2015, pp 250, Rs 499
It is now somewhat par for the course that each new book by Anuradha Roy is accompanied by a steadily growing buzz. To add to that buzz is a blurb from a Washington Post reviewer that actually reads thus: “This is why you read fiction at all.” So. Is all the hoopla justified? Actually, yes. And there it is.
Roy’s protagonist in Sleeping on Jupiter, Nomita Frederikson, is from Oslo and headed for Jarmuli, a bustling temple town probably somewhere on the eastern coast. (Jarmuli is fictional, before you start to look it up on the Internet.) Nomi is slight of frame (someone sizes her up as a brown shrimp) but possessed of a kind of desperate courage. This courage is, alas, born of the damage she has suffered and endured in her early years spent here in Jarmuli, confined to a cement cabin of an ashram run by a tall, sinister guru.
The damage, the reader will immediately guess, is both physical and emotional, both deeply and irrevocably. She lost her mother and brother literally by the seaside when she was a child, but is by no means convinced they are dead. And so she goes to every sea in the whole wide world — the Chilean Sea, the North Sea, the Bass Strait, the South China Sea — and sits, waiting for it to tell her something, she doesn’t know what, but she is sure she would know it when it came. Nomi is hurting, her flickering wick of hope protected by a shield of cynicism which does not run too deep.
Her life starts to touch the lives of others in Jarmuli, that of three elderly women on a pilgrimage; that of Suraj, a photographer who is dealing with his own disappointments in life; that of Badal, a brusque town guide, and that of the mysterious Johnny Toppo, who sings the most romantic songs ever as he brews his masala tea, and who Nomi might just have known, very well, in her past life. Even more poignantly, her life hovers close to but does not touch the life of a young boy in the neighbourhood who might well be her lost beloved brother. That bit is handled with so much poignant underwriting, it shines through and effectively lodges a lump in the reader’s throat.
The gems are carefully placed in the main flow of this story. It is both curious and touching, the contempt the rough-and-ready Badal has for those he deems less devout, the paying customers he takes around the temple. Even though this boy too is damaged by life, he has a profound respect for his gods and a profound belief in their powers, and so, he takes any perceived slight of indifference to them and their abode, personally. Badal nurses a fledgling passion for Raghu who works at Toppo’s tea stall, and never mind that Raghu is obviously making some money on the side consorting with those who would consort with pretty young men.
The three women are interesting, in their own muted fashion. There is Latika who is not too moved by the religious aspect of the trip but who accidentally rediscovers her zest for light flirtation and for the occasional shot of vodka. There is Vidya who takes great comfort in being with her best friends but is beset with all the doubts that plague women of a certain age. There is Gouri over whose head hovers the sword of impending forgetfulness, another piece of poignancy in the book. Gouri gets lost once, but the other two women eventually find her. Gouri gets lost again, as the story draws to its close, and this time the reader can only hope that she will be found.
And then there is the guru, casting a disquieting shadow over the characters, the place, the story. At his zenith, the man was a magnet for the rich and powerful, his ashram visited by thousands of people. There is the merest hint of an ensuing scandal, the closure of the ashram, the young boat girls he harboured there (Nomi escaped, with another girl, and was eventually adopted and taken to a country where ‘the sun was like a moon and cast everything in a pearly light’) taken away. No one, of course, wants to say anything about that now.
The different threads slowly interlace and of course, all the characters are caught in the same mesh. The inevitable denouement is one soaked in devastation and altogether inevitable. Roy’s deliberately restrained style of storytelling is effective. The reader gets it all: the story, the skeins lying just below the main story, the deeply felt emotions of all the people who inhabit this novel. It’s as much about the violence within as the violence without. As well as the unspoken but deeply felt desire to be somewhere else, outside their bodies…maybe on Jupiter with its 16 moons which, as Badal once thought, must mean a full moon virtually every night.