The female narrative is traditionally overwritten by societal roles – Mother, Wife, Sister, Daughter. But what about the woman? Anuradha Roy’s All The Lives We Never Lived explores the meaning and effects of childhood, motherhood, family, ambition and nationalism through multiple perspectives and experiences – think an Indian female artist, a German artist and adventurer, an Indian nationalist, an English dancer and a small Indian boy from the town of Muntazir – in the midst of war, the canvasses of art and the pages of history. SheThePeople.TV converses with Anuradha Roy, the DSC Prize-winning Author, about her book, as it reinvents the idea and act of freedom during the colonial struggle for independence.
There’s so much that is hard to explain about your own writing. As with any other characters, though, through the process of writing, I get closer and closer to these fictional people who sometimes start as nothing more than a gesture or a habit. -Anuradha Roy
Q. In All The Lives We Never Lived, we see two struggles for freedom being waged – one is the nation’s and the other is Gayatri’s. Why is the freedom of the nation and the freedom of women two separate battles?
One of the central ideals drummed into Indian women is self-sacrifice. The good woman is one who not only sacrifices, but finds joy in it. It struck me often as I was reading memoirs and histories for this book, how jubilant women were supposed to be that their husbands and fathers had allowed them to leave the home and join nationalist protests. When I read mainstream histories peopled by great men, I wondered about what the women had actually wanted, and all the lost voices and versions of freedom that contradict each other.
Gayatri does not want to sacrifice for the nation, she wants freedom that is individualistic and personal.
This was a live question during the freedom movement. Rabindranath Tagore was pilloried and accused of treachery because he argued that nationalism could also become extremist, and this could diminish the cosmopolitan, artistic nature of the human spirit. Tagore opposed the British fiercely in his own way but he believed that the spirit of art linked people across nationalities, and that the struggle for keeping art and creativity alive was not national but international. So there have always been, and still are, many competing ideas about freedom, and different ways of telling its history.
Q. How did you slip into the mind of Myshkin – as a young boy and an old man – while writing his story?
When I look around the world of my books, there seem to be quite a number of older people there, who knows why. There’s so much that is hard to explain about your own writing. As with any other characters, though, through the process of writing, I get closer and closer to these fictional people who sometimes start as nothing more than a gesture or a habit. Until I reach a point when I find myself saying to myself “No, Myshkin wouldn’t do that” or “He would not say it that way”. That is when he is as real to me as people actually living with me and I am just writing about someone I can hear, feel, see.
Q. What inspired All The Lives We Never Lived and what was your writing process like – from idea to paper?
I wanted to write the story of a boy who lived such an intense life of the imagination that he actually entered and inhabited certain paintings. The magical thing about the writing of it was how a whole world slowly started taking shape as I mulled over which pictures the boy would look at. At a museum in Bali, looking at the paintings of Walter Spies, I discovered he died on 19th January, 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 one real-life character 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.
Q. In All The Lives We Never Lived, readers not only read about Gayatri Rozario exploring her sexuality with Brijen Sinha, but also Walter Spies exploring his sexuality as a Gay man. There’s also Beryl de Zoete’s first marriage which is based on abstinence or even asexuality. How important is this representation and narrative of the spectrum – which has been censored in history time and again – for people to better understand historical figures as well as characters of fiction?
In this book, dealing with sexuality was essential. The usual assumption about a woman who leaves her husband is that she is besotted by some other man. Gayatri leaves with a man who is homosexual. I wanted to show here that a woman is not defined only by her sexuality — that she can be a strongly sexual being and yet not allow her whole life to be determined by her role as wife, mother, or lover. Begum Akhtar, as much as Beryl de Zoete, is important in this novel because both the Begum and Beryl suggest to Gayatri from the ways in which they have lived that a woman may want to be defined primarily by her instinct as an artist, and that her freedom to be an artist may be, for her own sense of identity, far more important than her male-ascribed roles as wife, mother, and lover.
Gayatri leaves with a man who is homosexual. I wanted to show here that a woman is not defined only by her sexuality — that she can be a strongly sexual being and yet not allow her whole life to be determined by her role as wife, mother, or lover.
Q. Nek Chand Rozario wants freedom for the country, and is aware of diversity and the caste struggle in India too. For a man as educated and aware as Nek, why do you think he failed to see how he limited Gayatri and then Lipi in living a freedom of their choosing?
Patriarchy is this peculiar thing: even well-meaning men can be deluded into thinking they know what is better for a woman. If you think of Gandhi — his moral power and deep humanity are so clear and obvious that it is difficult for most people to think too hard about his patriarchy. But as many women wonder – what did his wife actually think about his methods, including his doctrine of sexual abstinence? Did she have a choice in this or any other way of life handed to her?
I thought it was important to show that the husband, Nek Chand Rozario, is not at all a villain. He is, in fact, a decent and civilised atheist whose only God is the Nation. He is a man of integrity and courage but he is dogmatic about his views and often misguided – especially in his inability to translate his generalised compassion for all humanity into empathy for those close to him. With Nek, it is not patriarchy alone, this blindness exists in all his relationships, including with his son.
Patriarchy is this peculiar thing: even well-meaning men can be deluded into thinking they know what is better for a woman.
Q. Do you think that female existence and motherhood can be separate, and what does the contrast in the ways that Gayatri and Lipi separate both mean for the changing ways of parenting?
This is a perceptive point. I wouldn’t like to explain away too much of the book, but both women have different ways of being loving and protective mothers, yet do not see that as the start and end of their lives. The contrast appears sharper because Gayatri’s rebellion is more flamboyant, but Lipi’s is no less emphatic, and brings her husband to a completely different understanding of her and changes her child’s life.
Q. Myshkin’s views about his mother change as he grows older, and he comes to understand her reasons completely once he reads her letters to Lisa. How does maturity help one empathise and understand the reasoning and struggles of their loved ones – as Gayatri is taken down from the pedestal of motherhood and finally viewed as a human being?
I think all of us, if we are fortunate, experience that change of life when our parents become our equals or even friends, and we relate to them in a different way. For Myshkin, this happens via his mother’s letters. It is a journey from emotion to reason, from merely reacting as an abandoned child to reflecting, as an adult who has faced similar questions in his life.
Q. The Indian cost of the foreign war (The World Wars) is seen through the characters of Kharak Singh, Myshkin, Mantu, Gayatri, Dinu and Arjun Chacha. What do you think is the personal cost of war due to the glory of political narratives?
The central thing about fiction is that it arrives at the bigger picture by focusing on particulars – right from characters to the location of houses and scent of mutton stew in a guest house, these are what supersede the grand narratives. This is so when writing of war or the freedom struggle – looking at these things from the perspective of an individual is what I wanted to do. How was it for a landless peasant? For a woman stranded in a foreign country? For an ambitious businessman? For a man who suddenly becomes an alien in the place he calls his home?
The war was different things to different people beyond the loss of heroic men killed in battle. For women, the rulers weren’t so much the British as their own husbands. The war had more often to be fought at home.
Q. Why do you revisit the motif of a lost mother in All The Lives We Never Lived after Sleeping on Jupiter, and why are multiple narratives of motherhood necessary to understand it beyond the patriarchal constitution of it?
Actually, there are plenty of lost father motifs in my books too, including in Jupiter – the girl there, Nomi, sees her father killed right before her eyes. And there are virtually parentless characters in my earlier books. I have wondered on and off if my mother feels slightly troubled by this because a lot of readers take fiction to be disguised autobiography! (It mostly isn’t.)
There is only so much you can analyse your own work, but I think it has to do with the fact that I am interested in the individual, and sometimes, ridding him of his closest family is one way of really reaching him and him alone. Myshkin’s unravelling of his mother’s story has a great deal to do with losing a parent early; but it is also somewhat impersonal. He is searching for the motivations of a woman who was a rebel in her time.
Q. Why did you set All The Lives We Never Lived in the present and the past through flashbacks, and when and how did you know you wanted to write alternate history?
I did not know that I wanted to write an alternate history — at least it was not my objective, or a decision. It became apparent to me as the book developed — that this is what it would be.
The reason for writing the story through flashbacks was to focus on the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the story, rather than the “What next”. The very first paragraph tells you the book’s defining event; the book unravels the reasons and takes it to its conclusion.
Q. What advice would you give to authors writing in the genre of alternative history?
I could only tell them what I tried to do: which was to create a living, breathing fictional world while not falsifying the historical one. And to resist being tyrannised by the facts or the weight of authenticity. People can read history books for information and analysis. Fiction should be read for different reasons — mainly I would say for the reader to feel more alive — to be alive in a world different from her own.
Feature Image Credit: Hachette India, Christopher Maclehose.
All The Lives We Never Lived, by Anuradha Roy, has been published by Hachette India. It is priced at Rs. 599 and is available online and in bookstores.
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