ROOPA Farooki’s first novel Bitter Sweets is a multi-generational tale of double lives, deception and dissemblance. It starts with 13-year-old Henna’s marriage to the eldest son of one of the best families in Calcutta “achieved by an audacious network of lies as elaborate and brazen as the golden embroidery on her scarlet wedding sari”. Ricky, believing himself married to an educated soul mate, is horrified on his wedding night to discover that his bride is in fact a lazy, illiterate, shopkeeper’s daughter – and still a child.
His decision to be complicit in the lie, to save his family the shame of having to admit that they had been tricked, starts an unspoken family tradition of white lies and deception that is inherited by Ricky and Henna’s daughter Shona, who elopes with her secret love to live above a Pakistani uncle’s sweet shop in south London in the eighties. There she raises twin boys who in turn learn how to hide the truth about themselves from their parents.
In the meantime, Ricky, who travels frequently to the UK on business, finds a way to escape the misery of his loveless marriage by creating a second, happier life for himself in London. He manages to keep the deception going for over 20 years, until a heart attack, brought on by his discovery of Shona’s duplicitous behaviour, forces father and daughter to face facts and come clean with their loved ones – and Henna. Shona discovers that telling the truth, or rather “unlearning how to deceive” is “like learning to speak a new language”.
Another reviewer has described Bitter Sweets as “a zingy fruit salad of a novel – refreshing, colourful and occasionally sharp to the taste”. That pretty much sums it up.