RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
If you've been listening to MORNING EDITION for a while, you will have heard our commentator Sandip Roy. He's told stories about his life as an Indian immigrant in California and then about his life as an American citizen who moved back to India. Now he's written a novel called "Don't Let Him Know." Much like Sandip, his characters move back and forth between India and the U.S. and between their memories of the old India and their changing lives in the new. As they go about their daily lives, the characters ponder old family secrets and long-ago romances. In one chapter, a character recalls his teenage crush on a handsome barber.
SANDIP ROY, BYLINE: A little bit of that chapter comes out of my own experience - not the handsome barber, there was no handsome barber in my life (laughter) - but I used to hate having haircuts. And in fact, the hair salon where that story is set is drawn from my memory of this horrible, little place I was always forced to go to, and, you know, they would tie that sheet very tightly around your neck and powder you and really attack your hair.
MONTAGNE: And name it. It's got a wonderful name - the one in the book.
ROY: Oh, the one in the book is the New Modern Salon for Gents Air-Conditioned. It was like a status symbol that your hair salon was air-conditioned, and therefore, charge whatever - two rupees more - for your haircut even if you were not turning on the air conditioning.
MONTAGNE: (Laughter). There is a great chapter devoted to the great-grandmother's mango chutney. Read us a little passage.
(Reading) He watched great-grandmother supervise the mango chutney, the bubbly, golden, orange syrup like thick, winter afternoon sunshine, with a hint of roasted red chili. The fat slices of mango floating in it, all poured into round-bellied glass jars with glass lids. Sometimes little red ants would drown in the syrup. Don't worry, great-grandmother would reassure him, if you eat the chutney with the dead ants in it, you learn to swim. Amit's father said, that made no sense because the ants had drowned, but great-grandmother paid him no attention.
ROY: I should also say, Renee, there was a recent article that had come out, which talked about all the familiar tropes of South Asian fiction in America, and they had mentioned in there - mangoes, arranged marriage, a wise grandmother. And I went through the list and I was like, oh, my god, I have all of them in my book.
ROY: But I'd like to think I have them for a reason. I have them because they came naturally to me, and it was lovely.
MONTAGNE: This novel begins with a fragment of a letter suggesting a long-ago illicit romance.
ROY: Right. It's a letter that has a secret. And I had wanted to show the story of a family, and that families that look very happy from the outside actually have secret life. They're like a Petri dish of secrets that they hide in different ways.
MONTAGNE: Some of those secrets were created out of a need brought on by certain cultural aspects of their lives - for instance, arranged marriages.
ROY: Right. When I came to the United States, Renee, everybody would always ask about arranged marriages, and everyone was really baffled by arranged marriages and the fact that my parents had an arranged marriage where they had not seen each other till the wedding day. But in this book, what I wanted to show was not that the arranged marriage was any kind of medieval institution, but that it brought two people together who had not had any chance to discuss their secret lives, loves, fantasies, aspirations with each other at all.
MONTAGNE: We don't want to give away too much about the characters, but we must at least speak of one of the great secrets is that a couple of characters are gay. This would've been in the '60s and '70s when one in India - and probably not even in America at that time - could really ever come out.
ROY: Yeah, I think, Renee, in fact coming out itself is a somewhat alien concept in India. In India, if you were to come out, what it really means is that the entire family goes into the closet with you.
MONTAGNE: That's not funny, but...
ROY: So in that sense, you know, it becomes a communal secret, as it were, for the family. So you can't come out in a way as we think of it in the West because there are no gay bars, there's no real gay club, there's no gay organizations. All people have are surreptitious encounters in parks. It's very different now in India, you know, there's a very thriving community, there's support groups, there are many celebrities. And we get a little glimpse of that as well in the book, of the new India where people are openly having gay parties. And my character is not necessarily forced into marriage, you know, that is the ultimate, very normal destination for a person of his generation. It doesn't mean that he stops his walks in the park, but is able to sort of compartmentalize those lives. But also, Renee, you have to remember, when things are sort of much more taboo and illicit, there's also that extra frisson of excitement about it because you feel like even though it's a secret that might bother you, there's something delicious and forbidden about it as well.
MONTAGNE: Turns out that America plays a very particular role throughout this novel, and that is as a catalyst for these people's lives.
ROY: I think the story from Calcutta to California - those were always the two Cals in my life. And in a way, for my characters, as it happened for me, America changed everything. The way they react to secrets, to sexuality, to familial obligations and duties, all are shaped in a way by the time that they spend in America. I am a very different person because I came to America. And that includes the fact that I can actually cook now, because when I came to America, I could not even boil an egg because I was that kind of pampered Indian son. But I had to stand on my two feet and realize, like, OK, now I have to cook and clean and do all the things normal - do. And so I grew up, and that's what my characters do as well. They all grow up in the course of this book.
MONTAGNE: Sandip Roy is a longtime commentator here on MORNING EDITION. His new novel is called "Don't Let Him Know." It's been a pleasure talking with you again.
ROY: Thank you so much, Renee.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MONTAGNE: And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.