Anuradha Roy’s new novel, All the Lives We Never Lived (Hachette), is set in an India on the cusp of independence. It has many of the features common to her earlier works — a small town lovingly brought to life, a sense attuned to nature and its rhythms, and oddballs who live on the margin of respectability. But its canvas is wider. Roy sets sail on the troubled waters of 20th century history, examining the refuge of art and the artist at a time of violent upheaval. In this email interview, the Ranikhet-based writer speaks about the cosmopolitanism of the past, and the women in her novel. Edited excerpts:
Was the starting point for this novel an image, a character, or a voice? And is that how your novels begin usually?
It was a character, a boy with an imagination so intense he could “enter” paintings. This boy had been with me for several years in a shadowy kind of way and I had a sense he was close to his grandfather, that there was a mother who was absent yet present. Nothing felt very clear. The process of writing was to discover their stories.
My other novels have begun in other ways, usually through an image: a half-submerged house in the first book; a frozen lake in the second. The third had begun as a short story.
At what point did the 20th century German artist Walter Spies enter the narrative?
When I was still trying to get closer to the boy, I remember standing in a museum in Bali before the paintings of Walter Spies, and I discovered he died on January 19, the very day my beloved old dog had died, only a few months earlier. This, apart from the paintings themselves, somehow made me feel we had a connection. Fictionally speaking, Walter Spies’s life is very dramatic and a symbol of both humanism and cosmopolitanism, and the waste and destruction brought about by war, hatred, prejudice. He was a fascinating character, a genius of a kind, who was an equally brilliant pianist, painter, linguist, who made Bali his home. He planned to come to India but that was never to be. He died when he was being sent as a prisoner of war (ironically, to India) on a ship that was sunk by Japanese bombs. He spent six years of his brief life in jail for political reasons, and yet remained spiritedly creative. It made me feel he was an inspiring figure for contemporary times.
The other artist, who also combined a love for nature and curiosity about the world, and is a character in this novel, is Rabindranath Tagore. What sort of spirit do artists like them represent?
What both represent, very strongly, is the spirit of cosmopolitanism — of the genuine kind. A deep involvement and interest in other cultures, art. Tagore aspired to bring the world to Santiniketan and travelled tirelessly in its cause. When they met, Spies had just begun living in Bali, where he became the central figure in its art, music, archaeology. He revived local art and gave it new directions and created a community there of artists who were completely international. So, in effect, they had similar goals.
Did you find any parallels and differences between the early 20th century and the contemporary world?
Yes, many parallels, especially with the rise of Nazism then and the worldwide right-wing surge now; also, the way the patriotism of the freedom movement then has been warped now into a rabid nationalism now, a patriotism warped by extreme patriarchy.
One of the differences is the other side: the humanism and curiosity about other cultures in a genuine, deep way in some pockets. The eagerness such people had to open out their worlds, find out about new cultures and arts — travel to satisfy genuine intellectual curiosity, not merely to see the sights.
It seemed to me that All the Lives We Never Lived is also about how the individual, especially the individual artist, copes with the sweeping forces of history. As a writer who works and responds to today’s world, which is going through dizzying and even toxic change, do you look at art as a buffer, as something which sustains?
For me, it is where I take shelter and also the way I respond. There are many questions I can only work out for myself by writing about them. I also think of art as both national and international, whereas nation-worship can be blinding. To defend art against rabid nationalism, as Tagore and Spies did, is to say that individual humanity and national freedom are inseparable and must coexist. In fact, the more toxic the times, the more crucial not to lose sight of art.
Somewhere, fundamentalists know its power — books, paintings, statues, buildings — right-wing regimes worldwide attack these.
For someone who works in language, in images, with characters’ inner lives, how do you approach history and research?
The language — the actual words — this is absolutely crucial to get right at the very start. What I do is write a first draft, with minimal research, very swiftly while the ideas are charging in and the structure, language, characters are clarifying themselves. Once I have that down, I start on the reading and travel (if needed). I want to create a living, breathing fictional world while not falsifying the historical one.
Gayatri Rozario, the protagonist, is a powerful expression of the longing for freedom. Many such women play cameos in this novel — from Begum Akhtar to Amrita to Beryl de Zoete. They are women who cross a line.
It’s one of those stereotypes about women: that the only possible reason for abandoning family and husband is love. Gayatri as well as two other women characters in this book, Beryl and Begum Akhtar, show how powerful sexual impulses can exist alongside other, equally powerful ones.
I’m so happy you noticed Amrita! If you just take her — a character from a fictionalised autobiography by the Bengali writer Maitreyi Devi — here is a teenaged girl in the 1930s, who falls in (forbidden) love with a Romanian scholar. Imagine the danger and risk. And it is the same with Begum Akhtar, passionate about her music in a world where good women didn’t go on stage. I found it fascinating to hold up these women, Gayatri’s contemporaries, as parallels and foils. It’s a common misconception that modern women are feisty and assertive in a way their ancestors were not, but this is not true. They had different, often harder battles to fight.
Like many of your characters, Myshkin is an oddball who shuns the ambition of faraway places. His is a heroic but unsung defiance. What makes you interested in such lives?
I find encounters with “oddballs” interesting not only in fiction but also in real life. People who come to life at an angle, whose view of things surprises you. It’s not always easy being with such people, but it’s never boring — and that applies to fiction as well as life for me.
Tell us how you created Muntazir, the fictional north Indian town in which the novel is set. It is a place of violence, but it is also cosmopolitan — open to the winds of change from across the world.
What I had in mind were towns like Jaipur, Lucknow and Hyderabad, which used to be mid-sized or small towns with a rich culture. I wanted the town to be both specific — so it is imagined in great detail; and yet it is also general — in a sense it is many north Indian turn-of-century towns which had a once-flourishing local nobility done away by colonisation, finding a new identity for itself.
What possibilities do small towns, which are the setting of many of your novels, offer you?
I find that small places — their constrictions, the remoteness of them — intensify the passions and dilemmas in the story. You feel the sea much more when you are in a small boat.
This is a novel that seems to think in many languages, from Urdu to English to Bengali and Bahasa. It also references other artists, and other narratives.
Yes, there is a kind of concert of voices in this book. I’ve done translations from Bengali; there is a short section written as letters; there are also phrases and passages taken in the letters of Spies, articles by Beryl, writings by Tagore and Suniti Chatterji. When I read excerpts from Spies’s letters, I wanted him to speak in his own voice in the book, and that is how it went with the other historical characters too. For me, the challenge was to take all these voices and stitch them into a fictional narrative without any seams showing.