Review: Missing by Sumana Roy
Sumana Roy’s Missing takes on the most pressing issues of our time and is rich in deep observations about our world
The ‘new’ in news can be misleading because a lot of it is cyclical. For instance, take the recent perception poll by the Thomson Reuters Foundation that declared India to be the world’s most dangerous country for women. A similar survey in June 2012, which ranked G20 countries, too, had deemed India to be the worst place to be a woman and was received with similar umbrage. It was later that year that a young woman, who went out to watch a movie at night, was gang raped and tortured in a moving bus, and left for dead on the streets of Delhi.
Five months before the horrible events of December 16, a teenager out to celebrate her birthday in Guwahati was molested by more than 50 men on a busy street for nearly an hour. A TV reporter filmed her ordeal as she begged passing cars for help in vain, and the leering mob dragged her off the road, beating her, groping her breasts, tugging at her clothes and trying to strip her.
It is this appalling incident, long buried in public memory, which sets the course of action in Sumana Roy’s debut work of fiction, Missing.
When the story begins, Kobita – an activist, do-gooder, wife and mother – has left her home in Siliguri for Guwahati to find the girl who, apparently, has gone missing after the assault.
Kobita leaves behind her husband, Nayan, a tea estate owner who is blind, with express instructions to have a new bed made by the time she returns. Her trip, however, coincides with the 2012 outbreak of ethnic violence in Assam, which displaced lakhs of people in the state and led to attacks on people from the northeast in cities as far as Pune, Mumbai and Bangalore.
Missing is set over seven days after Nayan loses all contact with Kobita. She has disappeared on such rescue missions earlier, so Nayan — fearing he’d be chided when she returns — is hesitant to call the cops. Unable to do little else, he decides to stay updated with the world where his wife has vanished by having the daily newspaper read out to him. Their son, Kabir, a research scholar in England, begins a similar exercise online, using social media to look for his missing mother.
Keeping Nayan company while he waits for Kobita are the chatty, parochial carpenter, Bimal-da, his young niece, Tushi, who takes on the role of the news reader, and Bimal-da’s new helper Ahmed, an illegal immigrant from Bangladesh.
Missing is a novel about waiting that beautifully captures the agony and frustration it entails. Most of the narrative plays out inside Nayan’s living room and in the heads of the husband and son as they reflect on their relationship with Kobita. The blind husband, dysfunctional without his wife, looks back at what has largely been a happy marriage. The son begins to wonder if his mother — altruistic to the point of self-harm — has “left her husband and son to live her own life at last?” Each day, patience slowly brews, changing into worry, doubt, irritation, suspicion and fear by turns.
News and how it is budgeted, consumed, controlled, manipulated and repeated is a theme that runs through the book. The waning credibility of the media is an issue that acquires greater urgency in a post-truth world where social media gives everyone the power to share propaganda as information and fake news is causing real damage to India’s social fabric.
Roy’s first book, How I Became a Tree, was an eloquent argument in favour of the plant world and what we — trapped in our hectic modern lifestyles — could learn from trees. Missing, though taking on the most pressing issues of our time, too, has the same stillness in its narration and is rich in deep observations about our world that are distinctive to Roy’s writing. Kabir, for instance, mulls on how a fracture could bring you visitors, but “no one would catch a plane to be with a person who is sad.” Or how:
Everyone is an immigrant first thing in the morning. A new day is a new land. (p. 187)
It is not easy to write about mundane, everyday things and hold the reader’s interest. A less talented writer could have turned this story of ordinary conversations and speculations into a snooze fest, but the simplicity and beauty of Roy’s storytelling is such that the narrative never drags. At its heart is also a mystery – what really happened to Kobita?
Read more: Review: How I Became a Tree by Sumana Roy
Though in a reversal of traditional roles, the woman has left the hearth to play the hero while the husband waits for her, Roy takes pains to draw parallels with the most well known story of a missing wife and the unsolicited speculations it invited. Sita’s story serves as a grim reminder that it has never been a good time to be a woman, irrespective of whether you are a queen or a Goddess. Every incident of sexual violence is still followed by the same, depressing victim-shaming drill and mudslinging. We have drawn no lessons from history or literature, and our veneration of women as goddesses in our rituals is just lip service.
To go missing is not always a tragedy; it is also — as the men in the novel ruminate — a choice. Maybe, like Sita, who forsook the world in disgust at the end of the Ramayana, women who go missing find a wormhole into a parallel universe where they are free to cackle and be themselves without censure or judgement, and walk the streets at night without fear.