Sumana Roy’s novel ‘Missing’ opens with a very aural introduction to the plot. The cadence of the narrative makes us sense that there is more to the music than mere notations. The opening page here, italics mine.
‘I think I have found the missing girl at last.’
Because we forget that even words have childhoods, Nayan cannot be sure that he has heard it right. Then the phone line goes blank – it might have choked on his silence, or it might have been Kabir’s tempestuous indifference to the listener. Whatever it is, it is no longer new, his son’s disappearance for a few days, sometimes weeks, his unpredictable resurfacing before his restless migration into silence again.
But he had, at least, called. Kabir’s mother hadn’t even done that.
The silence had begun to seem like an accident.
There was someone at the door. A snatch of bhaitali in a trained voice, a trail of toe steps, knocking that turned the door into a temporary percussion instrument. It could only be one man.
‘Who else?’ came the reply. “Who else comes like a cheque past its expiry date?’
Heavy slippers, their underside pimply with screechy wet sand, fell gently to the floor.
The story is right there: the blind husband, a son who is irregular in his appearances and the parents used to him being so, the small-town characters around them, how ‘the son’s mother’ goes away and is not in touch. So many aspects of the story are strewn in front of the reader in just the opening page, like a dice which falls on its best number.
That’s a metaphor I just used. And in ‘Missing’, Sumana Roy indulges in metaphors. Metaphors dance throughout her text. I pick a few from the richness injust the opening pages.
The silence had begun to seem like an accident.
Because we forget that even words have childhoods.
Why do you live your life as if it was a permanent funeral?
The sudden rush of guilt turned his mind into a bird at mid-day, looking for darkness.
Then the phone line goes blank – it might have choked on his silence.
Sumana Roy is known for her excellent canto. In ‘Missing’, her poesy weaved into prose is an admirable literary tactic, which is quite original in its execution. When Bimal-da asks after Nayan’s wife on the second page, he only says, ‘She’s gone.’ But see how Kobita’s ‘missing’ is introduced.
Bimal-da nocturnal singer of kirtans and daytime carpenter, heard Rama’s voice in Nayan’s, the prince in the forest, whose wife had gone missing.
As the narrative holds forth later, ‘Kobita was, at heart, a tourist’. But she does not go away as a tourist at all. The storyline talks about Kobita, the assertive activist academic going away in search of a girl who had gone missing in a faraway place. And then she herself disappears without a trace for seven days. And in the distance created, the husband introspects on their marriage.
‘Missing’ is a commentary on the modern marriage, the blurb declares. ‘Missing’ comes across even more as an allegory of the Ramayana. Where Sita is not sent away, but goes off voluntarily. Ram stays back, worrying about his wife like a good husband, but he does not raise a noise too soon about her disappearing off the radar; ostensibly in deference of her feelings when she comes back.
Well, he does go to the police, but you see it happen only in some time. Initially, this may seem a weak link in the story line, but you need to see beyond the obvious to understand why a husband waits. And is that his only Hamartia? Revealing more would be a spoiler. If the purification by fire was Sita’s lot in the Ramayana, in ‘Missing’, it’s Nayan who treads the fire, in his waiting for his wife. Seven days without any news of her, and does he come out cleansed?
Towards the end of the book, Bimal-da does bring in Ram in his thoughts and wonder ‘if he announced a reward for the ‘man who had got his Sita back to him?’ Sumana had written in her column a while ago on how women cannot go into exile. Kobita’s husband, incidentally called Nayan, is visually-challenged. But as a person and a husband, is his mind also closed? That too to her quest for exile? We do see Nayan worrying throughout about his wife having gone ‘missing’. It’s this play on the word ‘missing’ that resonates in the spirit of this lyrical, visual, haunting debut.
Kobita lives in Siliguri, the same place where Sumana Roy lives. As someone who follows her on social media, one sees how the small-town fetishes of a people used to life on a micro-scale merges into the narrative. When Nayan announces ‘she’s gone’ in response to Bimal-da’s query on Kobita’s whereabouts, the next question that Bimal-da asks is ‘With?’ The inherent voyeurism of small urban spaces is palpable.
The characters in the book are fascinating in their portrayal; especially the hierarchy of their presentation to us. Nayan, the man of the house is almost independent, considering he is visually challenged. And we, like Nayan, only hear Kabir, never see him. As for Kobita, we only hear her talked about. And the more she is talked about, the less we know about her.
Nayan’s spaces are dotted with people who render services to him, all with peculiarities of their own brought out in excellent characterization. Shibu, who lives downstairs, does not want to share his toilet with a Musalman. Bimal-da, the man of peculiar pronunciation who says ‘civil caste’ when he means ‘scheduled caste’, has hang-ups about everything in the system of the house. He has issues about going to Champasari market because ‘it is infested with dirty Nepalis who haven’t bathed for months and whose clothes stink…’
Ahmed, brought in as manual help, has problems understanding the priorities of the rich. ‘Who did she think she was – a female Siddhartha, leaving her husband and son for the betterment of the world’, he thinks, about Kobita. Tushi, Bimal-da’s niece who comes in to read to Nayan, is angry when she is ‘asked English-medium School questions’ in ordinary conversations. And her quirkiness is rather fascinating, ‘She was nineteen and hated wearing underwear. That was the real problem’. All these folks, not ivory tower residents, but normal people you meet on the street.
Sumana Roy uses deft storytelling in elegant prose which does not intimidate but coaxes the reader often to stop and reflect. The author turns the pages for us, knowing our pace for the book by sheer instinct; and points silently, gently, at the visual she has etched out in words and we understand. That’s the scene, but that’s not the scene. You are meant to know this, but I will not tell you so, she seems to convey.
Look how we see Nayan telling Bimal-da on page 5, ‘Kobita wants you to make us a new bed. A hundred pages into the narrative, we see Nayan tell Bimal-da again, ‘Just make a bed that doesn’t break’. At page 199, we still hear Nayan asking Bimal da, ‘I hope you will finish making the bed today’. And Bimal da says ‘I am not a Civil Caste carpenter, dada’. To which Ahmed responds, ‘Don’t rush me Bimal da. I can’t be a twenty-twenty carpenter.’
Isn’t it significant that Kobita had ordered the making of a new bed and entrusted her visually challenged husband to get that done? Yes, they have an ostensibly solid marriage in place and they, no she, wants a new bed made? And why does she not care much about the design of the bed at all? Why would a normally assertive Kobita depend upon Nayan to build a bed? Nayan only wants Bimal-da to make a bed that doesn’t break. Can you see the layers there? Can you see a microcosm?
The language, style and treatment Sumana Roy uses are consciously different from what one is used to in Indian English literature. By this, I mean fiction that generally sets sail from the Oriental narrative style that’s the hallmark of Indian language writing, but never arrives at what the West is used to proclaiming as ‘good fiction’.
The conscious abstention from using the present tense in narration, a strategy used by many a contemporary writer leaning to the West to establish immediacy, is notable. This story can so obviously use it; it’s all about what’s happening right now. But Sumana Roy brings the Oriental temperament to the fore in her writing by using the past tense. The defining characters of Indian English literature are certainly present in her text, but its sheer originality of approach makes the book stand away from being branded the typical IWE fiction.
Missing is a novel that calls for more than one read. And to those who say, ‘I don’t read books written by Indian authors’, I say, here’s excellent Oriental sensitivity for you.
Suneetha Balakrishnan is a writer, translator and journalist working in English and Malayalam. She lives in Thiruvananthapuram, her hometown.