Roy’s acclaimed “Jupiter”: a riveting tale of religion, family and violence

Thursday, September 22, 2016 - 3:10pm

How far will someone go to uncover the truth? This is the central question in the excellent second novel of Anuradha Roy, “Sleeping on Jupiter.” The book has received nearly universal praise, winning the prestigious DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and being long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. The work of fiction critiques hypocrisies in Indian culture in the context of the small tourist town of Jarmuli, which is famous for its ancient temples, but is also hiding dark secrets of abuse and misogyny.

The novel switches between three seemingly separate stories, slowly weaving them into each other as the text goes on. We first meet Nomi, a young filmmaker trying to piece together the history of her traumatic childhood on assignment in Jarmuli. On the train there she meets three older women on holiday, longtime friends eager to enjoy one last adventure together. Once in Jarmuli, the women are shown around an ancient temple by Badal the monk, who struggles over his lust for the boy who works at his favorite tea stand. The three stories are brought together by chance, but end up having immense consequences over each and every person involved.  

Indian-born novelist Roy crafts a riveting tale of religion, family and violence that is nearly impossible to put down. Central to this book is a damning portrayal of religious tourism, painting Badal as one of many temple guides who rip off their patrons under the guise of a higher power. Nomi’s background is a disturbing critique of religious zealots, an unwitting victim of a civil war and repeated sexual abuse at the hands of a religious guru, who, ironically, is treated as a god by the Western tourists who visit his ashram.

The novel sometimes falls into unreliable narration. However, this is not a disadvantage for the text. Rather, it serves as character development. Gouri, one of the elderly women, is slowly losing her memory, and her forgetfulness as a narrator is all too familiar for those who have seen a grandparent fall into the same patterns. Nomi’s understanding of what happened to her as a child is peppered with holes, mainly due to her young age at the time of her trauma, as well as the purposeful repression of disturbing memories.

“Sleeping of Jupiter” is first and foremost a book about women. Though Badal’s story is interesting at times, it is far less emotionally affecting than Nomi’s, and not as entertaining as the relationship between the older women. Female friendship between three-dimensional characters, a criminally overlooked theme in literature, takes up a substantial chunk of this novel, tricking the reader into thinking they too are on holiday in Jarmuli.

“Sleeping on Jupiter” is not a happy book. It does not answer questions about the fates of the characters, or the reasons why certain actions are taken. But that’s okay. The novel is a peek into five days in the lives of a few truly unordinary people. Much of what we learn about the characters is accumulated in pieces, through dialogue, reminiscing, and in the case of Nomi, occasional flashbacks. As readers, Roy wants us to know we are not entitled to the knowledge of what happens after the five days are over. If anything, we should be happy we were even given such an intimate look in the first place. Brilliant choices like these are what gives “Sleeping on Jupiter” so much weight — speculating what happens to the characters is enough to keep a person up at night.