‘I think I’ve 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 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 a bhatiali 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 on to the floor.
‘You won’t change your habits, Dada. Look at the darkness in this room. Why do you live your life as if it was a permanent funeral?’
Nayan smiled. He enjoyed allowing this old man his rehearsal of taunts.
And then it struck Bimal-da. He had forgotten it again. The sudden rush of guilt turned his mind into a bird at midday, looking for darkness. ‘Sorry,’ he said, relying on the foreignness of the word to give his apology some weight.
Nayan smiled. Or Bimal-da imagined that he did. His eyes moved to the sad piece of bread on the white plate in front of Nayan. Why the rich preferred funereal white crockery was something he would never understand.
‘Your food. It’s getting cold,’ he said. That is one thing that the blind shared with the deaf—both cannot sense their food growing cold. Bimal-da touched his old glasses, the thing that connected his eyes to his ears, and he said his prayers of gratitude: he was poor, always hungry, but he was, at least, not blind. What use was all the wealth to Nayan if he could not see it? For wasn’t that what riches meant—an exhibition to the eye?
‘Boudi?’ he said, asking after the man’s wife.
‘She’s gone,’ replied Nayan.
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.
‘With?’ Bimal-da put his hand on his mouth as soon as the question came out of it, like a thief hiding his loot.
Bimal-da doesn’t understand the man. How does a poet speak so little, in a miserly word or two? Would the epics ever have been written if Vyasa and Valmiki hadn’t had words to spend?
‘Shaat-Shaat,’ whispered Bimal-da as if the man was a child. It was the Bengali’s onomatopoeia for affection, for consolation, a running of the hand on the victim’s body, an adult’s on a child’s. He indulged the thought—and even the practice—of being ancient. It energized him, this awareness of being richer in years than people around him. So he gladly added a decade to every chronological calculation, everything except his granddaughter’s age. It troubled him. She was nineteen and not yet married. But that wasn’t the only worry. She was nineteen and hated wearing underwear. That was the real problem. Bimal-da said the two words in English in his mind: ‘underwear’ and ‘problem’, and the problem became graver to him. Boudi had a cure for everything. Perhaps she might get Tushi to wear underwear after all.
‘How are you?’ Two voices asked the question at the same time, and both did not answer, it being a given that a person capable of asking this question must indeed be well.
‘Sit down, Bimal-da.’ The chair on which Bimal-da meant to sit, when dragged, made a sound so repulsive that he spoke to it as a primary school teacher might to a naughty child: ‘I’ll cut off your feet today, wait.’
Nayan laughed. There was something about his laughter that aroused the carpenter’s instinct in Bimal-da. It was like the sound of a window that had been kept shut for too long.
‘Boudi phoned me three days ago, said it was urgent,’ said Bimal-da, waiting for the man to say the rest.
‘Yes.’ That was all that the man would volunteer, so that Bimal-da had to prod him, employing a different method this time. ‘I have a new helper,’ he said, turning to look at the short man on his left. Bimal-da gestured to him to announce himself, but poor Ahmed had forgotten the morning’s hurried tutorial. He just smiled. When nothing transpired for what seemed like a long time to Bimal-da, he decided to take control.
‘Ahmed, say namaskar to Nayan-babu,’ he instructed.
‘Namaskar,’ said the man who had been drinking tea. It had been years since someone had called him ‘Nayan-babu’, and so he took some time to respond.
Ahmed remembered at last. He would need to say everything in this house because the malik was blind.
‘Namaskar, sir,’ he said the words loudly. Never having spoken to a blind man before, Ahmed had, without awareness, somehow begun treating Nayan as if he was deaf.
‘A new bed, is it?’ probed Bimal-da, now growing restless with Nayan’s silence.
‘Oh. Yes. Yes, I’d forgotten. Kobita wants you to make us a new bed,’ said Nayan, not knowing what else to say.
‘What happened to the old one?’ asked Bimal-da, regretting his question immediately. How did it matter to him what happened to their old bed as long as he was being paid to make a new one?
‘It’s our wedding bed, a gift from Kobita’s parents. Twenty-seven years old now. It creaks a lot.’ When Nayan spoke, his tone was of one who was still searching for an appropriate word that would close the sentence perfectly, but one that he never seemed to find. Bimal-da had once told Kobita that Nayan needed something like a cork to end his statement. Kobita had said, ‘No Bimal-da, it’s not because he doesn’t stop thinking. It’s because he wonders whether he’s said the right thing.’ Since then Bimal-da had begun to attribute this characteristic to all blind men.
‘Teak?’ asked Bimal-da.
‘Has the wood been ordered?’
‘No, she’s left money and instructions for you,’ replied Nayan, allowing himself a hint of a smile with that reply.
‘All that’s fine, but what kind of a bed would she like me to make? A diagram?’ Bimal-da was now genuinely worried. He was a slave of the catalogue, which he pronounced ‘gate-lock’. It took one quite some time—at least a few days—to get used to his pronunciation. All foreign words, Hindi or English, immediately came coded in carpenter-speak. Nayan remembered, always with the inauguration of laughter, how it had taken him a long time to understand that wedding anniversary, which Bengalis often called ‘marriage day’, had become Bimal-da’s ‘Garage Day’. Kobita’s favourite was ‘polish’ for ‘police’. When corrected, Bimal-da said that both the nouns had the same verb: ‘polish’ would keep wood shining just as the ‘police’ would keep society clean.
‘Kobita hasn’t left any drawing, Bimal-da. Not a catalogue either. She said you’d understand. A bed with drawers is what she wants,’ explained Nayan.
‘Box-khaat? Why do you need a box-bed now?’
‘What do you mean “now”?’ Nayan was curious, even irritated.
‘All the box-beds I’ve made in my life have been for newlyweds. They are about to begin a new life and need space to store their future. But you and Boudi? Now?’ Bimal-da wanted to ask whether the bed was to be a gift to someone in the family, but held himself back with great restraint.
‘Kobita says we need more space. Everything’s too cramped, too unorganised. She thinks putting things in drawers will make our lives easier,’ Nayan explained.
‘But where is she? When will she get back from work? It’d be better if she explained it to me once,’ Bimal-da pleaded.
‘She won’t be back anytime soon. Today’s the ninth day—it’ll take her some time to return,’ said Nayan, feeling sad. Specifying the duration, the length of time, made it sound even longer than it was, like adolescence.
‘But she rarely goes to her parents’, doesn’t she?’ Bimal-da’s curiosity could erode the strongest armour of secrecy.
‘Her parents are dead, Bimal-da. Her brother lives in Amsterdam…’
‘Where?’ asked Bimal-da, for the Dutch capital city sounded like ‘aam-er-daam’, the ‘cost of mango’, to his ears.
‘Amsterdam. It’s far away. Twelve hours by plane…’
‘Oh,’ said Bimal-da. ‘Where is she then?’
‘She’s gone to Assam—first to Guwahati, then to Kokrajhar, Dhubri, Bongaigaon…’ Nayan would have continued with the catalogue of names had it not occurred to him, suddenly, that he might as well be naming the night raags to a person who had never heard any Hindustani classical music.
‘Why? I mean—she is taking a holiday alone? Why didn’t you accompany her?’
Nayan opened the glass case of his watch and touched its hands. It was only quarter to eleven but he felt an end-of-day exhaustion that came from doing too little. She’d been gone only for nine days and he was already restless. It was difficult to explain: Kobita was the wall against which he could rest his back. Without her, his spine was always taut, on alert. But how could one say that to a stranger, or even to a close friend? He found it difficult to even say that to Kobita. ‘Will thirty thousand rupees be enough for buying the wood?’ he asked.
This was Bimal-da’s hour of crisis. He had always managed to cheat Kobita of a little money by exaggerating the price of wood he bought from auctions or the wooden veneer sheets he got fresh from godowns hidden behind the showrooms. But guilt, even if it was only like plasticine, waiting to change shape the very next moment, made him a different person. ‘It should be enough,’ he replied, surprising Ahmed.
Nayan found his way to the bedroom, all the while remaining an actor in Ahmed’s eyes, who watched him transfixed, his steps, then his eyes, his hands reaching out to the door handle from years of rehearsed measure, and then his feet and eyes again. When Nayan emerged out of the room with a bundle of currency notes in his hand, he became the equivalent of a trapeze artist in a circus in Ahmed’s eyes. Since all circus artistes were ‘jokers’ in his lexicon, the word escaped his lips in a whisper.
‘Where is Kabir-baba?’ said Bimal-da, peering into the dark room on his right.
Kobita had instructed him not to tell anyone that he was alone at home, that his wife and son were away, so Nayan kept quiet, hoping Bimal-da would not probe further.
But Bimal-da’s curiosity for useless information was insatiable. At dinner, he would ask his wife for the number of green chillies she’d put in the curry or the number of red chillies that had been used to temper the moong dal. ‘I didn’t see him in the garden either,’ he said, while preparing to let his voice graze on another kirtan.
‘Ahmed, do you know the story of Birlamangal and Chintamoni? Aha, how would you know, you poor Mussulman?’ said Bimal-da, before proceeding to answer the question himself. ‘Chintamoni was a whore but Birlamangal loved her. What to do? That is the way of love. You know, all the lust is in a man’s eyes. So in spite of Chintamoni asking him to love the lord, our Gobindo, Birlamangal could do nothing about his lust. Taunted and scolded by Chintamoni for asking a friend to let him spend the night with his wife instead of praying to the lord, Birlamangal asked the woman, much older than him, for a pair of needles. He then pierced his eyes with them, going blind, tripping and falling on the way because of this new handicap, all this until Gobindo appeared to him, not as god, but in civil dress…’
At this point, Nayan broke into laughter.
He opened the gate, making a loud sound on purpose.
‘Tea?’ the familiar voice greeted him.
Bimal-da knew the sound of war when he heard one. This man’s voice was like a gun that had not been put to use. The carpenter cleared his throat, no answer emerged. The sound got trapped between greed and courtesy. Bimal-da ran his deductions through his head: the blind speak less; they do not understand the speed at which words travel.
And suddenly Bimal-da decided that he wouldn’t smile. Of all things, the face is the most useless to man, at least to the blind. Dogs know this. Bimal-da decided to behave like a dog. The next moment he swallowed a bark.
‘So, will you begin making the bed today?’ Nayan found himself saying. He knew that he was stating the obvious, but he hadn’t had any practice in small talk.
Bimal-da hadn’t built a bed in years. Everything was readymade these days. The only readymade thing he had known as a child was death. It has taken him a life to get close to earning it. He suddenly felt like Krishna, prepared to drive a chariot. No, he corrected himself. He was Brahma, the creator of the Universe. What else was a bed but a new world, an island from this life on feet, of walking and running?
Silence moved through the room like a rope that had chained people to their places so that no one moved, not their legs, not their lips. The only sound in the room was of the loose tips of old newspapers testing the fan breeze. Tushi, with the teenager’s impatience with silence, groped for her cell phone in her cloth handbag. It might help to dissipate the numb energy of wordlessness, that terrifying world.
‘Someone with you, Bimal-da?’ asked Nayan.
Tushi looked at her grandfather and then the blind man. She’d been briefed about her employer and his disability the previous night, the kind of handicap that had fortuitously landed her her first job as it were. For who ever got a job for reading newspapers? Letter readers and letter writers she’d read and heard about, but newspaper readers? But it wasn’t all this that ran through Tushi’s mind then—it was the fact that the man didn’t look blind to her eyes. And now he had even seen her standing behind her grandfather.
‘Yes,’ said Bimal-da in an apologetic tone, ‘I’ve got Tushi with me as I’d promised. She’ll read the newspaper for you. Tushi…’ The last word he said with a fierce movement of his eyes, asking his granddaughter to touch Nayan’s feet. But it was failed physics. Tushi would not touch the stranger’s feet. (‘He’s not our relative or guru,’ the girl had even given him a reason last night.)
Tushi was thinking of a word that could work as a substitute for the pranam. There was none, so she quickly responded with a question. ‘Which newspaper will I have to read? And where is it?’
‘What’s your name?’ said Nayan.
Bimal-da cringed every time the girl mentioned her full name. His daughter had married out of caste—how could a Sutradhar marry a Saha? He had hated Sahas all his life—they were selfish misers, quarrelsome and clannish, cheats who could do anything for even a paisa. ‘My daughter’s daughter,’ explained Bimal-da, fiercely protective of his surname.
‘How is Boudi?’ the carpenter asked.
‘No phone call from her for the last four days now. That is why I want to know what’s going on. Tushi, will you first read yesterday’s newspaper to me? I don’t know where it is but…’
‘I’ll find out where it is,’ replied Tushi in a brisk professional tone, copied ably from watching working women in television serials.
Both Nayan and Bimal-da were surprised by her easy familiarity. They put it to the pliability of youth.
‘Call Shibu, will you, Bimal-da? Kobita has left instructions about the bed with him,’ said Nayan. Behind his words was the hurried movement of paper brushing against paper and flat fingers on them. The girl was looking for the stale newspaper in the pile.
Bimal-da disliked Shibu, particularly for the way the driver kept on referring to chauffeurs as the highest class among the successors of the god Biswakarma. He also envied the short and dark man the residential quarter that Kobita had given him along with the job— free electricity, running water, a concrete roof, even a veranda to sun pickles and dry clothes. Anyone could drive a car, even women and the Nepalese, who were, in his estimate, the people with the lowest intelligence, but to be a carpenter required special skill, even talent. Who had seen a female carpenter after all? So Bimal-da, instead of climbing down the stairs to Shibu’s apartment, went to Nayan’s bedroom and called out to him from the window, ‘Shibu, ei Shibu… Dada is calling you. Come upstairs at once.’
‘I’ve never read a newspaper before. Please tell me how to read and I will do exactly as you tell me,’ said Tushi, standing in front of Nayan with two newspapers in her hand.
Nayan pretended to laugh but Tushi heard the pretence more than the laughter. Life, the little that she had experienced, had taught her to be suspicious of the wealthy. These oppositions in her mind might have come to her as an inheritance, but she had also refined them in a way that had turned them into truisms. One of these played its part here: the poor need to pretend to cry just as the rich pretended to be amused into laughter.
Having had no answer from the man whose scalp revealed the first traces of balding—he was sitting on a chair, she had the advantage of height and consequent spectatorship of his head—she asked again, ‘Does one start from page one, like one begins a book?’
The question overwhelmed Nayan into silence again. Only outsiders could come up with observations like that, he said to himself. ‘Yes,’ he replied meekly.
Tushi cleared her throat in the manner of a singer. She had decided that her role as newspaper reader was actually that of an actress—she would read the news exactly like newscasters did on television. The news wasn’t a thing of interest in their household, and this too she put to the difference between the rich and the poor: the poor were only bothered about local news, about things that affected them; the rich spent useless time and emotions in collecting information about strangers. But she had spent time preparing for her role as it were—she wouldn’t need to bother about the newsreader’s make-up and clothes, for the one-man audience being who he was; but first the headlines would need to be said in a rush, in a heap, and then the detailed reports. She still hadn’t been able to come up with an equivalent of ‘See you after the break’. For a moment it struck her how artificial this world was—the curiosity of the rich for people who did not invoke any emotions in them, and the way people spoke on television. Tushi smiled, imagining birds having different twittering dialects for home and office, nest and sky.
To speak in a way that seemed more urgent than the life she lived—that was her brief to herself. And so she began reading.
About the book:
It is the summer of 2012. A young girl is molested in Guwahati in India’s Northeast, journalists take photographs and make videos of the incident, but no one tries to rescue her. The monsoons have arrived, and Assam is flooded, as it is every year.
In Siliguri, Kobita, a fifty four-year-old activist, married to Nayan, a blind poet, decides to travel to Guwahati to search for the molested girl who has gone missing. Before she takes off she leaves instructions to have a new bed made. Because of his disability, Nayan has no option but to depend on the carpenter and his family to trace his wife after her phone calls stop coming.
There is a riot in lower Assam from where Kobita last called her husband.
While Nayan grows desperate for news about his missing wife, their son, Kabir, is in England, absorbed in his research about Hill Cart Road, the highway that connects Siliguri to Darjeeling and the eastern Himalayas.
Missing is about seven days in the lives of these people. It is a study of the modern marriage, played out against the awareness of the question that gave birth to the Indian subcontinent’s first epic, the Ramayana: What happens when a wife goes missing?
About the author
Sumana Roy’s first book, How I Became a Tree, a work of non-fiction, was published in 2017. It was shortlisted for the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize (Non-fiction) 2017 and the Tata Literature Live! First Book Award (Non-fiction) 2017. Missing is her first novel. She lives in Siliguri.