You’ve mentioned dealing with the theme of impermanence in the little snippet with the dancing girl story that you later went on to use in your book ‘All the Lives We Never Lived’. How do you view impermanence and has your view changed in the light of the events of the past year or so?
One of the poems I used to have “by heart” was Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”. When I read it as a young person, the great rush of time in that poem, like wind charging past your ears, was something I knew intellectually, not otherwise. Now the youngest among us knows our worlds can look radically different from one day to the next and we are all struggling to cope with huge changes, great loss. Not just me – I think everyone’s sense of certainty has dissolved.
The story about the woman dancing however, had very little to do with impermanence – I am not sure in what context you saw I had mentioned it in relation to the story. To me that story was about the parallel universe writers and readers carry within themselves and it set me thinking about the themes in my fourth novel, but the story itself is not included in it.
You live in Ranikhet, which is a beautiful hill station situated near the Himalayas. A lot of authors have often drawn their primary inspiration for their pieces from the hills and the life that resides in them. In that respect, would you say that shifting to Ranikhet has impacted your writing in some way?
Ranikhet is not a chic hill station, it is more an overgrown village where the army keeps to itself and the civilians are mostly rural people eking out a living somehow. I live in a neighbourhood of people who have been born and bred here, whose living comes from low-income occupations such as driving taxis, keeping goats and chicken and cows. Living closely with them, seeing things through their eyes, as part of their community for over twenty years, has altered my sense of the world – and, in turn, my writing, I’m sure. The isolation, silence, mountains, forests and my dogs have gradually changed my perception of time and my priorities.
Given the several roles that you are performing at this stage in life, what do you opine about authorship and womanhood together?
I’m obsessive when I’m writing a book, and my family and other animals know they can’t expect much else from me. I’m very lucky that way. I know it’s a struggle for many to carve out the space and time, to hold on to their inner world of the book they are writing.
Moving on to the very next, inevitable question that comes along with the discourse of women is feminism. You have worked with the Stree publishers, have published a female-centric novel, The Folded Earth, and your latest book All the Lives We Never Lived, what has your understanding of feminism (and freedom, as in the last-mentioned book) been? Has it evolved over time? With what view did you write The Folded Earth back then? And now?
I don’t see why the discourse has to be about women or feminism in relation to my writing. For me The Folded Earth was about the natural world and the human destruction of it. That is how I still see it. It has a strong central female character, which several of my books do, but I think they are about many things. All the Lives We Never Lived is as much about loss, memory, and nationalism as about the concept of freedom. I think that writing by women is often discussed or thought about reductively – it will be called “Women’s writing”, it will be described as being “about women”, – however many themes the writing contains. It is as if fiction by women has to be boxed in somehow. Imagine the temerity of calling Virginia Woolf or Mahasweta Devi “woman writers”, however feminist they were, and however central women characters were in their fiction. If a woman had written Tess of the D’Urbervilles or Anna Karenina those books would have been labelled women’s/ feminist fiction too, they would be considered limited or domestic. And as with most books by women, very few men would read them.
Seeing your attachment to the rural life of small-town India, evident in The Folded Earth, and your early days, can it be said that the novel holds many of your own experiences or metaphorical representations of them? You have earlier also spoken about being concerned more with the internal landscapes of the characters. How do you think this internal landscape would have undergone a change if the story of All the Lives We Never Lived had not taken place in a small town?
It’s an interesting idea… Reimaginings of Shakespeare’s plays, which transpose them into settings and eras different from those he had set down, are often bracing and bring out new dimensions of those plays. I haven’t tried constructing counterfactual worlds for my own books – that would make them different books, the characters would act and think in other ways. As for the first part of your question, if we excavated any fiction layer by layer, it would contain traces from the author’s life and thinking, because fiction springs from an individual imagination. But autobiography never appears in my own work as a reiteration of events from my life.
When you published your first novel at 40, you said that you could not have done it before because something in your world and in you had to change. What was that something that had earlier prevented you from doing what you now describe as your completion?
Nothing prevented me – I just did not feel the need to write for many years.
You have spoken of unreliability of memory being a feature of All the Lives We Never Lived. How do you negotiate between this phenomenon of unreliability and examination of historical narratives?
The unreliability of the narrator’s memory in All the Lives We Never Lived reflects how events we call history are narratives too. And where there is a narrative, there is invention. I am not saying there is nothing factual about history – but I used those facts as a framework within which to create my imagined world. Walter Spies did die from a Japanese bomb, we know that for a fact. He never actually came to India – we know that too. He never actually met a woman called Gayatri – or did he? He did meet Uday Shankar, also Tagore, and we don’t know who was with them. Maybe someone like her? In these gaps, an imagined world takes shape.
Anuradha Roy is the author of An Atlas of Impossible Longing and The Folded Earth, as well as Sleeping on Jupiter, which won the DSC Prize for Fiction 2016 and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2015. Her latest novel, All the Lives We Never Lived, shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award, was published worldwide in 2018 and has been nominated for a number of other awards, including the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. It has won the Tata Book of the Year Award. In 2020, she was conferred the Nilimarani Sahitya Samman for Outstanding Contribution to Indian Literature.Roy won the Economist Crossword Prize for The Folded Earth, which was longlisted for the Man Asia Prize. Her first novel, An Atlas of Impossible Longing was picked as one of the Best Books of the Year by Washington Post, Huffington Post and Seattle Times. She works as a graphic designer at Permanent Black, an independent press she runs with Rukun Advani. She lives in Ranikhet, India.