Interview | Sahitya Akademi Award winner Anuradha Roy looks back at ‘All the Lives We Never Lived’

The 2022 Sahitya Akademi Award winner on why she never re-reads her work, and how Bali became an important backdrop in All the Lives We Never Lived

January 06, 2023 10:10 am | Updated January 17, 2023 01:59 pm IST

Anuradha Roy at Walter Spies’ house in Bali

Anuradha Roy at Walter Spies’ house in Bali | Photo Credit: Rukun Advani

Anuradha Roy’s 2018 novel All the Lives We Never Lived recently won the Sahitya Akademi Award for 2022 in the English language category. In an email interview, she talks about the novel, its themes and its historical backdrop. Edited excerpts:

“In my childhood, I was known as the boy whose mother had run off with an Englishman…” So opens the novel, in the words of Myshkin, whose mother Gayatri left him in the 1930s. Could you describe the geography and historical backdrop of the novel?

In the novel, we are in Bali, and also an imagined town in north India, Muntazir. I wanted my town to be specific — it is visualised in great detail; but it is also like many turn-of-century towns that had a once-flourishing local nobility done away by colonisation, finding a new identity for itself. The novel is set in the 1930s and ’40s, with the freedom movement intensifying; this is the time of fascism and the Second World War.

This is a novel about art, literally. You said previously it began with an impulse to write “about a boy who can somehow enter and inhabit pictures”. But the story grew around that image, and it’s a story of connections.

You can’t imagine what it took to find out where this image of the boy was leading. Why inhabit pictures? Whose pictures? In which era? I don’t plot novels in any detail when I write, but I do need to have some signposts. These came to me in a flash when I was standing in a museum in Bali before the paintings of Walter Spies. I discovered he had 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. He was a fascinating character, an equally brilliant pianist, painter, linguist, who made Bali his home. He planned to come to India but that was never to be. I came to know Rabindranath Tagore had visited him in Bali; I unearthed a Bengali travelogue written by one of Tagore’s friends on that trip. It started to feel as if a whole cultural and historical universe was being filled in, like one of those line drawings in a colouring book.

I’m very curious about how a novelist returns to a book published years ago, in this case 2018, and has subsequently worked on another novel. Did you reflect on All the Lives We Never Lived when news of the award came in?

Some days after the news of the award, I woke up in the middle of the night puzzling over a particular detail in the book. I hadn’t thought of this book for ages, and now I was wondering why I had written that bit in that way. I’m used to this because the European translations of my novels come out two or three years after the English, by which time I’m deep into writing another book, and on the promotional tours, I have to respond to questions about a book I’ve already ‘shelved’ in my mind. I don’t like re-reading my own work; I see so many flaws, other ways to write it.

Does the novel speak yet more urgently to the present than you may have had in mind then?

In 2018, the book was responding to jingoistic nationalism, the rise of the right wing, the suppression of freedoms — these things were all on the rise. If anything, it has intensified.

What was it like for you as a writer to work during the pandemic, with its lockdowns, restrictions and anxieties?

The pandemic crashed straight into the French release of Lives and my life’s first writing residency. It was only as the weeks passed that I realised these were inconsequential blows. I finished The Earthspinner during COVID — so it was a residency of a kind, locked up at home. I don’t know how I would have coped without the space the novel gave me, away from the worries and horrors. The writing of a novel always gives me the sense of having a parallel, powerful world, and I had never needed it more.

You design book covers, but not for your own novels. Do you privately have some book covers in mind as you work on the books?

I know from experience that authors can be their own worst enemies when it comes to covers. So whatever I have in my head, it stays there unless someone asks. 

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