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