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Two former lovers stand awkwardly in a house in Calcutta, in a room full of junk and dust. They’re quiet, in private thrall to schoolboy memories of what they once were to each other. Then they speak, groping for halting accusations and stark truths about the separate lives they now lead. “You got away,” one man says to the other, “I got married. That’s just the way it is. It’s just something that happened.”
In this unassuming way, through the lens of life-altering events that, as in the real world, just seem to happen, Sandip Roy’s debut novel Don’t Let Him Know gradually explores the arc of one South Asian family’s experience through a collection of sparkling vignettes. There’s Avinash, the man in that dusty Calcutta room who got married instead of getting away, Romola, his wife, who knows about Avinash’s ill-fated romance and hides one of her own, and Amit, their son, in the dark about his parents’ secrets and struggling to find his place between India, where he was born, and America, where he has chosen to build his life. Roy weaves together twelve tales that simultaneously stand on their own and refer to one another, creating a compelling latticework of choices and motivations that reveals the truth: things definitely don’t just happen.
It’s possible to overlook broad universalities like these at first, waylaid as we might be by the urge to apportion a label like “South Asian,” “immigrant,” or “gay” to Don’t Let Him Know. A gay South Asian himself, Roy is well aware of people’s fondness for boxes. At a party in downtown San Francisco celebrating the release of his book, Roy, quick-quipped and warm, jokes about how this awareness came into play when he selected the book’s title: “It didn’t have a word like mango in it.”
But all joking aside, that doesn’t mean he shies away from certain telling references in his work, quite the opposite. As Roy sees it, popular tropes like mangoes and feisty grandmothers exist because of how integral they are to the South Asian experience in the US. And the easy identification of these “niche” themes and the labels that come with them can actually work in favor of a novel aiming for broad appeal. “The hope is that you will fall into many kinds of buckets,” he later explains, “so that they’re slightly confused as to which shelves to put you [on] in the bookstore.”
After living in the US for twenty years, Roy is now based in Calcutta, which makes his current month-long visit to the city he used to call home all the more important. Among artichoke dip and cups of red wine, he signs books, as several dozen friends shake themselves off from the blustery rain outside, hugging him and then one another. “Sandip in town is a rare event for us,” says one to the group; Roy mirrors his grin. It’s clear that he’s still deeply rooted in San Francisco.
It’s also clear that the themes winding through Don’t Let Him Know are themselves deeply rooted in Roy’s personal stories. Like his character Amit, he once received the “dreaded phone call at the crack of dawn,” bringing him news of a family member’s death. He calls this the “immigrant’s great nightmare, that you wouldn’t be present when someone back home needs you the most. “
Perhaps the poignancy of this experience is what inspires Roy to meditate at length on death in his book. In a third of the stories, Roy lingers upon the tender notes of a Calcutta frieze of loss – relatives who throng the room of the near-dead, bangles forever removed from a wife’s arms, foods no longer eaten out of respect for the departed. What would be an isolating experience faced alone becomes powerful and affirming as it is shared amongst members of a family. When death is dealt with in this way, Roy says, “you are in the midst of life.”
As the party continues, Roy holds court in the middle of the room, reading an excerpt after wrapping up a lively Q&A with the group that was interrupted at regular intervals by laughter, his and ours. He’s chosen a passage from “A Happy Meal,” where we meet an older Romola, back in America and on a hilarious mission to eat at McDonalds for the first time. When he reaches the end of excerpt, he employs a lovely turn of phrase, eliciting murmurs of delight from his listeners.
You can listen to a podcast of Sandip Roy in conversation with writer Richard Rodriguez here on KALW:
That sense of delight is multiplied tenfold throughout the novel, thanks to Roy’s attention to the details of setting and character. He wraps us up in Calcutta line by loving line, from a twilight in which stars “appeared encrusted like diamonds in the pink-flushed sky” to “ripe kitchen smells that clung to her mother’s sari – turmeric and sweat and stale talcum powder”; we are steeped in descriptions of sunshine drips, deep-fried aubergine and sindoor-smudged hair parts until they leave us permanently tinged with longing for a world that should be ours, if it isn’t already. “The Scene of the Crime,” “Requiem for a Star,” and “Great-Grandmother’s Mango Chutney” are especially gorgeous standouts among the vignettes, deserving multiple reads.
There is the occasional spare spot in the vivid tapestry of lives Roy gives us. As I closed the book, I remembered feeling puzzled during “A Happy Meal,” in which Romola is again confronted, decades after her first discovery of it, with Avinash’s letter from his male lover – a jarring event that, strangely, isn’t explored at all in the story’s second half. There was also a bit of unintended dislocation in “The Games Boys Play” in trying to understand Avinash’s unexplained grief over the fate of an off-screen character. I wondered further about Avinash – was I unsatisfied with him just because Romola is so dynamic?
But ultimately, I imagine you’ll be left much as I was after finishing Don’t Let Him Know: aching over its successes, then contemplating the stories of your own family. And in these musings, these ruminations on the things that “just happen” in a life, you’ll feel the tendrils of Roy’s prose.