‘We are great competition for the tortoise in matters of change’: Anuradha Roy

Anuradha Roy found whimsical connections between the personal and the political as she researched her novel, ‘All the Lives We Never Lived’, now shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award 2020

September 12, 2020 04:00 pm | Updated 04:00 pm IST

Anuradha Roy

Anuradha Roy

When you read [Dostoevsky’s] The Idiot , you’ll want to be one... Innocents are what make humankind human.” It’s a grandfather’s advice to a young Myshkin, the protagonist of Anuradha Roy’s 2018 novel, All the Lives We Never Lived , which is back in the spotlight after being shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award 2020. Roy is the first Indian to be shortlisted for this prestigious award, which is celebrating its 25th year. All the Lives We Never is all about innocence, its loss, and the lifelong journey to reclaim it.

The novel begins in the turbulent years before Independence, when World War II was reshaping political and geographical boundaries, when trains carrying European prisoners of war pulled into Myshkin’s small town near Dehradun. The ideals of nationalism and patriotism play out at the personal level as we follow Myshkin’s and his mother Gayatri’s search for freedom.

Roy reprises her novel in this email interview:

What made you set your novel in the backdrop of India’s freedom struggle?

For me the most inspirational novelist who uses this technique of understanding the present through historical fiction is the Estonian Jaan Kross, whose masterpiece, The Czar’s Madman, shows obliquely the continuity of current and past oppression under tyranny. I was reading an essay by John Freeman where he writes, “We are swimming in facts, but a fact does not fully obtain the depth of a fact, the power of a fact, until it becomes part of a story.”

It is a real struggle for me — for many of us — to grapple with the extreme changes in this country over the past few years. Placing myself in a past time when similar questions have played out, but very differently, was for me a way of understanding the facts of my present.

The nationalism that Myshkin grew up with is different from what a generation of Indians is exposed to today. The ideals of nationalism and patriotism have been twisted beyond recognition. Do you agree?

There is no doubt that those ideals have been horribly warped. At the same time, when I was researching this book, I was startled by the kind of venom Rabindranath Tagore attracted for not being a diehard Gandhian nationalist and for believing in individual liberty as a goal. For his more radical ideas he was called a traitor and seditionist in the same way that many are labelled now. Jingoism changes its clothing but maybe it was always inherent in traditions of patriotism.

While we are on the topic of freedom, let’s talk about the protagonist’s mother, Gayatri, who was trapped in a marriage to a man who pretended to espouse women’s rights, but in effect controlled her. She left her son in search of freedom, and in doing so upended the popular narrative of motherhood. Does he understand what drove her to do this?

I think the book moves from a point of semi-certainty to doubt. The same events are seen from two perspectives, Gayatri’s and Myshkin’s. And when he comes to know of her experience, in her own voice, it alters the way he sees her. A child confused and heartbroken by his mother’s inexplicable departure progresses in the book to an older man who is able to see Gayatri as not just his mother but as a gifted, passionate woman. This makes things simultaneously less certain for him as well as clearer.

What made you choose Walter Spies, a Russian-born German artist from Bali, as the friend who helps free Gayatri? Other people like Rabindranath Tagore, Begum Akhtar, and Beryl de Zoete are part of the narrative.

The magical thi ng about the writing of this book was how a whole world slowly started taking shape as I mulled over Myshkin’s immersion in paintings. At a museum in Bali, looking at the paintings of Walter Spies, I discovered he died on January 19, the very day my beloved old dog had recently died.

I know this sounds whimsical, but it felt as if my life, the novel and Spies were connected. Slowly these ripples spread wider as I discovered Tagore had met Spies; that Beryl de Zoete, who wrote a book with Spies, had come to India to write on dance.

And as I found out more about these people who lived during a fraught historical period, it felt as if the past and present were swimming in and out of each other. Tagore and Spies had much in common: a deep involvement and interest in other cultures, art; they were both incredibly gifted in many different ways.

So many shackles and prejudices that Gayatri and other characters (homosexuality in the case of Spies) encounter exist even today. People tend to look down on the arts; women are still shouting for freedom; the LGBTQI+ community remains marginalised. Can you comment?

Someday pretty soon, when most of the planet has either been washed away or burned away, we’ll wonder at the futility of locking up people for what they wear, write, think or eat. Until then, we are great competition for the tortoise in matters of change.


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