A tranquil beach town named Jarmuli is the setting of Anuradha Roy’s third novel, Sleeping on Jupiter, which won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and made the longlist for the 2015 Man Booker Prize. Four older women travel as friends in search of a bucolic vacation, and a young woman, contending with the trauma of her past, finds her stay in Jarmuli tied with theirs. Roy braids the narrative threads of these and other characters together to create a butterfly stitch that examines personal trauma, a national epidemic of violence, and the ways in which power is used to injure. The prose is deft and powerful, the resort town beautifully rendered, the turmoil bubbling underneath terrifyingly realized.
Roy and I corresponded over email to discuss the book, the nature of violence, and the craft of storytelling.
The Rumpus: Could you talk about your choice of structure for the book? The superficial serenity of Jarmuli bookends the oppression depicted in Nomi’s recollections both of the ashram and of Norway. Each of those threads could be their own capacious story. Why bring them together in the fashion you did?
Anuradha Roy: It is Nomi who connects each of these places; these are threads from her life, and they contain other people, too. The different people and places had to overlap and yet remain distinct—they are like planets of different orbits who come close and then drift away again. I fretted over the structure a lot. It took a lot of doing and involved a great deal of misdirection because of the multiple stories and shifts in time and place.
Rumpus: Among Latika, Gouri, and Vidya, deep affection is braided with judgment and occasional resentment. And traveling with friends always impacts a friendship. I was wondering if you could speak to that and whether there were any real-life analogs you drew upon.
Roy: Friendship is such a complex, endlessly evolving thing. I’ve been fascinated by its pulls and tugs for a while. The Folded Earth, my second book, had at its center a friendship between a scholarly old eccentric and his tenant, a young woman trying to find her feet after a bereavement. In Sleeping on Jupiter, there are several friendships, not only the one between the three older women but also those that Nomi has as a child at the ashram she is trapped in. It’s the many contradictory emotions in friendships that make them so interesting and along with friendship, there is its other side, betrayal and failure, which some of the characters in the book face as well.
Rumpus: There is a very beautiful scene where a kite’s flight prompts Gouri to begin murmuring a hymn. The moment ends suddenly, and she’s brought back to earth, as it were, to the deterioration of her body and the cramps and aches that attend that process, but also to the deterioration of her mind. Gouri’s physical aging seems to be the most mentioned out of the group, yet she seems the most spiritual. Is one an impetus towards the other? The spirit’s willingness a result of the flesh’s weakness?
Roy: No, that is not how I meant to write it, though it’s an interesting way of looking at it—a rough parallel would be the way sharper hearing is meant to compensate for bad eyesight and so on. But I do not see the spiritual impulse as something that exists because a weakness in another area. In the novel, Gouri has always been religious, even when she was young. Her practice of religion is a personal thing with no connection with religious extremism or ostentation, nor is it a result of her physical frailty; it is just a part of her personality.
Rumpus: On the issue of saintliness, Badal has aspirations towards holiness or the reverence that Guruji has usurped his way into. For the men in the novel, these aspirations towards sainthood feel very much poisoned. There’s something selfish about them, whereas Gouri’s devoutness seems almost effortless, definitely without guile.
Roy: One of the themes of the book is the different ways in which religion impacts different lives. Guruji is not spiritual at all, of course—he is merely using religion as a means to his ends. To Badal, on the other hand, religion has been an intense, meaningful thing, what anchors him and gives him sustenance. His quandary is completely different from anything to do with the Guru; he is faced with two passions that seem equally pure to him, one for a human and one for God, and the two contradict each other.
Rumpus: I guess it would be cheating to ask if the albino monk is Guruji or a sort of spirit-second, especially given the haunting eeriness I felt comparing the monk’s interaction with Raghu to Guruji’s and the girls of the ashram. But the strangeness of Guruji’s appearance is made apparent very early on. Clean, smooth face. Glossy black hair in place of locks. In fact, one of the women who keeps the girls in line is described as “golden-haired.” Is this ashram meant to be unique? A stand-in for all ashrams where these horrible abuses happen? Or something in between?
Roy: What is important is that this particular ashram is a place where the diktat of one powerful person prevails and his power comes from religion. Religion elevates him above the law and above scrutiny. It allows him the freedom to oppress the powerless. This is not a situation unique to ashrams, we know it to have been the case in all kinds of religious institutions.
Rumpus: Most of the violence in the book—the vast majority in fact—is committed by men against women. From the initial assault at the train station to what ultimately transpires between Suraj and Nomi. When one of the fighters storms the refuge housing Nomi and the women caring for her, he says “This is for your own good, this is for our motherland, this is for our mother tongue.” Among the first things that Guruji says to Nomi is “I am your country.” What did you have in mind regarding the impulse of men to tie their acts of violence up into some sort of patriotic duty?
Roy: I did not mean to portray violence against women as patriotic duty, no. The first instance you mention refers to a civil war, where everyone is being targeted, even men (Nomi’s father is killed, we know). In the second it is the Guru trying to brainwash little girls who have lost their country. Most of the violence is against women, and this reflects the reality we live in, but there is violence of different kinds in the book, including against animals. The level of daily routine violence in India is horrific and extremely disturbing.
Rumpus: Why stop where you did with this story? I found it personally satisfying, but I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say it might frustrate some readers.
Roy: You have to write to please yourself and I ended the book the way I wanted to. I know that endings are usually unsatisfying for one reader or another, whatever the author does. When reading crime thrillers, I want every last question answered, every bit of the puzzle solved too. But Sleeping on Jupiter is less about plot and incident than about inner transformations, and I needed to leave some areas in the shadows and some things unsaid.
Rumpus: This is your third novel, but also the third to have in its title a word of cosmological or cartographic significance. We have An Atlas of Impossible Longing, The Folded Earth, and now Sleeping on Jupiter. Do these novels form a trilogy of sorts?
Roy: They share certain themes but no, they are not meant to form a trilogy.
Rumpus: Do you feel while writing or after having written that you are in dialogue with other literature from the subcontinent? Operating within a tradition or in revenge against it?
Roy: All that we have read over our lives forms the soil in which our own writing grows. Maybe everyone writing is in dialogue with other writers, not only from their own countries but from any country or any era. Many kinds of literature and culture have gone into my head, from Bob Dylan to George Eliot to the Mahabharata, so I don’t think of myself as consciously operating within any tradition or against it, I am not even sure what tradition is for someone like me who reads and thinks in two or three languages.
Rumpus: I can’t quite put my finger on why, but I got the same feeling, reading this, as I get from reading short stories. Like those of Ray Carver or Alice Munro, where the accumulation of small details leads to these massive internal revolutions in characters.
Roy: Yes, I love those stories, and I think it needs a lot more nerve and conviction to write a slow, calm narrative than one where something keeps happening. If you read something like Per Pettersen’s Out Stealing Horses for example, or any of Alice Munro’s stories or Kawabata’s Sound of the Mountain: an infinity of seemingly small things happen or don’t happen and in the end you are left with the sense of having read something memorable and meaningful. They are beautifully paced, profound, and interesting on every page without any apparent effort to seduce. I would love to write something of that kind. In Sleeping on Jupiter I wanted to preserve the elusiveness and concentrated power of the short story in a novel.
Author photograph © Sheela Roy.