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The Times Literary Supplement, October 30, 2015

The Train to Jarmuli

Kate Webb

"Roy does not adjudicate between these positions. She holds her story in a fine balance, scrupulously turning from one perspective to another in order to show the often yawning gap between how we imagine ourselves and how others see us... Roy writes in a lucid, realist manner, contrasting her restraint with the violence of her subject (the colour red is everywhere, page after page has images of blood). But this not a conventional novel, because it is to freighted with ambiguity and impotence."

The theme of child abuse is becoming ever more prevalent in fiction. In the recently Man Booker-shortlisted A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara explores the subject as the ultimate experience of pain, and therefore the ultimate marker of uniqueness, among a group of contemporary New Yorkers much preoccupied with their individualism. In Sleeping on Jupiter, Anuradha Roy frames her story of a young girl’s abuse as part of a broader malaise in India, describing a town caught between ancient superstitions (“The die for God is what we live for”) and an economy built on selling the past, trapping its workers in a nightmare of regression an frustration. Both novels have religious men as their principal villains, but in Sleeping on Jupiter the ashram where the abuse takes place is not isolated or unusual, and Nomi, the child at the heart of the story, is not unique, being just one of twelve refugee girls who are abducted and cruelly maltreated. Lying on the outskirts of Jarmuli, a (fictional) coastal town of medieval temples, the ashram is part of a tourist industry and, it is implied more broadly, of a society “transfixed” by powerful gods and godlike humans.

Complicating this scenario are the attitudes of Western visitors who respond to the temples’ erotic carvings in ways that humiliate the people working in them, pushing them into defensiveness. “Is that a child?” one woman asks, “accusingly”. “Not a child, Madam”, the guide responds, “Not in Indian culture”. Native visitors, on the other had, simply ignore the mix of religion and sex in these images, refusing to entertain what they might once have signified, or how their legacy could live on in the present. Roy does not adjudicate between these positions. She holds her story in a fine balance, scrupulously turning from one perspective to another in order to show the often yawning gap between how we imagine ourselves and how others see us.

This is not to say Roy is not partisan. She pointedly gives the authority of a first-person testimony to Nomi, while the rest of her third-person narrative focuses on others in India’s excluded majority—the many outliers who feel shadowy figures of power at their backs (there is a particularly sinister monk skirting the edges of the story), but whom they rarely catch sight of, much less are able to confront. Nomi has returned to India with a vague idea of doing just this, having persuaded the Norwegian film company she works for that the town would make a scenic location. On the train to Jarmuli she encounters Gouri, Latika and Vidya, three elderly women—supporting and snapping at one another as old friends do—holidaying before dementia and aching bones confine them at home. Then there are the town’s workers: Badal, the women’s  tour guide; Raghu, the boy he lusts after who is an assistant at Johnny Toppo’s tea stand on the beach; and Suraj, employed to help Nomi with reconnaissance work.

Roy writes in a lucid, realist manner, contrasting her restraint with the violence of her subject (the colour red is everywhere, page after page has images of blood). But this not a conventional novel, because it is too freighted with ambiguity and impotence. The beach where Toppo serves his sizzling ginger tea suffers a Ballardian entropy. It is a liminal place suggesting something beyond—the possibility of a different life and, with this, fantasies of escape, of dropping off the edge of the world or flying it Jupiter. Many of Roy’s characters, trapped by poverty or tradition, experience some kind of vertigo: the women find the ground beneath their feet falling away, while Suraj starts to drown, dropping down through the sea.

If the physical world lacks solidity and seems constantly liable to give way, incapable of supporting the people who roam it, the language available to them is equally treacherous and difficult to navigate. It is not just that Nomi remembers all the things from her childhood “that we could not talk about”, and into adulthood remains unable to discuss what happened to her; nor that Latika reflexively puts her hands over her mouth to stop words that might cause disapproval, nor even that Badal, Suraj and Toppo are all forced by their work to fawn and perform, but a more general sense that language is unauthentic, a system of deceit produced by a  patriarchal and colonial past that leaves its speakers adrift.

The inheritance of this unexamined history, of being forbidden to talk, is that men like Badal and Suraj are unequipped to understand their sexual feelings, forcing themselves on unwilling partners with disastrous consequences. For Nomi it means a constant wish to disown herself: “Like stepping out of your own life. Like leaving your own story”. In Yanagihara’s novel, an inability to endure the legacy of abuse leads to suicide. Here, too, there is no escape for Nomi other than to abandon her life and return to the “North”, to a silent lake in Norway where she casts off the relics of her Indian past. As in much contemporary fiction gloomy about the possibility of political change, where speech is registered as debased or prohibited, Roy suggests that the only response lies in writing. Nomi recounts how after she escaped from the ashram she wrote down what happened to the kidnapped girls, posting her fragile words in a homemade envelope to a newspaper. It is not clear if she is the source years later of articles about child abuse in Jarmuli, and their publication comes too late to rescue any part of life she abandons, but the story, finally is out.

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