In the last book, The Henna Artist, Lakshmi leaves Jaipur with her unmarried pregnant sister Radha and her protege Malik. But the hills give refuge to the henna artist. Radha was shipped off to Paris and Radha’s son, Nikhil, went with Kanta. Let’s not forget that Lakshmi got married to the doctor in Simla.
Alka Joshi’s sequel, The Secret Keeper of Jaipur is a coming-of-age story. Malik, the eight-year-old sharp-witted protege of Lakshmi, is now a young man, Abbas Malik. Educated in the prestigious Bishop Cotton School, groomed to walk the talk like a pukka sahib, Malik retains his native cunning. When Lakshmi sends him to Jaipur to learn the ropes of civil engineering, the twenty-year-old uncovers a secret. It is an unsuspected intrigue that links the Jaipur Royals, their trusted architects ‘Singh-Sharma’, Motilal jewelers, and the sheep that graze on the verdant hills in Shimla.
In a rich and intricately woven plot, Joshi exposes the guilty parties by unraveling the puzzle, literally brick by brick. Lakshmi’s journey from her garden of wildflowers and herbs to the sultry heat of the desert is sequined with scintillating detail. A few new characters emerge in the hilly terrain.
A recently widowed tribal beauty Nimi is trying to fend for her kids. She is thrown off-kilter by the unfortunate incident of her brother who succumbs to a fatal injury. Lakshmi’s adoration and concern for Nimi’s two children, Rekha and Chullu, is palpable in the narrative. I find her conversations with the little girl Rekha about clouds, rainbows, and books truly magical.
Lakshmi’s marriage to Dr. Jay is chronicled with a red bindi on her forehead, quiet evenings in their cottage sipping scotch and amorous caresses.
But the complex yarn is unraveled by Malik and his “Lakshmi boss”. Lakshmi leaves the hills to pay a visit to the queens Latika and Indumati. She brings to the palace her presence of mind and her trusted henna paste and emollients. After rubbing the dowager queen’s hands with juniper oils and tracing patterns of lion and saffron flowers, she convinces the ailing queen to pay a visit to the Royal Jewel Cinema. What happens next is an ironic unraveling of the intertwined secrets of greed, lust, and money laundering.
Alka Joshi highlights the royal heritage of Jaipur, Rajasthan opening her story with an inciting incident at the landmark Nine Jewel Theater (modeled after the famous art deco of Raj Mandir which was commissioned by the Surana family) and special kundan-meena jewelry propagated by the royals in the eighteenth century. Detailed descriptions of the glamorous meringue interiors of the cinema in Panch Batti, Jaipur transported me to my early days spent in Jaipur. As did the vivid, sparkling descriptions of the elaborate kundan and meenakari chokers, bangles, and bracelets on display at the Motilal (probably Surana) jewelers. Every incident in Alka Joshi’s book is arranged beautifully like a cabochon ruby. The chapters are enchantingly displayed like traditional wedding jewelry – the hallmark of Jaipur – coveted by every bride.
To read The Secret Keeper of Jaipur is to sniff lavender and gardenias, uncover writings in the sky, sink your feet in the shifting sands, uncover dubious liaisons, and read the lips of the silent palace guards. Beads of perspiration formed on my own brow as I watched Lakshmi and Malik flirt with danger. But there was always a promised respite in cool drinks of aam panna, nimbu pani, and a swig of Beefeater gin with the queen in her regalia.
Joshi does not fail to indulge her audiences by writing the final scene with a grand flourish, star-studded with ebullient children and mouth-watering Rajasthani delicacies, including besan ladoos and sewaiyan. An elusive account about the blue-eyed Nikhil, a stolen kiss, and possibly Ravi Singh’s revenge portend another book. Hain na Alka?
Once I started listening to this lyrical tale on Audible I could not stop. It was nice to hear the smattering of somewhat mispronounced Hindi words: Achha, Samjho, Akeli…
I am certain that the gossip-eaters will agree that Laksmi and Malik are no Aira Gaira Nathu Khairas! I felt that I got more than my money’s worth. Next time I see her in person, I will have to tell her: Alka, your book was worth aam ke aam guthliyon ke daam.
Monita Soni grew up in Mumbai, India, and works as a pathologist in Alabama. She is well known for her creative nonfiction and poetry pieces inspired by family, faith, food, home, and art. She has written two books: My Light Reflections and Flow through my Heart. She is a regular contributor to NPR’s Sundial Writers Corner.