A searing look into the bare bones of a dysfunctional marriage played out against the backdrop of encroaching madness, Kiran Manral’s Missing, Presumed Dead makes for a troubling read. The author is too smart a storyteller to provide convenient or contrived answers to the questions that pile up with dizzying momentum. Yet the reader is not left hanging or frustrated. It is a satisfying yarn that is meaty, evocative and likely to keep you mulling over it, long after the last page has been reluctantly turned. Manral knows how to give her readers what they want while leaving them asking for more.
Aisha Thakur finds herself in the unenviable position of being fully aware that her marriage is dead but decides to stick to the corpse no thanks to the recalcitrant remnants of a once powerful passion that refuses to kick the bucket. And of course, there are tedious things such as duty and parental obligations to her son and daughter to be considered. If that were not bad enough, Aisha lives in constant terror knowing that the lurking chemicals in her cranium may unloose the same demons that claimed her mother’s life which if left unchecked will take her and everything she loves and once loved as well. Then a stranger shows up at her remote mountain abode in the middle of a vile storm, claiming to be her half-sister, and suddenly Aisha’s life stands poised to take the plunge into the doom that was inevitably going to be her lot.
The protagonist’s long drawn-out defeat to the monsters both within and without plays out painfully and with profound pathos, leaving the reader sick to death with anxiety and fighting back tears at various junctures during the course of her downward spiral. Aisha’s innate insecurity and vulnerability are exacerbated by both her condition as well as circumstances. Prithvi, her better half, originally comes across as a bit of a cad with rage issues and designs on her ancestral property but by choosing to tell his side of the story as well, Manral casts him in a more sympathetic light. The harsh truth is that even the best of us are ill-equipped to deal with disability and for flawed souls just trying to get by, it can turn out to be the wrecking ball that leaves nothing but devastation in its wake.
In the end, Aisha as well as Prithvi are sitting ducks for predators who seek to prey on the weaknesses of others, having zeroed in on the scent of blood. Having made her way into town on an errand, Aisha is trapped in more ways than one and is left to the mercy of a charming stranger who offers her hospitality and a way out for better or worse. It is hardly surprising that she takes him up on the offer, given that she holds her wellbeing so cheap. Therein lies the true horror in this moving saga that will leave your head and heart reeling.