Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy
Anuradha Roy’s Sleeping on Jupiter tells the story of Nomi, a young documentary filmmaker who travels back to the seaside town of Jarmuli, India to confront the long-buried secrets of her past. “I think I might have been born here,” she tells her film partner Suraj, after an unsuccessful day of location scouting among the local temples. Her history in Jarmuli is a harrowing one: the novel’s opening scene recounts the violent fracture of her family: in a flashback, seven-year old Nomi witnesses the murder of her father and is separated from her mother and brother as the war in India relentlessly spreads. A woman saves Nomi, telling her through tears, “your mother and your father and your brother have become stars. Whenever you want to be with them, look up at the sky and there they are.” Later Nomi travels by boat with other orphans to an ashram that’s run more like a prison than a boarding school. Guruji, the head of the ashram, gives her special treatment that cruelly transforms into sexual abuse. “Say nothing,” he tells her. “I do not reveal myself in this form to anyone else.”
Now, Nomi is an independent woman, traveling by train to Jarmuli in a shared cabin with three elderly women on holiday. The women provide an almost comedic counterbalance to Nomi’s punky seriousness. Latika, Gouri and Vidya lightly exemplify an older, sheltered femininity in India, and although their Jarmuli trip is tittered with the notion of breaking out and being bad, it’s more engaging to try and place them in the India of twenty-years ago, that Roy developed through Nomi’s eyes. Were they like the woman who saved Nomi, or were they bystanders, naive to the country’s turmoil?
Later in the novel, after introducing Badal the local tour guide and his handful of local associates, Roy reveals that Nomi’s film partner Suraj is not only a work colleague but also the son of Gouri. This coincidence shrinks the small cast of Sleeping on Jupiter into a stringy web of inter-connectivity that, while pointed, is ultimately detrimental to the novel as a whole. When faced with such happenstance, readers will attempt throughout the book to draw further links: Nomi’s uncertain of the fate of her brother, and thus every appropriately-aged man in the novel begins to resemble his shadow. Her mother is out there somewhere, too. Nomi’s earrings are consistently mentioned throughout the novel (her first pair given to her in the book’s opening scene), and later Gouri “spotted her face in the mirror and her hands went to her bare ear lobes.” Could there be a connection?
Sleeping on Jupiter shifts from a harrowing novel about repressed memories of violence and sexual abuse towards a reading experience more about discovering surface connections and tying characters into a neat bit of netting. But remarkably, these connections might not in fact be there, and waking up from that temptation to connect everyone will lead to Sleeping on Jupiter’s revelatory core.
What does it mean that everyone feels like they could be mother and daughter, brother and sister, and not know it? In Sleeping on Jupiter’s landscape of violence, it’s the realization that war and civil abuse have destroyed the notion of family and thus made it universal. Breaking apart those bonds has led to their resurgence among the community. Ladies on a train, two filmmakers, the man from the tea stall, and even the temple tour guide: this is the new Indian family.