‘Myshkin’ wants ‘a tiding ending’ to his life and has settled down to write his will. An ageing Indian horticulturalist, his childhood nickname (after Dostoevsky’s protagonist in The Idiot) remains. It is the first sign that this is a novel about people out of sync with their times and their surroundings.
Abandoned by his mother as a child, Myshkin has received a letter ‘pulsing with the energy every unopened letter in the world has’. It involves his mother but he cannot bear to open it. Instead he narrates her life, and his own, one of tending trees with commendable diligence, and waiting for her return.
As with Roy’s previous work, the prose is intensely visual. The novel is a vista of ‘bulbous slate-grey clouds’; it’s filled with characters who ‘ladle out advice’. And in the style is the meaning: ‘The day my mother left was like any other. It was a monsoon morning,’ Myshkin informs us. Two perfunctory, contrasting sentences prepare the reader for the normalisation of disorder that characterises the novel.
And so it should. Myshkin’s mother walks out on her young son to take up with the (real-life) German painter Walter Spies. She is a woman whose father was determined to nurture her gifts not because ‘daughters were meant to have talents: those that would work as bait to catch a husband’, but because he had ‘seen a spark inside his daughter that could light up whole cities if tended’.
From this starting point, Roy’s narration intermingles fact and fiction, history with fantasy, to superb effect. The young Myshkin watches Axis prisoners of war pass through his hometown of Muntazir on a train — and is aghast. ‘We were accustomed to Indians being skeletal and diseased,’ he observes. ‘But white men were born never to resemble them.’ It’s the ‘were born never to’ that does the heavy lifting here — the essence of colonialism captured in one throwaway clause.
But this is no leaden anti-colonial polemic — Roy is too subtle a writer for that. Myshkin’s staid and obstinate father is not a sympathetic figure: devoting himself to the cause of wider independence while neglecting his familial duties.
Taking in the second world war, the fight for Indian independence and occasionally fast-forwarding into the 1990s, All the Lives We Never Lived is ultimately both a work of beautifully realised history and personal narrative. The cover blurb tells us that Roy is ‘one of India’s greatest living authors’. On this evidence it’s hard to disagree.