’s wife.