In an era when rape and pillage and the wanton destruction of villages are scattered across TV shows and fantasy and historical fiction books, Anuradha Roy’s beautifully rendered novel provides a sharp contrast, looking at the devastating consequences one such event had on one person.
Sleeping on Jupiter is set not in Westeros or Ancient Britain but in real life contemporary temple town Jarmuli in India, where the improbably named Nomita Fredirikson returns to visit the town where she grew up. This is no nostalgia trip, but a journey of catharsis. She goes back to re-examine the wounds of her painful youth and perhaps gain some peace of mind.
Readers get an idea of the harrowing nature of that childhood in the devastating opening chapter, which describes how Nomita, or Nomi, at childhood was orphaned and shipped off with a group of other children to an ashram.
The world looks on in approval at this holy place, where abandoned children are charitably brought up. The reality of it is very different.
An apparently benign guruji rules over the ashram and preys on the vulnerable children in his charge, sexually abusing the young girls and oppressing the few men who are around the place.
Roy’s choice of setting may be highly politically charged, with fiery religious debate raging through India at the moment, but she maintains the focus on Nomi and for the most part avoids politicising the novel.
Throughout, the maturity of her prose is on display. If there is judgement on Indian society or on religion in general, she stays clear of the cardinal sin of proselytising and sticks to describing events and emotions, leaving judgements to the reader.
Everything is seen through Nomi’s eyes, and her experiences – the friends she makes among her fellow orphan children – particularly Piku – the pity and horror she feels when seeing some of the events unfold before her young eyes.
When eventually the reader is forced to come face to face with the sexual abuse of Nomi herself, the scene is so sensitively described that is provokes extreme pity for the protagonist rather than the righteous anger put on by politicians when such events become public.
The book does not follow a straightforward chronology. You become aware of the events in Nomi’s childhood only as she remembers them while wandering around Jarmuli as an adult. She comes from her foster home in Oslo, and you have to read through the book to find out how she ended up a foster child to a Norwegian couple.
She brings with her all the baggage of an Indian returnee from a Western nation, something most Indian ex-pats would find all too familiar. Her re-discovery of her home nation is often painful and destructive, but compelling throughout.
Along the way, she encounters a variety of characters. Her view of them is stereotypical and understandable. Yet those stereotypes of Indian society don’t hold up to scrutiny, as the author describes. Roy explores the lives of those other characters, and this is the true strength of the book.
Perhaps the most compelling of these side narratives are an elderly trio of women who come to holiday in Jarmuli, defying the bonds of age and custom. Each of Gouri, Latika and Vidya become distinctive characters as the novel progresses, and travel on journeys of their own – even forgetting to fast for Navratri in the process.
Badal, the temple guide, Johnny Toppo, who runs a seaside tea stall, and Suraj, a failed cinematographer who is commissioned to help Nomita in making a documentary on Jarmuli’s temples, provide the male section of the cast.
Two of these characters is rendered with such clarity that you sometimes wonder if Roy’s understanding of the male psyche is even better than that of her understanding of women. Johnny Toppo’s singing provides the soundtrack to the novel, and Badal’s illicit love for a young male tea seller is sensitively described.
Roy cannot hide her curiosity in the internal workings of Suraj, an epitome of the abusive proto-chauvinist. This is in sharp contrast to the distant treatment the book’s other oppressors receive, but it provides the counterpoint to those who have been abused in its description of the crippling guilt felt by the abuser.
The book’s strongest point is the strength of its imagery and its forensic description of difficult emotions. But it is flawed by an inability to pull all the threads together in a satisfactory manner – you are left with more questions than answers at the end of the novel.
You are left with a conviction that Roy is a great artist, able to pull together images and emotions at ease, but her ability to tell a story leaves something to be desired. The book will leave a lasting impression on you, but the impression, while powerful, will likely be blurred and confused.
Abhinav Ramnarayan is a Journalist and Foreign Fiction Blogger.
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