Young girls go missing all the time in India; there is not much about it that has not already been said. It is what it is. Police officials announce this to concerned families in police stations, politicians sigh as they clasp their hands in television interviews, and friendly middle-aged men shrug with a practised resignation while they insist upon its ordinariness while holding court in drawing rooms.

Inspired by one such real-life tragedy that made national headlines, Hurda, Atharva Pandit’s debut novel, is a semi-fictional work. It asks you to sit with one of these routine stories, not because it is extraordinary when looked at closely, but because its ugly parts are so familiar, the building blocks of our own realities.

Three girls – sisters – go missing in Murwani, rural Maharashtra, on February 14, 2013. Earlier that day, Anisha, the eldest among them, had pulled her sisters Sanchita and Priyanka out of their respective classes citing an emergency their mother had called them home for, and they left school in the middle of the day. But when none of the sisters return home by night, their mother and grandfather try to search for them and eventually go to file a report with the police. By the time policemen start taking their disappearances seriously, though, the bodies of the three girls have been found in a well near the village temple.

The sensational news spreads like wildfire, and amidst the media circus that descends on the village, different people claim to have seen the girls throughout the day, each with a theory of their own, and their accounts often inconsistent. But the span of the nation’s attention is only until the next such incident makes the news, and soon the case is forgotten by the media and shoddily closed by the police.

Six years later, Chitranshu, a journalist from Bombay who had visited Murwani that February to cover the story, returns in his pursuit to write about the girls’ lives. He wants to know who they were, but this is tied inextricably, he realises, to the mystery that surrounds their deaths.

Strange family, strange times

Among the three girls, Anisha, the eldest, was the most feisty of them all by all accounts. In the wake of the tragedy, malicious gossip about her habits and character overshadows her memory. Sanchita was the quiet one, her grandfather’s dearest, and a devout fan of Katrina Kaif, often dancing in front of the television to her songs. The youngest, Priyanka, was bright and studious; among the sisters, she was seemingly the only one with a friend.

Their father had died of a mysterious disease years ago, and the mother, conveniently, was alleged by some neighbours to have practised witchcraft, her husband a victim of her tricks. The parents of the girl’s late father lived with them: the grandmother was frequently cruel to express her disappointment at three female grandchildren, the grandfather was partly compensatory in his affections, but mostly genuinely loving of the girls. Villagers maintained a distance from their household, often labelling it a strange family, and while the girls’ mother worked as a cook in a nearby factory to support the house, the fact that the girls were without a father almost seemed to make inevitable the fact of leering and suspicious eyes trained on them, wherever they went.

While the book is written in the third person, there is a litany of voices around: large parts of it are first-person accounts provided by the girls’ mother, the family’s acquaintances, and various onlookers. These testimonies make up a linear, roughly continuous tale of events as they unfolded, and the narrative is a lattice of these, deftly shifting from one character’s voice to the next. Pandit makes some interesting choices in his experimentation with form, and it serves the story well – the characters are recognisable in their small miseries and their looming despair and Pandit’s astute observation of people ensures that he carves his characters with finesse, down to the smallest detail.

Consistent in most accounts is the fact that on the day of the incident, Anisha was seen around the village wearing a green top. A tight green top, “sexy,” an eyewitness says, if you know what that means – the type that tries to attract attention. Anisha was 14.

Still, Murwani is a small community where almost everyone knows each other, so the villagers cannot openly say that she was asking for it – though the state home minister later rises to the occasion and does the needful – so they bend their misogyny into lament. Over the girls’ potential, their honour: things that simply cannot be saved if their bearer trots around in a tight green top.

Hurda is not a whodunnit; even as we see Chitranshu try to piece together what he finds out from various sources, there is little by way of definitive closure in the novel. Suppose for a moment this is a letdown for readers interested in true crime. In that case, it is worth pointing out that it helps Hurda set itself up to a bigger task – that of interrogating the circumstances that made this tragedy first possible, and then forgettable. As different subplots come together, the total omnipresence of misogyny and neglect becomes clear: in the form of whatever evil took the girls’ lives that fateful night, and in the chains of violence that keep the other women in check. For its clear-eyed view of the rot in our systems alone, Hurda deserves to be read by the complacent and the righteous alike.

Hurda, Atharva Pandit, Bloomsbury India.