An interesting title to an interesting book. Anuradha Roy’s novel ‘All the Lives We Never Lived’ is a fascinating yet emotionally compelling tale.

I picked up this book entirely by accident. I had intended to pick up a book by Arundhati Roy, but absent-mindedly I picked up the book of a similar-sounding, but entirely unique author. I completed nearly half the novel, labouring under the delusion that the book was written by Arundhati Roy. I marvelled at how the author managed to present a completely different style when compared to her other books and it was only then that I examined the cover and discovered my folly.

But it didn’t matter for I had struck gold. ‘ All the lives we never lived’ presents a harrowing tale, beautifully written and subtle. The book is never loud and does not attempt to pass judgements on its characters. The words fall softly as if from the mouth of a storyteller talking to a child. And as she recites the tale, inquisitive questions pop in the child’s mind and each is answered simply as ‘Because it is’. For that really is the answer.

The book talks about a young boy whose mother runs away from the small town she lives in to visit exotic places and explore art. She is the embodiment of a true artist, one who cannot live without art and feels suffocated in the shackles of being told to ‘act normal’. You feel for Myshkin as he copes with his feelings of abandonment and yet you also sympathise with his mother Gayatri. Her unconventional views towards life make her unsuitable for a life that requires her to merely finish household chores and keep up appearances. You truly can feel the caged bird inside her that takes flight to be able to truly live.

On the other hand, is the complex relationship between Myshkin’s parents Gayatri and Nek. Nek is a self-described revolutionary. He admires the freedom fighter Mukti Devi and tries to model Gayatri to that idea. To him, freedom is essential. But only the large picture, independent country type of freedom. Freedom of the individual- to be able to choose what to do and what to wear, is inconsequential to him. In the same way, he appreciates art and dancing and other creative endeavours as long as they remain frivolous hobbies. In his mind, what he is doing is truly important and everyone else’s goals and desires are meaningless. While he may seem like a walking bag of contradictions, I have noticed that this trait seems to be a common trend between many ‘revolutionary members. Perhaps when a person constantly looks at the bigger picture, they fail to see the hypocrisy in ignoring the smaller details of life.

And then there is Myshkin himself. He is conflicted between various aspects of turmoil and empathy. For one, he is unable to fully shake off the feelings of abandonment he feels after his mother leaves. He is unable to fully connect to his father or his stepmother either and feels unfulfilled. Yet when he reads his mother’s letters and justifications for her actions, he is unable to blame her. He is after all, like all children, guilty of viewing his parents as a mere extension of himself and not as the flawed individuals they are. He realises that there is no antagonist in his life, and like rivers perhaps the course was designed by fate itself.

But this isn’t all. The book contains so much more. Peppered into the book are moments that are significant historical and cultural markers. Fantasy and imagination meet actual historical events and intertwine in a way that leaves them inseparable. The book contains Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry and Shantiniketan, the dancer Beryl de Zoete, the singer Begum Akhtar, the German art curator and explorer Walter Spies and is set in the backdrop of the Indian Independence struggle. It talks about colonialism, language, poetry, love, and ultimately freedom.

The book teaches us that there exist multiple types of freedom. The freedom to pursue our dreams, to be who we are, to wear and present ourselves the way we want, or political freedom. It is prudent to remember that each kind is essential for behind each issue rests a caged bird. We can’t truly proclaim ourselves to free individuals if we don’t break each shackle.

  • Adyesha Singhdeo