In the warped hierarchy of literary-fiction publishing in India, any book that has received a stamp of approval from the West in the form of a British or American publishing deal receives more attention than a book that's published only in the subcontinent. When the book comes to India by way of both America and the UK, the hype it generates is even bigger. Sandip Roy's Don't Let Him Know, published simultaneously by Bloomsbury USA, UK and India, was one such book -- it triggered a great deal of press coverage long before it hit shelves; a handful of publications declared it the debut of the year, never mind that it was only January when the book came out; and rave reviews soon followed. While it is easy to be dismissive of yet another Bengali author writing family-oriented stories of Bengalis in America and Calcutta, Sandip Roy's excellent debut well deserves the noise it's making.
First, you have to ask a question, though. Is this a collection of short stories or a novel? Comprising twelve linked stories, each of which can be read isolated from the rest, Don't Let Him Know is also a novel with no arc. It begins with A Happy Meal, set in California, in which Romola is visiting her son and his family from Calcutta. Propelled by boredom, uselessness and the fear of a carefully preserved secret threatening to unravel, the widowed Romola, who has abstained from meat for years, has a hankering for a real American burger.
In the 2014 release Haidar, Tabu and Shahid Kapoor share a complex mother-son relationship at the core of which is a secret that can unhinge the family.
The book ends with The Scene of Crime, in which Amit and June, Romola's son and American daughter-in-law, decide that a family vacation in Carbondale, Illinois, where Romola had spent a few lonely years as the bride of a closeted homosexual, would be good for her. Romola isn't very keen on the trip. She hadn't enjoyed her stay in Carbondale and the town was bound to elicit bad memories -- it was there, after all, that, in addition to battling severe homesickness and loneliness, she had discovered a letter for her husband from his one-time male lover. Unable to sleep after a day spent feigning interest as she revisits sites of her past, Romola finds herself in a gay bar, chatting with a drag queen. There, she has a truly good time, confiding in Lady Bang La Dish. There's a stage performance that an alcohol-addled Romola finds herself participating in and a police hunt that she has unwittingly sparked.
If A Happy Meal sets the scene for a family with secrets the reader will immediately start rooting for, The Scene of Crime ends the novel with the right balance of humour and tenderness. In between the bookends, the reader learns more about the Mitra-Dutt family-of Avinash, Romola's husband, and his short-lived, ill-fated affair; of the awakening of Avinash's sexuality in a barber shop; of the death of Romola's father; of Romola's might-have-been affair with a film star; and of her delicate relationship with her grandmother-in-law-and their servants who play key roles in steering sub-plots.
The Mitra family isn't quite a troubled family. Romola, for example, may have known about her husband's sexuality, but to her he's a good husband and father, and that's what counts. For the most part, the Mitras are an unremarkable family. But Roy is a remarkable storyteller. He's good at writing about the mundane. He's skilled at infusing life into perfectly ordinary characters. He's terrific at capturing employer-employee dynamics. And his ear for dialogue, especially when it involves children, is delightful. Here's an exchange between a young Romola and Mohan, a family friend's servant:
'Well, I know other things too,' (Romola) said, slightly deflated. 'Like how babies are made.'
Mohan bursts into giggles, finally meeting her gaze. 'No, you don't.'
'Yes, I do,' she said indignantly. 'I can show you.'
He looked at her eyes with disbelief.
'But first you have to show me yours,' said Romola.
'What?' he said. 'You must be crazy.'
'Show me,' said Romola. 'I won't tell anyone.'
'Don't be silly.'
'No one can see us here.'
'I don't want to show you anything.'
'You have to,' said Romola.
'I have to?'
'If you don't show it to me, I'll tell Dipti-mashi you told me.'
'You little-' he said reaching out to grab her.
Romola jumped out of his way and sang, 'Show me, show me.'
Mohan looked at her baffled.
'Or I'll tell,' she said. 'And then Dipti-mashi will give you two tight slaps …'
Don't Let Him Know is a glorious read. Its strengths are manifold -- the clarity of language, the unhurried storytelling, the richness of characters -- and the book succeeds as much in parts as it does as a whole. The novel's biggest strength, however, lies in the author's ability to successfully thread together a dozen non-sequential events into a coherent, delectable whole. This stringing together of vignettes is very often difficult to pull off, but in Don't Let Him Know, it works beautifully, much the way it does in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. That's perhaps why I rate the book the best debut I have read in years.
(Prajwal Parajuly is the author of Land Where I Flee and The Gurkha's Daughter)