Reviewed by Shikhandin
Author: Sumana Roy
Pages: 261 (Hardcover)
Price: INR 599/-
Facebook posts have an uncanny tendency to create time pools without dates. So of course I don’t remember when I had actually read it. I am not sure I remember the exact words of Sumana Roy’s Facebook post correctly either. But it went something like this, ‘“You saw the Kanchenjunga on your way back home,” said the spouse. “I can see it in your eyes.”’ The image that post created has remained like a screen shot in my mind. It’s the mountains. In Roy’s works, the mountains are always there. A looming presence or a backdrop or a distant vision. They are there even in their absences, when her narratives unfold at the foothills – Siliguri – bringing in with them the essence of the mountains.
Why do people leave the rush of their lives to rush up the slopes, if not for the hush of tranquillity, the slow of quietude? This is not merely a question that I’d like to pose to prospective readers of Roy’s second book, and her first novel, Missing. This is my dissuasion, though it is primarily aimed at those who seek quick mouthfuls, and instant literary gratification. In Roy’s book speed is missing.
Missing requires unhurried readers. It’s an unsettling demand, because the story revolves around a woman, Kobita, who has gone missing. The people spinning in the void created by her absence are her son Kabir, her blind tea-estate owner and poet husband ironically named Nayan – the refined Bengali word for eyes – and his entourage of menials, who are not necessarily meek. The events in the book span all of seven days, which are marked at the beginning of each section with black and white illustrations of torn off newspaper corners, with the dates and fragments of headlines visible. Naturally, one would expect this novel to possess a thriller’s pace. Instead those seven days are made to stretch until time becomes so elastic, you could pass off a day for a year.
The sections contain dual time zones. For the missing woman’s son, living in faraway United Kingdom and grappling with his own historical mystery about the highway connecting Siliguri with Darjeeling and the lower Himalayas, has his own view points and narrative to share, even as he goes missing from his father’s radar through his “restless migration into silence” again and again.
Kobita is a social worker. She uses her affluence to do good, give back to society. So, when a young girl is first molested in Guwahati and then goes missing, Kobita goes out to find her. She leaves her husband behind in the care of servants who have obviously worked for them for many years – old, trusted, familiar. But before that, she leaves behind some instructions for a new bed to be made. The carpenter, Bimal-da, has worked for them before, another old familiar. He is an old man and uses his age to advantage, effectively bullying Nayan into submission. When Kobita’s phone calls stop, Nayan grows desperate. He becomes more and more dependent on his retinue of help – the driver Shibu, Bimal-da and his granddaughter Tushi recently recruited to read the newspaper to Nayan, as well as the rest of the workers. So much so that despite being an atheist, Bimal-da is able to coerce Nayan into going all the way to a Shiva temple in Jalpesh, a few hours’ drive away from Siliguri to offer prayers for Kobita’s quick and safe return. Meanwhile, Kabir whose anxiety is like “newfound adulthood’’, decides to return to Siliguri.
As the book proceeds, relationships, be it between husband and wife, father and son or master and menial, throw up new facets and evolve. But Missing is not the sum total of domestic and domesticated relationships. It is a meditation on the multifarious facets of the concept of missing. There are other missing things in the novel, both tangible and metaphysical. A cupboard goes missing in the British library where Kabir is researching Hill Cart Road, and missing too are pages in the books and documents of his research. A girl mentioned in letters – part of his research material – is missing from later letters and documents. Missing are the letters from words that Nayan’s reader Tushi is reading from the newspaper. Then there is a thought let loose long ago, by the now missing Kobita – “I’d want to be a secret if I knew that secrets were safe” – which Kabir discovers among his research letters, uttered by the subject of his study. Piety has always been missing from Kobita and Nayan’s household, the “playhouse religion” that Kabir missed as a child. Some of the minor characters in the book have parts of their past and their original identities erased, gone missing. Missing is present in a myriad ways, dolorous, dour, despairing or comical. Not just in the skeleton of the story, but also in its muscles and nerves.
The narrative is dotted with interludes akin to those in Shakespearean plays, giving a distinct burlesque touch to the book. At one end of the story lies pathos – a blind, frightened husband, hitherto entirely dependent on his wife, but now suddenly cut loose, and a son frantic for his mother, but also startled by sudden memories that makes him seek answers to questions which perhaps cannot, rather should not, be asked. At the other end, jostling for attention, is the motley crew, with Bimalda in the lead, with his malapropisms and impertinent interjections making it all seem like a comedy of errors. It is precisely this that makes the book swing from the serious to the burlesque – an interesting literary intent on the author’s part.
The book begins with a piece of imagery so profound it could be an old saying – “Because we forget that even words have childhoods.” Deeper into the novel, there are more, polished gems gleaming on the path, and one cannot help but pocket them. Roy is after all a poet first.
“The invisible, unless it’s a ghost, is of little use to a child, and so his father became a radio to little Kabir, a useless toy in the age of television.” (Page 16)
“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.” (Page 36)
“Where, where, where? He began searching for it in his mind, the most difficult place for a treasure hunt.” (Page 46)
“Children are, for all purposes, foreigners; for childhood is a country we have abandoned and almost forgotten. The love for children can thus be thought of as nostalgia, a filial affection for the new countrymen of one’s old country, a temporary cure for homesickness…he had gradually grown aware of what he loved most in children: the beauty that came from being ignorant of sadness.” (Page 52)
“Imagination is not an escape, it is a burial of the present.” (Page 134)
“His mind felt barren, abandoned by thoughts, neither light nor heavy, just weightless. He felt his body turn into a constellation of mouths, all of them hungry. He closed his eyes and wished he could chop off his head and put it in the fridge to use when he needed it. The head was not necessary all the time.” (Page 167)
“‘Dying is pointless. You have to know how to disappear.’” (Page 176)
“Yes, atheism was a religion unto itself but it wasn’t noisy, it did not disturb people, it did not need loudspeakers.” (Page 179)
“The news anchors shouted, bargained, haggled, harassed and lied incessantly. They were the new novelists.”
And, then in page 213, this heart-rending, lucid, meditative piece of writing:
“If he hadn’t been blind, would he have been able to find his wife easily? He didn’t like the thought because his wife wouldn’t have liked the thought. But the next one came immediately after and he couldn’t stop it: are the blind more prone to tragedy? He wanted to control his mind but it was moving like a kite on a windy day. Now the kite had got stuck to a tree. The tree had a name: Soren Kierkegaard. The Greeks were blind to tragedy, he’d said. But it wasn’t the Greeks alone, thought Nayan. Tragedy, by its very nature was blind. Or it wouldn’t be tragic. When the corrupt die, we feel that death has chosen well. Then there is no tragedy. It is justice. Hadn’t Kierkegaard read Aristotle?
Such abstractions lulled him back to sleep as abstractions are meant to. One’s son is more interesting than a generic child in a text book, one’s wife more than a woman in Kalidasa. His problem with abstraction was its rejection of specificity – he didn’t miss his wife; he missed Kobita.”
The significance of most of Roy’s meditative and image rich observations are immaterial to the narrative. Even left to themselves they create self-contained messages one would fall in love with and mull over, time and again. There were moments when I felt that Roy was luring her reader/s on, the way one lures birds by walking down the garden and scattering grain along the way, albeit unintentionally. Books are not gardens though. They are worlds, and when a reader takes the journey, one of the readerly expectations is to go from point A to B or C or wherever; it’s about narrative movement. In Missing, this movement is missing.
Finally, when the book comes to a close, in spite of all the beautiful and thought provoking sentences and paragraphs, the quirky characters, and the contemporary theme, at the end of it all, the story lands in a heap around the reader.
Certain key issues are left unresolved. To give a couple of examples, the mystery of the woman who visits Nayan one night, and the apparition that Tushi apparently saw, remain unresolved, nor do they serve any purpose as far as the plot goes. These writerly indulgences end up creating dissonance in the reader’s mind. While one can accept not comprehending Kobita’s fate, and even laud Roy for leaving it to conjecture, too many unresolved bits make for unsatisfactory reading. And I say this, knowing that a writer as gifted as Roy is entitled to demand keen involvement from her readers. Sumana Roy’s novel Missing, is nuanced and full of sharp insights. Unfortunately, by a few hairs’ breadths it misses the finishing line, that point where a book comes to rest and its reader lifts off. Instead the reader becomes in this novel (and forgive me here, for I am perverting one of Roy’s exquisite pieces of imagery) “a bird at midday, not looking for, but confronted by darkness.”
Shikhandin is an Indian writer whose story collection ‘Immoderate Men’, was published by Speaking Tiger (http://speakingtigerbooks.com/books/immoderate-men/). A children’s book is forthcoming from Duckbill in 2018. Shikhandin’s prose and poetry have won awards and accolades in India and abroad, and been widely published worldwide.