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All the Lives We Never Lived


All the Lives We Never Lived

Like a lot of unadventurous readers, I find myself seeking out fiction mainly from continents whose frame of reference is familiar: North America, Great Britain, Europe, maybe Australia and New Zealand. My knowledge of India is scanty; thus, I approached ALL THE LIVES WE NEVER LIVED, the latest novel by Anuradha Roy (whose SLEEPING ON JUPITER was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2015), with the fascination (and trepidation) of a traveler entering a strange land.

The narrator is Myshkin (the Russian-sounding nickname is from Dostoevsky’s THE IDIOT), a man in his mid-60s looking back on the day in 1937 that he was abandoned by his restless, beautiful young mother, Gayatri. He was nine years old. Although a horticulturist by trade, he is a person to whom words are essential: “For anything to have meaning, it needs to be set down.” Hoping to understand Gayatri’s fateful decision, he begins to write.

Myshkin remembers his mother’s stories of a happy youth filled with lessons in dance, music and art. A watershed moment is a journey with her beloved father to the East Indies, Bali and Java, when she is 17. She meets the great poet/philosopher Rabindranath Tagore and a German artist, Walter Spies (two of several real-life figures in the novel who sent me running to Wikipedia), and starts to dream of becoming a painter.

But when Gayatri’s father dies, the lessons stop and she is married off to a teacher twice her age, a passionate nationalist. Although Myshkin’s father isn’t a bad man, he regards her love of the arts as a mere hobby. Ironically, given his commitment to Indian independence, he cannot see how he is imprisoning his wife. “What good will the great nation’s freedom do for me?” Gayatri bursts out at one point in a quarrel overheard by Myshkin. “Will it make me free? Will I be able to choose how to live?”

"Roy balances the political and the personal with skill and power, giving us a country and a family rocked by change, grief and passion. For me, reading her book was a true 'passage to India.'"

Walter Spies then reappears, accompanied by an Englishwoman, Beryl de Zoete (another figure from history), looking for help in researching Indian dance. Spies remembers Gayatri as a spirited girl; his presence brings out her rebelliousness (“Her joy had a wild edge”). Her European friends’ devotion to the arts clashes with her husband’s conviction that only serious political issues are worthwhile. They encourage her to make the leap to freedom.

Motherless, virtually parentless --- his father is frequently jailed, a martyr to the independence cause --- Myshkin grows into a solitary individual who deals with strong emotion by building a “wall of reticence” around it. He prefers plants to people: “Plants don’t ask you to shape a sentence or solve an equation, they ask only that you are regularly, consistently, caring and watchful.” He lives in his hometown, in an outbuilding on the grounds of the house in which he was born.

Myshkin has received a package sent by descendants of his mother’s friend and neighbor Lisa McNally, who emigrated to Canada. Afraid of revelations that would bring “fresh pain,” he is reluctant to break the seal. “I have shaped my past for myself,” he writes. “It is a shell into which I can retreat without fear or injury.” His trepidation is well founded: Here are letters from his mother to Lisa, dating from the time she left. Gayatri’s direct, unmediated voice rushes into the book like a raging torrent.

In these passages particularly, Roy’s writing is surpassingly vivid and gorgeous. Gayatri seesaws between guilt at having deserted Myshkin (“I am the wicked evil witch who left my husband & child & home. In the old days they would have stoned me to death….”) and her belief that “I needed to leave or I might have gone mad.” Elated by the unaccustomed sense of liberty --- “This is adventure, not abandonment,” she writes. “I want to eat life, grab everything new & taste it” --- Gayatri travels with her new friends to Bali. She paints with demonic energy, hoping to earn enough to bring Myshkin to live with her in this paradise of art and nature.

Roy paints a keen and altogether modern sense of a woman who wasn’t meant for marriage, who wants only to immerse herself in art (“My dreams are drenched in colors”). But the letters also contain a tawdrier confession: Before she left, Gayatri had an affair with one of Myshkin’s uncles, an irresponsible charmer who loved music as she loved art. “It was only with [him] that I understood there is nothing well-mannered or pretty about love, it is raw and fierce, it’s not poems and songs, it is torn-off clothes, snapped buttons & sweat & blood & body parts & it scorches whatever is in its way.”

The letters have a galvanizing effect on the novel, turning it from an elegiac reminiscence into an explosive cry for freedom. They cause Myshkin himself to be overwhelmed with feeling --- anger, pity, tenderness --- for his young mother. At the end of the book, he finally emerges from seclusion, ready to make a change in his own life.

I do wish Gayatri’s voice had come sooner. Until the last hundred or so pages, we see her solely through Myshkin’s childish eyes: first as an idealized figure, then as his betrayer. It’s almost as though the main character --- the root cause of his isolated, wounded life --- is missing. Once she appears, the book comes fully alive.

Just as Myshkin is unable to deny his past, so Gayatri and Walter Spies cannot keep world events from invading their peaceful life. Inevitably they are touched by the pitiless encroachments of war and fascism, even in remote Bali. You could say that ALL THE LIVES WE NEVER LIVED is about two struggles for independence, playing out against the backdrop of World War II: India’s battle against colonialism, and a woman’s against marital entrapment. Roy balances the political and the personal with skill and power, giving us a country and a family rocked by change, grief and passion. For me, reading her book was a true “passage to India.”

Reviewed by Katherine B. Weissman on November 30, 2018

All the Lives We Never Lived
by Anuradha Roy

  • Publication Date: October 15, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Washington Square Press
  • ISBN-10: 1982100524
  • ISBN-13: 9781982100520