On the night of 13 June 2002, Drishti Sengupta took the stage at the Blue Banyan, the pub at the Victoria Hotel. It was a Thursday, not a night for a headline act, but Drishti liked playing to the smaller crowd that would assemble to hear her sing at the venue that had launched her career.
The Victoria Hotel was a cozy establishment in the heart of the city’s tourist district, what might be called a four-star for no objectively verifiable reason at all, except that the owners had deemed it so. It was a family-run affair that had been around for about forty years, and it catered to locals as well as the Sudder Street backpacker crowd. It had a café, The Alcove, popular for its pancakes and omelettes at breakfast, sizzlers in the evening. Drishti had sung at the Blue Banyan, alongside bars both seedier and more luxurious, for over fifteen years.
In fact, she had, for the most part, taken whatever shows had come her way through the bulk of her career as a singer. It was only in the past couple of years that she had enjoyed the privilege of picking and choosing a little more, since her work had taken flight in directions she had not foreseen. But she still enjoyed the intimate space that the smaller stage afforded, and the loyalty of a crowd that had appreciated her before fame had found her.
And if Drishti was being honest, which she usually was, the routine of a weekly job allowed her to get out of the house. Away from the domesticity that she both adored and abhorred at the same time, often in the same moment.
The regular gig meant weekly practice, and that translated to two days a week where she got to hang out with other adults and pretend for a few moments, in the smoke-filled rooms of her youth, that she was the same as she’d always been.
That night, Drishti was late and she was flustered. Her bandmates, who had already done set-up and soundcheck, noticed this because, as they said later, “little could usually get under Drishti’s skin”. She arrived at the hotel in her ancient Maruti 800, ran in to the bar and straight onto stage, dressed in regulation white shirt and tight blue jeans.
Her short pixie hair was damp; it had been raining that evening. There were a couple of whistles and catcalls – she was used to that sort of thing, and half the time it was a friend in the audience. She had already discussed the setlist with the guys – the “guys” being Debanjan Dutta on lead guitar and vocals, Shiv Ahuja on bass and Karna Das on drums. They had also been warned that she was in a rush that evening – she’d be singing for seventy-five minutes and no more.
They started the set at 9.30 pm, with covers as usual. She knew better than to leave them out; she could wait for her chance to perform her new material. She’d also play Run for Your Life early on: it was her most recent hit, and she hadn’t grown sick of it yet. It helped that it was one of the first songs she had written and loved, even though it had taken years to put it out. And the fact that she liked the film that had made it a hit.
But she could also not neglect Nick of Time, an audience favourite, and the song that had pulled her out of obscurity. The crowd would sing along to that one without fail, though she herself could take it or leave it.
Was it de rigueur for artists to hate the work that made them famous? Drishti had liked Nick of Time well enough when she wrote it. It was a mildly sentimental love song, nothing too offensive, with a lilting, hummable tune that slid off the raspy edges of her voice like water off stone.
But in the past two years since it had been out, she had sung it so many times at so many shows, with requests hurled at her from the dark corners of clubs, that she had grown weary of it. However, today she would pull it out so the audience would feel it had got its two-drinks’ worth when she cut out early.
But Drishti never did get around to singing Nick of Time that night.
At about 10 pm, she saw the pub’s manager, Bunty, coming towards the stage. She had known Bunty for the better part of a decade, and they often shared a meal at the end of the night. When she had the time, in the olden days. All the performers got dinner after their set, and she would share hers with Bunty, but only if he added on a beer.
He caught her eye. “Come now,” he mouthed.
She raised her eyebrows at him, still singing Ode to My Family, as if to say, “Now, mid-song?”
He nodded. Yes.
That was when she knew that something was terribly, terribly wrong.
“Excuse me,” she whispered into the microphone, leaving her bandmates floundering through the rest of the track without any vocals.
Bunty quickly led her to his small office outside the pub, with its entrance through the hotel lobby. “You have a call from home,” he said.
He averted his gaze as Drishti picked up the phone. He knew it was the maid, Sumita, and she had sounded frantic when he had answered the phone. He was on his way out to give Drishti some privacy, when he thought better of it and stopped. He knew it had to be urgent. Drishti didn’t have a cellphone, but this was the first call from home ever on the landline in the past eight years.
“What do you mean?” said Drishti, her face twisting with alarm.
An alarm he mirrored when he heard what she said next. “If she isn’t in her room, where is she!”
He knew her daughter Tara was at home, and that she was not quite five years old. Drishti had only returned to regular weekly gigs over the past year, and she had stayed away before that in large part because it was hard for her to arrange childcare at night. “Have you searched the house?” she asked.
She heard the reply, and then briefly closed her eyes, head propped up by her hand, shoulders scrunched together.
“I am coming right away. Take the key and go down. Search as much as you can. Ask the guards to help. Find anyone you can to help.”
Bunty raced the little Maruti 800 down the streets, the twenty minutes to her home taking closer to ten.
They were met by a crowd milling near the entrance of the building. Drishti ignored all the curious looks and located Sumita as quickly as she could.
Bunty didn’t need to ask – it was clear that the child was still missing. The maid looked tired and drawn, and petrified. Drishti, however, was still business-like. “Where have you looked?”
“Everywhere! The car park, the garden, the playground. I don’t know – ”
“Have you been back upstairs?” Drishti asked.
“One aunty is waiting in the house in case she comes back.”
“How did she get out of the house?” Bunty asked.
“I don’t know!” she said, sounding shrill. “I was in the bathroom and when I came out, the bedroom door was open. When I went in to check, she was gone!”
“What about the main door?”
“It was closed!”
“Wasn’t it bolted? I told you always to bolt it!” said Drishti, her voice raised for the first time.
“Didi, you know I always lock it when I am alone,” she said.
“I don’t know how this could have happened!”
The three guards at the main gate all swore up and down that they would have seen Tara had she been wandering around the complex alone. She hadn’t left through the main gate; of this they said they were certain.
Bunty had visited the building enough times to know the guards were relatively vigilant. It was an upmarket neighbourhood, one of the older, larger residential complexes in Ballygunge. It was not luxurious, but it was much sought after for its location, and its strong sense of community.
After that, Drishti took off. Bunty trailed behind her as she ran into the building. Seeing that the lift was on the 10th floor, she headed for the stairs. Her flat was on the third floor of B Block. The main door was already open. A lady was sitting in the living room. Drishti did not even stop to speak to her.
She charged into her own bedroom, where Tara usually slept, pulled back the sheets, looked under the bed, ran into Tara’s playroom, threw open the doors to a wooden cupboard, went onto the balcony. She checked the guestroom, the two bathrooms, the kitchen.
And then she ran out again.
Bunty hesitated. By now, the scenario was clear in his head: he was convinced that it could only have been a kidnapping. It was not as though Tara had disappeared in a crowd, nor had she wandered off while outdoors. She was a small child, so small that nothing else made sense, and Bunty was certain that a search was futile. But it still had to be done.
He could have called the police in that moment. He wondered if he should, but thought it would delay him for too long. Getting through to the right people, even with the right connections, would take time. These first, precious moments would be better spent elsewhere.
Bunty called the hotel and told the night manager what had happened, asking him to send whatever spare hands that could be mustered. He then called Drishti’s bandmates, asked them to come over, and to inform Drishti’s closest friend in town, Mona, who was often at the nightclub during Drishti’s gigs. Drishti would need support tonight, and Bunty couldn’t think of anyone else to call. He had never met her family.
On his way out, he took a long look at the front door, and though he couldn’t be sure, it didn’t look damaged, like anyone had broken in. And then he went back downstairs.
There seemed to be at least a dozen random people huddled around in groups – some servants, some residents – in addition to the guards. None of them seemed to be engaged in the search. The complex lights were all on.
He had been to Drishti’s home a few times before, but he hadn’t really paid attention to the details. He knew that the guest parking was on the ground level, all along the boundary wall, and the resident parking was in the basement. Now he registered that there was a playground off to one side, with a swing, a slide, and a seesaw, adjoining which there was a lawn with a few benches, and a large Radhachura tree with clumps of yellow blooms. There were a few more trees around the complex as well, but it was mostly concrete.
He did not see Drishti immediately, so he went to take a look out on the street. The gate opened out onto the busy main road. Whether or not the guards insisted that Tara had not left, a check would need to be done of the vicinity. There did not seem to be any security cameras in or around the building.
Thirty minutes later, Bunty had handed over the search of the streets to the three boys from the hotel – kitchen staff whose shift had ended and who had arrived on two bikes. He had given them a description of the child and what she was wearing and then returned to the building. There he found Drishti, with her friend Mona by her side. Drishti had clearly been crying. They hadn’t found Tara, Mona said, or even come across anyone who had seen her that night.
Her bandmates had also arrived, and had covered all the landings of the 24-floor buildings – all three towers. Drishti and Mona had done the rounds of the neighbours whom Tara had known, in case they had seen anything, as well as the public areas in the complex.
“I don’t know where else to look,” she said, her voice hoarse.
And then Bunty heard it. “How could a child just disappear out of her own home?” asked a man standing in the crowd, somewhere behind him.
Excerpted with permission from Dirty Women, Madhumita Bhattacharyya, Roli Books.
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