All the Lives We Never Lived is to be read with great pleasure at the sheer beauty of the prose and with deep attention to the delicate emotions of the characters. A highly dramatic beginning hooks the reader’s curiosity immediately. ‘In my childhood, I was known as the boy whose mother had run off with an Englishman. The man was in fact German, but in small town India in those days, all white foreigners were largely thought of as British.’ It is the story of Myshkin, hurt and bewildered for a lifetime, and his mother, Gayatri, who loved freedom from domestic constraints more than she loved her son—possibly. For the story isn’t a simple one of cause and consequence but highly textured about relationships, history and culture.
The mother is an arresting figure, unconventional, attractive in a rebellious sort of way, and surely a throwback to the ‘jazz age’ of artistic exuberance. ‘My mother didn’t care how she looked, yet she was always striking, dressed up or smeared with colour across her forehead. When she painted sitting outside in the sun she wore a wide-brimmed straw hat with red ribbon into which she stuck flowers, paintbrushes, feathers, whatever caught her eye. None of my friends had mothers who wore a hat or climbed trees or hitched up their saris and rode a bicycle’ (p. 10). Though the story is set in India of the 1930s, it recalls the legacy of figures such as Gertrude Stein, Alice B Toklas, Zelda Fitzgerald and other such women in history who fashioned themselves as hedonistic, independent and self-determined.
The personal narrative of Gayatri Sen is largely imagined by the narrator. It evolves as a novel of memory, considering that Myshkin is writing this when he is about sixty and still puzzled by his mother’s departures. A bundle of letters arrives and he is afraid to open it up because the imagined tale of a vivacious mother may be more romantic than a mundane account spilling out of these papers. He knows that memory can play false and is afraid of being compelled to choose between real and imagined scenarios.