All the Lives We Never Lived by Anuradha Roy
I’ve said before that one of the most wonderful things about being a bookseller is the discovery of new novels by writers I had not known before – as is the case with All the Lives We Never Lived by Anuradha Roy.
The novel begins with the words “In my childhood, I was known as the boy whose mother had run off with an Englishman.” The story is told by that boy, Myshkin Chand Rozario, now a man in his 60s, as he recalls his childhood and the profound impact the disappearance of his mother had on him for all of his life.
His memories are triggered by the arrival of an envelope, from a long ago friend of his mother. An envelope he hesitates to open, “I am afraid of fresh pain” he writes. Myshkin has become a rather solitary man, often lost in his own thoughts, speaking only in his mind to those who are gone. He had a long career as a garden designer, an occupation that brought him satisfaction and peace. “If you wish to be happy for an hour, drink wine; if you wish to be happy for three days, get married. If you wish to be happy for eight days, kill your pig and eat it; but if you wish to be happy forever, become a gardener.”
Though the story is told by Myshkin, it is always his mother, Gayatri, who is at the centre. Gayatri was a cherished daughter who travelled with her father and was encouraged to develop her interest in art and creativity. Marriage happened as was expected, a child soon followed and for a time her artistic efforts were accepted by her husband. But, as he became more and more narrow minded and focused on politics he became more and more critical of her dancing, her art and her need for a creative life. When Walter Spies and Beryl de Zoete came into their lives Gayatri found them to be friends who understood her need for art – and was met with the strong disapproval of her husband. The young woman, stifled and desperately unhappy, bolted. Her desire to have her son with her never wavered but given a choice she chose her own life over any other.
Walter Spies was a painter, and his friend Beryl encouraged Gayatri to “put a smile and some red lipstick on. Think of tomorrow – which is always, always, a new day. That’s such a comfort.” For the first time Gayatri had friends of her own.
Myshkin is forever “a child abandoned without explanation, I had felt nothing but rage, misery, confusion.” But, now a man in his late 60s he is taking the time to re-examine his mother’s disappearance. As he attempts to understand why she had to leave he begins to come to terms with his own loss and perhaps, perhaps let some of it go and find peace.
Gayatri wrote letters to her son, from Bali where she chose to live with Walter and Beryl, and her husband allowed the boy to read and to respond to them. Through these letters, and the letters she wrote to a friend, we learn of Gayatri’s life in Bali. At first, though so sadly missing her son, Gayatri finds fulfillment in her art and her growing reputation as a painter. But, soon the Second World War brings changes to Bali, by 1942 the Japanese occupied the Dutch East Indies and life becomes much more difficult, especially for Walter Spies, who had been born in Germany.
We follow the journey of all of the characters in this novel, as they age, and Myshkin finds himself, in late middle age, reflecting that “there were fewer and fewer people who could share any memories with me, either about people or about places.”
I found All the Lives We Never Lived a captivating novel, revealing the exotic culture of India and Bali during a time of great change.