The Secret Keeper of Jaipur
By Alka Joshi
Mira Books, Canada
ISBN: 978-0778386339
353pp.

Corruption, greed for power and the desire for wealth are the kinds of afflictions for which nothing is ever enough of a remedy. The more powerful a person is, the more he — or she — is liable to misuse power. The more one’s coffers overflow, the greater the hunger to stuff them further. If one must commit fraud to do so, then so be it.

Sometimes, though, one may be forced into a wrongful situation just to make ends meet. That may generate sympathy, but the repercussions will be the same and no number of sob stories will justify criminal activity, particularly when it affects others.

India-born American author Alka Joshi’s sophomore novel, The Secret Keeper of Jaipur, delves into such a world of corruption, where the wealthy use means both fair and foul to become super rich, and can easily cover up their tracks because of their power and influence.

Joshi received much acclaim for her bestselling debut The Henna Artist. Her second novel looks at the same characters 12 years later, but it is not exactly a continuation and can be read and enjoyed on its own, especially since Joshi includes plenty of references and backstory.

Alka Joshi’s sophomore novel uses the same characters as her bestselling debut book and delves into a world of corruption, power and class divisions

It is the spring of 1969 and Lakshmi, the runaway protagonist of The Henna Artist, is now married to Dr Jay Kumar and settled in the beautiful hills of Shimla. Putting her knowledge of indigenous herbal remedies to good use, she heads the Healing Garden, where various plants are grown for medicinal use. Adjacent to the Garden is Dr Kumar’s Community Clinic.

Young Malik, the street urchin who followed Lakshmi around in the dusty lanes of Jaipur, is now 20 years old. Lakshmi had earlier arranged for him to be educated at a private school and now she has secured him an apprenticeship at the Royal Jaipur Palace, under the tutelage of Manu Agarwal, director of facilities at the Palace and husband of Lakshmi’s old friend Kanta.

When Maharani Latika of Jaipur commissions a state-of-the-art film theatre — the Royal Jewel Cinema — to be built on the Palace’s grounds, Manu is given the responsibility of overseeing the construction process and Malik, as his assistant, begins learning the ropes of the business from him.

The cinema is all people can talk about. Much hype surrounds the grand opening of the venue, and everyone who is anyone is excited to attend the glamorous launch ceremony. Tragically, the festivities take a sharp downturn when a balcony collapses. The public is outraged and, coming under pressure from every corner, the Maharani orders an inquiry.

As is usual in such cases, the blame is placed squarely where it is most convenient: on those who have neither the money nor the influence to defend themselves. The unfortunate soul picked to bear the consequences here is Manu Agarwal. As he had been the authority signing off on purchase orders, bills and invoices, a mountain of ‘evidence’ piles up against him and the helpless Manu decides he has no choice but to submit to his fate.

Malik, however, refuses to accept that Manu is liable for the tragedy. He harbours strong suspicions about what caused the balcony to collapse and is determined to expose the truth. But even as he vows to protect Manu from the scandal that is bound to erupt and bring the older man’s long and illustrious career to a humiliating end, the people actually responsible for the disaster are already hard at work to cover up their own tracks.

A parallel thread in The Secret Keeper of Jaipur revolves around the smuggling of gold — that immensely valuable commodity upon which rests any South Asian’s standing and status in life. In 1968, the Indian government had implemented the Gold (Control) Act, which placed severe restrictions on sales of the precious metal within the country, so much so that jewellers were forced to buy it from smugglers to meet the demands of their clientele. Desperately poor people needing to feed their families found smuggling to be a lucrative occupation and were prepared to risk life and limb for the benefits incurred.

Just before leaving for Jaipur to work with Manu Agarwal at the Royal Palace, Malik had befriended a young mountain girl named Nimmi. A widow with two young children, she had left her nomadic tribe after her husband’s death to settle in Shimla, where she sells flowers from a stall. Like Lakshmi, Nimmi possesses encyclopaedic knowledge of local flora and their medicinal properties.

Nimmi and Lakshmi initially have a strained relationship, since Nimmi believes Lakshmi sent Malik away to Jaipur in a deliberate attempt to separate them. Lakshmi, meanwhile, is having a difficult time accepting that Malik has fallen in love with Nimmi. Nonetheless, she is willing to take the younger woman under her wing, offering her work in the Healing Garden.

One day, some children bring an injured sheep to the Community Clinic. Nimmi recognises it as belonging to her brother and, sensing him to be in trouble, sets out in search of him. She finds him on a mountainside, close to death, his flock of sheep roaming around.

The sheep have a pocket of sorts cut right into their wool, with a bar of gold sewn inside the cavity. As he gasps his last breath, Nimmi’s brother hands her a scrap of paper with a name scrawled on it. It is the person to whom the gold bars must be delivered and Nimmi must make sure of it, or her brother’s family will have to face the consequences. Nimmi is a simple woman, not used to the ways of the modern world and unable to read or write, hence Lakshmi steps in to help.

Joshi expertly weaves the two apparently disparate plots together into a cohesive and very readable book. The mysterious collapse of the newly built Royal Jewel Cinema seems as far removed from the gold-smuggling sheep as the scorching desert of Rajasthan is from the verdant cool of the Himalayan foothills. But once Malik and Lakshmi find the real culprit, the connection between the cinema’s subpar construction and the smuggled gold will surprise readers.

Telling the story from three distinct perspectives — Lakshmi’s, Malik’s and Nimmi’s — Joshi transports readers into the rich culture of India. She paints vivid pictures of both beauty and poverty, of class structures and their strictly maintained divisions, and of lifestyles that vary dramatically in the journey between Shimla and Jaipur.

On the one hand is the opulence of the Royal Palace, the aristocrats dressed in the finest of silks, laden with jewels. On the other are the nomadic tribes, whose entire lives can be loaded into a single, rickety bullock cart. One kind lives luxuriously off the labour of others, the other struggles daily just to survive.

The author’s use of language is also appreciable. She sprinkles Hindi words liberally throughout, but — since she also provides a fairly extensive and very helpful dictionary towards the end — rather than being an impediment, it only adds to the reading pleasure, as it gives a taste of local parlance.

The reviewer is a freelance journalist and tweets @naqviriz

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 21st, 2023

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