Twelve-year-old Kalpana went missing on a Monday. That morning, in the peak of the monsoon, when the clouds played inside her mind, Kalpana left her home as usual. She was carrying her school bag and a small umbrella. The school was just ten minutes away, and all along the route, as part of her daily routine, she would greet the shopkeeper, wave out to the old mother of the tea-stall owner sitting forever outside the small tea shop, go towards the brown cow at the gate of the priest’s house as if to pet its bony forehead. But on that Monday, she was preoccupied and did not perform these daily rituals. Very unlike our Kalpana, the old woman at the tea stall said, stressing on the “our” after she heard that Kalpana had gone missing. That was the only consolation she could give to Kalpana’s parents and her grandmother.

Kalpana’s grandmother had reached the state where her status had become her name. Everybody referred to her as “Ajji”, and in this sense she was everybody’s grandmother. Nobody really remembered her original name, not even her son. She was less than five feet on sunny days, and in the monsoon, she looked even more shrunken. She lived up to her name in that she was a quintessential grandmother, forever in a dialogue with the gods. Everybody agreed that it was she who seemed the most affected by the disappearance of Kalpana.

They only discovered that she was missing when she didn’t come back home after school. Her teachers had presumed that she was not well. In the rainy season, students took turns falling sick. One of her classmates, who always ate the midday meal at school, remarked to her friend that it was “good” that Kalpana had not eaten there that day. They had served yam, which Kalpana hated the most.

Her mother did not worry till after five, when three girls walked by her house. They were still in their school dress and as they passed by the house and saw her mother sitting out on the steps, they asked how Kalpana was. She thought that the girls were asking about the health of Kalpana’s little sister, Deeksha, who was feeling unwell and had not gone to school that day. But when the girls said that they were in Kalpana’s class and that she had not come to school, the world came crashing down around the mother.

Kalpana’s father had gone to buy some groceries. He loved going to the cooperative shop with its smell of kerosene, jute bags, and musty grains. Sometimes he would sit on the creaky plastic chair in a corner of the shop and look at everybody who came in with a proprietorial grin. That evening, he was standing and chatting with Bappa about the rains. Their conversation was often a mimicry of theweather reports in the TV news: were the rains ten per cent more this year or 20 per cent less? Neither of them had a clue, but they continued their discussion as if the very monsoon depended on their answer.

Kalpana’s mother told one of the girls to call her husband from the shop. The girl ran to the shop and told Kalpana’s father that his wife wanted him to go back home immediately. Kalpana’s father turned to Bappa and said that he hoped something had not happened to his mother.

The police station was some distance away, on the main road to the town. The “station”, often pronounced “tation”, was an old house with a new set of mud tiles. It was past six by the time Kalpana’s father and Bappa reached the place, but nobody was there. The door was open, but the station was hesitantly dark. The rain had started again and the power had “gone”. Even the dog that used to swat flies outside the door had vanished. The little hope that the two men had slowly ebbed away in the waiting silence.

Kalpana would have said, “I told you so.” The policeman’s daughter was in her class, and she was worse than her father. She came to school with a fancy bag that had come all the way from Mumbai. She had another girl carry this bag to the classroom. And a woman, the wife of a perennial troublemaker and drunkard in the village, would bring her lunch since, as the policeman’s daughter, she would not eat the midday meal at school.

The growing darkness only made their hope fade faster. The rain would not stop, the power would not come, and neither would the policeman. Then they saw a small moped coming towards the station, and on top of it, a constable, wet and uncomfortable in tight-fitting khakis.

They wanted to search the surrounding forests that night. They wondered if Kalpana had taken the path beyond the school and into the dense trees. They wanted to ask if anyone had seen her with a boy or a man, but these words dribbled into silence. They looked at the road that brought buses (and also took them away) from their village, hoping that she would – at any moment – step off one of them. Till eight at night, underneath a fading yellow lamp on the street, along with three sad dogs and two sleepy cows, they waited for the last bus through their village. It came and went, and the dogs’ ears drooped further.

It was one of kalpana’s classmates who asked, in that crowd of grieving parents and embarrassed adults, “Did she run behind a butterfly like she always does, and lose her way?” And it was the policeman, the next morning, who spoke the words everybody else dreaded to use: Was she kidnapped, or raped, or perhaps even murdered? He looked almost sad as he looked around the room and asked this question.

There was nothing to do in the village except ask these questions. The school declared a holiday the day after. The school principal, a 55-year-old mother of three girls, spoke to the policeman, who wanted to know if there were any boys “behind” Kalpana. “She is 12,” the principal replied. She
thought of the policeman’s daughter, who would one day have many boys behind her. “And our boys are not like that,” she stressed, knowing that the terrible crimes of sex had not reached her school.

The policeman knew what she was thinking. He wanted to provoke her and make her say what she would not. Brazenly, he said, “You have heard of so many rape cases all over India, right? Why do you think such a thing will not happen here? What is so special about your girls or boys or men that rape” – he paused, and with an added emphasis continued – “...rape will not happen here?” She kept quiet and shook her head.

They stared at each other. She would not yield. Neither she nor any of the women in the village would utter the words “rape” or “sex”. When he left, he was quietly satisfied knowing that the virtue of his daughter was safe with this woman.

Excerpted with permission from Following a Prayer, Sundar Sarukkai, Tranquebar/Westland.