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The Secret of More review: Business as art, and art as business

Tejaswini Apte-Rahm’s debut novel explores the ‘illicit’ allure of cinema’s early years

There’s an unhurried elegance and a Dickensian sense of scale to Apte-Rahm’s writing.

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A young man of intelligence and pluck seizes the moment, riding the upward mobility wave until he becomes the top cat. Bollywood has loved the “entrepreneurial epic” and its moral variations in pretty much every decade since the 1960s. Reflecting the socioeconomic mood of the era, it either glorified the rule-breaking (Guru, 2007) or gave us stories with cautionary tales (Scam 1992 from 2020, or Baazaar from 2018).

Tejaswini Apte-Rahm’s novel, The Secret Of More, does a bit of both with its entrepreneur-protagonist Govind “Tatya” Abhyankar. We follow Tatya’s journey from age 17, when he’s learning the ropes of Bombay’s textile business in 1899, a world he would master soon, all the way to his last years. His patience, resourcefulness, adaptability remain constant sources of strength. But gently, and with more than a little style, the novel also begins to show us the changes in Tatya’s inner life, the chinks in his armour, even when, as a rich, successful businessman, he forays into the then nascent silent film industry.

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Tatya becomes enmeshed in his new world, first through his own productions and then through the theatre he builds. With his wife Radha, married to him at 12, engrossed in the task of raising children in early 20th century Bombay, Tatya finds himself falling in love with Kamal Bai, a rare female actress his theatre hires. He becomes the perfect narrative vessel to depict how cinema was already beginning to affect the hearts and minds of Indians.

This is by far the most impressive achievement of The Secret Of More—circling twin narrative strands closer and closer, until they echo each other’s stories and there’s an unmissable symmetry about proceedings: the “illicit” allure of cinema’s early years and the more straightforwardly illicit prospect of Tatya’s adultery; business as art, and art as business.

The novel’s classical three-act structure is interspersed with “flash forwards”, including the opening two-page chapter that ends on a cliff-hanger, no less. These self-consciously cinematic interruptions add an intriguing layer to the “old-school blockbuster” story of Tatya’s life.

There’s an unhurried elegance and a Dickensian sense of scale to Apte-Rahm’s writing. At around the 40-page mark, there’s a casual reference to Tatya being given a copy of The Pickwick Papers by his older brother. In the same passage, the older brother approvingly quotes a passage from Lord Chesterfield’s 1774 book of letters to his son Philip—written as an educational text, to help the boy conduct himself in high society: “A man is fit for neither business nor pleasure who either cannot, or does not, command and direct his attention to the present object and, in some degree, banish for that time, all other objects from his thoughts.” Tatya takes the lesson to heart, immersing himself in building a fortune. It’s an example of how The Secret Of More uses subtext.

By the time the action shifts to Kamal Bai and the early years of cinema, the prose alludes to the cinematic experience in increasingly artful ways. Take this passage, for example, where Kamal is talking to Tatya about the theatre business, about her paan box and about several other things all at once. He is, of course, enamoured by this point.

“Her thoughts seemed to him as whimsical as gossamer tendrils, moving this way and that, a beguiling web of words and images. He looked at her hands moving expertly over the leaves and her silver box. Her graceful movements, the dim yellow light, her soft voice, the gleam of silver, it was all hypnotic, and Tatya felt as if he were observing the scene from elsewhere, from a far-off place of restfulness.”

The phrase “beguiling web of words and images” and the line about Tatya watching from “a far-off place of restfulness” both evoke the contemporary movie-theatre experience. The segment’s bridge line, about looking at Kamal’s moving hands, is like a director quickly focusing on the character’s hands before returning to faces and words.

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In Apte-Rahm’s short story ‘The Girl Who Loved Dean Martin’ (from her 2017 collection These Circuses That Sweep Through the Landscape), a grieving young woman called Diana finds herself in a parasocial relationship with (the long-dead) Dean Martin. Diana was in love with someone inherently unattainable, a ghost – here, Tatya is falling in love with a woman who works for him. Both, of course, have fallen hopelessly in love with the movies, with this beguiling web of words and images. I had a lot of fun with The Secret Of More. This book confirms the arrival of a strong and versatile new voice.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer.

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