Thin line between nationalism & jingoism was pointed out by Tagore : Author Anuradha Roy on writing and more

I think other people’s words and ideas are like fertilizer; your own don’t develop, grow or change without them. We catch up with Anuradha Roy on her writing, nationalism, men-women relationships in her books and more.

Yamini Pustake Bhalerao
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Anuradha Roy gets Sahitya Akademi Award, Anuradha Roy Dublin Literary Awards

Sexuality, gender dynamics, politics, art, history, interpersonal narratives; author and journalist Anuradha Roy's works are expansive and comprehensive at the same time, and yet, her books will leave you longing for more. Long after you put down any of Roy's four novels, you'll find yourself thinking about its characters, their lives and times, and decisions that challenge your perception on a deeper level.


It is no surprise then, that Roy won the 2016 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature for her book Sleeping On Jupiter, which was also long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2015. Her most recent book All The Lives We Never Lived, that came out in 2018, has won the Tata Book of the Year Award for Fiction 2018 and been shortlisted for  The Hindu Literary Prize in 2019, and long-listed for Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2018. Earlier in September, the book was shortlisted for International Dublin Literary Awards. SheThePeople.TV speaks with Roy on what inspires her to write, how economic independence changes how women live and writing her way through the pandemic.

It was a boy who found an imagined world through paintings was the starting point for her book All The Lives We Never Lived, she reveals. "This character had been with me for a few years, and everything else, even the era in which the book is set, came from this point. When I thought about which paintings the boy would be immersed in, I came upon Walter Spies a German artist who lived in Bali when he escaped the increasingly right wing Germany of the 1920s. From this came the parallels between past and present and the novel grew into an exploration of the themes of nationalism and freedom."

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All The Lives We Never Lived indeed talks about nationalism in-depth, a sentiment that is on a rise again across the globe. The lines between patriotism and nationalism are blurred today, even in a liberal country like India. Or is it that nationalism has always been around, and has just caught mainstream attention now? How far back does it go? "I wonder if we were ever as gentle or humane as we are made out to be," says Roy, adding, "There is a lot of nostalgia, but the thin line between nationalism and jingoism was pointed out by Tagore way back in the 1920s."

Anuradha Roy photo credit Sheela Roy resized Anuradha Roy: Photo credit Sheela Roy

Another theme that Roy's book explores is the connection between patriarchy and sexual oppression of women, albeit not in a way we are used to. Women are often forced to endure loveless and sexless marriages in silence and make peace with their fate. So what keeps them from walking away, I ask her? "It would be generalising or speculation for me to say anything – but I suppose economic compulsions always have a lot to do with it even if it’s not the only factor," says she, adding that where there is more economic independence, people tend to live differently.


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It is not just sexual oppression, patriarchy often robs women of their agency. Agency to live on their own terms, and not have seek approval from others on their choices, no matter how unconventional they. History and even literature often hesitate to celebrate women whose choices the society may not understand. For instance, in All The Lives That We Never Lived, the character of Gayatri leaves her husband but moves on with a homosexual man. A narrative we haven't heard before. Even if we did, would we celebrate this strange choice? "When a woman does something radical like leaving home with an alien man – it is usually assumed she is doing so only because she is besotted by that man. And Walter Spies was a very charismatic, gifted, handsome man – as described in the book. I liked the piquancy of a young woman running off with a gay man who is taken to be her lover, says Roy. According to her what the two of them actually share is not sexual love, but the need for freedom to live as they please, and to be true to their gifts.

When asked what drew her to writing, Roy says she doesn’t have a memory of any specific point or thing, though she read, and also wrote, from her earliest childhood. "I would never be able to list specific authors who have shaped me – there are too many. At this moment I have a stack of fiction next to me, including books by Alice Munro – almost every story by her makes me pause in wonderment and admiration. I read a lot of poetry as well. I’ve recently been reading new poems by Arvind Mehrotra and Tishani Doshi as well as some brilliant translations of Sappho by Anne Carson. I think other people’s words and ideas are like fertiliser; your own don’t develop, grow or change without them.

Roy was 39 when her first book came out, although it was actually completed when she was 36, and it didn’t find a publisher for a couple of years. "I don’t think of myself as a late starter though; I published my first stories at fourteen, and writing fiction was always there in my life. When you write and when you publish are two different things and I think you should only write if you are not too bothered whether your work will be published. If you don’t write because you need to write, it is a waste – there is so much else to do that is rewarding."

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Roy opines that while writing may seem like work for which isolation is ideal but that isn’t so. "You feed off the world. You need travel, you need the energy and inspiration you get from new experiences and people. On a mundane level, a research trip I need to do is impossible now." With this crucial part of her writing cut down by the pandemic, how is she coping? "Right now, the sense of uncertainty about the future – and even about the present – is almost unbearable," says she, "but I am trying to hold on to a routine and write my way through it. I am lucky to be able to – many people’s lives have been changed irrevocably."

Speaking of upcoming projects, what can the readers expect next from Anuradha Roy? "I am working on something, but am not yet sure where it is headed or what it will become – if anything."

All The Lives We Never Lived author Anuradha Roy Women Writers authors