Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 17, 2018

Don’t Let Him Know, by Sandip Roy #BookReview

Cultural change is such an interesting and complex phenomenon…

Over a lifetime we witness numerous aspects of cultural change which impact on us as individuals in different ways.  Some changes we reject and others we embrace, for reasons which can be moral or ethical, religious or environmental, economic or political.  Sometimes our attitudes to change are simply instinctive: we just like it, or we just don’t. Sometimes we simply don’t notice it happening around us, and that’s usually because it doesn’t impact on us.  Sometimes it’s because we have our collective heads in the sand…

But looking at cultural change in an abstract way is an entirely different business to having a personal investment in it.  For people on the margins and those who love and care for them, cultural changes towards disability, gender diversity and ethnic or racial identity might matter a great deal more than consumerism or popular culture or even economics or politics.  That’s because, I think, a contented life is contingent on belonging – in a family, among friends, in a community and in a society.

I’ve been thinking about this since reading Sandip Roy’s debut novel Don’t Let Him Know which was longlisted for the 2016 DSC Prize.  In a series of vignettes linked by the characters in an Indian family, Roy explores the ways in which LGBTIQA people are constrained in their relationships by cultural expectations in Indian society.  The book begins with Romola Mitra, a new bride, uprooted to America where her husband is a student, accidentally opening a letter from Samit, her husband Avinash’s former lover. She is shocked and horrified, but never reveals that she knows because her cultural inhibitions are so strong.  Decades later her only son Amit finds a fragment of the same letter and thinks it’s from his mother’s lover. Romola in widowhood lets him think so, rather than admit that her husband was gay.

The cultural gulf between American life and Indian life seems wide in this novel.  Romola is a smart woman with an MA in Literature, but from her parents’ point-of-view this achievement is primarily to make her suitable for a good marriage to an educated man.  (They certainly don’t approve of her crush on a handsome fellow who wants to be an actor.  Romola nurses this crush in secret when he becomes a Bollywood star, yearning for what might have been).  Because it would be unthinkable to follow her heart, she submits to her parents’ matchmaking and marries Avinash who is aloof and reserved, because he too is being pressured into marrying to please his parents.

Romola never has a career, and drifts into a lifetime of serving her husband.  She is characterised as a passive woman, wasting her time watching inane TV shows and demonstrating a steely resolve only when she meets Samit and wants to show him that there is no prospect of him interfering in the marriage she has sacrificed herself to protect.  Although both Avinash and Romola’s families are proud to be more ‘modern’ than past generations, their expectations are still that their children will cooperate with life in an extended family, that they will marry and have children, that they will contribute to family traditions and rituals whatever they are, and that women will have a subservient role within a marriage while men are the providers.

Yet there are some cracks in this veneer of middle-class respectability.  Technology means that gays can find each other, and covert opportunities for meeting and socialising are possible.  Romola can join a throng of grieving fans when her film star idol dies, and the heavy discipline of Avinash’s education is gone by the time their son Amit goes to school.  Sandip Roy also breaks open the myth of family values with episodes of overt cruelty to the very elderly women in the household, who are made to feel a burden.

But divergence from the norm remains unacceptable and must be covert.

American life, however, is shown to be more tolerant because gay bars don’t have to be hidden there.  The violence of blackmail happens in India, not in the small town of Carbondale in Illinois. Despite his initial prejudice, Amit makes an inter-racial marriage because social contact in the US occurs across class and race.  OTOH some of Amit’s ‘modernity’ is shown to be thoughtless and unkind.  From faraway California he leaves his cousin to take care of his father’s funeral rituals, and abandons his responsibility to take care of his widowed mother as he is expected to do.

While the novel exposes the secrets, sacrifices and constraints on happiness in India compared to the US, it also shows that there is still pressure towards conformity in American life.  Housing is drab and apartments all look the same, and Romola, visiting her son after Avinash has died, is conscious of dressing differently.  (She is offended when her DIL June wants to recycle one of her saris to make a skirt; she is also privately scornful of their decision to name their son Neel – a name she regarded as bland and colourless, its Indianness discreet as if it did not want to disturb the placidity of their American suburbia).  Romola has had the courage to reject the tradition that widows should never eat meat or fish (to show that even eating is no pleasure once the man for whom the widow cooked is dead).  But in America she finds herself craving a hamburger because in Amit’s household everything is organic, uber-healthy and completely flavourless – and yet she is incapable of saying so because she risks disapproval if she does.

It’s not really clear from this novel that honesty is better than secrets.  Romola’s secret crush on Kumar does no one any harm, but the repression of Avinash’s sexuality harms both him and his wife.  Amit, who never knows about it, goes blithely on his way.

I think what this novel reinforces is that cultural change is slow and complicated, and that it takes people of courage to forge new and more inclusive paths.  As those of us who negotiated the complex changes of feminism in the 70s know, the paths are full of potholes, and there can be pain along the way.

Author: Sandip Roy
Title: Don’t Let Him Know
Publisher: Bloomsbury 2015
ISBN: 9781408856642
Source: Kingston Library

Joe Schreiber at Rough Ghosts reviewed it too.


Responses

  1. This is a quietly complex novel isn’t it? I’m glad you found it rewarding reading too.

    • Thanks to you for an enticing review, I knew I wanted to read this as soon as I read yours:)

  2. Novels are probably the best way to explore cultural change, though I would be interested to read the same story by an Indian woman. Years ago I read a similar novel in reverse by PC Wren where an Englishwoman marries an Indian who’s at Oxford or Cambridge but who when he takes her home abandons her to be dominated by her mother in law.

    • Well, yes, there’s been some very disturbing news coming out of India lately, and the violence against women and girls is shocking.


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