A young girl arrives in a seaside town in India to look for a few people from her past. Jharmuli is also a pilgrimage site, and so its temples and sea beaches are filled with tourists and their guides, pilgrims and their protocols, photographers and their mood swings. It is also the place where the young girl, Nomi, who now lives in Norway, was sexually exploited along with many others in an ashram run by a godman. Playing hopscotch with narrative energy and moving with pointed fingers like one does in a whodunit, Sleeping on Jupiter is that nearly utopian beast – a literary page-turner.
There is something oddly pleasing and anxiety-inducing about the lost-and-found rhythm, the same dry-throat-biting-nails routine that marks midnight thriller watching on television. Lost-and-found is the closest echo of birth and death, and perhaps because of this connection with the primordial, its subterranean presence in a narrative makes us hold our spines erect as we move through the novel, propelled by the greed for more knowledge: Who is Nomi? Why is she in Jarmuli? Does she find the poetic justice that she is looking for here? Or even Piku, her childhood companion in the ashram? What connection does the tea seller Johnny Tepo have to her past life? And if you are also looking to learn from the author’s superb control of structure, there are things you want to put your nose into – why, oh, why did she have to bring in three aged women into this narrative?
If you let it live inside your gut for too long, revenge becomes the lost-and-I-must-find rocking horse in your life. This is how Nomi’s life story would play out in the hands of an ordinary writer, but Anuradha Roy, whose first novel gave us a rough idea of the territory this talent could cover, takes a newspaper headline and turns it into theatre, of the best kind there is.
Why do I call it a newspaper headline? Here is Roy in her “Acknowledgments”: “There are countless horrific cases of child abuse and sexual violence in India. I have drawn on the legal and investigative history of many such incidents ...” Violence being the LSD of our times, “human interest” stories on the subject play out on evening television every day – on high-pitched news capsules, on programmes like Crime Patrol where justice by Indian law arrives as the moral at the end of every episode. But Roy will have none of this. Her Nomi must return to Jharmuli because she is a detective of her own past.
Losing… and finding
The novel begins with the death of Nomi’s biological family and her consequent transportation to the Guru’s ashram. That is the first “lost” trope, so to say. And then it continues, Roy scattering losses in the story of her “first” life like Hansel and Gretel – this is to be the reward, both Nomi’s and the reader’s, “finding” these “losts”. Her biological mother, her brother, her childhood companion Piku, even her childhood – all marked with the “LOST” rubberstamp. And that is not all. When Nomi arrives in India from Norway, to collect what has been lost as it were, she gets lost herself – the train abandons her on a platform after she gets down to buy some food for a poor man.
“Loser” is now a psycho-capitalist term, used for people who have not been able to bait worldly success. But it could also be used for those who lose people and things. In that particular sense, every single character in Roy’s novel has lost something: Nomi, her parents and childhood; Suraj, the photographer accompanying her on this filming assignment to Jharmuli, has only recently lost his wife to his best friend; Badal, the guide, loses his scooter, a lover, and almost his sanity; Johnny Tepo, the chaiwala on the beach, singing songs from a previous life, has happily lost his life as Jugnu in the ashram; of the three women travelling from Calcutta on a holiday away from their family, one lost her husband to a secretary once, another a Konkani lover, and the third, a victim of dementia, her memory.
“Don’t you feel like disappearing from your life sometimes?” Nomi asks Suraj, the photographer and her travelling companion on this trip, and because everything – or at least something – must return in the scheme of things, these words come back to him towards the end of the novel. Everyone is losing something or the other: Gouri, the aged woman who has already lost some of her memory to dementia, loses her earrings only to find it later, this before she herself gets lost and found and lost and found again and again; Badal, the guide, loses his scooter only to find it later; a character builds a boat for his dead father every year, writes a note, and pushes it into the sea; one aged woman holds her friend’s hand in the crowd and tells her, “Don’t rush off into the crowd, I’ll lose you”; Johnny Tepo, now a tea seller on the beach, says, “I never sang before, not until I left everything and came here”; “I was a parcel being sent from one country to another,” young Nomi says about her move from Jharmuli to Norway, the metaphor of the parcel holding in it the breath of the lost-and-found morality; rituals are lost and replaced, but not the erotica of the Hindu temples which now seem lost forever; “Get lost,” says a young boy to his hopeful lover while his employer tells a customer “I have ... nothing to lose”.
One of the saddest losses is when Gouri, the woman suffering from dementia, loses a few lines from a poem. Anuradha Roy tells us later that those lines are from Jibanananda Das’s poem, Bonolata Sen. In the same list of acknowledgements, she mentions the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
There is something that binds these texts with Roy’s novel: Das’s famous poem is about a lover’s search for the lost Bonolata Sen; Rama loses his wife only to find her later; and everyone in the Mahabharata loses something, even if what the Kauravas lose is not what the Pandavas find. And that is why Anuradha Roy places her novel by the sea, that ultimate metaphor for lost and found: “It’s the sea. The sound of it. It brought back so many old things I had forgotten,” says one character; and this is Nomi: “At every sea, she would sit down like this and wait for it to tell her something, she didn’t know what, but she’d know it when it came”.
If you’ve ever lost something, you must read this novel.
If you’ve ever found something you lost, you must read this novel too.