Anuradha Roy, whose third novel Sleeping on Jupiter (2015) was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, is back with a new tome. In her latest novel, All The Lives We Never Lived (published in Sri Lanka by Perera Hussein), Roy recreates through memory a journey that amounts to some prescient social and political questions. She spoke to Firstpost about writing through history, the anticipation around her books and how the conversation between Tagorean and Gandhian ideas of nationalism must be had.
You write in the book ‘the older I grow, the less certain I am of certainty’. Does the same happen with the writing process? You get a better grip on the craft, but surely you lose a few things on the way? How do you relate ageing to writing?
I don’t think writers spend too much time contemplating their age, they just get on with their work. Every writer, from the second novel on, knows what she is in for — that it’s a long haul, with plenty of work and thinking and reworking — and this does not change whether you are 20 or 50 or 80.
The character you mention is speaking in a specific context, but he is making the general point too: that when you are older you often clearer in your head that there are no absolutes and that every situation can be viewed in different ways.
Anuradha Roy. Photo by Christopher Maclehose
Your latest novel is anchored in memory. How different is it to construct the past while writing? Does the process change, from how you write of the present?
If what you mean by “anchored in memory” is that the book is set in the historical past, then the construction of it presents the same problems as for any other piece of fiction writing: how to create an imagined world that is a living, breathing thing for the reader. This challenge is the same whether the novel is set in the past, present or future, as with sci-fi. You need to get the details right of course, when a book is set in the historical past — at the same time, you can’t allow yourself to be oppressed by the burden of authenticity.
Having awards linked to your previous books surely helps one way or the other. But does it also create anticipation, the kind you may not want? Are you a writer who likes the anticipation, the pressure maybe, and wants to therefore deliver? Or can it at times be an impediment as well?
I don’t know how awards affect people generally, I can’t speak for others. But I do know that when I am writing a book, I am not thinking of awards. Writing fiction is all-consuming, the book-in-progress takes over your life.You are writing the novel because you are possessed by characters and stories that won’t let you go. You are wrung out by the process of translating an imagined world onto a page. I don’t know of any pressure other than my own internally-generated one: to write a good book.
You have set a previous novel in Ranikhet, and others where the narrative sprawls across places and timelines. How important is it for you as a writer to explore the possibilities of characters both where you live and those far away? How does a writer get inside the head of both?
The geographical distance is not relevant. A chunk of All the Lives We Never Lived happens in a fictional town and another chunk in Bali of the 1920s and 1930s. The imaginative energy I needed to recreate that Bali is different only to the extent that I had to research to get the details right, as far as possible.Other than that, it is a question of empathy and imagination, whether it is past or present, fictional place or actual.
You have never shied away from writing about violence. We live in a time where its political stakes have become normalised. How have you over the course of the last few years reacted to the news, the things you must be reading? Do you follow what is happening regularly?
There is very little explicit physical violence in my books — except in Sleeping on Jupiter, which had child abuse as one of its themes. When I think about it, all my fiction is (in one way or another) about power; all four books are about characters who are fighting against being coerced by structures of power that play out within families and societies.
As for following the news, I would like not to, but it has a way of forcing itself into your life.
How crucial is it today to have a conversation about Gandhian and Tagorian ideas of nationalism? To fully contemplate the two ideas was it imperative to stretch the novel across decades, both pre and post-independence? How difficult does it make to hold a novel together, when it travels such a length?
During the non-cooperation movement in India, Gandhi advocated suspending artistic activity and cutting off all contact with the West until the battle for freedom had been won. This was opposed by Tagore, who saw humanity as one, nationalism as a narrow ideology, and art as the sacred duty of the artist. What should be your response, as a writer or artist, when your country is in a crisis? Should we turn into activists or freedom fighters and cut ourselves off from our creative work? Or is our role one of translating our political concerns into our own creative sphere? These ideas are central to this book.
Holding a novel together when it travels through swathes of time and place: well, yes, I went through quite a number of notebooks creating the architecture of this novel. It is like building a big house where earlier there was only a bare patch of dust. In the end, when you are in the house, you can’t quite believe it’s standing there, on its own.