Book review

Sumana Roy’s novel offers complex characters that show who we are as individuals and as a country

It’s the interplay between characters, rather than plot, that propels ‘Missing’.

It’s been a long time since I encountered a novel that asked me, often and firmly, to pause every few pages. Not because it was boring, but because it had a slowness engineered within its structure. The paragraphs weren’t written in a dense and inaccessible way. The plot wasn’t moving too swiftly forward. The slowness could be attributed to something else entirely – each sentence, clear on first reading, held multitudes and I was forced to take stock every few paragraphs.

What had I missed, what was lost to me because I was accustomed to grasping the depth of sentences on a first reading itself? It isn’t surprising of course that the writer who should stop me in my tracks and challenge my well-worn rhythms was Sumana Roy.

Multitudes within a few days

How I Became A Tree, Roy’s previous book, was unusual – a treatise against the speed of our times, a preference for living in what she called “tree-time”. Missing, her first published novel, is in some ways an extension of that desire. Set within the confines of a few days, the novel asks that we read patiently – each minute as significant as the rest.

In Siliguri, a town in West Bengal which serves as gateway to the North-Eastern region of India, a blind poet, Nayan, waits for news of his wife, Kobita. It is the year 2012, and a young girl has been molested by a mob in Guwahati and a journalist has recorded the incident without intervening. Kobita, an activist, goes to Guwahati, roughly 475 km from Siliguri, to ensure justice is secured. But it has been a few days, and Nayan has stopped hearing from her. Their son, Kabir, is away studying in England, and Nayan has never learned to dial internationally – so he must patiently wait for his son to contact him each time.

But even though Kobita is away or missing, Nayan is not alone. Because theirs is an upper middle-class existence, his house is full of people including the caretaker, Shibu, the carpenter, Bimal-da, the carpenter’s assistant, Ahmed, a gardener, and so on. This varied cast of characters offers a portrait of class, parochial, and religious dynamics in a typical household that employs multiple domestic staff.

Bimal-da resents the wealth of the house and feels vindicated in cheating them of a few thousand rupees by inflating the cost of materials. He condescends to Ahmed because of his religion, and others for being Nepali. Nayan is pitied and misunderstood by all for his blindness. Veiled insults and micro-aggressions are traded daily between the characters, either tolerated or rebuked depending on the personality of those who bear the brunt of them. In a telling moment, Bimal-da exclaims that he fears everyone looks the same to him now, just as all Nepalis have always looked the same to him, which is possibly his way of saying that hierarchies and differences cannot be relied on as firmly as before.

Depth of the characters

However, one of the characters doesn’t hold much interest in the way the others do. Because he is neither in Siliguri or Guwahati, Nayan’s son Kabir seems unmoored from the story even though a substantial part of the novel is devoted to his life in university. He believes himself to be a participant in the search for his mother, but instead his attempts to search for missing women on the internet feel far removed from the reality of her absence and the worsening situation in Assam. Even his endeavour to research a road in Siliguri, in England, is summarised by his uncle thus:, “What an irony it is that to research about a road you live on, you have to travel to another continent.” The most compelling parts of the sections on Kabir are confined to his memories of his mother.

Missing isn’t constructed as a thriller. The central tension of the novel lies in the characters and the fascinating and revelatory domestic milieu – from Bimal-da’s granddaughter, Tushi, who is employed to read out the newspaper to Nayan while Kobita is away, to Nayan himself, who composes lines of poetry as he lies in bed. The knowledge that Tushi refuses to wear underwear, and that Nayan’s poems come to him as lines “swimming inside his head all night” allow the reader to explore the depths and eccentricities of these characters. Missing is less interested in how events turn out and more interested in how people continue to speak to and treat one another and themselves.

The missing protagonist

One of Nayan’s poems, composed during his wife’s absence, opens with these lines: “Death is a cliché. My wife has no time for clichés.” The thread most taut within the novel is Kobita herself. Is she a sympathetic character? It’s hard to say. Does the reader want her to be found? Yes. But it is easier to align one’s self with Nayan’s worry than it is to align unambiguously with Kobita. While working, she often turns off her phone for days. In the past, she has reprimanded her husband and the local police for looking for her and now, Nayan is too afraid to lodge a police complaint even though he fears for her safety. What is the reader to make of this woman who has bars installed inside their bathroom to help Nayan find his way, and who is exasperated about water stains on the mirror when Nayan washes his face?

The newspaper coverage read by Tushi to Nayan in hopes of news about Kobita serves as a reminder that reader reactions to Kobita engage in the kind of armchair denouncement of character that journalism allows for every day. The turning of the pages is partly fuelled by a desire to know what happens to Kobita, but also to understand what the absence has to offer. The reader is forced to ask – is this how we shall remember or be remembered should a disappearance occur? Will we recall the failures and ambiguities, the unanswered questions, the thoughts we otherwise suppress about the person? Will our failings come to light as we disappear? Do we, like her son, realise we are as emotionally cut off as she is? Do we, like Nayan, begin to imagine knocks on the door heralding a reappearance?

Most readers will have encountered someone like Kobita – an activist devoted to her ideals at a high personal cost. There’s an acknowledged “stringency” with her loved ones, and “a surfeit of emotions for strangers.” Is the cost a failing? Once again, it is hard to be sure. It can be grievously hurtful to those in their immediate circles, but in a country gripped by innumerable violations, Kobita seems a vital necessity, an essential advocate for the victimised.

Missing reminded me of what Janet Fitch often says in interviews about how plot is driven by characters being put under pressure and that is what Roy has written – a thoughtful, rewarding book whose characters are polarising in a way that shows us who we are as individuals and what we now look like as a country.

Missing: A Novel, Sumana Roy, Aleph Book Company.

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