A Family Splinters in ‘All the Lives We Never Lived’

By Anuradha Roy
288 pp. Atria. $26.

“The past is a foreign country” is a much-quoted line from the 1953 novel “The Go-Between,” in which an adult, piecing together fragments of memory, begins to understand how the past has affected him. In many ways this feels strikingly similar to Anuradha Roy’s newest novel, “All the Lives We Never Lived,” in which the adult Myshkin reflects on the course of his life, which was derailed when his brilliant and frustrated Bengali mother fled with her German lover in the late 1930s, abandoning him and his father, an Anglo-Indian academic turned freedom-fighting ascetic.

The novel alternates between the months surrounding his mother’s betrayal and some 60 years later, when Myshkin is reading old letters his mother wrote to a close friend about her departure from India and life in Bali.

Myshkin’s mother, Gayatri, was the pampered daughter of a freethinker who encouraged her love of dance and painting and who traveled abroad with her before his untimely death. Her unconventional interests and worldly experience made her ill suited for the Indian marriage mart, and the only man who would have her was Myshkin’s father, Nek.

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The relationship between Gayatri and Nek, a condescending and dismissive pedant, was doomed from the start. Nek deems Gayatri’s talents in painting and music mere hobbies, frivolous compared with his more dignified interests. While he theoretically believes in freedom for women, and lectures his family nightly on the vitality of the Indian independence movement, Nek is far more conventional than he believes, subjecting his wife to his rules and making it clear that her freedoms are at his indulgence.

We see these relationships only through Myshkin’s eyes, dulled through the distance of time and his own emotions and judgments. Roy, it seems, deliberately flattens the adult characters in Myshkin’s memories; if they are limited in their representation, it might be because this is how children see their parents, as extensions of the child’s own needs.

When Nek remarries, it’s to a poor woman he hopes will be devoted to him and his rigorous self-sacrificing zeal. Myshkin gains a stepsister whom he resents, but grows to care for. Eventually, as a young adult, he becomes a horticulturalist in a changing nation whose industrial revolution ruthlessly destroys his life’s work.

Then a packet of letters is delivered to his door, filled with answers about Gayatri’s disappearance that Myshkin isn’t certain he wants to know. Half memory, half missive, this novel centers on a character who is always at the mercy of other people’s actions; the way he tells it, life happens to him. As Myshkin dwells on his childhood, and reads his mother’s letters, the novel alternates between beautifully rendered images and a gentle stagnation that brings the narrative to a standstill. Of course, it seems that Myshkin has been treading water his whole life. He’s planted tea gardens in Assam and planned parks in New Delhi, but he has never tried to investigate his mother’s disappearance, and the mystery behind his inertia is never solved.

As a result, the resonance of this package filled with all the information he needs in order to come to terms with his mother’s departure is clouded by the fact that it has made its way there without any real action from Myshkin himself. Perhaps this is realistic; land mines from the past often arrive in our lives unannounced and uninvited. But it is also somehow unsatisfying.

While there is nothing particularly revelatory to the reader about the information these letters contain — Gayatri left not because she was in love with the German artist who breezed through her life, but because she felt repressed in her marriage — it is clear that for Myshkin, perhaps because of his gender or the arc of his life, this unlocks something essential about his past that he has been missing. Gayatri fled India to become the artist, and the person, she always wanted to be. She is a Bengali Nora trapped in a haveli as her doll’s house, and she leaves because she knows she is no good to anyone, least of all herself, if she stays.

It is telling, then, that although Gayatri is achingly clear in her letters about why she chose to flee, Myshkin fixates on an affair she once had rather than the many ways in which she declares herself an autonomous person. He, like his father, has entirely missed the point. But then again, perhaps that makes sense, for no matter how fixated Myshkin is on his mother, it is his father who has shaped the way he thinks.

“All the Lives We Never Lived” feels more like a rumination than a story. While it starts out promisingly enough, with a mysterious and exciting treasure box of information, as it speeds toward its inevitable end, Myshkin grows ever more steeped in regret and torpor. While we might want the memories of the past to shed light on the present, or even propel Myshkin toward the future, perhaps we are asking too much of them.

Instead, Roy has given us a memory book, a narrative that lives and dies in that other country, the past, much as its protagonist has chosen to do.

Leah Franqui, the author of the novel “America for Beginners,” lives and writes in Mumbai.

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