By Abeer Hoque
Don’t Let Him Know is Sandip Roy’s debut novel in stories. Each chapter stands on its own, but they come together in a tour de force of this structure to tell a story of three generations, reaching from old Calcutta to chilly Carbondale to sunny California.
She watched a lonely matchstick of a fry sitting in a smear of ketchup.
The three main characters are Avinash, a closeted gay Calcuttan, his sharp and dreaming wife Romola, and their son Amit. Each is nuanced and real, leaping off the page without sensationalism or gimmick. Their stories, secret or spoken, are told with a light and poignant touch.
Avinash would stare at the thickets of grey hair growing out of [the barber] Nripati-babu’s ears and see his own black hair tumbling down over the black newsprint as if the letters themselves were being uprooted.
Roy’s sense of place is wonderful. Calcutta, Carbondale, and California are vividly presented. I could feel the very atmosphere of each. For example, this simple, lovely description of Carbondale at Christmas is especially resonant considering New York’s arctic winters of late:
The snow had covered all the cars parked on the street turning them into ghostly cartoon shapes, their sharp edges rounded and softened.
And this scene set in Calcutta is ripe and rich:
The sides of their little market street were piled high with winter vegetables—stubby carrots and cabbages and cauliflowers, some no bigger than a clenched fist, others as large as footballs. Women sold them squatting on the pavements, their saris hitched up around their knees, silver blades flashing in the sun like steely minnows as they lopped off the leaves and threw them casually in the gutter.
The story, “The Right Thing to Do,” broke my heart, as Amit struggles with whether to bring Romola, his stricken, widowed mother back with him to America. But it’s the seamless combining of stories that makes this book, even as the chapters jump around in time and space. It’s hard to talk about the myriad familial themes in Don’t Let Him Know without sounding like a movie trailer: money and marriage, love and longing, ambition and fate. But it’s all there, seen through the lens of these often thwarted lives.
“If I am never to see you again, what use this flood of moonlight except to drown in.”
There’s a beautiful scene that ends the story, Ring of Spices, where Romola upon finding out the secret of her husband’s gay past, is overcome with despair and homesickness. She soundlessly chants the names of spices, and each time she repeats them, an English name turns to its Bengali equivalent, as if these will protect her from her desolation.
Turmeric, coriander, methi …
Turmeric, dhoney, methi …
Holud, dhoney, methi …
My to-read list is filled with “the cool books,” the authors to read, and it’s such a pleasure to find a book that’s all that, and one I’m eager to pick up each time I have to put it down. I finished Don’t Let Him Know in three days. It’s a fantastic debut, and I look forward to more.
Don’t Let Him Know
By Sandip Roy
Bloomsbury USA (January 2015)