“As certain as the sun that rose at dawn, so it was certain that if you inserted cotton from a sunbaked field in Surat into the clattering, grinding system of a mill in Bombay, it would come out at the other end as thousand-yard bales of cloth. It was a strange thing of beauty, this system that was as implacable as a set of mathematical equations,” writes Tejaswini Apte-Rahm in her debut novel, The Secret of More (Aleph Book Company), that offers a kaleidoscopic insight into Bombay’s booming cotton textile mills and the rising era of the silent film industry.
The city that turns cotton into gold lures people of all kinds into its vastness of sea—sometimes assisting in a smooth sail and sometimes, swallowing them whole. Set in the late 19th and early 20th century Bombay, The Secret of More explores the limits of unending lust for power— the fine lines and boundaries that cease to exist in the face of morals, and how, after all is said and done, can one achieve more and be more?
More is less
“Shall I tell you something, Aai? The Secret of more is that more is never enough”
In the middle of the crowded lanes of Kalbadevi, thronged by handcart pullers and small time-vendors, in the summer of 1899 in Bombay, Tatya, a seventeen-year-old boy steps foot to change his fate. Extremely hardworking and diligent, Tatya begins work under the protégé of Haridas Zaveri of Mulji Jetha Market — the largest cloth trading market on the continent. He begins his humble journey into the world of textile mills by shadowing Haridas Zaveri, learning the intricacies of the trade and keeping a keen eye on the various ongoing business transactions.
Living in the narrow lanes of Khatryachi Chawl with shared bathing facilities and a one room apartment, Tatya lives a meagre life with his new bride, Radha. Determined to turn his current situation into one that yields gold, Tatya earns a reputation that crowns him the king of the textile industry. Soon enough, he leaves behind his humble abode and moves into Jamshedji Mansion, a bigger house with more facilities.
Revelling in his new-found success in textile mills, Tatya finds himself in a strange, novel avenue — the motion pictures. The silent film industry was slowly emerging in Bombay and in it Tatya found an excellent opportunity to invest. Bioscopes as a concept seemed bizarre to him. The world of make-believe, illusion, and camera-focused stories didn’t make sense to his highly business-laden mind. After much deliberation, Tatya found some solid ground. Rising Sun Film Company was born. It was only the beginning of a long spell of unchecked fame, power and wealth.
His life attains a level of comfort he had never experienced before and yet he wanted more.
The cost of ambition
The first bioscope produced by Rising Sun Films was a success. Newspapers and magazines were abuzz with the ingenuity and master production of Arabian Nights. People gathered from all walks of life to witness a once-in-a-lifetime marvel. As the industry of silent films gained momentum, Rising Sun Films stood at the top.
However, the nature of the industry required continuous effort to upgrade existing systems to keep up with the changing times. Female actors in late 1900s Bombay were unheard of. Male actors played the female parts assisted by makeup and costumes. To stay relevant, they hired a female actress named, Kamal. A thing of beauty, Kamal attracted hundreds to the theatre, winning several hearts with her irresistible charm and on-screen presence.
In a weird twist of fate, Tatya falls in love with Kamal. He finds himself drawn towards the ethereal beauty of the actress. To him “the woman in the clearing had appeared like a character come to life from a book or a play.” This secret, clandestine meeting opened Tatya’s heart to a possibility he couldn’t wrap his mind around. He knew the boundaries had been crossed, and the wheels were set in motion.
The glittering world of the silent film industry
The 1900s saw the rise of the rising film industry in Indian Cinema. A silent film does not have previously recorded audios or synchronized voice overs. It solely relies on the actor’s emotions, costumes and makeup. The early decades of the 19th century introduced the art of storytelling using visual elements and then slowly progressed to ‘sound talkies’ often times accompanied by live orchestra in the theatres.
Tejaswini’s extensive research into the emergence of bioscope shows how Indian cinema came to life amidst various political and social upheavals. Against the backdrop of colonial Bombay, we see inspiration pouring in from the West as Tatya embraces technology to further enhance the cinema experience.
The indomitable spirit of the women of the early 20th century
If the traditions and customs bound the women to their husbands and marriage, the female characters in the novel with their indomitable spirit broke through those chains in their own ways. Considered too old at 12, Radha, married to twenty-one-year-old Tatya, is thrown into the throes of married life.
Finding camaraderie in the women of the Khatriyachi Chawal, Radha slowly begins to embrace the rigmarole of everyday life, immersed completely in domesticity. Mai, Radha’s widowed mother, with her shaven head and white sari, warned Radha of her foremost duty as a wife — to die before her husband. For she knew the ostracisation and stripping of basic humility a widow undergoes in the society.
When Radha gave birth to Durga, a thin, pathetic looking thing, darkness descended in Jamshedji Mansion. Not only was it a girl-child, but Durga was born handicapped. Shattered beyond repair, Radha was determined to give this girl a life she deserved.
Contrary to what the society expected of her, Radha spurred into action. She massaged Durga’s left arm and leg, treated her like a normal child, and taught her everything a woman needed to learn to be considered equal among her peers. Durga, imbibing the fearlessness and undying spirit of her mother, fought for her right to study, to be considered no less than a man, and to voice her opinion without any qualms.
Kamal bai, the star of the Rising Sun film, led life on her own terms at a time where single women in the entertainment industry were considered ‘polluted’ and ‘lowly’. She carved her way through sheer determination and courage even though her path was filled with obstacles.
Written in lucid, unhurried prose, Tejaswini’s novel is expansive not just in its narration but in its author’s ability to weave a rich tapestry of colonial Bombay with its famous textile mills and glamour of the motion pictures. At a time when the country was reeling with political and social revolutions that would go on to change India’s landscape, the novel renders an unforgettable reading experience.
The Secret of More is not just a story of an ambitious young man, it explores familial relationships, the political and societal backdrop of a bygone era, and the history of a city that has always been a treasure trove of all things gold.