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To write from memories

By February 19, 2019No Comments

Source : DNA – JBM

Book: All The Lives We Never LivedAuthor: Anuradha royPublisher: Hachette IndiaPages: 336 Price: Rs 599


Anuradha Roy has an uncanny ability: she has the reader entranced with just the opening lines to her books. In All The Lives We Never Lived, her last book to be shortlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature 2018, she writes of Gayatri Rozario in 1920s India. As the country struggles with identity and freedom, Rozario struggles for her own freedom. She has nurtured art in her heart, mind and soul. And after having suppressed it following her marriage to Nek Chand, a teacher, when she finally sees an opportunity to flee, she grabs at it. Present at this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival, we sit her down for a chat. Excerpts:

Tell our readers about the journey till the first draft?

Writing the first draft is like trying to solidify a cloud – giving shape and form to ideas in my head. It’s the most exciting time when I can hardly sleep and want to constantly work.

Gayatri’s struggles in 1920s mirror those of the contemporary woman today as well. 

The circumstances have changed a lot. It is so much easier for us now. The struggles may not be the same, but the dilemmas exist in different forms even today. Many of them have now to do with your personal circumstances – where you’re from, what your family is like – it matters even now. It is certainly easier though for one to carve out their own space today.

Where does Myshkin’s interest in plants come from? Was it a connection to his mother, who was always tending to gardens and carrying flowers in her hair? 

There is a section where he says that his mother was sometimes half human and half a creature of nature when she would sing on the terrace or standing by a tree, he would think of her as a woodland person. In his eyes, his mother is slightly romanticised by the time he is writing about her despite the fact that he has also hated her in many ways. Yet she has the deepest influence on him and his sense of nature comes from her. Then nature becomes, for him the place where he finds stability because the trees won’t leave him, he will always have them around.

Myshkin grows to become a patient man after an angry adolescence, spending a lot of his time in solitude. Does he always find solace in trees and plants and nature?

The conversations with his half-sister are not fleshed out, but I did want to convey that they are quite close. She is looking after him in many ways. Although he is solitary, he is not lonely. The kind of companionship he seeks is the one he finds in his dogs and trees. I think you can’t define companionship as only human companionship – there are many kinds and he has chosen this non-human companionship.

Nek Chand’s character is patriotic, pedantic, condescending and patronising. How did you write his character? Why does Myshkin describe them as “two people stranded on an island with no common language”?

Nek Chand is compassionate, a man of integrity, courage (he is prepared to go to jail for his country), he doesn’t fear physical violence and participates in protests. This kind of person is an absolutely admirable person. And many patriots of that time, during the Quit India Movement, were of this kind. However, his compassion is a generalised compassion – he is not able to translate into the particular [his family] and there is a combination of patriarchy and patriotism, that does not keep in mind that there are different kinds of freedoms and that freedom for one person need not mean freedom for the other person. So he is unable to perceive that his wife might be viewing his ideals of freedom from a completely different lens. This is what makes them two people who can’t speak the same language.

Coming to Dr Batty Rozario’s character, Nek Chand’s father and Gayatri’s father-in-law, who is an understanding, compassionate man. Did you write him as a father-in-law that a woman, not just back then but even a contemporary woman, would look up to?

Dr Batty Rozario doesn’t sit on a high throne and judge people. He is quite discreet, not pompous and pedantic – the main way in which he is different from his son. He has wit, irreverence, a calm, and he enjoys life. I think it makes him a much approachable male person and not the patriarch. Most women would want not a patriarch for a father-in-law.

As a writer, what would you say is more difficult: the revision, toning and editing or the story writing in the first place?

The writing of the first draft is the hardest part when it feels as if the book might just evaporate – vanish from my grasp. After the draft, I have something to work with, and I have good days and bad days, but I know that the first draft is there.

Do writers always/ often nurture a doubt about their work?

I can’t speak for other writers. I know I always do, even years after a book is published. The dissatisfaction never goes away.

Memories, letters, and conversations play a big role in your stories.

The book [All The Lives We Never Lived] is a lot about the unreliability of memory. And Gayatri’s son Myshkin knows his memory is unreliable [when he sits down to pen the story]. He knows that sometimes he may be remembering things more bitterly and darkly than what happened to him. Fiction and memory can’t be separated and it is in all my books – this interplay, the sense of doubt, the continuous sense of being on a ground that is a bit uncertain. And Myshkin’s narration is uncertain – sometimes we don’t know whether he is right or wrong, just like the reader.

When do you know that your story is complete?

When the characters have gone through a transformation, the old world has changed for them, other worlds have opened up, but there is still room for things to happen.

How much of your writing is being vulnerable to the reader? 

When I am writing the first draft, I am alone, I am not aware of readers; at that time it is purely a question for me of being able to give shape and form to the idea and characters gripping me. Later, when the book has been read by my publisher and he points out things that did not work for him, I become aware of a reader and decide if I need to rework anything for clarity/pace and so on.

Do you read critic reviews?

I read many of the reviews; if they are intelligent and perceptive, I enjoy reading them and sometimes come across observations that make me look at my own book afresh.

What, according to you, is a good book review?

A good book review is one that is alive to the book’s context, language, and intention, and is well-written and well-informed.

Would you say you are a patient creative?

I am patient and persistent when it comes to writing. You have to be – when writing novels, they take years to finish.

About the author

  • Roy’s first book, An Atlas of Impossible Longing (2008) has been translated into 15 languages. It was also named by World Literature Today as one of the 60 Essential English Language Works of Modern Indian Literature
  • Her second novel The Folded Earth won the Economist Crossword Prize
  • Sleeping on Jupiter won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and was nominated for the Man Booker Prize 

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