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All The Lives We Never Lived: almost exceptional

Each word in Anuradha Roy's novel hits the right note. But the book has its flaws

By Chandrima S. Bhattacharya

  • Published 2.11.18, 2:16 AM
  • Updated 2.11.18, 7:27 PM
Lives We Never Lived is Anuradha Roy's fourth novel
Lives We Never Lived is Anuradha Roy's fourth novel Image: Facebook

The year is 1937. The place, Muntazir, in the foothills of the Himalayas, near Dehradun. Brijen, a talented musician much misunderstood, is given to drinking. He drinks Old Monk, but this produces a somewhat rum feeling in the reader.

“Dada used to say Old Monk and Old Musicians were the only two things in Brijen’s life,” says the narrator of All the Lives We Never Lived by Anuradha Roy. “Barely out of his nappies, he had sung his first flawless song one fine day… at the age of nine, he had sung an entire thumri, following that at the age of eleven with a quart of rum before he fell down in a stupor.”

So what is wrong with Brijen and Old Monk? Nothing, except that Old Monk did not exist in 1937. From all accounts, including that of Mohan Meakin, the manufacturer of the rum, Old Monk was launched in 1954.

An inaccuracy about a date pertaining to a humble rum in a novel that tries to achieve much — exceptional lives, a striking moment of Indian history, several strands of other histories — could have been dismissed as unimportant, had it not meant something. At a personal level, this reviewer, part of the community of faithful Old Monk drinkers, is deeply hurt. She minds that the drink, with which she shares a past, has been dealt with so casually. Second, the novel seems to suggest that certain things come within the purview of history; others, such as Old Monk, do not. Old Monk can do without history, or can be given any history.

Other dates are given their due respect, even as fact and fiction mix. All the Lives begins in 1937, when the world, and Muntazir, are tensed up in the countdown to World War II. “In my childhood, I was known as the boy whose mother had run off with an Englishman,” the book starts. The mother’s exit happens that year. The Englishman in question is in fact a German, Walter Spies, a person from real life, a remarkable artist who left his country in the wake of Nazi politics to found an artists’ collective in Bali, which drew the greatest talents from all corners of the world then, including Tagore and Chaplin. Tagore, too, appears as a character, an overarching one, in the novel. His presence, his ideas and his writings form the core of this book.

The central character, the novel’s own, is the narrator’s mother, Gayatri, a young, beautiful, talented, Bengali woman, married to a pious bore of a man and trapped in the dull domesticity of life in Muntazir. She longs to be an artist, and does the unthinkable: she runs away to Bali with Walter Spies, abandoning her nine-year-old son in Muntazir to a life of loneliness and tragedy. Only as an old man, Myshkin Chand Rozario — yes, that is the multi-culti name he had been given, thanks also to Dostoevsky — begins to tell his tale.

The war breaks out, and all lives, from Muntazir to Bali to Europe, are swallowed up in its various pathways. The world converges, as it were, also in Muntazir, as it does in Myshkin’s name.

Roy writes beautifully. Her prose is delicate, poised: it brings to mind the inner latticework of a leaf that Myshkin, a horticulturist, could have found fascinating. Each word is sculpted, hitting the right note, quite appropriate for a book that also features Begum Akhtar as a character. The history, of Bali in particular during the war, is meticulously researched as Roy makes clear in the Acknowledgments section.

But even as Roy’s book travels between worlds, it begins to look like something familiar, that is, the standard Indian English novel. In fact, the more it travels, the more it sticks to the beaten path. All the Lives ticks the right boxes: set against a cataclysmic event from history, it is about a selection of Indian life with global reference points and exceptional individuals as characters, often moving on international routes. At this point one begins to miss an English August or a Sartaj Singh, not to mention someone like Mr Biswas. The intertextuality can get too much too, and so can the explaining of the nuances of educated Bengali middle-class life. When, oh when, can we have a novel about a food-delivery boy who travels daily from a suburb to Calcutta, now, and has no blockbuster disaster to his credit or a chunk of significant history, worthy of research, on his shoulders? We are nothing if not Midnight’s Children, History’s Products. So much for post-colonialism.

One big casualty of so much history is the personal tragedy at the heart of the novel. Though Myshkin is a reticent man, the reader would have liked to know the workings of his heart better. The second is the poor Old Monk drinker, who remains unsure of his or her place in history. A writer of Roy’s sensibility and stature can do better.

All The Lives We Never Lived, by Anuradha Roy, Hachette, Rs 599