Sleeping on Jupiter opens with two jolting acts of violence. In the first, a young girl sees her father killed and her family divided when their village is raided by soldiers. In the second, three middle aged holidaymakers witness a young woman being attacked by two men as she stands on a railway platform. What follows is a series of interlinked stories which come together in the fictional Indian town of Jarmuli, over a period of five days.
Over the course of this brief but powerful novel, we meet Badal, a temple guide who is in love with a young man who helps out at a tea stall; Nomi, a vulnerable but spiky young woman who is in Jarmuli ostensibly to research locations for a documentary; Suraj, her photographer, a jaded forty-something whose marriage is breaking down; and three friends in their sixties, Gouri, Vidya and Latika, who are in the town for their first ever joint holiday. Although they do not realise it, the characters cross paths repeatedly, allowing Roy to construct a narrative which explores the underlying aggression she sees in Indian culture, from the psychological scars of separatist conflict to the threat of violence that faces women every time they enter public space.
It is the story of Nomi, in particular, which allows Roy to explore her overarching themes. Separated from her family after her father is killed by soldiers, she is taken, along with other young girls, to live in an ashram presided over by a charismatic guru. Here, she and the other girls are subjected to systematic abuse, with Nomi singled out for special attention. After escaping, she is sent to live with foster parents in Oslo.
Nomi’s experiences in childhood set her apart from the mainstream of Indian society, and this otherness is highlighted by her appearance. Her slightly ragged appearance, with coloured, braided hair and multiple piercings, is an obvious sign, but there is something deeper too. Encountering her on the train to Jarmuli, the three holidaymakers note that she has ‘a pointed face, like a deer’s’; later, Suraj’s first impression of her is that she resembles ‘an animal that might prove unpredictable’. Her fractured childhood is also evidenced in her speech; her accent is difficult to place, ‘as if she had no sure identity’, whilst she speaks only ‘a faltering Hindi’. By returning to Jarmuli, she is hoping to discover some connection which will help her to understand her past, but she finds that there is an unspoken agreement to ignore the troublesome aspects of recent history. Locals will eulogise about the ancient temples which dominate the town, revered as symbols of Indian civilisation, but no-one will speak of the ashram or what went on there.
Roy also examines the role of the male gaze in policing behaviour. Throughout Sleeping on Jupiter, men ‘leer’ at female characters who transgress unwritten codes of behaviour. Latika’s attempts to buy alcohol at a street market meet with hostile attention while from the start, Nomi is singled out for her clothes; Badal refuses her entrance to a temple, deeming her attire inappropriate, and she is followed through the streets of the town by a monk. Even at the temple of the sun, with its ancient erotic statuary, she finds that men whistle and stare provoked by her appearance. This violence is even extended to certain other men; Badal sees a young man being beaten in the street by two men who have picked him up.
Along with this atmosphere of violence, memory is a key theme throughout the novel. Nomi’s formative years have been scorched with fire; although she ‘scrapes and scrapes’ at her mind, the landscape of her past has been devastated, psychologically and physically. There are impressions of trauma and violence (‘a sound that made my teeth fall off’), but nothing concrete to hold on to. Nomi is not the only character afflicted by memory gaps. Gouri is affected by what appears to be the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, which frequently leaves her disorientated, ‘as if her brain had termites tunnelling through it’. It could be argued that some of these gaps are rather convenient: a way of forgetting troublesome details, and ensuring a harmonious present.
Sleeping on Jupiter is a discomforting novel, which touches on child abuse, war crimes and male violence against women, and Roy is able to create compelling characters and sub-plots within a tight word count. Although the main emotional thrust of the novel is provided by Nomi, and she is the only character to have substantial attention paid to her back story, the characters around her are still multi-faceted and engaging. There is a certain amount of serendipity involved in the way the characters interlink, but in the crowded streets of Jarmuli, this doesn’t feel too forced. On the downside, Roy avoids using narrative omniscience, which leads to some loose ends from the reader’s point of view: we never find out what happens to the ashram or the guru after Nomi leaves, for example, and there is a definite lack of resolution to the various story arcs. There is an argument that Sleeping On Jupiter could benefit from a couple of extra chapters, as the ending leaves several characters’ stories hanging, and this could hold it back when it comes to the Booker Prize judging.
Any Cop?: Sleeping on Jupiter is an unsettling and occasionally upsetting read, worth taking on for the quality of Anuradha Roy’s writing. On the downside, the ending comes a little too quickly, leaving questions unanswered.