Sandip Roy at Manipal’s Literary & Arts Fest (MILAP 2017) – Session & Interview
Sandip Roy, a journalist and author who currently resides in Kolkata, was one of the few dignitaries present at day two of MILAP 2017. His session during the Literary Meet touched upon the same topics as his debut novel, ‘Don’t Let Him Know’ – family and sexuality. The session itself was conducted by Dr. Meera Baindur, an associate professor at Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities.
The interactive session gave everyone present a glimpse into the inspiration behind his novel, in his own words, “I can say I have been writing this book for two years, or I can say I have been writing this book for twenty years, because parts of it have existed for that long.”
Though much of his life has involved writing about sexuality for media, Sandip Roy makes it clear that, at the heart of it, his novel isn’t a coming out story. “It’s a story about secrets, whether the secret is a big one like your sexuality, or a small one, like an infatuation with a movie star. It’s about three characters and their lives living with these secrets.”
“In the U.S. coming out is more of an individual affair, here it’s different, and I hope we realize that there are a spectrum of ways to come out, and all of them are okay.” Talking about his own experience, he recalls, “It was probably more difficult for me to tell my mother I quit my software engineering job to write full time as opposed to telling her I was getting married, and I was gay.”
Just like his novel, Sandip Roy’s candid session with the audience successfully brought levity to a topic still stigmatized by a large percentage of the population. We at the MIT Post had a chance to interview Mr. Roy at Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities (MCPH).
Sitting Down With – Mr. Sandip Roy
In a country as conservative as India, how should sexuality be approached in houses? We were raised to understand that sex is taboo. How then should sexuality be portrayed in stories across books and movies?
I remember as a child whenever there was an ad for family planning on TV there was an awkward silence in the room. I had no idea what a Copper-T was – but I instinctively knew that it had something to do with sex and hence we couldn’t talk about it with our parents. The irony is that (as you rightly said) in India we aren’t allowed to talk about sex but – seeing our population density – we clearly have no problems doing it (laughs).
We are very much a “don’t ask don’t tell” kind of country – as long as you’re not making a big hue and cry over it (sex) you’re okay. That is why we do need to talk about sexuality but in a way that is more Indian. This is one of the reasons why parades and pride marches don’t affect Indian households too much. They are definitely important but not as effective in an Indian context as what happened next.
There was a case where parents of LGBT children approached the Supreme Court on their (wards’) behalf. This had a bigger emotional impact on Indian households than if they were to see gay people march on the streets yelling, “Grant us our rights!” To Indian houses, the parents are making a more radical statement by going on television to talk about their gay children. It’s a much more Indian way of doing it.
There is no one way to make these discussions (on sexuality) happen across families in India because they’re all very different. I was also quite impressed to see some of our media handling these discussions well. Like there is this Bengali soap opera my mother watches now that deals with a man (whose wife has died) having a daughter with his mistress. This man wants to give equal rights to a daughter his family finds illegitimate and unworthy. It’s good to see our mainstream backing a hero whose ideals would have been considered regressive in the past.
Sir, our country seems to lack a culture of courtship. Our parents rarely accept their kids dating. We are expected to go from student life to a working life and straight to married life. There’s no transitional period where we can discover and experiment with our sexuality in a socially acceptable way. What are your thoughts on this?
It’s not that we don’t want to accept it – our parents courted too, but don’t want to encourage it in their children. There’s a veil of secrecy that falls over sexuality at that time. You’re bound to mix with people of the opposite gender – you can insist before your family that he’s “just a friend”, you can “take trips” together. So it’s not like India doesn’t have courtship, it’s just that we’re very hushed up about it. Our households need to have some extent of candor between parent and child, but that doesn’t happen for a major reason.
It’s very difficult for us to accept our children as adults. Middle-aged sons feel their mother’s love when they’re sent food – but even then it is hard for parents to accept their child’s emotional needs as an adult. It’s hard for us to have these conversations with our parents because we transition from children to semi-equal adults.
You spent a lot of time in San Francisco. How does their culture contrast ours? What was it like coming back to India?
I never lived in India as an adult – having gone to the US as a student. That’s why, when I came back to India, it was hard conveying to my family that I’m an adult. Even when I went out for dinner I felt that I had to take permission. It’s not like my family prevented me from going out – but it was really easy for me to slip back into the role of the son.
In San Francisco, it was the complete opposite. Even if I came back home at 2AM there was no one to give excuses to. In India, the culture is so radically different that even if my parents are okay with me coming back late, I would have to inform my building’s gatekeeper that I was going to be back late. I felt bad asking him to stay up late for me – so sometimes I would climb over the backgate in my Calcutta apartment to avoid waking him up. I basically broke into my own home.
Sir, you made the transition from software engineering to full-time writing. What was that like?
You did good research – that’s my shady past (laughs). I always enjoyed writing, but gender stereotypes came in the way. My sister – who is much older than me – was studying English Literature. I always liked reading her books and my family picked up on my interest for her subject. “Oh, as a boy what will you do studying literature? Will you become a teacher or professor? I mean that’s fine for a woman” – these comments from my family, coupled with the fact that I was good enough in studies to sit for the Joints, made me take up engineering.
I got into Computer Science at Jadavpur University, and made my way to Masters in Silicon Valley. America does free you, in a way, to experiment with yourself. Finally I was in a place where I could write freely without worrying what my family would say. So I started volunteering on a site for Indian journals, and then eventually I decided that I wanted to write full-time – I didn’t want to become a software engineer.
Then I got into Radio Journalism – eventually getting my own radio show in San Francisco. It was hard convincing my family that I had made the transition from software to writing – but they eventually gave in, saying, “We’ve raised you. We’ve done our part. Now it’s up to you.”
Soon, they even started taking pride in my writing. When my relatives would approach my mom with something I had written, she would say, “Oh, he always loved writing!” (laughs) In general, my family became very supportive of my profession – unlike many other families where children have made the switch from engineering to a creative background.
The book you wrote, ‘Don’t Let Him Know (2015)’, what gave you the idea for it?
I started writing short stories and then realized that they were part of a book. The stories are all about the same people but each chapter is a standalone story. I wanted to show a family that was, on the surface, a happy middle-class suburban family, but had secrets within. Some secrets were dark, while the others were at times delicious – like a romance you once had but can’t tell your husband about, or some food you eat but you’re not supposed to. Some of the secrets weigh down on you, while some actually give you great pleasure.
It’s a book, really, about those secrets which families have. I was less interested at having a gay character, as opposed to my other books. This book has a married man from his wife’s perspective. I didn’t just want to do a coming out story. I wanted to look at it from his wife’s perspective – how does she deal with this secret once she discovers it? I had an American reviewer who said that they were waiting for this big confrontation between man and wife – which never occurred to me. For me, she would figure out a way to live with this secret. I have a friend in San Francisco who says that coming out is a very individual act. In India, when you come out, it’s like your family goes into the closet with you. It becomes a shared secret.