On the second page of highly acclaimed Indian novelist Anuradha Roy’s Sleeping on Jupiter, a 7-year-old child witnesses the murder of her father by axe-wielding masked men who have invaded their home. Like much of Roy’s writing, it’s a scene described in visceral detail: the smell of a ripe grapefruit fresh from their garden is contrasted with the sight of the whitewashed wall inside their hut “streamed red” with the father’s blood, and the echoes of his haunting screams as he’s beaten then butchered like an animal. “When the pigs were slaughtered for their meat they shrieked with a sound that made my teeth fall off and this was the sound I heard,” the daughter recalls.It’s a brutal and jarring beginning, but in the context of the novel – which takes place over five days in the coastal temple town of Jarmuli in contemporary India – it’s the next chapter, less savage but no less disturbing, that unsettles the most.
A young woman, all braided hair, tattoos and piercings, boards a train to Jarmuli. Her skin is the same colour as that of those around her, and she speaks a “halting” Hindi, but her passport bears a Nordic name, Nomita Frederiksen; she’s both Indian and not Indian, something of an enigma to her fellow passengers. She disembarks at a station en route, to buy some bread and tea from a stand on the platform, but within minutes, the three old women sharing her compartment see the girl running for her life after being aggressively accosted by two men. The horror of this apparently unprovoked violence combines with the staging of the panorama – physically separated from the attack by the window, the women’s helpless anguish is palpable – to create something genuinely shocking.
The train continues on its way, Nomita’s fate unknown to her motherly travelling companions, “their holiday high spirits snuffed out by the absence of a girl they knew not at all”; until, that is, they encounter her a few days later in Jarmuli. So begins Roy’s graceful interweaving of a cast of characters thrown together by circumstances in a town where, although it’s populated ostensibly by priests and pilgrims and known as a spiritual sanctuary, evil and brutality appear to trump goodness and innocence at every turn.
The devout travel to Jarmuli to pay homage at the temples for which the town is famous, but Nomita’s pilgrimage, we slowly learn, is an attempt to confront the traumas of her past. Six years of her childhood were spent living here in an ashram under the protective wing of a guru publicly lauded the world over but, when the outside world wasn’t watching, who inflicted emotional, physical and sexual abuse on her and the other children in his care. This story is told in flashbacks, the true barbarity of his crimes gradually revealed until the final picture that emerges is one so inhumane it’s hard to bear.
One of the town’s temples depicts carvings of lovers coupled in a variety of embraces. “In ancient India no barrier between life and love. Erotic is creation itself, so it is celebrated in our temples,” a guide explains to a group of tourists. “Nothing wrong. Please understand.” But juxtaposed with this history of pleasure is the thick vein of sexual violence that runs through the novel.
There’s been a recent call to action against sexual assault in India as rape cases have begun to make international headlines rather than just being accepted as part of everyday female experience in the country. In focusing on this perpetration of violence against women and children, Roy’s book is both incredibly timely and extremely brave.
This book is available on Amazon.
Lucy Scholes is a freelance journalist who lives in London.