When Anuradha Roy came to the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival for the first time seven years ago, she found a trail into Bali’s past that led to a key piece of her latest book All the Lives We Never Lived.

Despite its contemporary and historical links to the Indonesian holiday island, the core of Roy’s fourth novel examines contemporary India and the dangerous times she believes it faces amid rising Hindu nationalism and persistent inequality.

“In writing the book, I was very concerned about the role of an artist when there is a crisis in the country,” the award-winning novelist says. “All my books are about powerlessness.”

Yet they also manage to strike hopeful chords. The plot of All the Lives We Never Lived incorporates an actual meeting in Bali between India’s Nobel Prize-winning poet Rabindranath Tagore and German painter Walter Spies.

“I discovered Walter Spies on my first visit to Bali for the 2011 festival, in a book Bali, Java in My Dreams by Christine Jordis,” Roy told this year’s Ubud festival.

“At that time I was thinking of a story that would have an intensely imaginative, extremely lonely little boy whose mother was quite distant. He created a world for himself by living in pictures. But which pictures? Then I thought of Walter Spies.”

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Walter Spies’ ‘Javanese Coming Home,’ circa 1924. Image: Artnet

Celebrated as the painter laureate of Bali, “Spies had a talent for being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Roy said. The son of a German diplomat, Spies was born in Russia in 1895 and his family was imprisoned at the outbreak of World War I.

After the war, Spies moved to Germany, where his paintings developed an avant-garde following. He fled Europe and in 1927 wound up in Ubud, Bali, where he painted and promoted Balinese artists.

A passionate and influential amateur scholar of Balinese culture, Spies and contemporaries such as anthropologist Margaret Mead and painter Miguel Covarrubias helped create Bali’s enduring arty mystique.

In 1937, Spies moved his base from Ubud to Iseh, 30 kilometers to the northeast, in the shadow of volcanic Mount Agung. Even there, Spies was persecuted for being homosexual and, after the outbreak of World War II, was arrested by the Dutch, Indonesia’s colonial rulers, as an enemy alien because of his German citizenship.

The ship transporting Spies and other prisoners to India was sunk by a Japanese torpedo and he died at the age 47. Spies was, however, in the right place at the right time to meet Tagore, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913.

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Indian writer Rabindranath Tagore. Image: Wikimedia

Tagore arrived in Bali in 1927, hoping to raise funds for his Visva-Bharati University at Santiniketan in today’s West Bengal, while exploring and expanding ties between India and Southeast Asia dating to the 10th century. Spies served as his guide for a few days during his travels.

“The two of them really hit it off, because their concerns and thoughts were so similar,” said Roy, whose Sleeping on Jupiter was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2015 and won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature for fiction in 2016.

Intrigued, Roy found Tagore’s account of the journey, Letters from a Traveler to Java, and wove the real events into her fictional tapestry.

In Roy’s novel, a boy’s mother is on same ship that Tagore took to Bali and she is deeply influenced by her encounter with Spies. The book then imagines what might have been if Spies had gone to India, if he had met this boy’s mother and given her a different vision of the world which gave her the strength to leave her very stifling marriage and go to Bali.

“The novel takes place in India and Bali in the 1920s and is told from the perspective of her son who is now in his 60s and is trying to find out how this happened – why did his mother leave, where did she go, what did it mean?

“That’s what All the Lives We Never Lived is about. It is about possibilities, things we regret not doing, things we might do, things we should be doing,” she says. The novel reflects an Indian intellectual heavyweight debate over art during periods of political and social upheaval.

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“At the time of the independence movement, Tagore had a long argument with Gandhi on this topic. Gandhi said to him, at a time like this, when the nationalistic movement is coming to a head, ‘the poet should lay down his lyre.’ Tagore replied that the creative exercise of the imagination and mind is the greatest freedom a human being can have.

“And the central argument in the book between the husband and the wife concerns this. The husband is a nationalist in the Gandhian mode and insists that his wife should put aside her painting for a more suitable time.”

She adds, “The husband is a compassionate and humane man, yet while he is compassionate with humanity at large, with his wife and his child he is a patriarchal dictator. The wife rebels against this intensely, guided by the thought of Tagore.”

Roy believes All the Lives We Never Lived, shortlisted for this year’s inaugural JCB Prize for Literature, one of India’s richest literary awards, resonates with contemporary issues including ascendant Hindu nationalism.

“The politicized Hindus are quite a large number now, and they seem to control the narrative. The voices of those who are un-politicized, merely religious Hindus are not heard that much.”

Attacks on dalits or underprivileged are on the rise in India. Photo/Reuters/Files
Attacks on Dalits are on the rise in India. Photo: Reuters/Files

As in the novel, Roy sees equal rights issues moving to the forefront. “The hope in India today, I feel, is with the women and the underclass, the Dalits. They are the oppressed, and they will bring about change. These are the people who are quite fiercely fighting against oppression.”

Roy, though, is modest about her own role.

“I am not an activist. I live in a tiny village. I write books, I publish, I design book covers for our little publishing house [with her husband]. We publish books about history, politics and so on, which we believe in, by writers we believe in. I’m a small person in a small place,” she said.

“I follow Tagore in thinking that if you are doing your own creative work in the best and freest possible way, it will create change.”