Gayathri and Myshkin. Mother and son. Freedom and love. Letting go and lingering on. I am no longer surprised at how certain books happen to jump right out of the library shelf and land into my soul. Anuradha Roy’s ‘All the Lives We Never Lived’ was the latest. At a time when memoirs and thoughts of vulnerable women holds a coveted place at my bedside, why a piece of fiction, I’d wondered. I should have known better by now.
Myshkin, a sixty something old man, reminisces about life before and after his mother. Nothing romantic or heartening as the death of a young mother that orphaned a nine year old boy. She ran away With a white man as people around him would never let him forget. The fact that the man was German never mattered, all that was important was the colour of his skin and that a young wife had the audacity to leave her ‘progressive’ husband and a small child go fend for themselves.
Gayathri was a young girl pampered by her doting father. He wanted the best for her, wanted her to be the best, in art, dance whatever she chose to do. He had taken her on a trip abroad, crossing the seas, meeting none other than the great Rabindranath Tagore. Years in Shanti Niketan is what she had dreamed of. And in the manner of a typical Indian movie, the father dies on her, leaving her at the mercy of her elder brother and mother who had fixed notions on what a girl’s life should be. A learned professor, years older than her is infatuated with her and offers to marry her.
She feels stifled in her marital home. Her husband ‘grants her the freedom’ to pursue her passions, as a hobby. Her spontaneous dance in their courtyard was talked of by the family for years. It is to this joyless existence that the German guy Walter Spies and his friend makes an appearance. She had met him years ago on her trip to Bali along with her father. Their bohemian life, with no apparent restrictions, the freedom to do whatever they felt like, whenever and wherever they wanted to, reawakenes Gayathri’s spirits and aspirations that finally leads to her leaving her home.
Myshkin lives his life in the eternal hope of his mother’s return until a bunch of letters finds its way to him, telling him stories that he longed to know. How he missed leaving with his mother by just a few hours, and her life after that. Maybe, if those letters had reached him a few years earlier, his life might have turned out different.
More than the main story or the exquisite manner of writing ( though the details made me skip more than a few lines), it was the underlying questions that disturbed me. I don’t know whether disturbed is the right word. I was reminded of the Malayalam actor Manju Warrier’s so called come back movie ‘How Old Are You?’ and the question that the movie was centered around,
”Who decides the expiry date of a woman’s dreams?”
For argument’s sake you may counter it’s not just for the woman. Maybe. But the fact remains that more often than not, the moment the knot is tied around her neck, she is expected to instantly reincarnate herself into a capable, efficient and obedient home maker. You may argue times have changes, however the norm remains more often than not. There are modern minded men, of course. Most of them are like Gayatri’s husband, though. He, who takes pride in moving with the times realizes late that
‘her freedom was always with his acquiescence.’
Looking at many a woman who have passionately gone after their dreams, their journey seem to have been a lone path. There are some who have spread their wings after years of keeping them tied down, some willingly, most with a seething defiance within. And the ones who break free, their journeys were never smooth. Life was tougher by all practical means, much different from the ‘protected’ life they were used to. But if you ever get to ask any of them whether they would have gone back to what was, I’m sure the answer would be a resounding no. For they know the past would have been far worse than anything that came after.
I guess that is what this story was finally about. What could be, and what could have been. Jumping down a precipice with your eyes open, all sense keenly aware. Who knows, there might be a parachute on your back that you never knew about. But then, you would have to make that leap of faith to really know, wouldn’t you?