Jarmuli radiated outward to Asia, the world, the solar system, the universe – it was every child’s incantation in school, and even now, when he wanted to be out of the reach of his aunt and uncle, he dreamed of living on Jupiter and sleeping under its many moons. When his teacher had told their class it had sixteen moons he had wanted to ask her if this meant that there was a full moon on Jupiter every night. Or were there crescent moons and half moons and round moons all at once in that other sky?
Sleeping on Jupiter. It’s a rather odd title, perhaps. But if your life has been so harshly effected by those around you, if every day means pain and suffering, Jupiter may be the very place you long to go for respite.
How brave it is, then, for Nomi to back to the place which caused her the most pain in her life. For it is in the ashram run by Guruji that she is told one thing, but lives another.
“You think you have nobody,” his voice said over my head, and I could feel its vibration enter my body. “That is not true. I am your father and your mother now. I am your country. I am your teacher. I am your God.” He said it like a chant, as if they were words often repeated, and always the same…”I have prayed for you. Whenever you are frightened, think of my face. I will keep you safe. You have come to my ashram now.”
How can a young girl, whose father was brutally murdered in the family’s hut, whose mother and brother have disappeared in their attempt at escape, not believe these words of hope? How can she know that they are lies? She is hopeful, at first, until the actions of the Guruji prove who he really is.
Interwoven with her story are those of several others. There are the three old friends, Vidya, Latika and Gouri, who meet Nomi on the train from Calcutta to Jarmuli. They are bewildered by her hair wrapped in beads, multi-colored thread, and braids. They cannot imagine how such a person looks this way, especially as they struggle with the day to day lives of their own which are so different from hers.
And there is Johnny Toppo, an old man who runs the tea stall by the beach in Jarmuli, offering customers tea with ginger and cloves, tea with lemon, tea with milk and sugar, and if they wish, sweet or savory biscuits. (The care with which he takes to make his tea caused me to long for a cup so badly that I had to go to our local Deccan Spice for a cup of my own.) But his name has not always been Johnny Toppo, and he has not always operated a little tea stall to serve those who come to the beach.
There is Suraj, son of Vidya, who has unbeknownst to her also come to Jarmuli in order to report on the temple for the television company which employs both him and Nomi. He carves little boats every year, as his father and he would do when he was young, and set them off to go where they may. He can barely contain his temper, or his drink; his emotions threaten to overcome his reason nearly every day.
But, it is Nomi’s life which is the focal point. Nomi’s life which caused me to highlight passages again and again in my kindle. Her courage to face her past, to triumph over the tragedy that her childhood was, is a fascinating story. And while I may say to myself, “This is just one little girl’s story, one little girl who lived in India under the cruelest conditions,” I find that Anuradha Roy has made her heroine’s life one for us to relate to. The elegance and beauty with which she writes takes my breath, and causes me to realize again how rare it is to find a book whose writing, story and relevance are equal in excellence.
This novel surely deserves its place on the Man Booker long list. And as so often happens to me when I read from such a prize list, the first book I read is the one that wins. I would not be surprised, nor disappointed, if Roy took the prize for 2015. My thoughts on it here can not possibly do it justice.
(Sleeping on Jupiter was first published in Great Britain in 2015 by MacLehose Press. It has been long listed for the Man Booker Prize this year. My thanks to Quercus Books for a review copy of this book.)