Literary Review

‘The subject disturbed me’

Anuradha Roy: Visual appeal to her words.  

Anuradha Roy’s brilliant new novel, Sleeping on Jupiter, is a riveting and poignant read, and, in the author’s own words, “looks at the impact of religion on many different people, several of whom are devout men and women, truly immersed in the sacred world.”  

There’s a whole tapestry out there: lost innocence, displacement, violence, friendship, survival, unconventional love, rejection, and pain. There’s life abroad in cold Oslo, and in a humid temple town by the sea, as well as in a hidden-from-the-world enclosure monitored by a self-proclaimed devout person. There are three women tourists who are caring companions to each other and become unlikely narrators; there is an adopted child who returns in inquiry and hovers on the verge of discovering her past, all penned with excellent craft. The opening chapters are violent but etched in delicate, detached prose, which makes the child’s voice authentic yet puts the trauma across.

Nomita Frederikson is from Oslo and travelling to Jarmuli to make a documentary on the temple town. But she has another, unspoken, reason for her journey. Vidya, Latika and Gouri are senior citizens and close friends, travelling to Jarmuli too in the same A2 compartment. They are concerned about this solitary young girl, especially when she gets off the train and is attacked. Inside the train they can do nothing but watch. The train leaves; they don’t pull the chain.

They are destined to ‘meet’ later by the sea, where the story rolls out in a different mood. The sea is almost a character in the book, lending colour and tone to the events and phases of the characters’ lives. Also by the sea are Badal, Raghu and Johnny Toppo, trapped in a life not of their choice.

The structure of this book is nothing like the author’s previous works The Folded Earth and An Atlas of Impossible Longing. The story happens across a prologue-like ‘Before the First Day’ chapter documenting the violent past, and then a chapter across each of the 18 days the various protagonists spend by the sea; it’s here that their present unravels.

Roy says the book started as a long short story but then she became interested in following the incidental characters in the story, particularly a girl on a beach and an elderly tea-seller. “Unpeeling the layers of their stories led me in unexpected directions. The narrative lends itself to jagged edges, spliced narratives, and areas of mystery, so I structured it in a radically different way from my two earlier books.”

Is Jarmuli a real place? Roy admits it’s not, and that she likes “a change of scene as much as anyone. My first book was set around plateaus and rivers, the second in the hills; the third is by the sea. Maybe it’ll be a desert next! Jarmuli is a made-up place, as are Songarh and Manoharpur in my first book; made-up places make me feel free to wander. In my head I can see every bend and building in Jarmuli. My effort is to create a convincing and complete location for the novel; even when writing about real places like Ranikhet, I tend to change them.”

There is an intense visual appeal to this book; the scenes are so vivid that one remembers many, like the train scene, the incidents of the first murder and loss-of-innocence, the Sun Temple visit. Here’s a sample.

“When the pigs were slaughtered for their meat, they shrieked with a sound that made my teeth fall off and this was the sound I heard soon after my mother cut the grapefruit, and the men came in with axes. Their faces were wrapped in cloth. They shoved my brother outside, they pushed my mother and me to a corner of the room and then they flung my father at a wall. They slammed his face at the wall again and again. The whitewashed wall streamed red, they threw him to the floor and kicked him with their booted feet. Each time the boots hit him it was as if a limp bundle of clothes was being tossed this way and that. One of the men lifted an axe and brought it down on my father’s forehead.

When they left they wrote something on the wall in his blood. They did not look at us.

In my sleep I hear the sound of pigs at slaughter, the sound my father made.”

Was the enhanced visual element of the book a conscious decision?  Roy says she tends to write visually, “I can see the scenes of the book in my head very clearly. Maybe it also has something to do with my work as a potter and book designer.”

The ‘war’ and violence in the book are palpable, but it’s difficult to pinpoint a real event. This, Roy says, was intentional. “I’ve deliberately left the war unspecified because I wanted Nomi, the girl who is made a refugee, to be an Everywoman. Children suffer horribly from wars and violence, wherever they are, and Nomi is one such.”

Sleeping on Jupiter is a courageous book dealing as it does with a timely subject: violence against women within the most unexpected walls. Is she worried about the impact? “The thing is that burning a book is easier than reading it,” says Roy. “Everyone writing or painting or filming has been worried by Islamic fatwas and Hindu extremism probably since The Satanic Verses ban. The problem does not have to do with the political dispensation in power at the centre, because attempts to suppress artists have been made during other regimes. The situation of the liberal writer and artist in India is inescapably one of tension. Every expose of social oppression, every effort at reform, whether political or journalistic or literary, is going to be opposed by conservative hostility to change. My book is actually deeply sympathetic about the dilemmas of belief while condemning those who misuse it.”

The title is intriguing. And it’s drawn from that quest of the protagonists, a sense of being trapped in their lives and looking for alternate universes, says Roy. “One of them, a temple guide, finds himself at such a crossroads that he yearns for the solitude of a totally different world, and for him this becomes a longing to sleep on Jupiter, under its 16 moons.”  

“Badal speeded past the group and looped back through another set of alleys towards the empty beach. He drove into the sand until the scooter skidded and came to a stop. He threw it aside and ran to the beach. He flung himself at the sand. The hard oblong of the new mobile in his pocket slammed into his ribs, knocking his breath out.  

The ocean was inside him, the impersonal immensity of it. It had frozen solid, it had exploded into a thousand icy pieces and each individual shard pierced him, made him cry out loud.

The water was too far away to wet him, but the earth began to darken around his face.  His nose was bleeding. He let it flow. He wanted it to bleed, he wanted the blood in his body to drain away.”

Roy confesses that writing this book was not easy. “Because its subject matter disturbed me and I found it hard to face the work. So it took much longer than it should have. But I dealt with the research as I always do: upside down. I start with an idea or character and I need to write very quickly while the going is good: it is as if the electrical charge of the book has to be trapped into it before I lose it by plodding through information. As the writing moves ahead and I know where it is going, I do the background work. It’s what anyone who writes has to do: travel, read, ask questions, make notes. I dislike novels in which the research stands there proclaiming its presence: Here I am, Look at Me. The kind of novel I like to read is one that makes me forget the author or the work that’s gone into the book, it feels like lived experience and creates a world I can inhabit completely.”

Sleeping on Jupiter certainly does that; the reader inhabits the diverse worlds of Nomi, the three elder women and Badal. The reader shares Nomi’s pursuit of her long-lost home, her memories of mother and her brother, empathises with the camaraderie among three women who have so much, yet so little, and wander with Badal on the temple guide circuit, understanding his unrequited love for Raghu.  

Sleeping on Jupiter; Anuradha Roy, Hachette, Rs.499.

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Printable version | May 14, 2021 8:24:01 AM |

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