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Keya Das's Second Act

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About The Book

A poignant, heartwarming, and charmingly funny debut novel about how a discovered box in the attic leads one Bengali American family down a path toward understanding the importance of family, even when splintered.

Shantanu Das is living in the shadows of his past. In his fifties, he finds himself isolated from his traditional Bengali community after a devastating divorce from his wife, Chaitali; he hasn’t spoken to his eldest daughter Mitali in months; and most painfully, he lives each day with the regret that he didn’t accept his teenaged daughter Keya after she came out as gay. As the anniversary of Keya’s death approaches, Shantanu wakes up one morning utterly alone in his suburban New Jersey home and realizes it’s finally time to move on.

This is when Shantanu discovers a tucked-away box in the attic that could change everything. He calls Mitali and pleads with her to come home. She does so out of pity, not realizing that her life is about to shift.

Inside the box is an unfinished manuscript that Keya and her girlfriend were writing. It’s a surprising discovery that brings Keya to life briefly. But Neesh Desai, a new love interest for Mitali with regrets of his own, comes up with a wild idea, one that would give Keya more permanence: what if they are to stage the play? It could be an homage to Keya’s memory, and a way to make amends. But first, the Dases need to convince Pamela Moore, Keya’s girlfriend, to give her blessing. And they have to overcome ghosts from the past they haven’t met yet.

A story of redemption and righting the wrongs of the past, Keya Das’s Second Act is a warmly drawn homage to family, creativity, and second chances. Set in the vibrant world of Bengalis in the New Jersey suburbs, this debut novel is both poignant and, at times, a surprising hilarious testament to the unexpected ways we build family and find love, old and new.

Excerpt

Chapter One ONE
The wooden box was simple, elegant even. Shantanu Das almost missed it in the unfinished attic, but it was wrapped in a twinkling silver paper, peeking out from behind a stack of other boxes he had already spent the entire day going through, as if it were the lone flower in a garden of cobwebs. Perhaps it was fate, though Shantanu didn’t believe in fate. And come to think of it, he didn’t believe in much of anything anymore.

Shantanu crawled towards the corner, his knees and back aching with every instance of hitting the grid-like joists below, which were punctuated by pink tufts used for insulation. He silently cursed himself again for not installing a floor and more lights than the lone flickering bulb above. There were dozens of cardboard boxes up here that Shantanu hadn’t touched in years until this evening, which he shoved aside like a rescue worker clearing the opening to a collapsed cave. For some reason, there were two folding chairs leaning against a wall, ready to seat guests who would never come.

When he finally reached the box, its top came off easily. Inside, there were dozens of folded-up pieces of paper. Some were folded neatly, while others were crumpled and uneven. Shantanu, sweating in the attic’s thick air, ran his hands through them as if they were pieces of sand. At the bottom of the box, there was an unfolded packet of papers held together by a binder clip. Shantanu placed the box on the floor and began to take the folded papers out one by one. On each of them there was a heart drawn with pen. Within the hearts were various messages. Shantanu started reading the handwritten cover messages out loud, despite there being no audience.

“?‘Writing a Great Gatsby paper the morning of,’?” Shantanu muttered. He picked up another one, his confusion rising. “?‘Keeping a secret.’?”

This went on for a few more. “?‘Mrs. Bakke’s necklace’… ‘Stealing your penne.’?”

Are these mine to see? he wondered hesitantly—but then he realized: Everyone else has left this house behind. No one will see these if I don’t. And besides: Shantanu was curious. He was an anthropologist. This is what he did—excavated stories by way of clues. Carefully, he proceeded.

Hi you,

We have a sub today for AP History. You know what that means: A MOVIE!! I hope you’re having a good morning. I’m so relieved we talked about prom the other day. What straight guys will we have to pretend to want to go with? Mark? John? What fucking awful choices. One day, we won’t have to fake it. I’m excited for ice cream later. Okay, I think we have to do some reading or some shit. I’ll write you later. I love you so, so, so much.

Pamela

The paper was suddenly scalding; his breath quickened. He felt a slight pain in his stomach and sat backwards, reaching for one of the two mysterious folding chairs. With sweaty palms, he scooped the papers back into the box.

It took a minute, but Shantanu gathered himself. He reached for his pocket with his spare hand, fished out his cell phone. He went to the contact most dear, yet currently most torturous to him. The picture attached to the contact was of a smiling toddler. Now it served as a taunt. There were many messages to her that went unanswered. But Shantanu wanted to try again. He tried in vain to convey calm urgency. Or unobtrusive wonderment.

Can you come home? Please. I need to show you something.

The void in Shantanu’s life blasted him in the face the moment he opened his eyes every morning. It was darker in the light than when he closed his eyelids. There was his queen-sized bed, covered by a rarely washed green down comforter and an even less-washed white fitted sheet. A wooden nightstand—a housewarming gift from a neighbor—empty next to the bed, except for an iPhone and a worn-down leather wallet bursting at the seams with credit cards, some of them past due. The walls bare, save for one small painting of a brick building in the French Quarter of New Orleans, its crooked frame swallowed by the surrounding off-white plaster. It was a gift he had excitedly brought home for his family years before from a work trip. Now it was a relic from a life that was no longer his.

His routine was the same. Shantanu would blink his brown eyes a few times and then use his arm to propel his aching fifty-two-year-old body upwards. He would then rub his eyes and take stock of the bags deepening beneath them with each new sunrise. He’d inspect the backs of his hands for signs of wrinkles. He’d squint to pierce through the little strands of hair. The wrinkles stood out more than ever, like overgrown roots to a tree. Then he would absentmindedly run a hand across the seemingly permanent stubble on his face and his ever-expanding paunch. This was his way of confirming he was still alive.

Is this the day? Is this the day it is too late? Shantanu would whisper to himself, though there was no one else in the home to hear him.

This particular morning—a gray, October one—Shantanu stood up and limped across the brown Saxony carpet to one of the two windows in the bedroom, this one overlooking his front lawn. He had a clear view of his cozy housing development nestled in Howell, the New Jersey suburb he knew as home. All the two-story houses looked exactly the same except for their exterior colors. Shantanu remembered the real estate agent—a young, eager, and energetic man named Brendan with blond, curly hair—referring to this place as a “heaven for starter houses.” That was more than two decades ago. Now I wonder if this will be more of a house for the end.

It wasn’t just the houses that looked the same. It was also the people, save for the Dases, and the lawns, which on this block of Hillcrest Drive were perfectly manicured, lush with green grass. None of the blades extended more than six inches from the ground. There was no visible dirt. Except for his home at 2 Hillcrest Drive, where the barely greenish grass was patched sporadically with dirt and patches of weeds cohabitating.

The day the movers carried the boxes from the van into the house, Shantanu stood on the lawn with his arms outstretched, a delighted and pregnant Chaitali looking on while Mitali, then two, clung to her hand, surveying her new playground.

“Do you see this, Chaitali?” Shantanu exclaimed. “I’ll make sure this lawn is the greenest in this whole place.” His mustache, unkempt and uneven like the lawn, spread with his lips.

Chaitali giggled, an innocent admission of her belief in him. They both had made it. A house with a lawn in a middle-class suburb? A beautiful daughter? With another on the way? Sure, the drab brown carpet in the living room needed replacing—but this was what their Bengali parents had come to the United States in search of: this American dream. The chance to have a lawn.

And yet the grass never grew, no matter what Shantanu tried. One of his first purchases was a seed spreader, bought even before the sorely needed sofas for the living room. He spent multiple weekends strolling up and down the lawn planting grass seed, blissfully listening to the Rolling Stones’ album Sticky Fingers on a Walkman and gazing with longing at the rest of the block. He would take the hose and water the grass every morning. He had a small mountain full of mulch dumped on the driveway, much to the confusion of the neighbors: Geoff and Betsy Bocchino to the right, Patrick and Carla Brennan across, and Linda Rossi diagonally. Once the weeds started popping up, Shantanu would spend too much time spraying weed killer. But it was like whack-a-mole. The weeds seemed amused by Shantanu, and kept arriving in droves to get a better glimpse. It took years for him to realize that the reason the grass was not growing was that all the other houses on Hillcrest Drive had elaborate sprinkler systems, and, occasionally, professional landscapers to fertilize the lawns. Shantanu was never going to pay for that. So this was the grass (and weeds) that this young family would live with. The Dases would have to make do with a different kind of American dream.

Today, the grass was the same, but his life was different. He sat in the kitchen, back in his usual routine, swirling a bowl of Froot Loops and distractedly scrolling through the morning’s headlines on the New York Times app. He ignored the slight smell of mold that filled the air. There was some dirt on the cotton bath rug by the stove. Why did Chaitali put a bath rug by the stove? he groused. The sink was not as empty as the rest of the house. There were three—about to be four—days’ worth of bowls with hints of congealing skim milk on the side, and other assorted plates where crumbs had set up a kingdom.

Neighboring the sink was an elevated wooden counter. Past a collection of spices—red pepper flakes, garam masala, cardamom pods—there was a toaster that produced only hardened sorrow for Shantanu instead of crispy bread. It was silver with signs of wear and tear, and mostly taken over by spiders, where they’d claimed an area ripe to build webs. At least something in the house has found fertile ground, Shantanu thought upon seeing them.

There was a pin-up Disney calendar, a gift from Mitali to Shantanu and Chaitali, hanging above the toaster. The thumbtacks holding it up looked like they would give at any moment. Shantanu did not need to consult Mickey Mouse to know what day it was, though the outdated calendar wouldn’t have helped anyway. This weekend was Durga Puja, which meant hours of ragas to take in and too many shingaras to stuff down his throat. It was on this day five years ago that he was taking a slightly burnt bagel out of the toaster when Keya, his younger daughter, then eighteen, bounded into the kitchen sporting a black denim jacket and matching black jeans.

Keya dropped her car keys next to the stove and eyed him for several seconds before softly saying, “Baba, where’s Ma? I want to talk to both of you.” There was a pause. “Can I have some toast?”

“Ma’s upstairs organizing saris for the annaprashan next weekend,” Shantanu said, chuckling while stirring his green tea. That Saturday was going to be yet another trip hours away to visit Bengali family friends. Swati Mashi’s kid was cute, but he’d rather go to the Bocchinos’ barbecue instead. “Sure, sona, I’ll make you some toast.”

When he finally turned to look at Keya, she looked visibly stressed. He frowned. Shantanu had never been good at serious talks with his daughters.

Shantanu wished he had been prepared at the time to recognize the distress in Keya’s face. That he had known to hug her then. In the years since, he had not been able to let that regret go. Really, he’d never been good at letting go of things, at moving on. But Shantanu knew it was time to move on from this house, from this place, that was both his and not his anymore. Today he would start with the room littered with the most memories, stashed away out of sight and out of mind. Shantanu would spend his day in the attic. But first, the Froot Loops.

Mitali knew the question was coming. It always did. It was a reasonable one, but this time she didn’t want to answer it, as she ran her hand around a stemless wineglass, a quarter full with merlot. She admired her manicure from earlier that day: little pink lilacs arranged perfectly on a cream background. Multiple couples, some more cuddly than others, sat nearby. A bearded white man wearing a chic coat ideal for an October evening in New York sat by himself reading Tolstoy. Mitali estimated him to be in his thirties. Performative, she thought.

There was what appeared to be a fake silk tree in one corner. English ivy and snake plants, their leaves as long as arms, lined the front window. Baba would love this, she thought, recalling her childhood lawn, or lack thereof, on Hillcrest Drive. But then she remembered her anger.

“So what do you want to talk about?” the young man in front of her, Neesh, asked. He spoke quickly, drumming his blistered hands and stubby fingernails on the table.

This wasn’t the question, but it still caught her off guard.

“Do you usually start first dates off this way?” Mitali asked. Neesh was clearly not the coolest of conversationalists, but at least he wasn’t shorter than what he’d listed on his Hinge profile. She could tell he spent at least some time in the gym and didn’t mind his outfit showing this off. She wondered whether her own clothes, business casual black slacks and a matching jacket over a blue blouse, were perhaps a bit conservative. I should’ve at least worn heels. But for a wine bar? On the Upper East Side? And she had just come from work—something she probably did too much of—but at least she had the good sense to wear her contacts instead of those hideous, bulky glasses.

“I used to bring note cards, believe it or not,” he responded. He took a deep sigh. “I should relax.”

“Note cards?” Mitali couldn’t suppress a laugh.

“Yeah, note cards, with questions written on them. I used to go to the bathroom during dates and read them just in case I ran out of things to talk about,” Neesh said. He allowed himself a chuckle. And a bit of that relaxation. “Now I just ask the other person. You’re my note card.”

Mitali found this oddly charming.

“Okay. Let’s start with what you do,” she said. “You said a desk job?”

“I’m an analyst at this boutique hedge fund called Amplitude,” Neesh said.

Mitali raised her eyebrows.

“Amplitude?” Mitali asked. What a terrible name.

“I lied. I’m not that. I’m an instrument technician at this rehearsal studio in Midtown called Electric Smash,” Neesh said. “I just thought ‘hedge fund’ sounded more impressive. But I fix all the instruments—pianos, guitars, drums—so that people can come jam. You?”

“So you’re a music producer?” Mitali asked.

“No, I work the front desk. I just set the instruments up. Plug them in. That kind of thing. I play the drums.”

What an odd guy. But Mitali couldn’t help feeling relief. A musician. At least that was different from the turnstile of bankers, marketers, and personal trainers she had gone out with in the last three months. The thought of having to feign interest in boutique hedge funds was not something she was keen on. It was why she always picked a wine bar close to her apartment. She was not the sort of person to go too far out of her way.

“I’m a web producer for a marketing agency. I create content for their website,” Mitali said, a line she had rehearsed for every date. Every time, the person opposite the table had the same uncomprehending, glassy look: Content creation. Web producing. Meaningless buzzwords. Neesh was no different.

“Cool,” he murmured, and took a sip from his highball glass, the mint leaves from the mojito taking up more space than the liquid.

“Is it?” Mitali asked, more directly than she meant to. Ordering a mojito on a first date is a flashy move.

“Sorry?”

“Is it cool?” Mitali pressed.

Neesh’s shoulders tightened. He looked confused, maybe wondering if he’d said something wrong. He began biting his nails—a habit?—but quickly stopped himself. His self-manicure would have to wait.

“Is it… not?” Neesh volleyed back.

She let the question float between them a bit, deciding she wanted to play with her date some more. She’d reached a point of apathy with dating—trying hard and trying not at all seemed to yield the same result anyway. Neesh had moved from biting his nonexistent nails to fidgeting with the zipper on his leather jacket. She was tempted to like him, but that was a dangerous temptation for someone like her. She might not be worthy of liking someone. And really, at this point, she wasn’t even sure if she liked herself.

“It can be. It depends on the client,” Mitali said. “When the creative teams come up with marketing campaigns, I come up with interesting ways to present them on our website. In high school, I used to love coming up with television commercial ideas for companies. I would cast celebrities and everything. So I made a career out of it. It’s less interesting than I thought it would be. Clearly, this is not something you care about.”

“That’s presumptuous of you,” Neesh shot back.

Both of them let that hang in the air. Mitali shuffled in her chair.

“I’m not good at this,” Mitali said. “I’m sorry. I haven’t really done this much.”

Mitali had her shields up. She had recently downloaded the normal dating apps—Hinge and Bumble—but hadn’t told her friends, the few she kept in touch with, about it. She didn’t want the interrogations or to admit to others that she was making an effort to move forward. She declined to match far more often than she chose to match.

With Neesh, his profile picture was uninteresting: him looking pensively out at some lake. She meant to swipe left, but being a novice online dater, she’d accidentally swiped right. They were matched. Of course, she didn’t have to answer his message. But his opening gambit (“Hi! Is this worth a shot? You seem like a Pisces, which means you’re probably closed off!”) was too strange and tempting to pass up. “Only to assholes,” she had responded, and thus began a back-and-forth which had led to this moment. Unbeknownst to Neesh, Mitali was feeling her own sense of vulnerability. But it was because she knew the question was coming.

“No, you are good at this,” Neesh said. “I lied about working at a hedge fund.”

Mitali felt guilty at his earnestness. He was being polite, engaging, and vulnerable.

“How long have you been in New York?” Neesh tried to hit the reset button.

Mitali received a reprieve. This was safe small talk.

“I went to Rowan and moved to the city right after. So four years, give or take,” Mitali said. “Your last name, Desai. Are you Gujarati?”

“Yup. I grew up outside Chicago. Naperville. Went to school at the University of Iowa to study film. Disappointed my parents by trying to pursue a career as a drummer in New York after college. And now I’m thirty-three and fixing instruments so other people can play them.”

Neesh looked cheery as he said that, which Mitali didn’t know how to take. She sipped the last bit of wine, to which Neesh immediately motioned to a nearby waitress for another glass. But then he caught himself.

“Sorry, I should’ve asked. Did you want another one? I’m buying. Least I can do for being late. You could tell me more about web production?” His face looked equal parts pleading and apologetic.

Mitali took stock of the sight in front of her: trim, earnest, a full head of hair held up with just a bit of mousse, and bushy eyebrows. His oral fixation—the nail biting and chewing—was an object of fascination for Mitali, especially because of his sharp jaw. Neesh’s face was like two faces plastered together, like it was constructed to hide an altogether different person inside.

Neesh’s phone buzzed loudly in his pocket. He reached for it and saw a text that made him scowl. He quickly recovered and contorted his face back to a forced grin, but not before mouthing a curse that Mitali noticed.

“You okay?” Mitali asked.

“Absolutely,” Neesh said in an almost too-exultant tone. He began to chew on a mint leaf. “Let me tell you a joke: What kind of shoe did Beethoven wear? A flat. I’m sorry, but that’s the best I can think of at the moment. I’m not really that funny.”

Mitali, in spite of herself, chuckled over this dumb crack even as she wondered about the text Neesh just received. She would stay for another drink. Mitali was committed now.

“You know what? Sure. Yes. Another merlot, please,” Mitali said. Neesh’s eyes widened, as if he couldn’t believe his good fortune.

“That never happens,” Neesh said as he waved again at the waitress. He turned his body back to Mitali, who played with her straightened black hair, bangs and all, which fell to right above her shoulders.

“I can’t drink too much tonight. I’m going home tomorrow for Durga Puja,” Mitali said swiftly, to give herself an out.

“Where did you grow up?” Neesh asked.

Mitali closed her eyes a bit too long.

“New Jersey.”

“Edison?”

“No, not Edison. Howell. About an hour south.”

Mitali steeled herself. It was coming.

“Nice. Any siblings? I’m an only child,” Neesh said.

The question was a gut punch, even though Neesh had no idea of the albatross around her neck. And on every previous date, Mitali stopped at the edge of answering honestly. Usually, she would either say, “Yes, I have a sister. She is in New Jersey,” or, “No, I’m an only child.” She never wanted to discuss this ever—with anyone. Just thinking about the truth stung.

But maybe it was the wine, or this disarmingly goofy man in front of her. Maybe it was that he wasn’t fake. She liked that.

“I had a sister. She died almost five years ago,” she said, as matter-of-factly as she could. It was, after all, a matter of fact. “It was partially my fault. I think about it every day.” This was, too.

Neesh’s head tilted upward and then turned to look out the window at the pedestrians strolling by. The streetlight turned green, and cars began moving. The clatter of glasses never seemed louder to Mitali as they did then. Neesh had no expression. Just as the waitress arrived with Mitali’s second glass of wine, Neesh jerked his head back to Mitali and said, “Tell me more about web producing.”

Now it was Mitali’s phone that buzzed loudly on the table. She swiftly glanced at it.

Can you come home? Please. I need to show you something.

Mitali rolled her eyes and gripped the side of the phone so the notification would disappear. Her irritation about her father often reared its head at sporadic moments.

“Are you okay?” Neesh said.

“Absolutely.”

They had that second drink. He did not press Mitali about Keya. He was not taken aback when she said that she had never had a long-term boyfriend. He made some more terrible jokes, including one she didn’t get about how “Bun Day More” would be in his Broadway musical about hot dogs. She had never seen Les Misérables.

“I’m a big musical theater guy,” Neesh said, after explaining the joke. “I love Broadway. I used to, anyway.”

“You don’t strike me as the type,” Mitali said.

“Why?”

“You can sit still in a quiet theater for hours?”

“Who said I sat still?” Neesh replied.

There had been a girl he was seeing for a couple months, but it didn’t work out, and Neesh did not elaborate. Something about their work schedules not matching up since he went to the studio on nights and weekends and her being, as he put it, “a possible fascist.” He bit his nails some more. He liked podcasts and recommended The Moth, which was a storytelling show. Neesh said he felt “transported” whenever he listened to it. He acted—at least Mitali thought it was an act—interested in InDesign, the software she used at work. He had this high-pitched laugh that sometimes disrupted those around them. If there was something that seemed unusual for Mitali, it was that Neesh did not want to talk about himself. He did not elaborate on his friends, other than to say he didn’t have many, like her. He shied away from discussing his family. He mostly wanted to hear from her, which Mitali found to be a pleasant change of pace from Paul the Finance Guy or Russell the Trainer, both of whom loved hearing themselves talk.

More than anything, Neesh wanted Mitali to like him—that much was clear from his nervous energy. She felt warm. For a few hours on a weeknight, the day before Mitali was to go worship the goddess Durga, she herself felt worshiped.

He paid the tab and walked her home. She had to walk faster to keep up with his long strides. Mitali was surprised by her nerves, too. As they arrived at her apartment building, another question she did not want to answer at the moment loomed. Should I come upstairs to see your place? It had been so long since she had felt desired, let alone had sex. It was like she carried the guilt of Keya’s death with her everywhere. Why should I enjoy myself when Keya cannot? But Neesh didn’t ask to come up. Instead, he surprised Mitali once again. Arriving at her stoop, he extended his hand for a shake.

“I don’t know what to say in these moments, but thank you for coming out,” Neesh said.

A handshake? Thank you for coming out? Not even a hug? She chuckled in disbelief, unsure if she had just been relegated to friendship, and shook his hand. At twenty-five years old, she had never had a date quite like this. Who is this guy? His disinterest caught Mitali off guard and simultaneously intrigued her.

“Am I going to see you again?” Mitali finally asked.

“Only if you want to see me again,” Neesh countered, his thumb stroking the back of Mitali’s hand. Mitali noticed something white sticking out of Neesh’s wallet. He followed her gaze down, his eyes widening.

“Those are the note cards,” he said sheepishly.

Mitali burst into laughter, genuine laughter. And then she gave him a hug, burying her head in his chest and closing her eyes. She felt his heart thrumming, the safety of its drumlike beat. She leapt up the stairs and didn’t look back.

Shantanu grimaced as he drove with one hand on the steering wheel and the other holding his cell phone. He placed his phone on the passenger seat. Mitali had ignored his evening text, which wasn’t unusual, but it still cut him nonetheless. I do this every two weeks. Can’t she answer me just once? He wondered what she could be doing this late at night. It’s actually not that late. What if she’s doing nothing? Perish the thought. Shantanu turned off Route 9, the highway connecting several suburbs in Monmouth County. In Mitali’s world, there were Starbucks on every corner. For Shantanu, there was Route 9, where an Applebee’s, Best Buy, Wendy’s, and Target seemed to reappear every quarter mile. As his hands gripped the steering wheel, Shantanu noticed an aching in one of his wrists the tighter he squeezed. I suppose this is the price of getting old: pain that you do not recognize, along with the pain that you do.

The sun had tucked away for the night as Shantanu found an empty parking spot in a complex of condominiums called Maplewood. He turned off the headlights and the engine of his 2008 Honda Accord, and its purr came to a halt. The purr sounded more like a cough every day, but Shantanu adored the car’s durability, even as its sage-green paint was chipped.

Shantanu limped down a sidewalk that snaked around some other brick buildings, before arriving at a door with a wreath hanging in front. He knocked twice. No answer. Is this the day? Shantanu turned the doorknob and found it was unlocked. She needs to stop with this.

He poked his head in and smelled curries, much to his relief.

“Ma?” Shantanu called out while patting on the dark wooden panels that made up the walls in the condo. From the kitchen, he heard a firm, high-pitched yell.

Babu?! In here!” Kalpana said, and Shantanu heard the clatter of a spatula dropping in the sink.

Instead of waiting for him to come to the kitchen, Kalpana moved surprisingly swiftly to the living room to embrace Shantanu, helped by the thick spectacles that took up much of her face and the clutching of her lush salwar kameez.

Bechara! Ekhene asho! Keycho? Keetchu katcho na!” Kalpana said, both of her frail hands reaching up to touch his face.

“I’m eating just fine, thank you, Ma,” Shantanu said, blushing slightly. He handed her the lilacs he purchased on the way, and then kneeled down on one knee. He bent and touched both of her feet with his hand, and then his own forehead and chest before rising.

“A pranam? Kano?” Kalpana was surprised by the gesture. She was three inches shorter than him and proceeded to wrap her arms around his waist.

“Because it’s been a month since I have been over for dinner,” Shantanu said. “And I know it’s Durga Puja this weekend, and I feel that I should be a good Bengali.”

“This reminds me. Come here,” Kalpana directed. She reached up with both of her hands and brought Shantanu’s head closer to hers and murmured, “Durga, Durga,” with her eyes tightly shut. Shantanu never quite understood this prayer, but for as long as he could remember, his mother would say it every time he arrived or left the house. He regretted not saying it enough. Maybe Keya would still be around.

“Why are you walking like that?” Kalpana wore a perpetual look of concern.

“I was coming out of the shower and rolled my ankle. It’s nothing,” Shantanu said.

Kalpana, satisfied with the explanation, beckoned him into the dining room.

Esho, esho. I’ve made your favorites: Shorshe maach. Chingri maach. Mangsho. Aloo posto. The posto is because you need some vegetables, and I know all you eat are those frozen pizzas at home,” Kalpana said as she marched to the kitchen, which was considerably smaller and cleaner than Shantanu’s.

Shantanu took a seat at one of the six chairs of the dining room table, which was covered by a tablecloth and then a separate plastic sheet. Kalpana came out carrying steaming-hot CorningWare dishes of curry: The mustard fish he so adored. Shrimp with cauliflower. A chicken curry with hot peppers. Sliced potato prepared with poppy seeds.

Bhosho, Ma. Those pizzas are good,” Shantanu said.

“You need to eat better, babu,” Kalpana said as she placed metal serving spoons in the dishes. “I am seventy-seven. I won’t be around too much longer to make this for you.”

“Don’t say that.” Shantanu turned his eyes upwards as he rolled up the sleeves on his plaid button-down shirt and prepared to mix the rice and curries with his hands. Kalpana set a small dish of raw onion slices and green chilli peppers next to Shantanu’s plate.

“You’re right. I am seventy-five according to my Indian government records,” Kalpana chortled. “Perhaps, babu, I am still just a baby. But I really don’t have much time left!”

Kalpana’s brightness brought a slight and rare smile to Shantanu’s face. She had suggested that he move to Maplewood, something that seemed attractive in the moment. But someday, perhaps soon, Kalpana would be gone. Maplewood is a suburban tomb, Shantanu thought, before chiding himself for thinking in such grim terms.

Shantanu was hungry, which he realized as he spooned the balls of rice into his mouth with his hands, only interrupting to gulp water from the plastic cup Kalpana had set out or to nibble on a piece of onion.

“Do you want luchi? I can make luchi!” Kalpana insisted. Shantanu declined. He had all the carbs he needed right in front of him.

“Dr. Das, how is work going?” she asked, raising her eyebrows and sarcastically stroking her chin.

Shantanu considered the question, unsure of whether he should say what was next.

“This semester is going fine,” Shantanu said, casually adding, “I might leave in a year. I’ve put in enough time. Rutgers likely wants new blood.”

Kalpana nodded and said nothing, though her slight frown said much more. After the meal, Shantanu helped clean up, over Kalpana’s objections. He hand-washed the dishes and spooned copious amounts of leftovers into Tupperware to take home later. Kalpana refused to use her dishwasher. She didn’t trust it, which was a source of great amusement for Shantanu. Every couple of minutes he would feign putting a plate in the dishwasher to tease his mother, who would strenuously object.

Shantanu suggested they watch a movie together.

“I was hoping you would say that,” Kalpana said with a smile, which exposed her missing tooth. She walked to one of her two bedrooms and returned with a VHS tape labeled Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne. Kalpana did not have a DVD player, let alone any streaming networks. She had her VCR and the movies she and Shantanu’s father, Amitava, had accumulated over many decades. Shantanu, upon seeing her choice, snickered.

“How many times have you seen this now?” Shantanu asked.

“Too many and yet not enough,” Kalpana retorted.

The Bengali-language fantasy, a black-and-white classic from the 1960s by Satyajit Ray, tracked two quirky, bumbling, untalented musicians who were granted the power to create whatever clothes and food they wanted at a moment’s notice, travel anywhere, and the ability to hold an audience spellbound with their musical talents.

“Imagine that? If you could make clothes whenever you want?” Shantanu said.

“You would still wear that same shirt with stripes every day,” Kalpana retorted without taking her eyes off the screen.

Right as the duo arrived in the kingdom of Shundi, Kalpana suddenly grabbed the remote control and shut the television off.

“What’s that for?” Shantanu protested.

Kalpana sighed.

“I don’t want to pretend anymore, babu. I am worried about you.” Kalpana moved closer to Shantanu on the couch and put a hand on his shoulder.

“I’m fine,” he responded tersely, wishing that she would turn the television back on.

“Has it really been five years?” Kalpana said.

“Almost.” Shantanu steeled himself.

She turned away from Shantanu, beginning to tear up.

“Something for you to remember: It hasn’t just been five years for you. It’s also been five years for me. And Mitali. And Chaitali.”

Shantanu didn’t know what to say. So he did not respond. He was finding this to be the case in many of his conversations.

“Did you call my granddaughter?” Kalpana said.

“I texted, but she hasn’t responded,” Shantanu answered, embarrassed.

“Don’t be angry at her,” Kalpana soothed. “Did she tell you she is coming to take me to the puja this weekend?”

Shantanu was reticent. She hadn’t told him, but this was not unexpected. The pujas were not for him. Not anymore. Mother and son sat in silence. All that could be heard was the sound of a dehumidifier plugged in next to the sofa.

“Something I love about your kids: they’ve always called me shomadidi. That’s not a real term. They’re supposed to call me dida. But they loved me so much that they made up my own title,” Kalpana said, her tears becoming more visible. She took off her glasses. “Your baba loved Keya too. I wish he lived to see who Keya became.”

Shantanu gave a distasteful look.

“Don’t you dare fault your baba,” Kalpana snapped.

Shantanu stayed silent. He didn’t want to argue.

“He grew up in a different time. He did not know how his words would be taken. You are looking to blame someone else, when—” Kalpana stopped herself. She used the dupatta hanging off her salwar kameez to wipe her eyes.

“Go ahead. Say it. Bholo,” Shantanu said softly. “You’re right. Choop khore thako na.

Babu, I don’t mean it. I just miss her,” Kalpana said. “I did not expect her to go before I did.”

With that, Kalpana straightened up on the love seat, a possession that was a source of deep sorrow; a reminder of what used to be. She had allowed the family to buy her and Amitava the new furniture for Christmas one year. Keya had eyed the navy-blue color at the store and jumped on it as an eight-year-old to mark it as the one for shomadidi. Amitava only enjoyed the sofa for two years before dying of a stroke.

The more Kalpana straightened up, the further Shantanu slumped on the couch.

“I’m going to stay alive as long as I can for you,” Kalpana said, looking intently at Shantanu. “But, babu, you need to be alive.”

“Ma, can you not talk as if every second of your life is on borrowed time?” Shantanu said, his eyes fixated on the still television screen.

Bechara, we are all just buying time,” Kalpana said. “Some of us just have more money to play with than others.”

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Keya Das’s Second Act includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Sopan Deb. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

A poignant, heart-warming, and charmingly funny debut novel about how a discovered box in the attic leads one Bengali American family down a path toward understanding the importance of family, even when splintered.

Shantanu Das is living in the shadows of his past. In his fifties, he finds himself isolated from his traditional Bengali community after a devastating divorce from his wife, Chaitali; he hasn’t spoken to his eldest daughter, Mitali, in months; and most painfully, he lives each day with the regret that he didn’t accept his teenaged daughter, Keya, after she came out as gay. As the anniversary of Keya’s death approaches, Shantanu wakes up one morning utterly alone in his suburban New Jersey home and realizes it’s finally time to move on.

This is when Shantanu discovers a tucked-away box in the attic that could change everything. He calls Mitali and pleads with her to come home. She does so out of pity, not realizing that her life is about to change.

Inside the box is an unfinished manuscript that Keya and her girlfriend were writing. It’s a surprising discovery that brings Keya to life briefly. But Neesh Desai, a new love interest for Mitali with regrets of his own, comes up with a wild idea, one that would give Keya more permanence: What if they were to stage the play? It could be an homage to Keya’s memory, and a way to make amends. But first, the Dases need to convince Pamela Moore, Keya’s girlfriend, to give her blessing. And they have to overcome ghosts from the past they haven’t met yet.

A story of redemption and righting the wrongs of the past, Keya Das’s Second Act is a warmly drawn homage to family, creativity, and second chances. Set in the vibrant world of Bengalis in the New Jersey suburbs, this debut novel is both poignant and, at times, a surprising and hilarious testament to the unexpected ways we build family and find love, old and new.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. Discuss the epigraph of the book. What framing does it give the novel and why do you think it was included? Where does this statement appear again?

2. What are the two components in the box in the attic? How do they relate to each other? How does each family member react to the box’s contents?

3. Discuss Mitali’s first date with Neesh. Do they have chemistry, or do they seem like an unlikely match? At one point, Mitali thinks that “she might not be worthy of liking someone. . . . she wasn’t even sure if she liked herself” (10). How do both characters handle their guilt and self-doubt throughout the course of the novel?

4. At the beginning of the book, Shantanu thinks “I suppose this is the price of getting old: pain that you do not recognize, along with the pain that you do” (15). What do you think of this statement, considering the different types of pain represented in the novel?

5. How did each family member react to Keya’s revelation? What was each family member worried about in that moment? What do you think of Kalpana being the first family member to know? How did her response differ from the rest of the family?

6. Shantanu’s reaction to Keya’s news is influenced by how his father, Amitava, would have reacted. Why do you think Amitava’s opinions held such sway over his son? How do opinions change in this family? Do you see any similar dynamics in your own family?

7. During one of Dr. Lynch’s sessions with Shantanu, he notes that “rejection is often a much more powerful emotion than acceptance” (72). What types of rejection are present in the novel, and how do those on the receiving end respond? Is any character able to move from rejection to acceptance?

8. Discuss Shantanu’s first improv class. How does he do? What does he learn?

9. Both Shantanu and Chaitali find comfort in new partners after Keya’s death. How do those partners comfort them? How do they challenge them?

10. Discuss Keya and Pamela’s play. What is it about and what themes does it explore? What does the elm tree represent?

11. When Shantanu’s efforts to create a perfect green lawn fail, he thinks that “the Dases would have to make do with a different kind of American dream” (7).

What is the American dream for Amitava and Kalpana’s generation? Discuss how families–in this novel and in real life–adjust, reinterpret, and even expand their dreams as they grow older and have different experiences than previous generations.

12. Describe Neesh. How did your perception of him evolve over the course of the novel? How does he handle the setbacks in his life? Did you feel sympathetic to his position?

13. Describe Pamela. How did Keya’s death affect her? Based on what we know about her, how do you think she ended the play?

14. How do you think Pamela’s parents reacted? Consider the wider communities—the Bengali community, the theater community, etc.—and how they might have responded to the play. How do you think Pamela’s parents reacted? What do you think happened after the curtain went up?

15. The three generations represented in the novel have different definitions of what “love” means. Kalpana thinks love is tolerance (51); Chai and Jahar believe that while “there is no shame in love,” it is better to show love than to speak of it (210); and Keya and Pamela were free with their affirmation that they loved each other. Neesh saw his father love things more than his wife or child (61), and Mitali struggles to say she loves Neesh for the first time. What holds these characters back from naming and expressing their love? What does love look like to you? How does it compare to how love is shown in the novel?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Keya and Pamela’s play is a great example of local theater in action. Check out listings for local productions, especially ones which center younger and more diverse voices. Are you familiar with attending theater? If not, how does watching a live performance make you feel? If you’re a theater veteran, what perspective did you get from this show that felt different from other shows you may have seen?

2. Throughout the novel, there are many examples of Bengali cooking being used to unite characters around a meal. Food can also be complicated, with the layered history of colonialism, blurred borders, adaption, and resilience. Find an article from Whetstone South Asia to read as a group and discuss. What did you learn about that was new to you? What food traditions do you have in your own family? How are they used to bring people together—and are there any that have wider histories or resonance?

Some recommendations:

· “Every Occasion is Right for Luchi” by Priyadarshini Chatterjee (https://www.whetstonemagazine.com/south-asia-journal/every-occasion-is-right-for-luchi?rq=durga%20puja)

· “A Sweet Taste of Terroir” by Tania Banerjee (https://www.whetstonemagazine.com/south-asia-journal/a-sweet-taste-of-terroir?rq=bengali)

· “The True Cost of Posto” by Sohel Sarkar (https://www.whetstonemagazine.com/south-asia-journal/the-true-cost-of-posto?rq=bengali)

3. If you’d like to read another big, multigenerational novel for your next book club, consider picking up We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas, These Ghosts Are Family by Maisy Card, or Swimming Back to Trout River by Linda Rui Feng. Compare and contrast the families in these stories with those in Keya Das’s Second Act, and discuss how family and community expectations affect the decisions of individual characters.

4. Kalpana mentions that one of her favorite films is Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne. Watch as a group and discuss the themes. Don’t forget to pair your watch party with a delicious treat like this recipe from Diaspora Co.’s founder Sana Javeri Kadri: https://www.diasporaco.com/blogs/recipes/diaspora-popcorn-spice.

A Conversation with Sopan Deb

Q: Congratulations on publishing your debut novel, Keya Das’s Second Act! What has been your experience of publishing this book? How different is it from the experience of writing the book?

A: First of all, thank you.

In terms of publishing the book, the perspective I’ve tried to maintain is that I’m extraordinarily fortunate to be in a position where I can have a novel go out there in the world. It’s a serious privilege and one I don’t take lightly. I will say that what you realize once the process moves from writing to publishing is that publishing happens because of a village of talented people. Writing a novel was a lot of me sitting in a room by myself.

Q: Your first book, Missed Translations, was a memoir about getting to know your parents as an adult. Did your writing process change when you switched genres from memoir to fiction? Was there one that you found easier to write than the other?

A: Great question! I think about this a lot. Generally speaking, the biggest thing the memoir did for me was give me the confidence that I could write fiction. The challenge was getting my mind accustomed to being able to make things up out of whole cloth in fiction. In the memoir, I tried to bring a journalistic approach to talking about my parents. The quotes in the book, for example, are a result of extensive note taking and recordings. In fiction, I had to get myself out of that headspace. I could create things when I needed to.

I wouldn’t say one was more difficult than the other, just different. Ultimately, both projects are meaningful to me in different ways.

Q: Missed Translations explored the ways we make sense of the past and how we access our family’s past to be able to chart a way forward. Do you see any overlap between your experience and that of the Das family? What do you think are the most important things to understand about the past? Why is understanding them important?

A: 100 percent. I think a lot about broken relationships with families. That’s likely a direct result of my own complicated relationship with my parents. And I think about healing a lot. I tried to interrogate that in a different way in the novel. The house the Dases used to live in is based on the house that I lived in growing up, for example. And the emptiness I describe early in the novel is an emptiness that I felt.

As far as the past, I think it’s important to understand how you get to where you are, what decisions led you to this place, and what you can change going forward. I certainly have regrets about my past. But at the same time, those same regrets have taught me lessons I will take with me forever and that have ultimately made me, I hope, into a better person.

Q: Like the Dases, you grew up in a largely white suburban town. What did that teach you about the role of extended community? What are the benefits and the difficulties of that experience?

A: I remember very distinctly going over to friends’ houses and being blown away by the closeness of families compared to mine. I inaccurately conflated whiteness with “community” and health.

Ultimately, growing up, I felt “othered” fairly often, which is a common experience for children of immigrants growing up in suburbs. For me, that made me hide parts of myself sometimes to try and fit in more.

The benefits are that I do feel that on some level I charted my own path to figure out who I am. A community didn’t do that for me.

Q: This book centers around the Das family and how they move on after tragedy. Part of Shantanu’s experience of healing includes sessions with his therapist, Dr. Lynch. Why was it important to include these scenes?

A: Therapy is a touchy subject in the South Asian community. Certainly in the generation before mine, it was something extremely stigmatized. My parents would certainly have benefitted from access to mental health resources. But it’s not something they were accustomed to. So it was something I wanted to explore to see what it might have been like for, say, my father.

Q: The novel is a family story, but you also chose to build out the stories of Neesh, Catherine, and Jahar. How did you consider what would motivate these additional characters, and what they would add to the larger story?

A: The play at the center of the novel, which is called The Elm Tree, represents something different to every person in the novel. To the Das family, it represents a chance to honor their late family member. But for Neesh, it’s something different. It’s a chance at a new lease on life. For Jahar, it’s a way to remind his wife that he loves her. For Catherine, who is by nature a fixer, it’s a chance to help fix the hole in Shantanu’s heart.

Generally, I wanted to have each character give some of their perspective. This was more difficult than I realized because there’s so much story to tell.

Q: Aristotle once said that the purpose of tragedy is to “arouse terror and pity” in the viewer, and to lead to catharsis of the audience. How do you think of this statement in light of the fact that Keya Das’s Second Act centers around a tragedy? How has art been cathartic for you?

A: Who am I to question Aristotle?

Art of various forms has helped me through extraordinarily difficult times my whole life. As an example: I was hit by a car in 2019 and almost lost my life. (I’m totally fine.) But in the hospital, being able to listen to my favorite songs while lying in a hospital bed provided a sort of therapy.

Comedy has also been a form of art I’ve relied on. In my twenties, I did improv and stand-up comedy, which was therapeutic for me, being able to discuss some of the same themes I do in the novel but in a way aimed to get laughs.

In terms of trying to “arouse terror and pity” in the audience, I wouldn’t say that was something I did consciously. The book has dark themes, but I think it is ultimately a story of hope and has some funny moments.

Q: There’s a theme throughout the book of reinvention, whether it’s Shantanu at his first improv class, Neesh’s development from lucky musician to petty criminal to dependable boyfriend, or Chai auditioning for the part of herself in her daughter’s play. How much reinvention do you think is possible? What are some ways that we make it more possible?

A: This is such an interesting question. I think about this all the time and it’s in part what I wanted to explore in the book. The truth is: I don’t know. There are some people in my life I’ve seen truly evolve into unrecognizable human beings. There are some who haven’t. Some are in the middle. Some try and can’t. Others do so almost by accident.

I think, for example, the pandemic has changed my own ambitions in life and made me value time with friends and family. Grief is definitely a change agent, as is, simply, aging. I’m not the same person at thirty-four I was at twenty-five. Ultimately, I think it comes down to your circumstances. Reinvention isn’t always necessary and, in most cases, is a personal choice.

Q: In many ways, this book is a love letter to theater. Do you think there’s something special about the medium of theater? Why did you want to center this book around a play? What role has theater had in your life?

A: Theater is a beautiful art form. It’s raw and authentic. You don’t get ten takes to get a scene right. I feel very connected to onstage performers. You’re in the same room as them. You’re watching them emote or sing their hearts out.

I wanted to center this book around a play in part because of that love I have for theater. I grew up a theater kid. I took part in our high school musicals, both in the pit band and onstage. And then separately, I wrote about theater for the New York Times extensively, where I really learned how the business works.

The play at the center of the novel is based on one I wrote in 2012 or so.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from Keya Das’s Second Act?

A: A quality reading experience. Outside of that, I can’t ask for much. There are themes of grief, forgiveness, and redemption that I explored in my own writing, but ultimately, it’s up to readers what they take from the words.

Q: What are you working on now? Can you share?

A: Yes! I’m working on a follow-up novel inspired by my father’s emigration to the United States in 1975.

About The Author

Photograph © Amy Lombard

Sopan Deb is a writer for The New York Times, where his topics have included sports and culture. He is also the author of the memoir Missed Translations: Meeting the Immigrant Parents Who Raised Me. Before joining the Times, Deb was one of a handful of reporters who covered Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign from start to finish as a campaign embed for CBS News. He was named a “breakout media star” of the election by Politico. At The New York Times, Deb has interviewed high profile subjects such as Denzel Washington, Stephen Colbert, the cast of Arrested Development, Kyrie Irving, and Bill Murray. He lives in Washington, DC, with his wife and dog.

Why We Love It

“I love how clever and sharp, as well as culturally immersive, this book is. I also love that despite there being a death at the dramatic center, this isn’t a book that languishes in grief—it’s an homage to family, creativity, and second changes. Deb also beautifully renders the vibrancy of second-generation immigrant life white offering an immigrant story that isn’t mired in strife and tragedy. It’s a book that both makes you well up and laugh out loud.”

—Emily G., Senior Editor, on Keya Das’s Second Act

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (July 5, 2022)
  • Length: 288 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982185473

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Raves and Reviews

“A perfect summer book for anyone who loves a family story that’s not neat or tidy, but makes space for all the complicated feelings that accompany grief.” BUZZFEED

“Full of regret, mistakes, love, redemption, and second chances, New York Times reporter Deb's (Missed Translations, 2020) first novel is a painfully beautiful story that gives hope to all who have lost a loved one and wished for a second act of their own.” BOOKLIST

"This book blew me away. Sopan crafts beautifully authentic characters whose experiences with tragedy, loneliness, love, and longing are as intimate as they are gripping. A must read!"—Kal Penn, author of You Can't Be Serious 

“A delightful novel. Like life itself, Keya Das's Second Act is delicate and complex, filled with love, longing, and a search for belonging. I loved it.”—DIKSHA BASU, author of The Windfall and Destination Wedding

"Sopan Deb’s Keya Das's Second Act is full of heart. It’s a sincere reflection on love, grief, forgiveness, blood family, and chosen family. This is a novel of real tragedy, but it’s also imbued with a persistent hope. What begins as a story of regret becomes one of faith in other people, and in narrative itself. The book ultimately takes joy in the many ways we reinvent ourselves — a self destructive drummer becomes a devoted boyfriend; a cold father takes up therapy and improv; and a community tries to move forward." —SANJENA SATHIAN, author of Gold Diggers

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