With a laugh, longtime Bay Area radio personality and journalist Sandip Roy calls himself a "twice-cooked immigrant."
He's been back in Calcutta for the past four years, to be closer to his aging mother. But prior to that, he spent 20 years in California -- and he's not quite done with the place. Roy still owns a house in San Francisco, and he kept his gym membership, he says, again with a laugh. This month, a flurry of Bay Area events centered around the Jan. 20 publication of his first novel, Don't Let Him Know, serves as a homecoming, of sorts.
"I decided that I'd go back to India for an indefinite period of time," he says. "People ask me if I've moved for good -- for good is a very permanent word that doesn't work for us anymore."
Roy originally came to the U.S. two decades ago to study computer science. He ended up working as a software engineer in Silicon Valley, dabbling in writing on the side. Before long, he'd came into contact with New American Media and began hosting a radio show, notwithstanding a total lack of experience. This led to a stint as a commentator on Morning Edition on NPR, and hosting duties at KALW in San Francisco. Journalism eventually subsumed the computer science work. Now, Roy is a senior editor at Firstpost.com, a popular digital news platform in India, and he writes fiction on the side. At least, it was a side gig, until an book editor came knocking on his door.
"'Accidentally' seems to be the theme of my life," Roy says, tossing out another friendly laugh. "It's not been the most planned journey, but it has been very serendipitous, lots of lucky accidents and chance encounters."
This particular chance encounter was an unexpected call from Diya Kar Hazra, an editor at Bloomsbury, which ended up publishing Don't Let Him Know. Hazra was tipped off to Roy by bestselling novelist Manil Suri, who'd read one of Roy's stories in the anthology Out! Stories from the New Queer India. (The story was one of a few that Roy had workshopped with his San Francisco writing group.) As he set out with Hazra's coaxing to write a book, another friend pointed out that the vignettes he'd already written, ones that Roy thought of as stand-alone pieces, were actually about the same characters.
"I realized," Roy says, "that I was telling different parts of the same story."
The end result is a poignant, empathetic, and gripping portrayal of the secrets kept to preserve familial safety nets. The novel opens with a mystery: Amit, the grown son of Romola and Avinash, lives in the Bay Area with his American wife June. Romola has come to live with Amit in America after the death of her husband. Soon after, Amit discovers a letter tucked away in an old address book; a love letter, perhaps, a confession of a thwarted lover's reunion. He confronts his mother with the contents, assuming, since the letter is signed by a man, that it was sent by a former lover. A Pandora's Box opens up as Romola remembers the origins of the letter -- how she opened it one day many years back, as a young and lonely bride freshly relocated from India to the Midwest, only to find that it was written by her husband's childhood friend and male lover back home.
"The genesis of the book is an image I had while driving on the freeway. Romola is standing on the roof of her house, watching as her husband stands at the door with the other man," recalls Roy. "I always had that image in my mind like a photograph. What is the relationship between the two men? Does she know the relationship?" The rest of the book radiates out from that moment, says Roy, rewinding and fast-forwarding to fill in the gaps.
"We never want to really know about our parents' life before us," says Roy. "We get squeamish hearing about their romances and that they, too, had guilty secrets we are not part of. I was thinking about the letter as a secret within a secret, but I realized that there were all kind of secrets in this book, and they were all carrying them around with them like little knapsacks."
When Amit returns to Calcutta for his father's burial, he struggles against a lack of connection with the dusty and crowded city of his youth. Romola carries the flame of a youthful dalliance with a famous film actor. Avinash lurks in gay chat rooms, but his desires remain sublimated by fear of repercussion. Secrets are at the heart of the novel, says Roy.
"The family that I have portrayed is in many ways, to all outward appearances, a fairly happy family," he adds. "There's no great childhood trauma or abuse, and yet, it is a petri dish of secrets. Some are dark and traumatic and could tear the family apart. Some are delicious -- a flirtation that isn't acted on, a secret desire for food that you shouldn't eat. Contrary to the famous Tolstoy line, all happy families aren't alike, they just know how to hide their secrets better."