Dec 1, 2018-In my childhood, I was known as the boy whose mother had run off with an Englishman,” the narrator of All the Lives We Never Lived, a sexagenarian horticulturist, begins his tale. It is intriguing, and mysterious, this statement—what kind of hardship must the little boy have endured, how could a mother leave behind her child, where did she go with a foreigner?
The story of this escapade unfolds rapidly, then leisurely, and then all at once. Sometimes a steady stream, other times a monsoon flood, Myshkin Rozario’s memories engulf readers and take them on a journey beginning from pre-independence India to world war-ravaged Indonesia. Myshkin, named after Dostoevsky’s Idiot, brings up long-lost recollections and sifts through his mother’s letters till he finally understands her disappearance. It is an uncomfortable, prickly and disconcerting truth he unravels.
The grumpy Myshkin is a mere vessel; the novel is actually held together by someone far more flamboyant and spellbinding—his mother, Gayatri, often simply called Gay. An introduction to her riding a bicycle in the early twentieth century in a relatively conservative society like India, is enough to tell us all about her, and also about her husband: “The first day when she was teaching herself to balance the bicycle, she went on and on, tottering, falling, sucking the blood off her grazes, getting back on again. Screaming with laughter, showing all her teeth like a wolf, my father said. She rode the bicycle into a line of flowerpots along the front verandah, her long hair came loose, her eyes sparkled, her sari was torn at the knee. But she went back to the bike.”
We know then, by the second page, that Gayatri is as carefree and gay as her name, perseverant and persistent, passionate and playful. Her era would classify her as ‘wanton’, a ‘bad influence’, a ‘troublemaker.’ Her husband, meanwhile, is quite the opposite—her abandoned laughter seems to him the sign of being a wolf, somehow wild, inappropriate, undomesticated. Not how he likes his women.
This is how easily Anuradha Roy paints her characters, a word here, a hint there, and we know whether to sympathise or stay away. Even supporting characters, like Myshkin’s doctor grandfather, the Gandhi follower his father adores, or the neighbour who feeds him cake, have been accorded special quirks and worthy dialogues that make them unforgettable.
Words yield themselves to Roy’s capable ideas. There is a joy and beauty in reading her, a polish and finesse that soothes the senses yet jolts them awake. It is easy to understand why her third novel, Sleeping on Jupiter, won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, and was longlisted for the Man Booker. This is her fourth novel, and it is also marvelous to experience just how her command over language, her themes and references have morphed and expanded. If her first novel An Atlas of Impossible Longing brought to life a quaint love story between childhood friends, her fourth binds in words a real life, a historical character she’d heard of, and wanted to introduce to the world.
So we are duly introduced to Walter Spies, a German artist whom Gayatri met in her girlhood travels with her father, and never since forgot. Even after a marriage to a much older nationalist, her free spirit refuses to be bound to home and hearth, she is forever dreaming of the glorious months she spent as if in a dream, savoring surprises in the islands of Bali, sailing over the ocean to get to Singapore, meeting the highly-regarded Rabindranath Tagore. So when fate brings them together again, Gayatri and her Spies, she does the unthinkable—she leaves behind her son and vanishes. For years, we follow Myshkin as he writhes and aches for his mother. Nothing ever fills the void she left behind, her unfulfilled promises make him bitter, and Myshkin turns resentful, almost sullen. It is impossible to forgive his mother for shirking the responsibility of raising her son and fulfilling her wifely duties towards her intelligent and rational, if a bit staid, husband.
Or is it? The trope of the restless young girl trapped in a boring marriage she must escape and then repent, hasn’t it been overused? Roy, particularly, is enamored by the concept of the flawed female, the gifted and talented woman who deserves much more than a marriage. She sets out creating an unbridled, unapologetic, bold female character, marries her off to someone who tries to crush her spirits and justifies her (physical, psychological) disappearance from the marriage. It is almost as if there is a fear of letting a female character be too unwomanlike, that would be unacceptable—a line drawn to say, just like real women, you can have this much freedom, but not more. You may display some traits of independence and self-love, but you may not have it all.
Gayatri, for example, is a typical ‘deviant’ woman. She is the respectable daughter-in-law of a well-to-do family, but her husband is shown to be so patriotic and strict, she has no option but to leave him. Why can’t women be ‘bad’ for their own sake, why do their actions have to be justified? Again, as fettered as she feels in a married life, Gayatri pines for Myshkin when she goes away, perhaps because the novel is afraid to have an unmaternal heroine. And at the end, just like other ‘bad’ women, she has only two choices—she needs to reform, or she will somehow be ‘punished’ to balance out her evil deeds. This reluctance of the writer to create out-and-out narcissistic and self-absorbed women who soak up the world greedily and do not pay anything in return, it does not suit the freshness and wilderness of this particular novel.
And yet it is a novel to be read, and read aloud—by fathers to daughters, by sisters to brothers. One for the sheen and shine the words contain, other for the complex relationships, human desires and inhuman times it explores. A little like Amitabh Ghosh’s historical novels that sweep readers along to a different era, this novel attempts to transport readers from tiny little rooms and thoughts to huge flowery grasslands and an unending canvas.