Anuradha Roy’s opening line in Sleeping on Jupiter soon proves itself a lie. Her protagonist, Nomita tells us: “The year the war came closer, I was six or seven and it did not matter to me.” But the reader knows better than the little girl — the proximity of conflict always matters. Nomi lives in a kind of paradise, from which she is soon to face eviction, though she doesn’t know that yet. Cast on the mercy of the world, she will find it has little to spare for her.
Roy’s third book, I should tell you right away, is almost relentlessly grim. Her characters, who are complicated and conflicted, are a result of a world underpinned with loss and suffering. Nomi is ostensibly the linchpin on which the story turns. We meet her first, catch glimpses of her journey into adulthood and then return with her to India. By then she is Nomi Frederiksen, daughter to a mother who abandoned her, adopted by another whom she rejects.
In the fictional seaside town of Jarmuli, famous for its temples and ashrams, Nomi’s story arc converges with a small horde of other characters. It is immediately evident that Roy has an enviable sense of place. She imagines into being a temple city crowded with pilgrims, tourists and those who would make a living there. Here, the scent of incense mingles with that of fish — fresh, fried and rotting.
Down by the water, you can dig your toes into the sand, but beware this treacherous coast. The Bay of Bengal stretches as far as the eye can see, its surface ravaged by monsoon winds, its depths offering forgetfulness for a price. It is here that Suraj — ostensibly the fixer for Nomi’s documentary project — goes to swim, and here that Badal, the temple guide, comes to look for Raghu, who he is desperately in love with.
It is here that Latika dreams of simply sitting by the sea and drinking coconut water while on her first real — and likely last — holiday with her friends Gouri and Vidya. These three quickly become my favourites.
Gouri nurtures a deep spirituality, and her warmth and humour provide a kind of tragic counterpoint to her ongoing, inexorable loss of memory; Vidya’s “forty years in the bureaucracy” are paired with a “preoccupied self-importance”; but burgundy-haired Latika is still capable of surprising us all. She is (relatively) sprightly, innately irreverent and about to get drunk for the very first time.
Roy sketches these women with pragmatic compassion and real insight. As an author, this is indisputably her gift, a willingness to pause long enough to provide even the most minor character with a backstory that lends their presence depth and weight. A perfect example of this is the mysterious Johnny Toppo, the tea-seller who sings hauntingly lovely folk songs, as he serves up tea spiced with ginger and cardamom. Out of the likes of Toppo, Roy weaves a bold, sprawling tapestry of emotion and human interaction.
Roy’s other gift is an ability to write in a way that is acutely pleasing to the senses. Her words allow her readers to see, smell, taste. She is so potent that at the end of the book, I still remember a simple description from her first page — of Nomi’s brother cutting down a grapefruit from their family’s tree. The fruit is pale yellow and heavy with juice, its skin is stippled but its flesh is a tender pink, the scent of it is tart and fresh.
However, while Roy writes with assurance and skill, I find that her plot choices sometimes stretch the limits of my appetite for tragedy and reinforce clichés. The same descriptive gift which leaves me with a mild craving for a grapefruit, makes a long series of violently abusive encounters difficult to read: a murder by machete that leaves a father squealing like pigs at the slaughter, the sale and rape of a young girl, the snapping of a man’s sanity and his battery of an animal… and all this just in the first half of the novel.
Even when the book is not exploding into violence, there is a steady undertow of disquiet and grief. What balance exists I find only around Vidya, Latika and Gouri. (I catch myself wishing that I could shed the other characters for the honest, interesting company of just these three.)
But there are other compensations for reading Sleeping on Jupiter, such as its structure. Roy plays with time and place, switching between first person and third person; between five days in the present and a lifetime in the past. Her choice of whose thoughts we are privy to, and whose we are not, are deliberate and clever. Through them, we see a man undone by his deep love for a boy, yet are denied insight into another predator who systematically rapes and abuses his young charges. By choosing when we are inside Nomi’s head, Roy makes her past as real as her present, and allows us to see the unfurling of her courage.
In the writing, I realise it is this courage that keeps me reading through to the end. It is not just Nomi’s; while her courage is perhaps the most considerable, it is also the least interesting. Instead, valour infuses and elevates nearly every character.
Overarching all this is Roy’s own fearlessness as a writer — she is all raw feeling, and vivid life.
Published in The Hindu Businessline on June 5, 2015. Words by Smriti Daniel.