“With the light of our eyes we saw what was outside, now there is no light and we must look inside,” said Rabindranath Tagore. The protagonist of Sumana Roy’s Missing: A Novel reminds us of these lines when we learn he is called Nayan (meaning eyes). Sightless since birth, but rich from owning tea plantations, he sits at home, waiting for his college lecturer wife—who is passionate about social causes and has gone missing on one such adventure—while the book takes shape in the churning in his head and in the events around him.
Nayan is also a poet and, therefore, “thrice removed from the king and from the truth” (Plato). The only way he can access some news of his wife is by getting the newspaper read out to him everyday, while he supervises a bed being made by the carpenter, Bimal, ordered by his wife before she left on her trip. This plot twist by Roy, to get a bed made for a person who may never sleep on it, is a clever technique to bring home the tragedy to the reader; the bed doesn’t get made over seven days, nor does Nayan find any trace of the person who is, in many ways, his better half, one who he is in complete awe of and wholly dependent on.
Missing is Roy’s first novel, not her first book. Her first, a non-fiction named How to Live Like Trees, had a magical quality about it. It was essentially a story of hope, even amid the indiscriminate tree felling and humans’ increasing separation from nature. This novel does not come bearing hope. Despite its quiet, reflective, introverted, observant and lyrical voice, the book is sad and bleak.
Nayan is waiting for the truth about his wife. But does truth exist? How does one know it exists? How does one get at truth? Is the news truth? Nayan has several news sources. The newspaper is read out to him by a hired girl, who can read, but does not value newspapers more than electronic sources and her boyfriend. In selecting the relevant news items to read, sometimes prompted by her employer, she behaves like the people behind a newspaper (I wanted to say editor, but it’s getting increasingly difficult to gauge the difference between owner, editor and reporter), giving the consumer what he needs, even inventing stories to please him and suppressing news that he may not want to hear. The carpenter is another source, staunchly religious and violently biased against the Nepalis, but an incessant talker, drowning Nayan out with his bigoted tirades, and as much as unbeliever Nayan hates him and his cacophony, he succumbs to a trip to the temple with him, hoping for his wife’s return.
The carpenter’s assistant, a Muslim unregistered refugee, is well aware of the events in town, but is too timid and hopeless to tell them to Nayan. The son is the liberal intellectual here, a typical researcher in London investigating what happened in Darjeeling years ago, and his worries about his mother include wild thoughts of her going deliberately missing to finally live her own life. Nayan, thus, has no way of knowing what is what because, among this forest of sources, unable to get out or read, he cannot trust anyone other than his wife, his window to the world all this while. Why did she have to be the one who is missing? Nayan’s blindness, with which he had adjusted so well by taking refuge in his mind, is no solace any more.
The cover blurb mentions that like a modern-day Ramayana, the book explores what happens when a wife goes missing. Like Ramayana, Missing, too, tells the story of those left behind, completely ignoring the woman. No one still knows Sita’s story, other than her loneliness and her final outburst at the end. And that tradition continues; scores of women simply drop off the map and life goes on, leaving a few helpless Nayans to mourn.
Missing, however, is no Ramayana, for Kobita was not captured like Sita, who had to be valiantly rescued to prove her husband a hero and an avenger of wrongs. Kobita doesn’t exist simply because there is no news of her. In a way, she represents the molested girl in Guwahati or the raped one in Delhi in 2012, who died and dropped off the radar. What else is left to happen to Kobita, now that she has gone missing?
Missing is the story of a woman who was the centre point of the life of so many people, yet her disappearance affects them only a little. The complexities of our lives do not allow us to find the truth even when it exists in front of us. More than that, Missing brings home to us how, in the absence of truth, we are all blind. Poets, novelists, historians, journalists—they all deal in fiction. Edward Said is still relevant when he says, “News does not just happen, pictures and ideas do not merely spring from reality into our eyes and minds, truth is not directly available…” If history is not objective, can news ever be?
Missing is not an enjoyable read as a novel; stories drag, the carpenter irritates, and Nayan’s foolish trust in his wife (and not going to the police) is baffling. Indeed, the name itself casts the first doubt if it is a novel at all. To me, Missing succeeds most as an allegory of a man’s search for reality through news that he increasingly doubts to be true. And that could be enough.
Paromita Shastri is a freelance writer and editor