In 2012, a social activist named Kobita leaves her home in Siliguri for Guwahati, to investigate the case of a girl who was molested. Kobita goes, and as the days go by, goes off the radar. Floods sweep through Assam; Bodoland agitations and riots throw not just Assam but its adjoining territories into turmoil. Amid the thousands of people scuttling about, homeless and desperate and injured, is there perhaps Kobita too?
Sumana Roy’s debut novel Missing centres around a woman gone missing, but it’s not about the woman so much as the people she leaves behind.
The strong-willed, independent Kobita (so independent that she will be furious if she finds that her disappearance has been reported to the police) never appears in person in the book about her, but her shadow is there throughout: In the deep ache and longing of her husband, the blind poet Nayan, who misses everything about her, from their conversation to the small, everyday tasks she did for him, like reading out the newspaper or removing the bones from the fish on his plate.
In the new bed that the acerbic old carpenter Bimal-da is making, having been commissioned to do so by Kobita before she left. In the worry that begins to build within Kobita and Nayan’s son, Kabir, who sits far away in London, searching the archives to unearth the mystery surrounding an obscure Britisher who helped lay Siliguri’s Hill Cart Road.
It is not just Kobita and all she represents—tangible and not—that goes missing. Missing, too, are other elements, other people. The local girl whom that long-ago Englishman had fallen in love with and whom he writes about in his letters. The Siliguri that once was, the North-Eastern India that once was. Nayan’s poetry (appropriately enough, with Kobita’s vanishing, his kobita—his poetry—seems to desert Nayan too).
It isn’t the story of Missing that is exceptional: what makes this book so readable is the way its characters, in particular the ones that surround Nayan in his home in Siliguri, come alive. Kabir, tucked away in London, is somewhat colourless, but in contrast, his father and the entourage he attracts—all mostly as a result, direct or indirect, of Kobita’s disappearance—are brilliantly etched.
Bimal-da, the carpenter; his granddaughter Tushi, whom Nayan employs to read the newspaper; Bimal-da’s assistant, Ahmed: each emerges as a very real, very believable character through dialogue and through the unseeing Nayan’s perceptiveness. Nayan wonders what made Bimal-da feel superior to everyone around him. His vegetarianism? His age? Or was it a knack that he had cultivated over time?
At the same time, Missing is a comment on contemporary India, its schisms and politics. It is, too, a book about human beings, about what makes us what we are. Roy’s book is lyrical at times, dryly humorous at others, insightful, sometimes informative—and always readable. A fine book and a fine debut in the novel form.