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Where should a woman’s loyalties lie? Her family or a greater cause? Sumana Roy’s Missing revolves around this theme, drawing in bigger questions and paradoxes along with it.
What happens when a wife leaves her family behind in the pursuit of a greater cause?
“…Dada, there was a reason why Lakshman drew that line around the house. See what disobedience did to Sita. A wise husband must draw that line for his wife. This is also a form of love…”
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In the summer of 2012, Kobita, a middle-aged activist, married to a blind poet, Nayan, decides to travel from her hometown in West Bengal’s Siliguri to Assam’s Guwahati in search of a girl who has gone missing. This girl had earlier been molested by a mob and while journalists took photographs and recorded the incident, no one came forward to help her. Kobita is enraged to such an extent that she decides to leave behind her husband under the care of their domestic attendant, Shibu and go on a journey to find the missing girl. Before leaving, Kobita instructs a new bed to be made and towards that end, the carpenter, Bimal and his assistant, Ahmed are hired.
As Nayan loses touch with Kobita through phone after a riot breaks out in lower Assam, he is left dependent on Bimal’s grand-daughter, Tushi, to read him the daily newspapers from where he desperately tries to find some information about Kobita. Assam suffers from a heavy flood during the same time. Nayan and Kobita’s son, Kabir is in England doing research about Siliguri’s Hill Cart Road.
The novel spans around a period of seven days in the lives of these characters and their quest for finding Kobita.
For me, the most unpredictable part about this novel might have been its pace. When you enter into the narrative of a missing woman that spans around seven days, you expect to go in with bated breath while the novel hurtles forward in a rapid pace to take you towards its resolution. The exact opposite happens in the case of Missing. Each day drags along languidly where, like the characters, we too are desperate to seek out clues about Kobita’s whereabouts. Sumana Roy’s skills as a poet is evident in almost every line of the novel as they force you to take notice of them in their entire details. The pacing might leave you a bit flustered at times because in this fast-paced age of digital revolution, seeking instant gratification seems to be our ‘default setting’. Often times, we aren’t free from it, even as readers. However, if you decide to take a pause and immerse in the richness of the narrative that moves along at a reflective pace, this book wouldn’t disappoint.
The story is built in an interesting way through the snippets of news that Tushi reads out to Nayan. I felt this was an extremely original way of showing not only the various issues that are tormenting the nation but also the racial, communal, and gender related biases in people’s minds.
News snippets like:
‘‘…Unresolved, however, Assam’s alleged ‘Bangladeshi’ population are a people without state, having to pay with their prosperity when successful while others are victims of abject poverty, living in riverine areas, on sandbars, many of which surround areas such as Chirang…”
Or dialogues between Tushi’s grandfather, Bimal and Tushi such as:
‘‘… ‘You girl, don’t you feel embarrassed reading these things-I’ve been hearing rape-rape-rape since the time you began reading the papers. Is nothing else taking place in the country or what?’
Tushi’s ears had gone red. Dropping her voice, she said, ‘If the men in the country have nothing better to do, I have nothing better to read about.’’
With glimpses from the daily news, the author tries to weave a broader narrative around the concept of ‘missing’. You’ll be faced with questions like, how people go missing from their homelands to become ‘refugees’ in other countries, or, how when a woman go missing, the question that arises first is regarding her loyalty towards her family.
The day to day lives of Nayan, Kabir, Bimal, Tushi, Ahmed, Shibu are portrayed in vivid details thus helping the readers to form an image of Kobita through the eyes of this diverse set of characters. We form our own views about the kind of marriage that Nayan and Kobita shared or the kind of mother she was, moreover, we get glimpses to Kobita’s personality as an individual and what might have motivated her to take up such a selfless action at the cost of leaving behind everything she held dear. Her husband and son are left wondering about how much ‘goodness’ is actually too much?
As Kobita’s son Kabir reflects:
‘’…What had made his mother abandon her husband and son for strangers? What kind of centrifugality did that woman live by? He was beginning to be filled with rage. The figure of the woman by the window, her back to the innards of her house-the furniture, both physical and emotional-looking out to the pain of the world always, inspecting it for a pain the way a teenager’s attention navigates around a pimple…’’
This is a book that you should read at leisure, absorbing every sentence to understand the subtexts behind the apparent incidents. If there’s something that I was left craving for towards the end, then that might have been some sense of resolution. There were a few plot lines that were left loose for the readers to make their own interpretation.
Overall, this is a slow but a very sensitive read that I would definitely recommend to lovers of women’s and literary fiction.
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