Source : The Hindu – Tishani Doshi
All the lives we never lived are those that should try to remember, echo author Anuradha Roy’s characters, caught between power and powerlessness.
Reading Anuradha Roy’s latest novel, All the Lives We Never Lived, I was reminded of Flannery O’ Connor’s famous line, “I love a lot of people, understand none of them.” Roy shares with O’Connor a similar flair for juxtaposing violence with humour, and the redemptive quality of grace. But it is the multiplicity that really echoes. That each person is a galaxy of choices. That you can never really know anyone, especially not a parent.
The novel opens with this line: “In my childhood, I was known as the boy whose mother had run off with an Englishman.” It is at once a haunting. “I wanted the perspective of a grownup looking back at the things he’d seen as a child but seeing them in a different way, and this is why I chose to tell you the story in the first paragraph,” Roy says.
Myshkin Rozario is a man in his 60s when he recalls the mysteries of his childhood. Named Myshkin for the epileptic prince in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, he is a bespectacled child with jug ears and a bucketful of fears. As a child, the Olympus Circus comes to their town (a fictionalised place called Muntazir, close to the Himalayan foothills). There, Ivan the Terrible calls up his mother to volunteer for a magic trick, and disappears her. His mother later refuses to reveal the trick to her child. She says, “There are some things in life you never find out. Sometimes things happen that nobody understands.” As an adult, Myshkin still recalls the terror and panic of that magic show. It is one of Roy’s many masterful moves of looking forwards and backwards simultaneously. She moves us seamlessly between the past and present, keeping her characters in the centre, while history unfolds around them.
One of the big tasks of fiction is the question of time. How to compress so many stories? How to set them against the grander backdrop of history? Roy’s approach is through individual stories, the details of which add up to a picture of a whole time. She doesn’t research anything before writing the first draft, but has a sense of the era she’s writing about. The novel’s present is 1992, but Myshkin’s boyhood is set in the late ‘30s during India’s struggle for independence and the rumblings of WWII.
Real people flourish alongside Roy’s invented characters — Rabindranath Tagore, Begum Akhtar, and the spirit of Sheila Dhar (Roy was her editor at Oxford University Press, and says Dhar disliked her at first sight but after the third meeting began calling her beti). The German painter and composer Walter Spies is a pivotal character, as is the English dancer Beryl de Zoete, as they are the ones who lure Myshkin’s mother away. Roy discovered Walter Spies’s paintings in Bali and felt somehow connected to him. “I started to find out more about his life, and then ping ping ping — there was all sorts of lighting up on a screen: that Tagore had gone to Bali, that Spies had been his guide, that Beryl de Zoete had come to India to write about dance, that Spies had wanted to come to India to learn Sanskrit… and that’s how the themes of war and painting came together.” Roy hunted for written proof that Spies and Tagore met in Bali, and it was only through reading Bengali travelogues that she discovered evidence of this. “Somehow it was necessary for me to know that this happened. Some of these things are anchors that you can set down in the water, and then you can go swimming away from the boat, but you need some anchors.”
The most luminescent character of the book is Gayatri, Myshkin’s mother, whom Roy describes as arriving “fully formed… someone who would set off a nuclear explosion in a small town.” As a teenager Gayatri meets Tagore on the ship to Bali, and this meeting with The Poet is held throughout her life as a reminder of the endurance of beauty that art creates. Her idyllic childhood doesn’t continue into adulthood. Her husband Nek Chand chastises her when she dances in the garden and dismisses her painting as a hobby. The full force of his interest lies with the nationalist movement. Everything else is seen as frivolous. Roy’s dismantling of their relationship is both powerful and nuanced, and you sense this is where her sympathies lie. “To me, Tagore’s insistence on the endurability of beauty and art, the way this contradicts a kind of rabid nationalism, being open to the world, not shutting off the West because you’re fighting it politically, to believe in humanity at large as having a strength that goes beyond politics, all that is very important.”
All her books are explorations of power and powerlessness, and this comes through especially strongly with her women characters. Roy grew up in a conservative joint family in Calcutta, and says she had to fight to make the life she wanted. “That has stayed with me in relationship to all the women characters in my books — people who I hope, even if they’re in trouble, manage to find a way out.” She believes that the negotiations with the larger world as a woman are continuous, but in her own life she feels a sense of peace. “Knowing that I want to be in Ranikhet with my dogs, doing my pottery, writing, occasionally coming out and experiencing the world outside and being sure that this makes me happy. I do feel whatever I’m doing, I decide. And that’s very lucky. I know most people don’t have this.”
“In many ways you write the books you want to read, of course, but in all my books I’m struck by the blackness of the situation which can become quite funny. I do, in life, start laughing at completely inappropriate times”
Roy is quick to acknowledge the privilege in her life and in the life of her characters. “Most of them are quite wealthy,” she says, “they can travel, they can speak English, they can eat caramel pudding. I’m completely aware of the class that dominates the book, but I wanted all along to be this sense that there are all these Lambus on the outskirts, who live on the fringes, and have a completely different sense of the world.” Lambu is the next-door neighbour’s driver’s son. He initiates Myshkin and his friend Dinu into smoking and ideas of sex. He is older than them, tall like a coconut tree, his face “already volcanic with pimples.” Through a series of incidents that begin in jest, Lambu’s father loses his job, gets drunk, and attacks Lambu with a grinding stone.
Part of the pleasure of reading Roy, aside from the beautiful sentences she brings to every page, is the layered texture of her narrative. The powerless aren’t just women, but the huge heaving underclass of India. Kharak Singh, the old watchman who served in WWI; Banno didi, the ayah with blackened teeth, who after Myshkin’s father is abandoned by his wife, describes him as a field of wheat flattened by a storm; Lambu, the driver’s son. “I’m old enough to have grown up in Socialist India,” Roy says. “Although we didn’t have much, there was a sense that you were part of a community. I think that has got completely disconnected now. People don’t like being reminded that the vast majority have nothing. If you say that you’re thought to be a bore.”
Anuradha Roy is an extraordinary writer with many gifts, but perhaps her greatest ability is to place violence and humour side by side. There’s a scene where young Myshkin cycles over to his friend Dinu’s house, enraged because Dinu is ignoring him in school. In his backpack is a preserved human hand in a jar of formaldehyde, stolen from his grandfather’s study. He flings it against a wall in Dinu’s house, saying, “Lambu sent you a gift from hell.” It’s a scene that takes your breath away, partly because you are grimacing as you read it, but also, because there’s a truth to it, and despite the brutality, you almost want to smile.
“In many ways you write the books you want to read, of course,” Roy says, “but in all my books I’m struck by the blackness of the situation which can become quite funny. I do, in life, start laughing at completely inappropriate times because I think it can go into hysteria in real life, a sense of something darkly comic. I enjoy writing that. And I think it gives you a way to cope, in what you have to confront. To be able to laugh it away, flip it over…”