Set in World War II India, All the Lives We Never Lived (Hachette, 2018) is a work of historical fiction centering on themes of freedom, love, and loyalty. Ranikhet-based novelist, journalist, and editor Anuradha Roy’s novel about a rebellious Indian homemaker who breaks social convention to seek artistic freedom was longlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature as well as shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award.
Author of An Atlas of Impossible Longing, The Folded Earth, and Sleeping on Jupiter, Roy decided to write the book one afternoon on a street in Ubud, where she was looking for the second home of Walter Spies. Spies, a German artist and musician, spent most of his life in Bali where he met the renowned poet Rabindranath Tagore as well as the well-known dancer Uday Shankar. He had wanted to learn Sanskrit and research Indian dance forms, but unfortunately, drowned at the age of forty-seven as a prisoner of war on a ship that was bombed and destroyed. To some extent, this book imagines what might have been had he made the journey to India.
The protagonist of the tale, Myshkin, is nine years old when his unconventional mother, Gayatri, runs off with a foreigner. Sixty-year-old Myshkin goes back into the past and recounts the various episodes that make up his life story.
While Gayatri was growing up, her father took her to Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, and Santiniketan, where they visited historical monuments and appreciated different kinds of art, classical music, and dance. In 1927, when Tagore was planning a trip to Java, they decided to sail the same ship, visiting Borobudur, Angkor Wat, and the temples of Bali. Her father wanted to show her a shared cultural universe in Asia which had not been swallowed up by colonization.
During the voyage, they are able to closely encounter Tagore who tells them about Walter Spies. In Bali, Spies takes Gayatri, her father, and their friends to various dance performances, concerts, beaches, and painting schools. Gayatri was attracted to the bohemian life Spies lived — exploring the world, making music, painting, and sleeping on a boat in a lake.
Soon after the trip, Gayatri is married off to one of her father’s students in a small Indian hill station. Moreover, with the birth of her son, she feels trapped and longs to be free. While the nation struggles for independence against foreign oppression, she fights an internal war for her own personal freedom — dreaming of wandering the world and adventure. In 1937, Spies comes to India to document a book on India’s dances. When he arrives at their little hamlet searching for Gayatri, she decides to escape with him to Bali, leaving her home and family behind.
Roy’s deep love for gardening, nature, and the outdoors comes across powerfully through the narrative. With exquisite descriptions, the book is set against the backdrop of a picturesque Himalayan town, complete with deodar trees, blue skies, clear streams, and rich forests. Further, as a young man, Myshkin works as a horticulturist and maintains a botanical journal of his wanderings through the mountains.
Through lyrical prose, the book also allows the reader to virtually travel to Bali of the early twentieth century. In her letters to her son, Gayatri describes the fascinating ‘storybook land’ complete with its medicine men, rainforests, strange flowers, volcanoes, springs, and temples cut from stone. Sometimes, her letters have pressed butterflies, leaves, or dried flowers in them. Gayatri also draws many parallels between Bali and India. When he came there, Tagore too reportedly saw many similarities between the two countries and is believed to have said that Bali felt like what India must have been in ancient times.
Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul, an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world.