Longlisted author Tejaswini Apte-Rahm on how researching the life and times of her great-grandfather led to her debut novel, and more.
I was researching the life and times of my great-grandfather and writing his biography when the idea of the novel came to me. He arrived as a migrant in Bombay in the late 19th century in very humble circumstances. He began life in Bombay in a chawl, sharing a room with 3 other men. But when he died in 1952, it was in his magnificent sea-facing mansion, having made his fortune in the textile, silent film and sugar industries. I was struck by how the story of his success was essentially the success story of the state of Maharashtra, since the state’s signature industries are textiles, films and sugar. It was a case of the microcosm neatly mirroring the macrocosm. I thought this was a great story to take off from, and build a fictional world around, with a traditional Maharashtrian family at its centre. I was fascinated by the historical context, because the events of the early 20th century seemed like a sort of origin story of the Bombay that we know today – a city built on the dynamism of the textile industry, with its dreams and images created by the silver screen.
The film industry is like a backbone of Bombay, and the most obvious way in which a certain mythology of Bombay has been created – as the city of dreams, the place to make it big. But when the silent film industry took its first tentative steps in 1912, nobody could have predicted that it would turn into a cultural behemoth. I wanted to delve into the beginnings of that extraordinary journey. What is incredible to me is how the silent film industry was built on improvisation and an ongoing battle with hardship, whether it was the lack of equipment and finances, or simply the tropical climate in which imported make-up was a nightmare to use. Professionalisation of the industry was a long way away. Early filmmakers were literally flying by the seat of their pants, making things up as they went along. Dadasaheb Phalke’s wife used to help him wash and develop the film at night in a backyard fountain. Baburao Painter used fireworks to light up a battle scene at night due to lack of electricity. I loved creating my fictional world within this context, with my protagonist, Tatya, setting up his film studio, his bewilderment at this strange new world of make-believe, the social changes that saw the first actresses coming on to the screen, the increasing grip of films on the popular imagination, and eventually his studio facing the decline of silent films with the onslaught of the talkies. It is easy to forget that there was a time, not too long ago, when people had never seen a picture move. When the first moving pictures arrived, this new technology allowed people to experience other realities and fantasise in a manner that had simply never existed before. I wanted my novel to capture that sense of wonder at stepping into a new era of technology and artistry.
It has been a seamless journey for me because all these projects developed organically, based on what I wanted to say at the time. When I wrote my short story collection, These Circuses That Sweep Through the Landscape, those were the stories within me that were crying out to be told. When I began writing The Secret of More, I was already immersed in the history of early 20th century Bombay since I was working on the biography of my great-grandfather, and the idea of basing a novel in that era seemed irresistible. The challenges of writing a short story are vastly different to those of writing a novel. In a novel you have the luxury of hundreds of pages to develop and explore your characters over a lengthy timeline, and build the historical context. But a short story presents one episode or phase of a character’s life, which ideally has implications far beyond the end of the story. So you have to construct a world with a before and an after, with character complexity and depth, all within a few pages, with no superfluous words or sentences. If a great novel is like a treasure chest, a great short story is like a perfectly cut jewel – and I love working with that kind of precision. Conversely, the challenge of writing a novel is that you have to master the pacing of your scenes, develop complex plots and sub-plots, and stage-manage a large cast of characters with their individual story arcs, all the while ensuring that your story keeps the reader turning the pages.
Any avid reader of English who grew up in 1970s-1980s India will almost inevitably have been influenced by Enid Blyton. She was my first literary influence and someone I still hugely admire for the crisp storytelling, fast moving plots, and compelling descriptions of nature in her adventure stories and boarding school stories. Doris Lessing’s novels and Roald Dahl’s short stories for adults have been a major influence for their precise use of language and the fearless manner in which they gouge out their stories from the depths of their characters’ souls. Amit Chaudhuri’s writing is an influence too, from which I have learned about pacing, rhythm, and staying in the moment.
My all-time favourite is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. I love a story where the underdog beats the odds and wins the day. Jane is a heroine of true grit, refusing to accept the class and gender roles expected of her. Secondly, I’d recommend Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, for its otherworldly, weird, and yet completely convincing landscape of a sea trapped inside a massive building. It’s a perfectly constructed thriller. My third recommendation is Goodbye Mr Chips by James Hilton, a novella I took a lot of inspiration from in writing The Secret of More. This slim volume narrates the life story of a teacher in an English boarding school, where his life, over several decades, suggests the sweep of history in the wider world. This book was the first to show me how fiction can bring alive the moods and textures of another age, better than any history book.
I would like to take a break from research and write something very contemporary, something a bit dark and twisty in the style of my short story collection. On the other hand, I really enjoyed being immersed in early 20th century Bombay, so I might end up writing more historical fiction.
Into the beating heart of Bombay, a city that spins cotton into gold, a young man, Tatya, arrives to make a living.
Ambitious and hard-working, he begins to make a name for himself in the city's famed textile market. Meanwhile, his new bride, Radha, navigates the joys and the challenges of raising a family in a city that is a curious and often bewildering mix of the traditional and the rapidly modernizing.
Having tasted success in the world of textiles, Tatya chances upon an opportunity in an emerging industry-motion pictures- and is swept up in it despite his initial hesitation about this strange world of make-believe. His success seems unstoppable-the silent films he produces draw in the crowds and his new theatre is a marvel, but his friendship with and attraction to an actress, Kamal, threatens to shake his world and causes him to question his integrity.
Set against the backdrop of bustling colonial Bombay, The Secret of More is a journey of relentless ambition, steadfast love, and grim betrayal, as Tatya strives to unlock the secret of more-of having more and being more. In a story that travels from the clatter of textile mills to the glamour of the silent film industry, from the crowded chawls of Girgaon to the luxury of sea-facing mansions, one man and his family learn that in the city of Bombay you can fly-but if you fall, it is a long way down.