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Anuradha Roy on ‘All the Lives We Never Lived’

By June 11, 2018No Comments

Source : The Hindu

Writing her latest novel, Anuradha Roy realised that we have already gone through all this before


Most of the action in Anuradha Roy’s fourth novel, All the Lives We Never Lived, takes place against the backdrop of the turbulent decades preceding Independence. Told mostly through the voice of Myshkin, who was a boy in the 1930s when his artist mother Gayatri left their small town not far from Dehradun to follow her art, it spans the South Asian expanse across to Indonesia, and historical figures mark the geographical and chronological coordinates of the story. As Myshkin looks back to make sense of his life and his mother’s flight, his story gathers in its folds the big and small transformations of the mid-20th century. Excerpts from a conversation:

The novel begins with very powerful lines, which I kept going back to while reading, to keep figuring out how much they gave away: “In my childhood, I was known as the boy whose mother had run off with an Englishman. The man was in fact German…” You get a very strong sense of Gayatri in the first pages. It’s very visual. Did it start with her, with the imagery of the monsoon rain that morning, or Myshkin?

It actually started with him. For several years I have been thinking of writing a book about a boy who can somehow enter and inhabit pictures. That was the original thing I wanted to do, and I had a shadowy kind of sense of him being very close to a grandfather type of figure, and a mother who is somehow both present as well as absent. The first thing was also to know for myself the artist [whose painting he would inhabit]. For The Folded Earth [Roy’s second novel] I had gone to Bali, and I read one of the definitive travelogues on Bali, which had a chapter on Walter Spies. I went to the museum — they don’t have too many of his paintings in the original, only two, but they were just wonderful. The next time I went back, I discovered that Spies had died the day my dog died that year, which felt like some kind of strange connection. He became the artist. And then I had to figure out: so how does he enter this world? That’s how the German who is thought to be an Englishman entered the story.

I know it was a real risk to put the ending right at the beginning. In fact, when I had sent my publisher the first 200 pages, he had said, so we know what is happening. But I really wanted much more to look at the how, why, to be more reflective rather than to have the reader just reading in order to find out, oh, is she going to run away?

There’s this whole theme of nationalism, what it does to you. Also you set it near Dehradun where Germans were interned during World War II. All that came later, is it?

The moment I started researching Walter Spies, it was really strange, like you see those electric sparks leading one to the other with a lovely network of light. There was just this incredible network that started appearing in front of my eyes. Because Walter Spies had met Tagore in 1927. Tagore went there [Bali] on a Southeast Asia tour. Spies was then a very young man, he had just moved to Bali, and he was actually Tagore’s guide, which I read in a few places but couldn’t find proof of for a long time until I found a letter from Spies to his mother.

You found it in Bali?

No, it was in the British Library. Once there was Spies and I was reading about his life, it turned out that the way he died was to be bombed in a ship that was coming towards India. So he was German, the Dutch were with the Allies, therefore he was an enemy. He was in an internment camp for several months, after which there were three ships loaded with Germans being moved. Two of the ships reached India, and the prisoners reached Dehradun. [Spies’] ship actually sank. So then there was this whole connection with India. I didn’t even know before that there was this internment camp in Dehradun.

Of course, the moment you have Tagore, there are questions of cosmopolitanism because at that moment he was opposing Gandhi’s shutting down to the West because of non-cooperation and all that. It all joined up very nicely.

In fact, when one comes to the end of the book, you want to go back and read it slowly, but the other impulse is to go back and research all these people. I know you say you wanted to start with a boy who inhabits a painting…

That actually became a very small part of the story later.

…the book speaks to the present.

I think when I started this process of writing and finding out mainly about Spies, I realised that all the things we are seeing now, this very aggressive nationalism, right-wing movements all over the world, that we had already gone through all this once before in a different form. Like the nationalism in the book, in India, is Gandhi’s nationalism, which Gayatri is not interested in. She wants to be the individualist who paints. But Gandhi’s nationalism, despite stressing that everyone must put aside their whole life to focus on the country, it was an inclusive nationalism.

It was perfectly benign, it wanted freedom from colonial rule, which is a good thing. Whereas now I find that the nationalism being preached is completely different, very rabid and exclusive. I thought it was interesting that Spies had actually had to leave Germany all those decades ago for the reasons some people might now be feeling insecure in India. The reason he left was because he felt completely out of sync with the Nazis despite not being threatened himself, which is how so many people in India feel now.

This all gives the impression that book is all historical facts — but the characters are especially strong, Myshkin, his father, his grandfather, Gayatri.

In a sense, we tend to talk about the historical, which is easier to talk about. But when writing this what I wanted paramount, as for every book, was for the characters who were there in the beginning, the grandfather, mother and the boy. And then the father came. Gayatri just arrived fully formed. Gayatri as well as the boy and the grandfather were completely real people to me. I felt as if I could easily sit and have a conversation with them. I really wanted Gayatri to be living her life and going away if she had to, not for this stereotypical adultery and love and all that, but because she is just so passionate about her work. So it’s very much a book about how do women work, what drives them when they have something of this kind that drives them, and what will they sacrifice for doing what they have to do.

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