Thursday, January 18, 2018

Don’t let Him Know by Sandip Roy: book review

Don’t let Him Know by Sandip Roy
-- reviewed by Divya Dubey (publisher, Earthen Lamp Journal)

Publisher: Bloomsbury
Extent: 246 pp
Price: £ 16.99

 Published in Livemint: Jan 3, 2015

Is Sandip Roy’s debut work Don’t Let Him Know a collection of short stories – little lagoons connected by imperceptible waterways that bring them together as a well-knit whole? Or is it a novel that digresses into such independent yet interlinked little tales?

Few writers have succeeded with the former structure besides Raymond Carver, whose intratextual references are quite well known. Aravind Adiga’s Between the Assassinations is an instance; Shankar Vedantam’s Ghosts of Kashmir can be considered another paradigm.

A thorough reading of the novel – with each chapter a stand-alone story by itself – compels even a hardboiled critic to recognize that Roy’s breaking new ground here. The Acknowledgements section reveals:

A few of these stories appeared in early version elsewhere. ‘Ring of Spices’ appeared … in Contours of My Heat […] ‘A White Christmas’ is inspired by ‘Black and Blue’ from the anthology, Men on Men […] ‘Games Boys Play’ is a reincarnation of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ from Storywallah [...] A version of  ‘Great Grandmother’s Mango Chutney’ won the Katha Prize for Indian American fiction in India Currents Magazine....

Yet at no point in the book can one identify these blurring lines or spot dissonance. Instead the non-linear narrative these chapters weave, relate the family saga in a distinct style: through remarkable character portraits.

The usual diasporic murmurings make a deceptively simple beginning. After her husband Avinash’s death, Romola Mitra is visiting her son Amit, daughter-in-law June (an American) and grandson Neel in California. As a dutiful widow she has relinquished non-vegetarian fare, including fish for which she has a passion. However, American advertisements on television showing tantalizing pictures of food inspire in her a craving for a McDonald’s burger. This craving leads to the first of Romola’s incredible adventures in the city. Though the ugly scene at the fast food joint is another déjà vu (think English Vinglish), the end is not quite what the reader would expect.

Weaving past and present episodes together, the chapters bring to surface the characters’ personalities, ambitions and motivations, concerns with sexuality, secrets and lies that rule their lives. For instance, Romola was once in love with the actor Subir Kumar.  Years later at his death she wrestles her way through a belligerent crowd, all alone, to pay her last respects:

Deep inside she wanted to be acknowledged by the khaki-clad guard, by Amit, by Avinash [...] Dammit, she thought, she had sacrificed something too. She had given up Subir Lahiri so he could become Subir Kumar.

Avinash is unaware of this part of his wife’s history, just as she is unaware of most of his.
Avinash’s portraiture includes, at the age of fourteen, an encounter with his barber Sultan – one of the ‘no-good loafer boys’ he has been admonished against – which leads to him to confront his own sexual orientation. Years later he graduates to browsing online gay groups and lands up at an all-gay party where he has a rather disquieting experience. Most of his own past
is opaque to Romola or Amit, though Romola accidentally makes a discovery that alters her life.

Sandip Roy
Secrets play the most crucial role in this Pandora’s Box of a novel that shows the intersecting lives of these three members of a family fighting their own demons over several decades, set against contrasting cultural backdrops.

Amit too has secrets of his own. One of his greatest failings is to own up his mistakes even as another person has to suffer as a consequence. The selfish streak in him is very well illustrated, first through a childhood incident when Durga, the granddaughter of Mangala, their domestic help, has to pay for his negligence, and later through his attitude towards his old and widowed mother living alone in Calcutta post his father’s death.

Though parallels have been drawn between Roy and Jhumpa Lahiri, the mercurial quality of Roy’s stories is more characteristic of Rajorshi Chakraborti’s work, closer to Alice Munro’s style of storytelling. Like Munro's (or Chakraborti's) Roy's stories too 'embed more than announce, reveal more than parade'. From amusement to sympathy, to anger, to frustration, the reader’s involvement in the characters’ lives remains consistent. The beginning of the book seems somewhat tentative; the dialogue almost robotic. Gradually, however, it develops into a strong narrative with impressive characters and a store of dazzling surprises for the reader.

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