All the Lives We Never Lived by Anuradha Roy

MacLehose Press, May 2018, 335 pp

MacLehose Press, May 2018, 335 pp

In All the Lives We Never Lived, Anuradha Roy unites the private and the public, the local and the global, the East and the West. The story is set in 1920s’ India, and follows a woman who unexpectedly flees the country with a European man, leaving behind her bewildered husband and son.

The son’s pet name is Myshkin, which goes to show how far Western influence may reach. The name derives from Dostoevsky’s protagonist in The Idiot – my favorite novel by him – here given to the boy protagonist by his grandfather. In these sort of ways, the Occident and the Orient intertwine in every nook and cranny of the novel. To give another example, a real-life German artist, Walter Spies, comes to play a big role over the course of the novel, as he meets the fleeing woman, Gayatri. Germany ends up playing a role on a global scale, as well, with the emergence of Nazi Germany and its disastrous consequences.

Roy also mingles the past with the present with the very outline of her novel: Myshkin is an older man in the present (whose “now” remains, to my disappointment, largely unexplored), reminiscing the past through memories. As a symbol of the link between the past and the present, there are all the letters Gayatri sent to her abandoned son. As the novel progresses, it becomes increasingly epistolary, as her long letters are presented on the page. It is here, in Gayatri’s unmediated words, where All the Lives We Never Lived is at its best, to the detriment of the surrounding sections narrated by Myshkin, who somehow remains a constrained character. I cannot help feeling that were the narrator’s reins given to Gayatri herself, without the construction of Myshkin and the framework of looking back, All the Lives We Never Lived would have become a more vivid story.

Nonetheless, so much of important historical matter is packed into the novel that it would be unfair to dwell merely on the negative aspects. The limited freedom of women in a largely patriarchal culture is explored fantastically here, for one. Of his parents marriage Myshkin has not many positive things to say: “They were like two people stranded on an island with no common language.” This remark is followed by a memory, which also gives life to the novel’s beautiful UK cover (and worthy of quoting in full to give a sense of the subtlety of Roy’s writing):

An incident concerning a paintbox comes back to me. My mother once ordered paints and brushes from a shop in Calcutta, which in turn ordered the goods for her from England. After a long, impatient wait, the paints arrived in a brown paper package tied with twine. The plump new tubes of cobalt blue, viridian green and her favourite, burnt umber, lay newly exposed to the world in a bed of torn paper. My mother admired the perfection of those tubes for several days, picking them up, putting them back into her box of paints, before she could bring herself to twist open one of the lids and squeeze out the first slug of colour.

Then one day my father took those paints with him to his college and put them away – I cannot remember why, perhaps to teach her the difference between hobbies and higher matters. He brought them back after a week, left them on the dining table and walked into the bathroom as if he had done nothing that could be construed a violation. My mother saw her paintbox, dropped what she was doing, and picking it up stalked outside and flung it into a corner of the back garden. The precious tubes and squirrel-hair brushes were strewn far into the undergrowth. “They’re gone for good. Happy?” she shouted at the bathroom’s closed door.

Some weeks later the father brings home a luxurious artbook as a peace offering. This scenario shows the sort of “fragile contentment,” as Myshkin puts it, that holds the family together up to the point of Gayatri’s leaving.

All the Lives We Never Lived contains multitudes, and dives deep into the history of India’s independence. Many real-life figures make an appearance, including the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, Rabindranath Tagore. I’m partially uncertain of the extent to which Roy has wanted to explore real history, and to which extent embellish it with fiction. I acknowledge my own ignorance in the subject matter, and assume that someone more knowledgeable in India and its history may understand, and therefore appreciate, All the Lives We Never Lived more than I managed in the end. But even through the lens of a novice I can clearly see that Anuradha Roy is an accomplished writer who taps into the psychology of her characters with expertise.