Anuradha Roy: Not all Indian women are oppressed and suffering, don’t homogenise us

Indian author Anuradha Roy will be launching her book Sleeping on Jupiter at Asia House on Tuesday. 28 April. She will be in conversation with Claire Armitstead

Indian author Anuradha Roy will be launching her book 'Sleeping on Jupiter' at Asia House on Tuesday. 28 April. She will be in conversation with Claire Armitstead

Anuradha Roy: Not all Indian women are oppressed and suffering, don’t homogenise us

25 April 2015

By Jemimah Steinfeld

Already creating hype ahead of its release, award-winning Indian author Anuradha Roy launches her new book Sleeping on Jupiter at Asia House this Tuesday, 28 April as one of our pre-Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival events. This timely look at life for women and children in India today takes place in the fictional Indian town of Jarmuli, a city of temples and healing on the edge of the ocean. Sleeping on Jupiter traces the life of Nomi, who revisits Jarmuli 20 years after she left. Once back she finds a city both alien and familiar, as well as haunted by the ghosts of her past.

The book launch features a Q&A between Roy and books editor for the Guardian and Observer Claire Armitstead from 18.30 to 20.00.

Here our Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival Manager Jemimah Steinfeld interviews Roy ahead of the launch.

Where did the idea behind Sleeping on Jupiter come from?

It started as a long short story and then I became interested in following the incidental characters in the story, particularly a girl on a beach and an elderly tea-seller. As the book progressed, I realised that their narratives were the heart of the book.

Are the characters based on anyone you know either directly or indirectly?

When I start thinking about a character, it helps to have a real life person in my head, if only to get a sense of their physicality, mannerisms, and so on. It could be someone quite random, glimpsed on a train. The process of writing is one of coming closer and closer to the characters, of unpeeling them layer by layer until you know them — and even then not completely. By the end, the characters in my book often have nothing in common with their sketches or with anyone real.

 How did you do your research, for all your three books to date (the other two being An Atlas of Impossible Longing (2008) and The Folded Earth (2011)) and for Sleeping on Jupiter in particular?

If I deal with the research before I’ve written a solid chunk of a novel, the book’s dead on arrival. I start with an idea or character and after lots of thinking and daydreaming a time comes when I need to write very quickly while the going is good; it is as if the electrical charge of the book has to be trapped into it before I lose it by plodding through information.

As the writing moves ahead and I know where it is going, I do the background work. It’s what anyone who writes has to do: travel, read, ask questions, make notes. I dislike novels in which the research stands there proclaiming its presence: ‘Here I am, Look at Me. ‘The kind of novel I like is one that makes me forget the author or the work that’s gone into the book, it feels like a lived experience and creates a world I can inhabit completely.

There’s a lot in the book about the plight of women in India. Can you tell us a bit more about that and about your experience as a woman in India.

I would not call it ‘plight’ — not in relation to the women in the novel. The three old women are squeezing out every drop of pleasure they can from their first — and probably last — holiday together. The young woman is tough, flirtatious, spunky. I think their attitude mirrors that of many women in India. They face so much oppression, control, even violence, and yet seem to hold on to a sense of fun, ambition, and adventure. It needs as much strategy and manoeuvring at times as a real battle, but they do it. We all do it.

To what extent do we in the UK misunderstand the situation of Indian women, if we do?

There is probably a tendency to homogenise all Indian women as suffering. As everywhere, and especially in a country as enormous and varied as this one, the situation is very different for different people and in different places.

There’s also the theme of the abuse of children running through the book. We’ve seen this story a bit, for example in Slumdog Millionaire, but haven’t totally engaged with it. Please tell us a bit more about this.

There are difficulties and oppressions of many kinds in India because of poverty and inequality. And children, especially children who are poor or homeless, are the most powerless. Their exploitation is so commonplace and institutionalised that it has come to be seen as just normal, and so massive that it feels beyond alteration. It’s disturbing how brutality towards the powerless — the poor, children, women, animals — no longer seems to bother the majority of Indians. There is more and more acceptance of inequality, powerlessness, and brutality as simply part of what is routine across the country.

You’ve been a journalist as well. How does fictional writing compare to that as a medium to tell stories that are important and reflect real life?

Brilliantly done journalism can be the most powerful thing, especially as it draws so much automatic energy from being ‘real’– if you have something like American author Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, or Indian scholar Partha Chatterjee’s Princely Impostor? The Strange and Universal History of the Kumar of Bhawal – which borrow techniques from fiction to present fact, then you have something riveting, thought-provoking, and informative. Fiction doesn’t come with the automatic charge of the real. It has to create its world and make it convincing and complete. The creation of this imagined world is what interests me though as I’m not interested in providing information. It gives me the freedom I need to follow stories to their centre. An imagined narrative can be more potent and true and meaningful than straight journalism because it is constructed to be that way.

Who have been influences on your writing?

Like everyone else, I read so many things, I am not sure at all what is at work in me when I write. I also tend to be changeable, loving one writer for years, then wondering why I did. There are some all-time beloveds of course. In fact, I think of all the books I’ve read as turning into a sort of rich compost inside me from which unexpected weeds and flowers spring up.

If you could sum up Modern India in three words, what would they be? 

I couldn’t!

Click here to book your tickets to Anuradha Roy’s launch of  ‘Sleeping on Jupiter’ at Asia House on Tuesday, 28 April at 18.30.