All the Lives We Never Lived review: Knowing letters

All the Lives We Never Lived review: Knowing letters

In this sensitive and beautifully crafted novel, Myshkin Rozario delves into his childhood memories to solve past mysteries that have haunted him. “As a child abandoned without explanation, I had felt nothing but rage, misery, confusion... As an old man trying to understand my past... I am trying to view my mother somewhat impersonally, as a rebel who might be admired by some, as an artist with a vocation so intense she chose it over family and home.” His mother’s story gains added depth and poignancy against the backdrop of India’s freedom struggle and the menacing clouds of World War II.

Life in a hill town under British rule was pleasant enough until Myshkin became known overnight as “the boy whose mother had run off with an Englishman.” The opening lines draw the reader and indicate a vital trigger for the mother’s unusual action. The man she ran away with was, in fact, a German, and not an Englishman as the locals considered all white-skinned foreigners. “This unconcern for accuracy annoyed my scholarly father even in circumstance as dire as losing his wife to another man.” The well-intentioned N C Rozario “believed feelings had to be kept on a tight leash... as if he were the sole repository of sanity and reason in a set of people deranged by illogical passions.”

Myshkin’s mother Gayatri fell back upon memories of that one joyous adventure of her life whenever the constraints of domestic life defeated her. She would often tell her child about that magical boat ride with her father on a lake in Bali, when she met German artist and musician Walter Spies. Walter took Gayatri and other friends to concerts, dance performances and painting schools, explaining their nuances and roots in Indian mythology. “Gayatri was wonderstruck that the myths and legends she had grown up with should exist in this altered form so far away. It was precisely this that her father wanted to show her when he took her travelling around the East Indies.”

Like Gayatri, her father Agni Sen had “stood at an odd angle to things around him.” At the turn of the 20th century, he was most unusual in recognising “a spark inside his daughter that could light up whole cities if tended.” He arranged the best possible education and even did the unthinkable by taking his teenaged daughter on that memorable trip to Bali. Gayatri cherished forever her interactions with Rabindranath Tagore on that voyage.

Gayatri’s world crashed after her father’s death. Her family married her off to the staid and much older N C Rozario, who felt that “every thinking man needs solitude and freedom if he is to realise his full potential.” Yet, ironically, he could not understand his young wife’s urge to sing or paint freely. “Everything was permitted as long as it remained trivial.” While being in the employ of the British, he supported India’s freedom movement and urged his wife to “Open your eyes to something new... Our country is in turmoil, our people are fighting for freedom and you think only of yourself.”

“What good will the great nation’s freedom do for me?” Gayatri retorted. “Will it make me free? Will I be able to choose how to live?” There are no heroes or villains; only fallible human beings with saving graces. As we read and understand them, we begin to feel for them.

N C Rozario with his well-meaning contradictions; Walter Spies the passionate artist, who urges Gayatri to follow her dreams, and not towards illicit love, as everyone suspects; the genial doctor grandfather, who tries his best to mother Myshkin and his son’s successive young and tormented wives; they all come alive and earn our sympathetic understanding.

Myshkin takes a lifetime to traverse the chasm dividing him from his mother. As he reads her letters written long ago to her friend, he is “overcome with anger and resentment at one moment and then in the next an impersonal tenderness, even understanding,... for the woman who was my mother. She was a mere 26 at that time, and was condemned for life to the loneliness of being out of step with everyone around her. Where something so trifling as reading detective novels rather than my father’s improving tracts was treated as rebellion, she fell in love with the writer of those thrillers... I wished I had known her better.”

Vibrant descriptions blend in with the unveiling of inner landscapes. The small hill town of Muntazir seems like “a settlement from the Middle Ages that progress had pulled by its ears into the present day, where buildings poked their way out between orchards of lychee, mango and custard apple, interruptions in a landscape with more trees than houses. When spring came, our town went scarlet with the explosion of huge fleshy flowers on the bare branches of silk cotton trees and in winter the fields turned into sheets of gold as the mustard bloomed... I notice these colours when I turn the pages of my mother’s old drawing books now. I can see how the landscape had imprinted itself on her mind.”

Gentle in tone and thought-provoking, this is a satisfying read.