No matter how open someone may appear on the surface, the odds are that somewhere with them lurks secrets unspoken, some possibly even unacknowledged, that may never see the light of day, regardless of how close they may be to their loved ones.
This idea, that we never truly know a person, even when we share a marital bed or a home with them for decades, is central to Sandip Roy’s deeply-engaging novel Don’t Let Him Know, which centres on the Mitra family whose story is split between India and the USA, the past and the present.
Told as a series of very loosely interconnected short stories, which move back and forward in time and are told from the perspective of Avinash, his wife and their son Amit, the book functions as an exploration of the many reasons why secrets are kept and the way they can affect relationships which may otherwise be perfectly healthy.
Well to initial appearances anyway.
If you were to look at the marriage of Avinash, who is recalled from his academic studies in Carbondale, Illinois, on the death of his father to marry Romola, a virginal woman who has not set foot outside her village, you would think they were your typical, comfortable, set-in-their-ways middle class couple.
“At the wedding she glanced at Avinash as they went around the fire seven times. His gaze seemed far away, his brow furrowed in thought. She wondered what he was thinking. Was he imagining his life in America and worrying how she would fit in there? She realized they had talked about his interests and her interests but nothing about their lives together.” (P. 29)
But Avinash hides a secret, one that societal and familial obligations necessitate be deeply buried – that he is gay and was planning a life in America with his lover Sumit, one far removed from the constraints of his traditional Indian family.
While Sumit holds true to their pact not to wed, Avinash acquiesces, setting in train a series of decisions that come to imprison him even as he builds a life that ticks all the boxes that his family requires.
His is not an awful life – his career is successful (though not quite as successful as if he had stayed in the USA), he and Romola enjoy a reasonable companionship, and he adores his son Amit – but then neither is it a truly happy one, constrained down through the years by the secret he holds.
Unbeknownst to Avinash, however, Romola discovered his unspoken secret early on in their marriage when she mistakenly opened a letter from Sumit, asking why his lover had failed to keep up his end of their bargain.
Traumatised by the discovery, Romola buries her secrey down just as deeply as Avinash has his, using her non-acknowledgement of the letter’s contents as a way to shield herself from the fact that the life she has fashioned for herself is built on a lie.
That is, of course, until Amit discovers the letter in a diary when Romola moves to America some years after Avinash’s sudden death, and she is forced, once again, to confront the price that secrets exact on those holding them close.
While Don’t Let Him Know, does an exemplary job of letting us in on the way in which secrets can come to define a family, and the many sacrifices that have to be made to accommodate them – Romola for instance feels as if her life has never been her own, always at the beck and whim of others, never herself – it doesn’t fully follow through on its initial promise.
While the interwoven short stories do provide a refreshingly different narrative, allowing you to get to know the central characters and a number of secondary characters very well, such that you feel you know them intimately by book’s end, they also serve to dissipate the full effect of the narrative’s impact.
The emotional resonance isn’t fully lost, with Roy’s spare but poetic writing drawing you into a closed-off world of repression, loss and secrets, all overlaid with a veneer of happiness, muted though it might be, but the full import of that the holding of the secrets means for each of the characters isn’t fully explored.
“You are mad, said a voice in Avinash’s head. You are drunk. But Rohit was already walking towards the door. Avinash meekly followed him out of the club and into the dark night … This is real, he thought. This is happening. He took a deep breath and closed the door behind him.” (PP..183-184)
Still, overall Don’t Let Him Know, is a richly-told, emotionally-immersive story, one that captivates from start to finish as a family struggles to define itself in the face of a series of suppressed realities take their toll.
The book speaks to the tenacity of the human spirit, such that even when faced with overwhelming realities that block the heart from pursuing its true desires – Romola and Avinash both harbour unfulfilled passions and road-less-taken regrets – that a life, a good, if not perfect life, can still be created.
It may not be what each person set out to create when they first embarked on adulthood, and involves trade-offs that in an ideal world would never have taken place, but as Roy eloquently makes clear in his shimmering debut novel, sometimes tradition or one’s own acquiescence with unpalatable realities leave you with no choice, and what results is simply what is, nothing less, nothing more.
Roy makes no definitive statement on what should have been, or what should’ve taken place, choosing instead to highlight what happens when a family is caught between reality and an ideal, between countries and cultures, and ultimately between unspoken and unacknowledged secrets that in the end wield a power out of all proportion to their visibility.