All the Lives We Never Lived, Anuradha Roy


All the Lives We Never Lived (2018) is an Indian novel narrated by an old man recalling his boyhood in the 1930s, when his mother, frustrated by the restrictions of traditional Indian marriage, ran off to Bali. The old man is called Myshkin, the name given him by his grandfather, after the epileptic prince in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.

His mother ran off with the Russian-born German artist, Walter Spies – ran off with an ‘Englishman’ according to the townsfolk to whom all white men were ‘English’, or with her ‘German lover’ in many reviews, including the New York Times, though Roy is quite clear that Spies was gay.

Walter Spies (1895-1942) is a real person in this work of fiction, who lived and worked in Bali in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), was arrested in 1938 during a crackdown on homosexuals, and again when war broke out in Europe with the Dutch and the Germans on opposite sides, and who died in 1942 when the ship transporting detainees (ironically) to India was sunk by the Japanese. The community of Europeans to which Myshkin’s mother, Gayatri accompanies Spies was also ‘real’, and included Margaret Mead, “the musician Colin McPhee and his wife, anthropologist Jane Belo, the Swiss artist Theo Meier and the Austrian novelist Vicki Baum.” (wiki)

As an artistic sixteen year old, Gayatri had been taken to Bali by her father and had there met Spies on a raft in a lake and he had taken them up ..

Over the next few weeks, he took Gayatri, her father and their friends to dance performances, concerts, to beaches, to painting schools … Different here, yet familiar. How strange that most of the people around her thought the whole of the Ramayana had taken place in Java and had no connection with India at all!

The story is told from three perspectives, Myshkin as an old man, a retired landscape gardener; Myshkin growing up; and Gayatri, ostensibly from stories she told Myshkin, and later and less satisfactorily, from a cache of letters whose existence Myshkin had been unaware of of. Although told by Myshkin, this is Gayatri’s story – of her rebellion against the carefully constrained freedoms allowed by her ‘tolerant’ husband.

On their return to India Gayatri’s father dies and her mother marries her off as quickly as possible.

What happened next was represented by my father as romance, and he loved retelling it, each time with new flourishes. My mother listened poker-faced, doodling with her fingers on her sari.

He was 33, a teacher, an Anglo-Indian from the north. She was 17, a well-off Bengali Hindu from Delhi, but flighty, artistic, fatherless. They married, moved in with his father in his combined junk shop/doctor’s surgery in a country town in the foothills of the Himalayas.

Spies, and I could not find this in his bio’s, visits India with a friend Beryl de Zoete, in 1937, seeks out Gayatri, and stays on, boarding nearby, befriending the whole family, taking Gayatri on excursions. One day Gayatri begs Myshkin to be home from school on time, but he is held up, and by the time he gets home the three are gone. Sailed to Bali. Myshkin and his mother write, letters arrive intermittently, but war intervenes and contact is lost.

The father is distraught, shamed, becomes even more involved in the anti-British Independence movement, spending some years in jail. Eventually he finds a single mother to marry and bully and over very many years Myshkin and his step-sister become friends. In the latter part of the novel, from her letters to a friend in India, we learn that Gayatri has become a respected artist in Bali, but has fallen into poverty with the war and Spies’ arrests – she was living separately from, but near him.

I have done some research. A little. And as far as I can see, this is a fiction based around a real community of Europeans on Bali. Reviewers in prestigious magazines can’t take the risk of making mistakes, but I can (or do) and have chosen not to read them too closely, so it is still possible that Gayatri is based on a famous Indian of whom I am unaware.

Now. Anuradha Roy. “One of India’s greatest living novelists” it says on the cover. I bought this thinking it was by Arundhati Roy, surprised that she should have a new novel to release so soon after The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, and it was some time before I discovered my mistake. Having read this, I prefer Arundhati whose writing is much grittier. Anuradha Roy, on the basis of All the Lives We Never Lived is solidly middle-class, less political.

Anuradha Roy (1967- ) has written four novels including this one, and they have all won or been shortlisted for various prizes. I’m not sure that’s enough to make her “one of the greatest living” etc., but neither is it to be sneezed at. All the Lives We Never Lived is a good maybe not excellent book, but worth reading, and despite the sometimes less than convincing old man narrator, an interesting, feminist account of Indian life, the difficulties of traditional marriage, and the end of the British Raj.


Anuradha Roy, All the Lives We Never Lived, MacLehose Press, London, 2018


13 thoughts on “All the Lives We Never Lived, Anuradha Roy

  1. As I said I’ve read one of her books, and enjoyed it, but didn’t feel she pulled it off completely. I remember at the time realising that it wasn’t the Roy I’d read before.

    However, two things: one, what a great cover, and two, ow fascinating to read an Indian story set in Indonesia. Not surprising of course because Indians have migrated all over the place, but it would be interesting to compare an Indian writer’s point of view about Bali or Indonesia with that of Australian writers.


    • Indians migrated all over the place because the Brits used them for labour, and then more recently because their educated middle class was/is in demand in the West. I think Bali is interesting because it is the relic of an old Hindu migration. Gayatri though doesn’t comment on this aspect much more than the quote I included.

      I recall reading that Roy owns a publishing company with her husband and that she is a ‘designer’. I checked, but no-one is given a credit for the cover of the UK edition (published by a division of Hachette) pictured.


      • The Indian influence in Indonesia isn’t because of British colonialism because (except between 1811 and 1816 because of the Napoleonic Wars) it was colonised by the Dutch. The old Hindu migration you reference is ancient: its influence predates any European colonialism to (at least) the 7th-8th century. It was Chinese pilgrims and travellers visiting India in the 6th century who told tales of its marvels (there was a Chinese emperor in the first century AD who requisitioned an Indonesian rhinoceros for his imperial zoo) and (given that written evidence is scanty, so who knows what archaeological evidence may yet be found) Hindu Brahmin priests visited the Indonesian royal courts to seek favour (and presumably get something in return besides the spread of their religion and culture).
        The Hindu temple of Prambanan was built at about the same time in the 9th century as Borobodur, a Buddhist temple complex, which makes these monuments older than Angkor Wat and Notre Dame in France.
        (Source: Indonesia, by Lisa Hill, HBJ, 1992!)

        I too got myself all excited when the Man Asian Prize back in 2012 had a novel by Roy, but I was not disappointed when I realised my mistake. The Folded Earth was a very good novel, though we parted company over Sleeping on Jupiter (2015).


      • I was responding to Sue’s “Indians have migrated all over the place”, though I hadn’t realised just how ancient the Hindu migration to Bali was. Roy at least implies comparisons between the Dutch administration in Indonesia and the Brits in India – she’s not a fan of either, not surprisingly. I certainly wouldn’t say don’t read it, but it’s not a lot different to standard middle-brow English/US Lit Fic, eg Ian McEwan.


  2. Not one for me as I don’t like fictionalisations of real people and events, just a quirk of mine and I get cross when I find something is while I’m reading it. Seems like this just missed the high point for you but was a decent read. I’d have totally got the two authors confused, too. Maybe the blurb-writer did!


    • “just missed the highpoint”, yes, you’re right. I don’t know whether she was being post modern in including real people or attempting historical fiction, perhaps there’s a point I missed (probably! and more than one). The actual writing was good without being innovative in the way of the best Literary Fiction.


  3. I didn’t even notice there were two Roy’s and they didn’t have the same name. I just assumed it was the same famous author you did, which suggests to me that on both sides of the globe we don’t know how to say “Arundhati” properly and thus haven’t committed it to memory.


  4. Interesting that the two authors’ names are so similar (to us, anyway – those of us who don’t know how to pronounce their names!). Like Whispering Gums, I love the cover. And unlike Liz, I usually love fictionalized stories about real people (depending, of course, on how well it’s done).


    • My problem is that I’m not sure what Roy was trying to achieve by building her story around Spies. It could be just that it was so unlikely for a 1930s Indian woman to join an artists’ colony that this was the best one she could think of (I would have sent her off to join Anais Nin and Henry Miller in Paris). But then why a 1930s woman in the first place? And on, and on … till we get to Why write at all?!

      Liked by 1 person

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