Mitali Perkins does not try too hard. She does not do bracketed asides or 'lower cap-all cap' chapters, she does not pepper her passages with vernacular cuss words, nor does she indulge in any kind of psycho babble. And right through The Secret Keeper, it is her not-trying that remains the USP of the book.
Of course, her book is not entirely free of stereotypes — the fair, voluptuous elder sister, the skinnier unattractive younger one, the jealous aunt, the grandmother doting on the boy cousin. Or from factual improbabilities — Sumitra, a poor farmer's almost-illiterate daughter from 50s Bengal, who slips into her original, nasal dialect in her unguarded moments, is supposed to have ensnared the man of her dreams with her flawless rendition of Rabindrasangeet. But her narrative has the old-fashioned storyteller's 'compellingness' and heart that smoothens the rough edges, suspends disbelief and draws the reader into the tale.
The setting is 1970s Calcutta. The central character, the teenaged, diary-keeping, sporty Asha with her flat chest (writer's emphasis, not mine) and towering intellectual aspirations, is a
Jo-esque (remember Little Women?) figure. When the girls' (Asha and Reet) father loses his job to recession, the family shifts to their ancestral home in Calcutta.
The first half of the book describes the grafting of the two branches of the family in the absence of the adhesive that is Asha's father. The second half, maps the more definitive coming together of the two families, this time actually minus their Baba (he dies in a freak accident in the US).
Verdict? I am reminded of a quote usually attributed to St Augustine. It goes: 'When you don't ask me I know. If you ask me I know not.' I cannot applaud plot specifics of The Secret Keeper, denouement included, for originality. I tried to find a stand-out passage to quote but I couldn't. But I can tell you what Perkins does not do, and that is really her triumph.
She doesn't try to explain the Bengaliness of her characters, neither does she thrust it on your face. The 'eeshes' (sorry, untranslatable), the luchis (puri equivalent), the embarrassing dak nams (pet names) — Bontu, Bintu, Tuni — the roof-top romance (oh so fond Calcutta!) between Asha and neighbour Jay work like the subtle kalo jeera-kancha lonka phoron (black cumin-green chilli seasoning) — present and yet not present. She has given Asha moments such as this: "She fingered the bones of her face, her slim neck, the outlines of her skull. Nothing feminine about my head, she thought." But she does not turn it into a Spivakian not-quite/not male discourse.
The Secret Keeper, with its tres simple telling took me through places in time and memory that were mine and yet not-quite-mine. And that's what a good book should do, no?
memory's gold — Writings on Calcutta: An anthology of essays, stories and memoirs on reactions that Kolkata elicits, edited by Amit Chaudhuri.