A young Brahmin boy arrives with his older brother in the vibrant colonial city of Bombay. Newly orphaned and in pursuit of a livelihood rather than the more Brahminical quest for education, he finds himself drawn to the burgeoning textile industry in the city. A Marathi in a trade dominated by Gujaratis, he finds a mentor in the city’s bustling Mulji Jetha market and quickly learns the ropes. Then his entrepreneurial run extends to the nascent film industry in this rags-to-riches story set in the city of dreams.
The Secret of More
Aleph Book Company
With business and cinema at its core, The Secret of More delves into the beating heart of the city. It outlines the dizzying opportunities and possibilities presented by Bombay; an aspect of the city that remains unchanged even today. And it articulates the hunger and drive that keep the metropolis going: “The secret of more is that more is never enough.”
Brought back to life
Well-researched and engaging, the novel taps familiar sources like Murali Ranganathan’s translation of Govind Narayan’s Mumbai: An Urban Biography from 1863 and Shanta Gokhale’s translation of Laxmibai Tilak’s Smritichitre, among several others, to bring the place, the era, and the context alive. It introduces readers to forgotten and existing Marathi traditions, rituals, food, and to professions, diseases and other details unique to colonial Bombay. These include references to the ritualistic street performance of the kadaklakshmi (the magic lantern show), the bhishti (water seller) who carried different pitchers for Hindus and Muslims, the community’s obsession with mangoes, and the manually operated ice cream-making machine. We see life as experienced by residents in the cramped living quarters of the chawl where disease and death share space with the joys of communal living.
The book is about the trajectory and phenomenal financial success of Tatya, a fictional character based on the author’s great-grandfather, and captures the upward mobility that defines the city. It is about the urbanisation of a migrant Marathi family, as also about transitions and transformation in both circumstances and thinking. We see the transition from chawl life to a mansion in the posh neighbourhood of royalty, from the textile trade to the world of cinema, from the silent era to the talkies, from life to death.
“It introduces readers to forgotten and existing Marathi traditions, rituals, food, and to professions, diseases and other details unique to colonial Bombay.”
While Tatya takes centre stage, the women characters are also able to hold their own. Tatya’s wife, Radha (née Yamuna), his disabled daughter Durga, and the actress Kamal emerge as strong characters in the male-dominated society of the time. The book successfully captures the sweeping change brought about by women’s education but, disappointingly, does not tap into new insights about the status of women. Tejaswini Apte-Rahm essays the familiar—the plight of child widows, a woman’s measure being the sons she bore, the challenges faced in women’s education, the complete absence of independence and agency in the lives of women, and, as in the case of actresses like Kamal, exploitation at the hands of male family members and employers. However, in a world where a woman’s worth is already low, the book successfully throws light on what it means for a woman to be disabled. “How much is the life of a disabled girl worth?” asks Durga.
- With business and cinema at its core, The Secret of More delves into the beating heart of colonial Bombay
- Well-researched and engaging, the novel taps familiar sources like Murali Ranganathan’s translation of Govind Narayan’s Mumbai: An Urban Biography from 1863 and Shanta Gokhale’s translation of Laxmibai Tilak’s Smritichitre, among several others
- Apte-Rahm’s novel joins a small but growing list of historical fiction inspired by actual people and events, set in colonial Bombay
Tatya’s foray into the fledgling film industry is an interesting turn of events; he goes on to set up the Rising Sun Film Company with its studio on the outskirts of the city and the Kohinoor Theatre with its iconic Oriental Organ—based on an actual fairground organ on display at a museum in Rüdesheim, Germany—that plays the music of different instruments. There are passing references to the pioneer of Indian cinema, Dadasaheb Phalke, as well as to J.F. Madan, who ranks among the pioneers of film production in the country. In the actress Kamal, we see shades of “Fearless” Nadia’s prowess and in her debut film there are echoes of Nadia’s stunts and movie plots.
The second half of the book seems inspired by clichés from the film industry where Tatya and Kamal’s relationship is concerned, from the lovers’ chance meeting in the rain to their ill-fated separation. The illusion of Kamal and the intimacy of the camera are nicely contrasted with marital relationships of the time. The decline of the movie business with the advent of the talkies follows a predictable trajectory; the failure of Kamal, whose voice could not lend itself to the talkies, was the fate of many actresses of the silent era. Eventually, we see the decline of Tatya, too, as the story goes back and forth in time.
Apte-Rahm’s novel joins a small but growing list of historical fiction inspired by actual people and events, set in colonial Bombay (including the novel Wanderers, All, by this writer ). It is a welcome addition. A work set amid the genesis of the Indian film industry—a subject not fully explored in fiction—has the potential of an epic but The Secret of More stops short. It is, however, an enjoyable read that brings alive the complex history of a city created by the British and built by inhabitants like Tatya. We need more of the city’s history to be mined and more of its stories to be told.
Janhavi Acharekar is an author, curator, and creative consultant.