In Sleeping on Jupiter (2015, Hachette India) Anuradha Roy creates a tale of convergences. An Indian girl, Nomi, is orphaned when her parents are slaughtered in war. She is given refuge in an ashram, where she is sexually abused by the guru, after which she is adopted by a European woman and raised in Scandanavia. As a young woman she returns to India, to Jarmuli, the seaside town where the Ashram was located. Three older women, good friends, go on a long-planned trip to the same seaside town - a well-earned but final fun weekend, as one of them is becoming infirm. They make a pilgrimage to Jarmuli's famous temple. At the same time, one of the older women's sons has also made his way to Jarmuli for work, following the break-up of his marriage. And a young man tries to earn enough money to escape from under the abusive thumb of his uncle by working as a temple guide. These characters come to Jarmuli, some from darkness in their past, some with present woes. Their meeting is meant to have a redemptive ring to it, but Roy's beautiful lyrical prose doesn't seem to raise the convergence above coincidence.
I found the writing uneven. Roy's strong suit was creating characters in fascinating states of mind. Gouri, one of the older women is in the early stages of dementia. Roy's evocative prose could at times allow the disease state to double as a dream-like, religious serenity, but at others, pedantic explanations made it mundane.
How had she confused her hotel room with her home in Calcutta? And if she could not remember which city she was in, could she ever be left alone? What future was in store for her now.Roy was at her best evoking sensual details of person and place:
...she noticed a man selling tea and the musky smell of rain-wet earth in tea served in clay cups came back to her. She could not remember when she had last had tea smelling of rain. She told herself she would get at least three cups right away to make up.The various storylines intersect at the tea stall of a man called Johnny Toppo, who may or may not have once been at the same ashram as Nomi. Although the other characters are burdened by some aspect of their lives, Johnny embodies a lightness of being.
"I sell tea, I was born ten years after the great earthquake in Bihar, I live in a tarpaulin shack, I have nobody, nothing to worry about, nothing to lose. I'm happy I' above the water and below the sky and I've got beeris to smoke and a half-bottle to drink. I know from the songs in my head that I used to have another life long ago. That's all there is to say about me Babu."This novel contains the ingredients of redemptive tale about relationships - the coming together of people in pairs where power can mean protection or violence, where physical contact can be love or abuse, but in the end, Roy again decides to spell it out.
"Look! On the other side of the creek. How strange, in the water..." Vidya pointed at them.
"Is that man trying to kill him or save him?"
"I think the tall one is pushing the shorter one into the water."
"No," said Latika, "I think the tall one is saving the other one from drowning. I can't see that well in the dark..."
Toppo, the tea seller, is the one character in the book for whom Roy conveys the embodiment of the spiritual freedom that is meant, I think, to be the paradoxical redemption in the story, but tellingly he is alone.