Literary Review

Family flings

Don't Let Him Know; Sandip Roy, Bloomsbury Publishing, £16.99.  

Reading debut books is always an exciting prospect even though the risk of disappointment may loom threateningly large. In first-time novelist Sandip Roy’s book, Don’t let Him Know, there is no such risk involved. It is a sparkling and assured work of fiction likely to leave every kind of reader enthralled.

As it happens in literature all the time, it is a letter — that innocuous piece of paper — that is responsible for rumblings that will eventually gather momentum and result in an avalanche. Amit, a young computer engineer settled in San Francisco, discovers an old letter among his mother’s belongings, written by an unknown man and accosts her with it. Sixty-year-old Romola, who is visiting her son, is immediately thrown into flashback mode as memories of her days as a newly married woman tumble out. She recalls her childhood fascination with the sights and smells of an English countryside — garnered from story books — and her subsequent disillusionment with life in America, as Avinash’s new bride.

We are introduced to Avinash, Romola’s bookish taciturn husband, a complex man in whom secrets run deep and convoluted. Avinash and Romola eventually return to Calcutta where very soon, their son Amit is born.

The novel moves back and forth between America and Calcutta weaving adroitly around the characters of Avinash, Amit and Romola. Even though he sharply brings out the antiseptic quality of a lonely life (Amit’s) in the US, the author is truly in his element while writing about Calcutta. Thus, we are privy to a family where the members stretch across four generations (Romola, her mother-in-law, Amit and Avinash’s grandmother). The family dynamics are charmingly portrayed with the eldest member hiding jars of mango chutney under her bed and the youngest assisting her enthusiastically in her clandestine operations. The colours, smells and cacophony of Calcutta streets are vivid as are smells of food wafting from a middle class Bengali kitchen, one almost sniffs at the mustard fish being cooked in the Mitra household. Roy’s strength lies in conjuring intensely vibrant moods and atmosphere — young boys singing Rabindra sangeet on rain-washed evenings, the quality of light in a city caught in load shedding, the glitter and abandon in a gay bar….

Avinash has a secret (which includes a disastrous amorous encounter in a garden), and Romola’s knowledge of Avinash’s secret is her personal secret. On her part, Romola continues to nurse feelings for an old crush, a one-sided romance that fizzled out in her younger days, which makes for a second secret, while Amit, grappling his own inner demons, is oblivious to the hidden lives of his parents.

Roy explores with deep sensitivity the areas of sexuality, guilt, duty and forbidden yearnings; death and its accompanying paraphernalia are touched upon fleetingly. In etching the character of Amit, the author takes on the very real problem of non-resident Indians caught between filial duties and the practical difficulties involved in taking traditional parents abroad and getting them acclimatised to Western ways. Amit’s dismay at the thought of having to abstain from sex during his mother’s visit to California due to the thin walls providing powerful acoustics, is poignant and heart wrenching. It is another matter that Romola in the twilight of life, chooses to reclaim her life, and how!

The novel is a three-way mirror that reveals different faces of each character depending on the angle of perception, and in relation to one another. Suppressed longings, family bonding and undercurrents lurking beneath a seemingly ordinary family lend this book its texture.

Revolving chiefly around bondage and breaking free within the confines of a relationship, the novel is generously peppered with Bengali eccentricities and ennui.

The end, however, is astonishing and quite the stuff of Bollywood movies! Juxtaposing quirky lines from Alice in Wonderland and wriggling into every crack and crevice in the familial woodwork, this is an important and accomplished novel from an author who, in his very first stroke, proves that he is blessed with a congenital gift of words.

Don't Let Him Know; Sandip Roy, Bloomsbury Publishing, £16.99.

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Printable version | Jul 29, 2021 12:16:55 AM |

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