Having been born, and brought up in India, I grew up reading news about many a recurring theme — gender-based violence, sexual abuse, and exploitation of the young, and innocent by religious gurus. I have heard my parents talk about it when I was child. I read about it when I was a teenager. I am now in my late twenties, and the problems are still pertinent. Anuradha Roy’s haunting Sleeping On Jupiter — longlisted for The Man Booker Prize 2015 — explores these themes, and poses some important questions about religion, and humanity.
Nomita Frederikson loses her family in a ‘war’, when she is seven-years-old. She is then ‘adopted’ by a religious guru, along with 11 other girls, and they are abused by the guru himself at the ashram. Nomita, now 25-years-old, visits Jarmuli (India), where she was brutally abused, and confined.
Three old women — Latika, Vidya, and Gouri — burdened by their domestic lives, and insensitive children, visit Jarmuli too; it’s almost their last vacation. The women, Nomita, and her colleague Suraj (a photographer) are helped by a tourist guide Badal, who is lovelorn, and gay. As Nomita revisits her past, as the women enjoy their last trip with a reckless abandon, as Suraj meets his demons, as Badal makes peace with his failed romance, the story unfolds in a painful, unsettling fashion.
The infamous ironies of India are the spine of Sleeping On Jupiter. A popular spiritual guru, who is revered by disciples across the globe, is a pedophile in his room. If a woman has to enter a temple — remember its walls are replete with sculptures of nude men and women in myriad sexual positions — has to be covered till her ankles, has to wear loose clothes. But, the priest himself can be bare-chested. Nobody would complain about that. Parents, who agonise about instilling values in their offspring, who wouldn’t let their children choose their partners, make a trip to those temples with their children, and let random guides explain the significance of eroticism in religion, as he ogles the women, and girl children in the families.
I might have discussed these paradoxes a million times. But the discussion will never leave me exhausted. Because, when I visited the richest temple in India last time, I was asked to wear a dupatta, as I was told that I didn’t look modest enough to enter the temple. I was clad in a kurta, and leggings. However, I had to borrow my friend’s towel to cover my chest, to get a fleeting glance of the idol. I was mad at myself for succumbing to the pressure. It’s been a couple of years since I went to that temple, but the memory still makes me feel awkward.
In Sleeping On Jupiter, besides the pivotal characters, the sea itself plays an outstanding part in it. As each character spends so much time on the shore, I can feel the sea zephyr on my face, the scorching sun on my skin, the salt on my lips, and I can hear the magnificent hum of the ocean. Roy’s writing has got a heart.
Roy presents an India that I have always known — the one that is home to gods, demons, and the people who voluntarily lose themselves in the abyss in-between and many who are pushed into it. Her story belongs to everybody who dreams of an India that can annihilate the infamous ironies.