When a copy of ‘Don’t Let Him Know’ appeared in my porch, quite unexpectedly, a few weeks ago, my first instinct was to put it to one side, thinking that it wasn’t my kind of book. Curiosity though made me look at the book and I realised that it might be my kind of book after all, and that there was more than enough that was universal and timeless about the story for me to be happy to step into settings and periods that I rarely visit.
This is the story of a family, about the things that go unsaid or unacknowledged, about conflicting wishes and expectations, and about the consequences of all of that.
It opens in California, where Romola Mitra has lived quietly with her only son Amit, his American wife June and their young son Neel since her husband Avinash died a few years earlier. Romola didn’t feel ready for that life, so far from her home in India, but she knew that she was lucky and she really didn’t know what else she could do.
“Some days she wanted someone to say, ‘OK, you have followed the rules long enough. You are free now.’ But no one ever did.”
Amit found the last page of an old letter in his mother’s address book. He read words of love, and he took them to mean that Romola had loved and been loved by a man who was not her father. He encouraged her to look for that man, to find out what had happened to him.
He had no idea that those words had not been addressed to his mother. They had been addressed to his father, who had not had the courage to defy convention and stay in America with the man he loved; who had returned to Calcutta on the death of his father, to marry the girl his family had chosen, to follow the path set out for him as an only son.
The story moves pack into the past then, with each chapters telling the story of a significant moment that Romola or Avinash or Amit has never felt able to share. They weren’t an unhappy family, but they weren’t a happy family either; they were a family who played their roles and lived from day to day without ever talking about so many things.
Sandip Roy writes lovely, lyrical, readable prose, his observation is acute, and his characters are wonderfully engaging. I believed in them, in their relationships, in their situations. There is humour, there is sadness, there are so many human emotions threaded through these stories. Some are stronger than others, but they all work.
The human story is always to the fore, but each tale has something to say about the conflicting forces that underpin lives: tradition versus modernity; duty versus desire; the old world versus the new world.
Now I have a head full of images: a broken Mickey Mouse watch, a film star’s funeral, jars of mango chutney hidden under a bed.
I also have memories of less tangible things: the strongest is of Amit’s dislocation when he returned from America after his father’s death, of his wish to do the best thing for his mother, and of his difficulty is balancing that with his wishes for his own life with his wife and child.
After that the story falls away a little, and the final act feels just a little contrived.
I have no context – I can’t think when I last read any contemporary Indian writing – but I do think that as a whole the book works very well.
It makes me realise that, although there are lots of wonderful books in my comfort zone, I should probably step out of it a little more often on future.