Don’t Let Him Know by Sandip Roy

Hardcover, 256 pages
Publisher: Bloomsbury (January 2015)
Language: English
Selected by Chiki Sarkar

“Homosexuality is still officially illegal in India – an effect of our outdated colonial penal code. There has been a huge amount of protest about the issue in recent years as gay life has begun to move into the mainstream. But the law remains, leaving many vulnerable to the police. Most middle-class Indians still don’t come out to their families, leading double lives, often getting married and starting a family. Roy’s novel is one of the few in the country that deals openly with homosexuality.” —Chiki Sarkar

In a boxy apartment building in an American university town, Romola Mitra, a newly arrived young bride, anxiously awaits her first letter from home in India. When she accidentally opens the wrong letter, it changes her life. Decades later, her son Amit finds that letter and thinks he has discovered his mother's secret. An evocative tale of secret love and family duties, Sandip Roy’s debut novel moves from adolescent rooftop games to adult encounters in gay bars, from hair salons in Calcutta to McDonald’s drive-thrus in California.

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Chapter V – Great grandmothers mango chutney
Two weeks after Amit was dumped by his first serious American girlfriend, he was suddenly stricken by an urge for homemade mango chutney. The memory, sweet and tart at the same time, tugged at him so insistently that he got into his run-down old Honda hatchback, drove down to Valencia Street, past the taquerias with their mariachi bands and the newly sprung chic tapas restaurants, until he found the only Indian grocery store in the neighbourhood. As he stood in the store deliberating over the bottles of Pataks and Priyas while a tinny song from the latest Bollywood blockbuster wafted through the aisles, he noticed a battered can next to the pickles. The blue paper on the can had faded in the sun and the yellow fruit pictured on it was bleached to a pale ivory. Amit looked at the expiry date – it was about four months ago. But there it was: canned jackfruit1. It was a far cry from the jackfruits he would see in India – hacked open, their golden yellow pulp voluptuously spilling out on to the street, the buzzing shiny black-blue flies hovering over them as eager as wedding guests. But for a moment, in the aisle of that grocery store in San Francisco, over the sharp whiffs of fresh cumin and stale samosas, Amit could smell that cloying sweet jackfruit odour that clung thickly to everything it touched. And he heard his mother as if she was standing in the next aisle.

“I will not have it,” said Romola. “Not in this house, while I am alive. I have told her once, I have told her a thousand times – I will not have jackfruit in my house. The smell makes me want to throw up.”

“But did you find any?” asked his father, Avinash, trying to be rational.

“Find any? You think she was born yesterday? She has eaten every last bit. She and that old maid of hers. But the smell2 – my whole refrigerator smells like it was bathed in it.”

“Well, it’s done now,” said Avinash placatingly, unwilling to forsake his newspaper and step into the fight.

But Romola was not to be appeased. “You think it’s just for me? What about her? At her age, eating so much ripe jackfruit.”

She looked at her mother-in-law for support. But Amit’s grandmother had told Romola a long time ago that she did not want to handle the old lady’s demands any more. Now that Romola was around, her duty as daughter-in-law was done and she was going to spend more time volunteering with her Rotary Club Ladies Circle.

So Romola looked at Avinash and muttered, “If tomorrow she has an upset stomach, you clean up – she is your precious grandmother, after all.”

Amit’s Boroma, his great-grandmother, was 94. She still had her own teeth – with a few missing here and there. When it suited her she was blind. When she did not want to hear something she was deaf. At other times she would prop the thick black-framed glasses with their almost cloudy yellowish lenses on her hooked nose and peer at the newspaper with great concentration. Her favourite section was the obituaries, which she read with ghoulish relish.

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[1] A member of the mulberry family, the jackfruit is a large, green tropical fruit that is high in protein, potassium and vitamin B.
[2] Jackfruit has a distinctive smell – some say it is like Juicy Fruit chewing gum.

  • Don't Let Him Know