In a shattered world of lovelorn characters, Anuradha Roy's recent novel yearns for "all the lives" it "never lived", gently unfolding a narrative whose heroes share traits of villains and villains of heroes -- all held together by "a fragile contentment". Traversing a family's melancholic journey through the trials of time, or perhaps callings of the heart, this is a novel that comes but rarely in our day and age.
And yet it is a story devoid of heroes and villains; the rights and the wrongs; liberties and prejudices -- it evokes a curiosity for everything but, in the end, leaves you pining for nothing. Anuradha's is a little universe, crafted with attention to minute details and progressed with an effortless narrative that floats in her rich prose and diction.
But this little universe inhabited by a lonely child Myshkin, who grows old as you navigate through its pages; his once subdued but always carefree mother Gayatri; his atheist, nationalist and often difficult to comprehend father Nek Chand, can also turn magnanimously large in its context.
Along the way are appearances by Tagore and Walter Spies; events of the second World War collide with the cutting down of trees many years later and aspirations of India's freedom movement are thrust against the backdrop of art and the everlasting pull that it has for artists. But above all, strange are the manners of the human heart and, like in real life, the characters are firm, albiet whimsical, when it comes to dealing with their emotions.
The most compelling aspect of the narrative is governed by the simple fact that it stays as true to the truth as a novel possibly can. The characters follow their hearts and do what anyone would do when placed in their shoes. Often, there is actually nothing else they can really do other than remembering the good old lullabies or writing letters in their remembrance. But it is neither nostalgia nor regret.
At the onset, the reader is on a constant quest of finding where the past begins. Setting the narrative straight in the very first sentence, the readers are told: "In my childhood, I was known as the boy whose mother had run off with an Englishman." Even as one event leads to the next, the readers are aware of an upcoming destination -- when Myshkin's mother will "run off" -- thus the hitherto anticipation finds a greater push once Gayatri actually runs off with Walter Spies, leaving behind her husband and of course, young Myshkin.
Crafting the plot of an intriguing novel is the forte of a creative mind but presenting it in indisputably flawless sentences that soothe the reader's heart is an art that comes with maturity. The novel presents a master storyteller at work: matured in her view of the narrative, calm in her tone, rich in language, profound in the experience she creates and yet so observant of the affairs of men.
The novel touches upon a range of piercing societal issues -- women's rights, art, environment and nationalism, to name a few -- but nowhere does it sound preachy in its narration. It is not a protest because Anuradha, as the writer, or Myshkin as the narrator, are not complaining. Instead, it is a recollection where the story that Anuradha has written is actually being recalled and reflected upon by Myshkin as we flick through its pages. So, the story is being written inside the story and the readers become a part of this profound experience, woven together by little fragments that break the realms of time and geographical boundaries.
A novel that is global in its appeal and yet Indian at its heart, there is never a dull moment in "All the lives we never lived". There is no anticipation of a sudden twist but it is the overall experience (of which the reader too becomes a part) that will win many prospective readers for this once-in-a-lifetime novel.
It is not a soothing balm on an aching heart, it is the ache and it is the relief.