Saturday, May 16, 2015

Colonising The Present

This review of Anuradha Roy's Sleeping on Jupiter appeared in today's Indian Express.

The past is a foreign country, L.P. Hartley famously wrote; they do things differently there. The manner in which the past colonises the present, and the ways in which we attempt to make peace with it can be said to be the subject of all of Anuradha Roy’s fiction so far, including her new novel, the whimsically titled Sleeping on Jupiter.

As with her earlier An Atlas of Impossible Longing and The Folded Earth, this one features a cast of well-outlined characters, with attention paid to fleshing out their particularities and points of view. There is, to begin with, the group of Vidya, Gauri and Latika, friends in their 60s – “three old biddies from Calcutta”, as a hotel manager dismissively calls them – who embark on a five-day trip to Jarmuli, a medieval temple town overlooking the Bay of Bengal. Of this trio, Latika is efficient and gently mocking; Gauri is garrulous and increasingly afflicted by forgetfulness; and Vidya takes pride in being practical and sensible. Among the people they meet in Jarmuli is Badal, a temple guide in his 20s, a graduate from the school of hard knocks whose street-smart manner conceals an essential naivete. The narrative also circles around Suraj, a liaison person for a TV production company, with his thwarted film-making dreams, erratic, violent temper and controlling ways.

Above all else, Sleeping on Jupiter is the story of the young Nomi – the well-travelled Nomita Frederiksen, born in India but adopted by a foster-mother in Oslo, who has returned to Jarmuli in order to shine a more powerful light upon the fragments of her past. Years ago, Nomi had been wrenched from her family and fallen into the clutches of a predatory ashram, witnessing violence and undergoing abuse almost too much for any young person to withstand. She now faces the challenge of putting these shards together in a form that will afford release and allow her to move on, depicted in the novel by means of deft, occasional shifts from first person to third. 

With most such novels written in a realistic mode, there’s a tussle between the needs of the character and those of the plot. How far can such fictional individuals be allowed to exist as entities in their own right, and how much do they have to be manipulated to serve the unfolding narrative? Most of the time, Roy walks this tightrope with ease, but there are wobbles: easy co-incidences and neat encounters, however necessary they may be to deepen the plot, do at times come in the way of the artifice of reality.

All of Roy’s characters have had things taken away from them, sometimes through violence, sometimes through time's passage. In some cases, innocence is what has been waylaid; with others, an intimate relationship has come apart at the seams; with yet others, it’s the coherent memory of the past that has vanished. The novel progresses by means of these people engaging and disengaging with each other, and the after-effect of these meetings and partings yields truths about the world and about themselves that have so far been concealed or ignored.

The experience of reading Sleeping on Jupiter is, for the most part, rich and immersive. Roy’s delineation of Jarmuli is as atmospheric as that of Ranikhet in her earlier The Folded Earth. In this town by the sea, incense mingles with the stench of rotting fish, scorching afternoons give way to mellow twilights, sunlight plays on water that carries ominous currents, cardamom and ginger are crushed into tea leaves at a stall by the beach, and the stairways and interiors of intricately carved temples witness a swarm of people, from visitors to locals, from the devout to the irreligious. This precise evocation of a sense of place, matched by an equally precise portrayal of interior states, all in unhurried, unshowy prose, makes Sleeping on Jupiter both accomplished and affecting.