Writers & Company

Anuradha Roy's elegant, provocative fiction explores power in modern India

In 2017, Eleanor Wachtel spoke with the Indian author about her novel Sleeping on Jupiter.
Sleeping on Jupiter is Indian author Anuradha Roy's third novel. (F. Mantovani)

This interview originally aired on Nov. 19, 2017.

Indian novelist Anuradha Roy won the 2016 international DSC South Asia Prize — worth $25,000 US — for her book Sleeping on Jupiter. The novel explores friendship, spirituality and violence — against girls and women in particular — through a cast of characters whose lives intersect in a Hindu temple town on the Bay of Bengal. 

Born in Calcutta in 1967, Roy grew up in a Bengali household and lived all over India as a child. Her first novel, 2008's An Atlas of Impossible Longing, was published in more than a dozen languages and was named one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post and the Seattle Times. Her second, 2011's The Folded Earth, is a subtle, intimate story set in a re-imagined version of the Himalayan hilltown Ranikhet, where Roy presently lives.  

Roy and her husband run a small publishing company out of Ranikhet, and Roy, who is also an artist, designs the covers for their press.

Roy spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from Paris.

Her nomadic upbringing

"I grew up partly in the mountains because my father was a field geologist and he was sent on fairly high altitude surveys. He was allowed to bring his family on some of these expeditions, so my brother and I spent half the year in tents with my father. It was my father's job that dictated where we lived. When I was growing up, this kind of moving used to be like a jagged knife that went right through whatever you had constructed for yourself as a life.

I deliberately made the war unspecific and I did not specify the region because I wanted it to be a signal that this is something that can happen anywhere.

"As I grew older, I began to hate it because every time I would make friends and find my own world, it would be time to leave. I believe this is where my sense of perpetually feeling like an outsider comes from."

Writing about sexual abuse 

"The subject is very taboo. Not many people talk about it. I deliberately made the war [at the beginning of Sleeping on Jupiter] unspecific and I did not specify the region because I wanted it to be a signal that this is something that can happen anywhere. 

"The sexual abuse of children is still a topic that is rarely discussed in public discourse. Many of my relatives were horrified that I wrote this and they said, 'Why can't you write on nice things?'"

The rise of religious aggression in India

"When we were growing up, religion was very much a private affair. It was a practice that people did in their daily lives. But now it's become a terrible mix of aggression and a proof of your nationalism.  The level of violence that we see around us in India — of people being lynched, beaten or otherwise put to death for no reason at all other than their identity — is disturbing and dreadful. It's horrific.

The number of people who feel marginalized, left out of the national discourse, left powerless is staggering now."​​​​​​

"The disturbing thing is that most people in the country are aggressively nationalistic now. The number of people who feel marginalized, left out of the national discourse, left powerless is staggering now."

Exploring loss through missing objects

"I know that many of my books — most of my books — are concerned with loss. I think in Sleeping on Jupiter, the little things that are lost really point to a deeper sense of absolute loss that many of the characters are facing. Through the five or six days that they are there in the [Hindu temple] town, their lives go through some kind of transformation. They lose a part of themselves, but they also gain something when they come to the town — maybe just a knowledge of themselves. Objects being lost, keys, people and so on, I think point to much much greater losses. I lost my father when I was 19. It was a terrible sledgehammer. I think it's possible that [my use of loss as a theme] comes from there." 

Anuradha Roy's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the broadcast: Prayer in Passing, composed and performed by Anoushka Shankar. 



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