Unending quest to discover infinite freedom
sleeping on Jupiter is a poetic novel weaving memories and experiences together, and most often the readers will find themselves delving into it with their natural instincts instead of being guided by a fixed textual logic, writes MEHA PANDE
Sleeping on jupiter
Author: Anuradha Roy
Publisher: Hachette, Rs499
What is loss? How is it quantified? Is loss characterised in terms of the place we live in or does it hit us by losing the people we live with? What happens when one loses both — the place they call home and the people who constitute family? How does it feel when those who protect us are abruptly and unexpectedly taken away, nowhere to be found? What is left to hold on to? What are the consequences of such an absence? What does it make of the people who suffer this loss? Can they ever stop looking for what does not exist but could have existed? These are a few of the many questions which the story of Nomi, the principal character of Anuradha Roy’s third novel, puts forth to its readers.
Sleeping on jupiter opens with an account of a war where Nomi witnesses the murder of her father. In an instant her life is overturned and her house — a beautiful, pastoral, idyllic space where life once blossomed is transformed to an unrecognisable site of a gruesome killing. As if this wasn’t enough, Nomi further endures the loss of her brother followed by a sudden disappearance of her mother who leaves her on a boat with the assurance that she is safeguarding Nomi’s life. The boat journey changes Nomi’s life only to haunt her throughout the novel. She travels to a temporary refuge where a ‘fat woman’ pierces her ear and puts her daughter’s gold earrings into them, calling Nomi by her daughter’s name — Chuni. By the time Nomi believes herself to be Chuni, she is transported yet again, this time to the ashram of a renowned guruji from where she escapes. Nomi is adopted by a woman in Norway but the search for her mother and brother never ends. Years later, as a young woman of 20, she finally embarks on a journey to Jarmuli.
How Roy builds her narrative brings to mind Virginia Woolf’s oft quoted phrase: “Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.” The novel progresses with Nomi’s life. Beginning with the commencement of Nomi’s mission, the narrative swings back and forth to her life as a child, her life in the ashram and her relation with her foster mother. While centring on Nomi’s pain and loss and an assiduous quest to fulfil the familial void in her life, Roy brings into view the lives of other, seemingly fulfilled characters. The train journey which Nomi’s undertakes brings her in contact with three elderly women — Latika, Vidya and Gouri — and their lives. On her arrival at Jarmuli, the pilgrimage town, she comes across Badal — the travel guide, Johny Toppo, the tea seller, Sunny, her assistant and others. The lives of all these characters diffuse into one another as the novel progresses, leaving the readers with a single highly complex and nuanced chronicle tied together by memories, secrets and sentiments of each of its characters.
Roy’s novel, much like a good photograph, works through a series of contrasts. It emerges out of contrasts and culminates into them composing, with an impeccable sharpness, the true picture of civilisation and its institutions. Conflicts of various kinds are built throughout the narrative to put to perspective varied actualities of life.
The beginning showcases the contrast of a luscious ‘grapefruit tree’ with the ‘year of the war’, the healthy livestock owned by the family with the butchering of Nomi’s father heightening the degree of the atrocities meted out to them. Nomi’s life in the ashram showcases the contrast between the peaceful refuge which the ashram projects itself to be and the true violent and dark penitentiary that it is where the priest of the ashram, guruji, is its ‘god’ and young girls are devoured by him in the name of service. When guruji first molests Nomi sexually and asks her to keep it a secret, it is his monstrosity against her naivety to recognise it which makes the occurrence furthermore repelling. As Nomi travels to Jarmuli and its temples, contrasts are built to uncover hypocrisy in the name of religion. While the pundits of the temple are ‘bare bodied’, clad only in a dhoti, a fully covered Nomi is refrained from entering it because of her clothing.
Suraj, an educated, outwardly forward looking man who drinks and smokes with Nomi is the same man who thrashes his wife Ayesha, and later even Nomi. Vidya, Gouri and Latika are older women, educated and ostensibly independent, yet they never refrain from judging Nomi based on what she wears. Gouri’s proclamation to Nomi about how ‘a monk would never touch anyone’ is self-referential depicting her own victimisation in the name of spirituality. All three women find themselves enmeshed under the weight of worldly and familial expectations despite the progressive status they seem to project. The instance where Latika buys vodka is the ultimate demonstration of a patriarchal society and its many paradoxes.
The story of Nomi’s life is brought to the readers through descriptions which alter between a first person account of Nomi’s life from memory and a third person narration of her present situation. Each character’s ‘public, private and secret’ lives are delineated with dexterity. Badal’s homosexuality and his love for Raghu, the true nature of the monk’s ‘holiness, piety and reverence’, Suraj’s secret letters to his father, Latika’s love for the man elder to her and Nomi’s guilt for leaving Piku in the ashram are all peeled off for the readers layer after layer. Like Roy’s previous novels this one too is tied together by characters like Maya and Mukunda who experience loss which sends them away and brings them back to the place they once inhabited in search of what they left behind. Nomi comes to Jarmuli in search of what she lost years ago, Toppo sings different songs in the same tune to connect to what he left behind, Latika, Gouri and Vidya all come to the pilgrimage trip with memories of what they lost. Badal belonged to the town but never quite belonged to it like he wished to.
Roy’s narrative weaves together memory and experience with craft and subtlety. In taking us through the miseries of one girl’s life it exposes its readers to lot more than that. The novel is poetic and most often the readers will find themselves delving into it with their natural instincts instead of being guided by a fixed textual logic established by the culmination of all events into some melodramatic sequence for an end.
The reviewer is a lecturer of English in Delhi University and a PhD research scholar in JNU
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