What does a female artist need for her ambitions to translate into art? Is it a room to one’s self as Virginia Woolf suggested? Is it unstructured time? Or is it simply to walk out of the life that stifles the art, and into one that allows and nurtures it? Anuradha Roy’s All The Lives We Never Lived sets out to explore whether a female artist would have thrived within a 1930s household in small-town India while frying snack-time samosas and nursing fevers.

Set in pre-independence India of the 1930s and ’40s, the novel explores what it means for a particular freedom to have reached a moment in history that allows for it to be realised. Even as the time for India’s emancipation as a political nation and a geographic entity inches closer, the time for individual freedoms such as equal rights for women and other minorities seem decades away. Gayatri occupies relative privilege with a household that is financially stable, and a husband who allows certain freedoms. She has help around the house, but her life is centred around raising her son and running a home, and her painting and dancing are frowned upon.

What might have been

The plot of Roy’s latest novel is driven by that common fear that the lives we live suffer by comparison to the lives we do not. Gayatri is raised by a father who indulged her ambitions of becoming a dancer with one of India’s modern dance troupes, which moved from traditionalism towards a commitment to technique and athleticism. Instead, she becomes the young wife of a man who takes himself far too seriously and the mother to a son whose seizures earn him the Russian nickname, Myshkin, after the protagonist of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. In an illuminating section, another woman in their town is referred to as simply Dinu’s mother because people have forgotten her name – a cautionary tale for what Gayatri could become if she stays. Not only will she remain nameless, she may never create the paintings she wants to.

Myshkin, who narrates the novel, is our guide through the strange years immediately before independence as prisoners of war from World War II pass through their town on their way to a camp in Dehradun and Indian soldiers who fought for the British shout out to any white person they see asking to be duly compensated for their service. Myshkin begins his story with the lines, “In my childhood, I was known as the boy whose mother had run off with an Englishman.” He is late coming home from school the day Gayatri leaves, and those lost minutes alter the course of their lives forever.

The Englishman is actually a German painter called Walter Spies, who is modelled on the real-life painter of the same name. Having met Gayatri and her father in a boat to Bali, Indonesia several years ago, he comes to find her in her married home because he is researching a book on Indian dance and remembers Gayatri’s certainty that she would become a dancer. Instead he finds a woman who is “young, beautiful, gifted, tortured, stifled.”

In the same boat, she met Rabindranath Tagore who conjured up an image only to be laughed at by Gayatri – and he’s refreshed by her spontaneity. Seen through Myshkin’s eyes, Gayatri is a woman almost too idealised to be true. He writes, “None of my friends had mothers who wore a hat or climbed trees”, and “my mother didn’t care how she looked, yet she was always striking.” One feels an uneasy and continual awareness of the book’s desire to show her as unique.

Mother, artist, woman

The novel creates a compelling, expansive world that isn’t afraid to tackle the myriad ways in which history changed the course of lives in both India and Indonesia in the 1940s. But the novel falters in its ability to show characters and their relationships fully. Gayatri’s letters to her friend make up a bulk of the second half of the novel, but little is said of their friendship as it existed in the town they shared. Similarly, her relationships with both her husband and Spies read like sketches whose depths remain ultimately hidden to the reader. The novel is interesting for the ways in which it shows an early India, but the sentences themselves do not propel the prose forward. The engrossing and the tedious jostle for space in the novel.

Gayatri becomes a painter in Bali with Spies, and her son grows up to become the Superintendent of Horticulture, who turns their hometown into a place of beauty. In his mid-sixties, he thinks of himself as a “glorified gardener in a small town”, and one can’t help but think that he’s created a town his mother might have chosen to stay in. He has gone to great lengths to celebrate the legacy of a different female artist – an avenue in their town is named after Begum Akhtar due to his efforts because she has “given the world passion and music all her troubled life.” He plants gulmohar and amaltas along that road so in summer and monsoon the street explodes in red and gold.

The crux of Myshkin’s character is possibly contained in these lines: “Sometimes, I take my glasses off to see differently from other people…There is a kind of restfulness to not seeing well that the clear-sighted will not know.” As Myshkin reads Gayatri’s letters to her friend in his sixties for the first time, he begins to understand how little he knew his mother – a woman who missed her son but loved painting, a woman who wouldn’t risk return or borrow money to fetch her son, a woman whose paintings wouldn’t exist had she stayed in India. Though they espouse a false and damaging binary between motherhood and writing, the letters are some of the strongest, most revealing parts of the book. Roy’s equally fascinating and imperfect novel brings to light a little-asked question about who in India has been allowed to make art.

All The Lives We Never Lived, Anuradha Roy, Hachette.