The last decade has seen more investigation into the prevalence of child sexual abuse in religious institutions than ever before. In 2015, Spotlight took home the Academy Award for Best Picture for its frank documentation of abuse at the hands of Roman Catholic priests in the Boston area of the U.S.A. The same year, Anuradha Roy’s Sleeping on Jupiter was released by Hachette India and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Despite widespread international recognition, Sleeping on Jupiter created barely a ripple in the Indian mainstream conscience, most notably due to its taboo exposé of the chinks in a priest’s armour. The novel reads like a dark lullaby and within 250 odd pages, encompasses triggering themes that demand that we face our dogmatic deification of gurus.
The narrative of Sleeping on Jupiter revolves around the intertwining journeys of Badal, a tour guide struggling to come to terms with his homosexuality and expressing his love for Raghu; Suraj, a graduate cinematographer with drug and temper issues; three elderly women, Latika, Gauri and Vidya, travelling to escape the daily drudgery of household chores; and the protagonist Nomi who is also travelling to Jarmuli, where she grew up, to film a documentary but really to confront the ghosts of her past still tormenting her present.
Through non-linear storytelling, the reader ascertains the psychological arc that Nomi’s childhood trauma has precipitated into, namely in the form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). For Nomita Frederickson, Jarmuli symbolises a childhood filled with harrowing experiences that she is grappling with, decades later. Here, she was forcefully brought as an “illegal boat girl”, a refugee during the violent climax of the Bengal Partition, put in a predatory ashram, her body cruelly exploited by Guruji (the spiritual leader of the ashram), and from where, she escaped first by running away to a girls’ home and then by getting adopted by a Norwegian couple. In Sleeping on Jupiter, Jarmuli connotes a prison from which she managed to break free – a place where she lost a significant part of herself that she is wrenching to get back. Her return to town warrants painful confrontation with her abuser, even if it is hallucinatory; this return denotes the first step in her healing process. Nomi likens the onslaught of “memories oozing from the crevices of your brain” to “fungus that takes birth in warm and wet places” (p. 37) as she initiates this rehabilitation. The stylistic choice of narrative in Sleeping on Jupiter, which oscillates between Nomi’s past and present, reveals that Nomi’s mind is still tethered to the events of her childhood. By consciously returning to Jarmuli which is the epicentre of her pain, Nomi fights to untie herself.
Jarmuli, though a fictional town in Roy’s Sleeping in Jupiter, is not unlike real temple-towns that exist in India where occasional news breaks of the illicit goings-on between gurus and their disciples. The charges of rape and abuse of minors levied against Asaram Bapu, a self-styled godman in India who runs over four hundred ashrams in the country and abroad, were furiously debated by the media and Hindutva organisations, even as young girls stepped forward and testified against him. The legal proceedings which began in 2013 culminated in the sentencing of Asaram to life-imprisonment in Jodhpur in 2018; this saw fierce objection from Vishva Hindu Parishad and members of Bharatiya Janata Party who saw the vilification of a god-like person (in their eyes) as an affront against the divine itself. Increasingly, yoga retreats are being slated for sexual misconduct by gurus who are justifying their sacrilegious actions to visitors as the will of God.
Similarly in Roy’s Sleeping on Jupiter, the guruji at Nomi’s ashram is seen as a figure of god and this perception persists throughout the atrocities committed within the holy space. “She remembered he had looked and sounded as she used to think God must look and sound.” (p. 81) An ashram is supposed to be a retreat where people go to seek spiritual peace; it is associated with divinity and sanctity. This image is deconstructed by Roy in Sleeping on Jupiter to paint a picture where heinous crimes are committed. Within the iron gates that hold the girls in, contradictory events take place to those of the kind that people reckon. The institution, rather than cleansing oneself of past deeds, contributes to a cycle of pain for young girls and boys.
Sleeping on Jupiter brings to the fore the malaise of violence against women and children in our country. Through the exploitation of a refugee girl — an outcast with the lowest rank in society, by guruji — a powerful man resembling god, the hierarchy of power is elucidated to comment on the systemic violence that becomes the woman’s share. Violence is ubiquitous in Nomi’s life as her clearest memory of her parents is of them being murdered due to sectarian violence, a haunting memory as she recalls, “in my sleep I hear the sound of pigs at slaughter, the sound my father made.” (p. 10) On the way to the ashram, Nomi’s ears are forcefully pierced by an old lady in the van. This non-consensual gesture foreshadows the impending violations in Nomi’s life. The nature of violence becomes sexual as she comes into the guruji’s fold; her world conflates as he becomes her guardian and her abuser. The nightmares, previously relegated to night-time, follow her every waking moment. Physical violence manifests in small, everyday ways in the life of the young girl. Even as an adult, she is unable to escape the pattern as, a fight with Suraj, the man she starts seeing in Jarmuli during her return, mistreats her and slaps her. The recurrent nature of gender-based violence is captured in the narrator’s defeated remark — “Again that terrible pinprick, then a burning pain.” (p. 13)
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Playing with the concepts of entrapment, escapism and freedom, the title of Roy’s novel enunciates the difference in the way gravity functions on Jupiter and its moons. The force of gravity on Jupiter is more than double of that on Earth, meaning that the gravitational pull is stronger towards the planet’s core. Jupiter being the gas giant that it is, there is also no surface to speak of, meaning one would simply sink inwards. This enthrallment with celestial bodies for Anuradha Roy signifies a dualism in Sleeping on Jupiter – Nomi’s inertia in the face of her trauma, characterised by her ‘sleeping’ state, is her succumbing to her demons and freefalling to her inner depths. However, Nomi has the choice of waking up from her slumber and confronting the demons head-on, because on Jupiter, your leaps are as high as your falls.
Sheelalipi (she/her) is a student of modernism and a purveyor of the feminist principle. She is currently a PhD scholar at the University of Edinburgh. You can find her on Instagram.