All the Lives We Never Lived by Anuradha Roy – Book

Although All the Lives We Never Lived by Anuradha Roy is narrated, as it begins, by Myshkin, a young boy, and is also narrated by this boy grown to be an old man in his sixties, this is actually a book that has its roots in a true story of a German artist who travelled in Asia between the Great War (WW I to us) and World War II. Walter Spies was a creative person (and probably a wealthy person) who was so unique and charming that he was considered accomplished and interesting wherever he went, although he was also perceived as somewhat out-of-place, a curiosity. He travelled extensively in India (the author imagines) but he fell in love with Bali and made that his home base in Asia for many years.

Anuradha Roy wrote two stories in one because she admired Mr. Spies and wanted to bring him to life. So she begins her tale not with Spies but with that young narrator in India, a young boy with a mother who was given a nontraditional upbringing by her doting father, a woman born with a passion for an authentic life and a talent for painting and drawing. She was a woman, Gayatri, married to a professor and political activist, who felt held back, held down, imprisoned by her conventional life and loveless marriage. Her husband tried to give her a modicum of freedom but they did not perceive life in the same way. Women of that time, of course, were expected to marry and raise families and did not go traipsing off looking for their bliss.

But Gayatri did run off and left her husband and her young son. She meant to take her son with her but he got delayed at school that day and she had to leave him behind. She is happy in her new life but abandoning her child put a shadow of grief on her happiness. She ran off with a man, Walter Spies, but not to be his lover, rather to be free and live an artist’s life in the way that Walter and his friend Beryl de Zoete were living theirs. Beryl travelled in Asia studying dance and movement.

In this way Anuradha Roy is able to talk about the way women’s lives are curtailed by cultural expectations and public censure. She is also able to tell us about an artist she admired, whose freedom was likewise eventually curtailed, but not by the Asians he lived among, rather the Europeans he had fled.

Gayatri’s boy grows up and becomes, to his father’s dismay, a horticulturist, but he always remains the boy who lost his mother. Years later, as an adult he read the letters his mother wrote to her closest female friend from her life in India. We find that life can destroy our dreams in more than one way.

“As an old man, trying to understand my past, I am making myself read of others like her, I am trying to view my mother somewhat impersonally, as a rebel who might be admired by some, an artist with a vocation so intense she chose it over family and home.”

“But then his father left too to go off on his journey to the center of his self.” Interesting that in India, as in other places, if you are rich enough, both parents can leave but servants and relatives keep the details of the child’s life stable, even at the sacrifice of the child’s heart. Fortunately for Myshkin the grandfather in this story is a kindly and solicitous soul who stands in for the father.

In this way All the Lives We Never Lived by Anuradha Roy weaves the familiar daily routines of Indian life with the more foreign whims of European artists escaping from the daily routines of their own lives into a believable whole, a novel that explores the tension between art and cultural mores and rules. I just found myself wishing that both parts of the story were based on true events. However I remind myself that the author is an Indian woman and there may be kernels of truth in that fictional family’s portrayal. In the end I have always been happy so far when immersed in a story of India.

Photo Credit: Nancy Brisson

Thank You India

My mind is wandering to a number of far-flung places and
seemingly unrelated thoughts. But, as we decided on Monday, all things are
interrelated and even Disney knew this; he said “It’s a Small World After All”
and he made a whole experience about it and he has made a fortune from it.
So I was remembering that Alanis Morissette song, which I
love, “Thank You (India)” because I just heard it over the weekend in a little
spiritual film called The Way with
Martin Sheen in which his son begins a pilgrimage across the Pyrennees to a
cathedral in Spain. His son is killed in an unexplained accident so the Dad
takes his ashes and walks the pilgrimage. He thinks he does this for his son,
and, of course, he does, but he changes his own heart in the process. It is a
movie that asks “are you just alive, or are you living.”
Then I read TGC Prasad’s blog post on in
which he expressed his concerns about his country, India. (see link below) India can be quite
volatile at times and as India comes to terms with its own income inequality
problems (which are even bigger than America’s because, although vastly
oversimplified, there are so many more people) he worries that chaos will be
unavoidable and he hopes this will not be the path India takes to the future
(as do we all).
My mind moves on to a story on last night’s edition of the
national news. Brian Williams is zeroing in on a country the size of Texas in
the center of Africa. He is telling me about tribal thuggery in the Central
African Republic. Ann Curry talks to an 8 year old young lady whose loses are
so great all we can do is cry with her and pray that somehow she makes it
through more of this wretched part of her life until she arrives at a life that
is not wretched at all. Watching the march of greed, hatred, powerlessness, and
some kind of misguided belief that good things will follow from violence gives
us all a feeling of the terrible waste of it all and the helpless wish that we
had a solution for the Central African Republic, or South Sudan, or any of
these storied nations on the continent of Africa.
Which leads me back to America, because I am as
self-centered as anyone, and because it is what I know, and leads me to that
statement Obama made that caused such rage among the “makers” when he said “you
did not make it”, and he meant you did not make it all by yourself. And, of
course, he was right, in a way. You came up with a business idea. You built it
from the bottom up and gradually hired more and more of your fellow Americans.
Or perhaps you were wealthy to begin with and your business sprang up as a big
enterprise and then just kept getting bigger. You deserve credit for your
But Obama is right also. You couldn’t have built your baby,
your business without the use of things you don’t own like workers and
consumers and deliverers, and sellers and warehousers and roads and bridges and
railroads and airplanes and power and water. Your factory and your bank balance
benefited from a convergence of historical moments which placed you at the very
heart of the Industrial Age.
Will you hold on to every last cent even as you watch your
once-beloved country subside into the same chaos that Mr. Prasad worries
about in his beloved India? We are not usually a volatile nation; it’s probably
not hot enough here or crowded enough. We will probably just accept our fate as
we gradually fall back into the ignorance and hard-scrabble lives of our forebears. 
But all I’m saying is that it doesn’t have to be that way. You were the
builders and you used to share a vision of America with the rest of us “takers”,
a vision that made America brash and indomitable. Perhaps the vision we have
for the future will be different from the one we all had in the Industrial Age,
but it can tap back into that creative spirit you used to build the old America
and produce a new and even better America, an older and wiser America that will
be a proud pioneer in the Global Age.
So thank you India, and Africa and Walt Disney and Alanis Morissette and GE and Carrier Corp. and Obama and the American workers and on and on and on ad infinitum, which I hope is how long our little blue planet lasts and thrives.
Disclaimer:  These lyrics and this you tube video are referenced for your enjoyment. I am not claiming any connection between my ideas and Alanis Morissette. Hearing this song just inspired me and sent my mind on a trip. That is all.
Thank You Lyrics
How ’bout getting off of these antibiotics
How ’bout stopping eating when I’m full up
How ’bout them transparent dangling carrots
How ’bout that ever elusive kudo
Thank you India, thank you terror
Thank you disillusionment
Thank you frailty, thank you consequence
Thank you, thank you, silence
How ’bout me not blaming you for everything
How ’bout me enjoying the moment for once
How ’bout how good it feels to finally forgive you
How ’bout grieving it all one at a time
Thank you India, thank you terror
Thank you disillusionment
Thank you frailty, thank you consequence
Thank you, thank you, silence
The moment I let go of it
Was the moment I got more than I could handle
The moment I jumped off of it
Was the moment I touched down
How ’bout no longer being masochistic
How ’bout remembering your divinity
How ’bout unabashedly bawling your eyes out
How ’bout not equating death with stopping
Thank you India, thank you providence
Thank you disillusionment
Thank you nothingness, thank you clarity
Thank you, thank you, silence
Here’s a link to a youtube video:
By Nancy Brisson
This blog post is also available at