Sleeping on Jupiter begins with two journeys, both taken by Nomita “Nomi” Frederiksen.
First, as a young village girl in rural India, she is whisked away from her family and robbed of a childhood. Her supposed sanctuary is an ashram run by a charismatic, manipulative, and abusive guru.
Years later, Nomi is an expat documentary filmmaker on a train headed to the religious seaside town of Jarmuli. She shares her compartment with three elderly ladies, old friends on holiday. The women are wary of this strange figure with tattoos and colored braids in her hair. When Nomi gets off at a brief stop, an altercation with a man leaves her seemingly stranded on the platform as the train pulls away.
Anuradha Roy’s novel takes us through the next five days in this remote temple town, as Nomi searches for clues about her existence. She has come back to India, fulfilling a promise to a friend she couldn’t save. The memory of the ashram has not left her. At one point she recollects a brief moment of joy cut short as she and the friend, Piku, tried to pick forbidden fruit from a tree on the grounds.
After the first fruit Nomi felt braver and climbed two more branches. She reached out her hand for another pomegranate inches away. That was when Piku made an odd sound. Nomi looked downward to tell her to shut up and saw that Piku’s skirt had dropped and the first pomegranate lay at her feet. Het mouth was open, her eyes bulging more than usual. Guruji was standing next to her.
He neither frowned nor smiled nor asked a question nor shouted a scolding. He did nothing. But Nomi remembered how he did not take his eyes off her, how she had that familiar sense he could see right into her.
The guru lords over the ashram with all the magnitude of Prospero, complete with spies and a disfigured monster keeping his many young Mirandas in captivity. Nomi’s time with him haunts her even after she is adopted by a foreign foster mother. Their strained relationship serves as one of the many examples of how she doesn’t need guidance from any authority figure. Nomi is her own authority, journeying and surviving alone.
The three old friends on the train—chatty Latika, worrywart Vidya and childlike Gouri—do not look for the same things as Nomi. Rather they seek escape—from the ravages of age and their strained relationships with their families and each other. Also escaping to Jarmuli is Suraj, Nomi’s photographer. In the wake of his crumbled marriage, he looks for another human connection in between bouts of self-destruction. Lastly there is Badal, a local tour guide. He wishes to escape Jarmuli all together, hopefully by the side of a young man, Raghu, whom he secretly longs after. Nomi acts as the thread weaving these characters’ tales together, even as her own story unravels.
Roy has an easy flow with descriptive narrative. Unlike others who write about India, she forgoes flowery detail. You can still feel the atmosphere perfectly. At night the beehive of the town gives way to grand simplicity.
By the time Nomi’s eyelids dropped, all Jarmuli was asleep. At the great temple, the priests and guides and pilgrims had gone. Watchmen sat dozing outside the shrines. The temple idols gazed into oil lamps burning gold and red. Far out at sea, a fishing boat’s solitary lantern bobbed on the dark water. The fish underneath swam in shoals towards its nets, eager to the end.
Another trope the author flips is that of the main character’s identity crisis. In works of other South Asian women like Monica Ali and Kiran Desai, the protagonist struggles with adapting to the cultures of the West. Roy’s heroine instead feels more at home in her nomadic state than the land of her birth, as if she doesn’t need to belong anywhere specifically.
Roy boldly touches on the misogyny faced by all females in the novel. The male gaze is like another guru, ever watching. When Nomi’s appearance is critiqued (again) before she enters a sacred temple, she challenges the unfair rules, pointing out that most of the men are shirtless. Vidya’s friends try to discourage her from purchasing a bottle of vodka, lest she attract attention from men in the liquor store. When Suraj offers to whittle a sandalwood boat for Nomi, she bristles at the suggestion.
“Not a boat. I’m not a boat girl” She seemed to shake herself awake. “I’m a plane girl. I love airports—always bright, noisy, full of people, hot coffee and noodles round the clock. I feel like they should give me room at the airport—you know—like that man in Terminal? I could live like that, easy. When you make a plane, you can name it after me.”
It is refreshing to see Indian women fight back in ways both big and small. South Asian females tend to be categorized as the wife, mother or arm candy even in their own stories. Rape culture often paints women as simpering victims. Collateral damage to further along men’s plotlines. Roy’s women take matters into their own hands. In one chilling scene, Nomi doesn’t allow herself to fall prey again to a man’s lust.
“You don’t scare me,” she said. She was still looking past him as if her eyes were seeing something else. That look made him feel more afraid than he had ever been. He was trapped with a psycho.
“I don’t believe your bullshit,” she said. “I’m through.” She lifted her hands as if holding a gun. She pressed. His hands flew to his eyes but it was too late. He felt something in one of his eyes, was blinded by a fiery pain. He covered it with his palm. The pain shot through the eye into the back of his head. He could smell his anti – mosquito spray. The can in the bathroom. The bitch. His eye streamed tears, he could barely see anything. It felt as if it had burnt away.
Sleeping On Jupiter depicts a complex world beneath the surface of a tourist-trap town. This is an India laid bare and un-romanticized. Roy’s characters are frustrated by poverty, inequality, and religious reverence. Their anger shakes the temple walls, only to be pacified occasionally by the silly songs of the seaside tea-stall owner. The destination for these characters is uncertain, but like the train that brought them, they travel on.