If her last book, Sleeping on Jupiter, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, gestured to another possible, planetary world, Anuradha Roy’s latest, All The Lives We Never Lived, gravitates towards literary ones. With a title that plays on words from Charles Elton’s poem “A Garden Song” – which Roy encountered when she read Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse – to a plot that unravels like (but isn’t quite) a Greek tragedy, the novel also features Rabindranath Tagore, and a narrator named after a Fyodor Dostoevsky character.

At the fifth edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival in London, held at the British Library, Roy appeared on a panel titled “The Storytellers” alongside debut novelist Preti Taneja. All The Lives We Never Lived can indeed be read as a love letter to writing and storytelling, set in the landscape of personal memory and public, political history. In an interview with Scroll.in after her session, Roy spoke about her research process, reading interests, and the repetitive nature of history. Edited excerpts:

As it often happens and begins, my first question to you is about inspiration. What was the impetus to write this book – was it a particular story, memory, imagery, geography? (I know you mentioned earlier on, during the panel, that you almost always start with characters…)
The character who started this book was Myshkin. I didn’t have him as Myshkin, and everything wasn’t spelt out, but I had been carrying around this boy in my head for a long time – a boy who would be so immersed in paintings that he would be able to enter them. And I had a sense of a grandfather, somewhere, and a sense of a mother – both absent and present – and that’s how the book was with me, until I encountered this artist Walter Spies.

As it turned out, when I was standing in front of his paintings at a museum in Bali – that was a really painful year for me because my dog who was thirteen and a half had died in January, and this was a few months later – I noticed that the date of their deaths was the same: January 19. This somehow made me feel a sense of connection – and I already liked the paintings a lot – and then, I discovered all these other connections he had with India. And that’s how the world of the book started to form in my head.

Several real, historical figures – German artist Walter Spies, Rabindranath Tagore, Percy Lancaster, Beryl de Zoete and Begum Akhtar – make appearances in (even anchor) the novel. And you write across histories, timelines, geographies, wars and occupations. What was your research process for this novel? Why did you want to bring this specific cast of characters to life through fiction?
Once I wanted Walter Spies in the book, because once I discovered the absolute tragedy of his life, and that he wanted to come to India, and that on his way there, ironically, as a prisoner of war, he was killed, then I wanted him there. And, of course, I couldn’t have him without his context. So I discovered Beryl, with whom he had written a book on dance, and she’d actually come to India many times, and written on Indian dance. Also, the discovery that Tagore had known him...slowly, it was as if these characters were arriving in the world of the book. And to create a sense of the country at the time...in the world of this book I thought it would be very interesting to see how fiction and history could be woven together to create a different kind of history.

What happens with all my books is that once I have an idea for the book, I write a first draft without much reading or research. I write that very intensively for a six-eight month period. I have a first draft which will, of course, change almost unrecognisably. In this case, though, the opening didn’t change at all, which is unusual for me. Usually, I rewrite the opening 200 times. And then, once the first draft is done, I know what the gaps are. I know what I don’t know, I know what I need to find out more about. It’s at this point that I start all the reading. I read quite a number of memoirs of the people who lived in that time in India, worked in various spaces: civil service memoirs, memoirs of people travelling in India, as well as their letters.

Walter Spies was a great letter writer; his letters are mostly in German, but a large number of them were also translated. As I read all these letters, I wanted the voices in these letters to also come into the book. So, much of what Spies and Beryl, and even Tagore, say in the book are things they have said in their writings elsewhere. Most of the things that Walter Spies says about humanity, happiness, art, the necessity of pursuing a life in art no matter what’s happening in the world around you, which chimed so closely with Tagore’s own opinions, these are things I wanted to bring into the book in their own words.

I also read a lot on Bali. At first, only in English, and then I started to think that if Tagore had gone to Bali, he must’ve written about it too. Before this book (I’m not a Bengali who’s been brought up in Bengal) I somehow resisted reading Tagore because you were always told to read him, which is stupid. I should’ve read Tagore long ago...

The novel is situated in the years and decades leading up to India’s independence, but its themes (rising nationalism, for example) seem timely, and speak to our present moment. Were you trying to think through history as cyclical? Do you see similarities between our contemporary world and that of almost a century ago?
I had inklings of this when I was reading Walter Spies’ life because the reason he left Germany was that he felt alienated by the growth of the ring wing. Although he himself was not being targeted there. He was, in fact, at the peak of his success when he left and embarked on a completely uncertain voyage towards unknown territories. The thought that here was this man, who was leaving his country because he was uncomfortable with right wing politics, and then the trajectory of his life, which was completely tragic...the forces of history altering the lives of individuals made me feel that it has contemporary resonance. Also, so many of the things Tagore warned us about nationalism at the time, we have now seen to be proven very desperately true. Once this was strikingly more and more, yes, I did try to draw out the parallels, hopefully not in an unsubtle way.

I read in an interview that Crime and Punishment was hugely inspirational to you. And now your narrator, Myshkin, takes his name from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Does Russian literature hold a special place on your bookshelves and in your writing life? How did this come to be?
You know, part of the reason my generation grew up reading Russian literature was that India was a socialist country at that time. It had very deep ties with Russia, and so there were these Russian books which were available, basically, very cheap, and as students we could afford them. So I read these really early on...Chekhov, Dostoevsky...and I was swept away by their whole world. They have very different worlds and very different ways of writing about it, but Crime and Punishment really took me over...I think I read it when I was 17-18. And then I read The Idiot much later, when I was a lot older. It’s a very complex book, but I was so drawn to the figure of the prince in it, his innocence, which triggers all kinds of giant events, and the settings, which are often very small countrysides, where these violent passions are being played out. All of that, yes, I think it’s influenced my own work quite a lot.

Also, not with this book, but earlier, when I’d be stuck, not knowing how to move ahead, I would mostly pick up the short stories of Chekhov, the long short stories, which are just brilliant – The Duel, and Swan Song – and read just a couple of pages, and feel that there is such directness. He has something to say, and he’s saying it. There are these people he wants to write about, it’s so deceptively simple, and yet it’s not at all. I would read those pages and feel a kind of injection of oxygen.

You’ve also spoken before about how you were writing this book in the form of a Greek tragedy (And I’m thinking of the downward spiralling nature of memory, as Myshkin remembers his childhood).
No, I wasn’t trying to write a Greek tragedy, but I was aware that I was writing a tragedy, and when I knew this, I didn’t want the tragedy to arrive as a kind of page-turning, what-will-happen-next, and then something terrible happens. Instead, I thought I’d just put down what’s happened, and then, why not look at why it happened, how it happened. I’ve always wanted to write a novel where a whole lot of small details add up to a transformation that is quite big in the end. And I thought that one way to do this is to get the what-happens-next bit out of the way so that I could focus more on the reflection.

Two thirds in, the narrative takes on an epistolary form. Is this something you wanted to experiment with – form – or was it purely for the purposes of the plot (letters from mother to son, friend to friend)?
I thought about this a lot because I knew I had to write what happened to her [Gayatri] after she goes away. I could very easily have written it, in fact I did think about writing it, in the first-person. It could also have been written in the third-person to say what happened. But I thought that if I write it in letters, well, there were many reasons...one being, when I was doing the research for the book, quite a lot of what I read about World War II, and about the individuals in it, so much time was spent waiting for letters: letters were getting lost, letters were too expensive, some people were illiterate so they had to have somebody else write letters for them. And then there’s the whole physicality of letters...the handwriting, the page on which you can scrawl all over, you can put in things into letters. Also letters have a certain immediacy; and Gayatri is writing in her present. She doesn’t know what will happen to her tomorrow; she’s writing that letter today. So I wanted to capture that whole uncertainty or happiness, or whatever it was she was feeling, just in her present.

There’s so much here about writing, storytelling, inscription – archives, letters, diaries, notebooks – the self-conscious, deliberate act of remembering and writing one’s story and history…Can you talk about the relationship between the self (female, artist) and society? I’m thinking of Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay’s Abandon and Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You, where the protagonists also have to make difficult choices between wifehood, motherhood and the woman-as-artist…
This is happening in the ’30s, and Gayatri is a privileged woman in the ’30s – she’s from a fairly wealthy family, and she’s had a father who’s believed in her gifts and tried to grow them in her. And then she finds herself in a hostile environment in relation to her art, where her desires are trivialised as hobbies, which she certainly does not think of as hobbies. I think that is something. Maybe in a general, physical sense, women have so much freedom and we can do so many things that women in the 30s could not. But the sense that women’s ambitions and their vocations can be trivialised and are trivialised by the world around them is something that is a constant, even now, and they don’t, even now, get their rightful place.

If you read about Amrita Sher-Gil, who was painting at exactly that time...now we’re so used to seeing her as an icon, but she was continuously unhappy in her letters too, which I read. Her work, at the time, would be seen with some amount of amusement or contempt by many; she felt very misunderstood by the critical world around her. Gayatri has not even reached that point when we meet her in the book; but I thought that a woman’s struggle to be taken seriously in her work, specially if it’s creative work, was there then and is there today.

I’m thinking of all the titles of all your books: An Atlas of Impossible Longing, The Folded Earth, Sleeping on Jupiter, and now, All the lives We Never Lived. There’s something here about geography and cartography, about alternate worlds and lives…
Specially with Sleeping on Jupiter, a lot of people asked me whether it was about escape and maybe you could ask that about this book also. Are they all just escapist? Are they [the characters] all escaping? But I don’t think it’s about escape. It’s about visualising an alternate reality, which you want desperately to find and sometimes you have to make it for yourself. Or many of the characters in Sleeping on Jupiter yearn for it but know they will never find it. So it’s not about escape at all, but about finding the world where you belong.