Book review: Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy - world of pain for women

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 June, 2015, 11:02pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 June, 2015, 11:02pm

Seven-year-old Nomita witnesses the murder of her father by armed men, loses her brother and is abandoned by her mother - all in the course of a couple of days. This brutal experience, recalled in deliberate and haunting prose years later, opens Anuradha Roy's novel.

The young girl ends up in an orphanage run by a renowned spiritual guru, before she's adopted. After her move to Norway, she is haunted by memories of being sexually abused by the guru.

Now, as a filmmaker's assistant, Nomita Frederiksen, 25 years old, returns to the temple town of Jarmuli to tie up loose ends and keep promises made long ago. Interwoven into this narrative are the stories of three old women, Gouri, Latika and Vidya; the forbidden, same-sex love of her tour guide Badal for a young man, Raghu; and the hidden demons that possess the photographer, Suraj, who assists her research for the film.

Roy's chiselled prose allows her to expose the endless, treacherous hypocrisies of Indian society: bare-bodied priests who make a fuss about women's clothing; tourism that celebrates erotic carvings on temple walls while remaining in denial about the sexual abuse of children; old women who pass harsh judgments on everyone; the "progressive" man who can share a cigarette and whisky with a woman, but is still ready to hit her when an argument gets out of hand. Violence and misogyny, as Roy drives home, is the norm here.

As in her previous novels, An Atlas of Impossible Longing and The Folded Earth, Roy viscerally captures atmosphere: India is evoked in the ginger and crushed cloves of a tea-stall, the poetry of Jibanananda Das, the scent of grapefruit.

There are allusions to the Mahabharata - the Indian epic where good triumphs over evil - but what emerges in Sleeping on Jupiter is the story of entrenched evil, an evil against women and children that cannot be challenged, only escaped.

Roy's narrative raises many questions. Will it ever be possible to police the crimes committed against women in the name of divine sanction and initiation rituals in a society where wives still fast for the well-being of their husbands and subject themselves to exploitation in the name of spiritualism? Can we envisage a situation in which an Indian woman can confront gender-based violence without having to a lucky escape to the West?

In tackling these issues, Roy has used the most potent weapon in a writer's arsenal - the novel, with its ability to be universal and particular simultaneously - to boldly unmask the hidden face of Indian spirituality and the rampant sexual abuse in its unholy confines.

Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy (MacLehose Press)

The Guardian