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.
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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?
· “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.