Reviewed by Shikhandin

Missing

Title: Missing
Author: Sumana Roy
Publisher: Aleph
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.

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Missing

I.

‘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.

‘Bimal-da?’

‘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?

Title: How I Became a Tree

Author: Sumana Roy

Publisher: Aleph Book Company

Pages: 236

Price: Rs 599

To buy: http://www.amazon.in/How-Became-Tree-Sumana-Roy/dp/9382277447

Review by Apala Bhowmick

 

The book, part memoir part non-fiction, paints an intimate picture of the author’s relationship with plant life – she spies a papaya tree swaying in the storm from her bedroom window and looks down at her fingers to realize how her own body mimics the movement of the leaves in the wind when a gust of air blows her hair onto her face. After an earthquake that shakes her house to its foundations, her legs tremble all day in nervous despair anticipating the painful effects such tremors might possibly have on plants. Teeming with references to a spectrum of texts ranging from O Henry’s The Last Leaf to Sorensen’s Seeing Dark Things: The Philosophy of Shadows, she nimbly avoids the trap of opaque academic discourse. Her voice, instead, is compassionate, sensitive, and she manages to engender an exposition situated perfectly at the twilight zone between Philosophy and Botany, approached through a rapturous route densely populated by fascinating literary and historical texts.

She quotes extensively from D. H. Lawrence’s works dealing with trees, as also from poems by Nitoo Das and Subodh Gupta. She delves dexterously into various diary entries by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay from the late 1920s as well as into his novels Aranyak and Pather Panchali, to investigate the connection between forest life and creativity, and to uncover the mythic origins of the notion of the forest as a place for spiritual serenity and supernatural magic. She wittily interjects that “‘losing oneself’ is a terribly romantic, even elitist idea,” and confesses to having been a “happy victim” of an actual such instance inside a forest herself even in this day and time, which she categorizes as the “post GPS” age.

By Aminah Sheikh

Sumana Roy photo

Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

If I knew the answer to that I probably wouldn’t be able to write. It’s a question as difficult to answer as “Why do you love me so much?” I came very late to writing, and because this was after my divorce from standardised academic writing, I decided, almost moodily, that the reason for this would be cathartic. Soon after, fortunately, I realised that writing wasn’t therapeutic in the way I’d heard it was. Or at least that it wasn’t a painkiller. I write to make sense of my relationship with the world, I suppose.

Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

My most recent book is my first. It’s called How I Became a Tree (Aleph Book Company). It’s a work of non-fiction, something between the essay, memoir, and meditation, and it’s a reflection on what constitutes the difference between human and non-human experience. I look at people like myself, writers, artists, filmmakers, scientists, lovers, thinkers, who felt the desire to become a tree. What does it mean to live to what I call “tree time”? Or what is so special about sitting under a tree, or to live in a forest or make love to a tree? Is it true that the childless or childfree feel closer to plant life? My book gives a home to such speculations and investigations.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

This is a really difficult question. As an apprentice one is evolving and looking for a home – or homes – in genres. I find that I am repulsed by genres that have solidified into something readymade. I like the fluidity between genres, so that one can never say whether this is fiction or nonfiction, a poem or a found text. I gravitate towards the shorter forms, the poem, the essay, the novella. In subject matter too, the more neo-bureaucratic models of seriousness bore me. There are very few things I know about myself, but this I certainly do – I find the seemingly non-serious immensely interesting (my interest in plant life comes from that space too) and everything that is declared to be conventionally useless occupies my thought and attention.

Who are your favourite authors?

Amit Chaudhuri opened up the possibility of unusual – unconventional – ways of seeing the world. His novels challenged the way I’d allowed myself to become conditioned to the 19th-century novel and the various hand-me-down versions that have become the only way we understand the novel today. His essays, with their unique voice and the fluidity of movement between the personal and the political or aesthetic, allowed people like me to write a book such as the one I’ve written, with its meanderings and digressions and halts at different kinds of philosophies and their interactions with life. Not to forget that he is one of the best prose stylists in the English language. I was recently introduced to James Salter and I like the prose in a couple of his books. George Eliot’s prose style remains a go-to from my university days. I rarely read fiction now. I read a lot of poetry in Bangla – Shakti Chattopadhyay, Jibanananda Das, Rabindranath Tagore, the usual suspects, but also a lot of young poets in the little magazines.

What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.

I find it difficult to reproduce – report? – the neighbourhood of everyday sounds that I meet every day: the shrill announcement of the pressure cooker, the whirr of the ceiling fan, vegetables scalding in burning oil, the sound of wet sand screeching from a slipper brushing against the floor, the creaking of a door, a growling stomach, the sound of leaves in the wind, and so on. It’s not onomatopoeia that I’m aiming for. I’d like these sounds to be the poem, without the crutch of adjectives. I’ve failed.