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January 29, 2019

Anuradha Roy On Her Latest Book, Strong Female Characters And Her Personal Craft

Text by Anvita Budhraja

We catch up with the author of All The Lives We Never Lived at the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival 2019

Day four of the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival 2019 saw writers Anuradha Roy and Tishani Doshi in conversation about Roy’s latest novel All The Lives We Never Lived. The story of a young boy named Myshkin whose mother, Gayatri runs away to be an artist in Bali is set against the backdrop of World War II, India’s freedom struggle, and a fictionalised journey of German artist Walter Spies to India. Like the paintings of Spies she shows during the conversation, Roy’s prose has a mesmeric quality that has charmed her readers. Yet, moments after she reads the passage in which Myshkin first contends with Gayatri’s departure, an uncertain silence saturates the packed room. Through its rich and nuanced portrait of Gayatri, Roy’s novel evocatively probes the very real choices and dilemmas women face every day.

Your other novels are centred on your female protagonists but in this one, Gayatri shares space with her son, Myshkin – narratively and in the novel’s consciousness. Why did you choose to do that?

Gayatri leaves her child in this book, she leaves her family and child. Not for love, as normally women are supposed to do. Although she is a strongly sexual being, she leaves for her work and I knew this would be a complicated thing for many people to understand or accept. Having it told from the person, the boy, who has been hurt the most by her departure was really a way for me to look at what she had done and how it had impacted everyone else in a much more complex and shaded way.

Did you ever consider making it a daughter’s story?

No, somehow it was always a little boy. The book actually began for me with a little boy. She (Gayatri) came in later. I meant it to be his story when I started and then, of course, I realized that the reasons for her departure will have to be explored and therefore she is very strongly in there. And my books tend to have strong women characters so this happened here too. But really, I had to write it from his perspective to make her more complicated, in a way. I was trying to make the reader understand why a woman might do this – why her imperatives, her freedom, and choice may be quite different from a man’s, why her reasons for departure may be different. Men are valorised for leaving home, for seeking something. Women are condemned for it. So, in order to see the whole result of it in a complicated way, I had to have the boy.

Why tell the story when Myshkin is an old man rather than when he is younger?

I didn’t want to do the whole book in a child’s voice because the ideas I wanted to communicate, the events I wanted to narrate were complex adult themes and events. He’s looking at it intellectually as well as emotionally, so that was important to me. And yet, I wanted the boy’s voice as well, so it was quite tough to move between the two without being jarring. But that was what I was trying to do by having him remember rather than having him say it as a nine-year-old.

Did you find it more confessional to tell Gayatri’s story through her letters than in her first-person voice?

I was really interested in letters because the book is set during the war years and when I was researching the war years, I found this constant reference to letters lost, letters not reaching. The wives or mothers of soldiers (or even the fathers) were very often not literate so when the soldiers went away to fight and they wrote back home, these people had the additional task of getting those letters read or getting them written. There is a poignancy to the letters… Also, I wanted very much to capture the materialness of letters – how Gayatri puts feathers or leaves in them. It is as if a part of you can be inside a letter in a way it never can in an email or a WhatsApp. I thought of it – should I just write it in first person with her telling her story? But then I thought she would, of course, be telling it from the past or I would have to write it in the present continuous tense and so on. What I wanted was immediacy – it’s happening as she experiences it so, as readers, we experience it with her.

Do you think there is a lack of nuanced female characters in fiction you read?

To be honest, when I’m writing, I’m very careful particularly to not read very immersive fiction because I don’t want to be unconsciously taken over by some other world. When I read fiction, I feel totally immersed in it if it’s good. So, I haven’t been keeping up with what has currently been coming out but I think Indian writing is full of strong characters. The Bengali novel Na Hanyate, mentioned in my book, has the strongest female character of all. The girl, Amrita of 16 who falls in love with  a Romanian philosopher, Mircea Euclid. So, I think strong women characters have been written in Indian fiction, both English and other languages.

Gayatri’s choice to leave home and her child to be an artist in Bali seems like a binary – do you think it is always one or the other for women as mothers and artists?

No, it’s no longer for many people. My home and my work is not a choice. I’m very lucky to have both and to have a family that understands that I’m travelling a lot right now. All those things have changed a lot already. It hasn’t changed for many people, it depends very much on where you’re coming from, what kind of family you have. So, for some people it will unfortunately have to be a choice because of their circumstances. But generally, socially, you find women doing much more of what they want to do. So hopefully, things are changing.

You are more explicitly political in your interviews than in your fiction. Why make that choice?

I feel that when I have to make a straightforwardly political point, I prefer writing an article and just saying what I think. And when I’m writing fiction it’s a whole different thing for me. It’s a matter of creating a world in which I will feel absolutely immersed. It’s more a matter of imagination. I absolutely don’t want to be explicitly political when I’m writing. I find it dull to read often. Not always, but very often it can come out clumsy. I don’t want to do that.

Do you find being subtle makes the point better?

No. Last year, I read Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie and The Runaways by Fatima Bhutto. Both are very political, explicitly so. But they also tell an incredibly good story with very convincing characters. I’m not sure I would be able to pull that off. I wouldn’t be able to give you a history of the ISIS while also telling a story. I just know my strengths are different.

A favourite female character in fiction?

One of my favourites is the girl in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. I really love that book.

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