Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 07/19/15 7:52 AM

Book review: Don`t Let Him Know by Sandip Roy

What lies beneath?

It all starts with a letter. A plaintive letter written by someone who feels wronged, dumped. A letter meant for someone now far away in an Illinois campus town, and read by someone else, one who has just plighted troth with the person the letter is addressed to. And inside the letter, a revelation.

And so Sandip Roy opens various doors, creaking and otherwise, and lets us into the Kolkata and American dwellings of the Mitra family. There is Avinash Mitra, holder of a secret that he keeps close to him, one part of him cherishing it, the rest of him banding together in stout denial of everything it portends.

There is Romola, Avinash’s well-educated wife who stumbles onto that secret in almost predestined fashion, but who now holds it close in the pattern of safeguarding a hair-shirt. There is Amit, their son, who has his own little cache of covert thoughts and deeds but is totally unaware of the Big Secret, though.

Secrets and lies, cover-ups and compulsive actions. The dozen stories in this book are actually standalone tales but linked to the larger narrative, that of the Mitra family. Told directly, simply, effectively, they traverse one old family house in Kolkata where Avinash grew up, and became aware that he had a secret. Where he watched his great-grandmother furtively make and eat mango chutney; where Amit grew up in turn, and learned to place a higher premium on his comforts than his integrity.

Then the stories move to another old house where Romola grew up, watched her ailing father die, met and married Avinash, inadvertently made changes in the age-old pattern of her marital home, all the while nursing a secret of her own.

These are lives seemingly lived in the ordinary manner, the everyday routine hiding chunks of the not-at-all ordinary. The characters all live out their small lives, hiding large secrets and longings. If people walk the dark side, they do so in surreptitious manner, filled with trepidation but unable to resist the temptations contained therein.

People die, people fade away, people act out their petty jealousies and insecurities. People learn to cope. People revisit places that hold nothing but bad memories, and suddenly discover they can make fresh memories.

Roy keeps the tone, the style, his characters, all low-key and that restraint works so much more than angry outbursts, sulky fits or hysteria could possibly have. These are what in another age would have been called concise stories, containing just the right quantities of emotion, action, thoughts, feelings.

The characters take centrestage here; where they live is incidental, just places they have taken the complexities of their souls to. The breaking of barriers are economical, nothing too large in scale. When they inadvertently wander into “well-worn battlefields”, they take extra care not to trip the mines. Even Avinash’s brush with real and closely present danger is presented in a taut manner.

In these non-linear short stories that are ultimately a family saga, it is the cast of women characters who stand out. The angry yet obedient wife Romola, she who is forced to give up the pleasures of eating fish after becoming a widow; she who harbours a hidden warmth for the long-ago friend who went on to become a matinee star. The great-grandmother, achingly aware of the intimations of mortality but still putting up a good fight to do what she wants to. Young Durga painfully made aware of her place in the social strata of the household where her grandmother serves as a longtime domestic help.

These are stories of love and longing, love and everyday living, don’t visit any totally unexpected or unanticipated nooks. What they do is coax out the veiled emotions behind the calm surface. They are gently told stories of life lived quietly, where love is always viewed through a trellis. Where the heart-hammering fervour of young love is also dappled, strained, diluted. Conflict too, is presented sideways here, never full-face.

These are people with secrets big and small, innocent and damaging, secrets that shine a clear light on the people they are, the people they have become. And in the end, the reader is left to muse on the impact of secrets on lives.

Don’t Let Him Know/ by Sandip Roy/Bloomsbury 2015, pp 245, Rs 499.

This ran in DECCAN HERALD of 19 July 2015.

family secretsSandip Roy

Sheila Kumar • July 19, 2015

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