A person has to be insane to not get worried when someone they love doesn’t come home, or to not be baffled when their husband suddenly disappears. Anasuya’s troubles were becoming clearer just as the darkness was beginning to lift outside. And we’d been more than just acquaintances.
I was worried about her, but it had never occurred to me to go out of my way to help anyone, and it didn’t sit well with me now. I couldn’t even remember the last time I had spent my time and energy to help someone. Any assistance that I offered had been, at best, restricted to giving away some money.
Archana held up the phone. The MakeMyTrip app was open. I could see an Air India flight listed on it. “It takes off at 5.15 am and lands in Gorakhpur an hour and a half later,” she said.
Saying so, she turned to leave. I didn’t want to go. Even if I did, I would rather take a train. But as she walked away, Archana seemed to sense my thoughts and said decisively, “All trains depart later in the day and it’s impossible to get a ticket now.”
There were a couple of reasons why I didn’t want to go.
First, I knew where Noma was. And second, Archana and I had quarrelled over this very Anasuya a few years ago. That squabble had dragged on for almost a fortnight, and the word “divorce” had come up for the first time between us. In the days that followed, I caught myself more than once wondering whether it was truly possible for the two of us to be divorced.
The quarrel had started with a bookshelf. I don’t remember now whether we had been fighting about where to place it or how to arrange books in it. But during our argument, an old photograph fell out of my copy of Ashvamedha Yagna. The photograph was several years old.
A girl wearing a blue-and-white college uniform pretended as if she were flying. All her weight was on her left leg, her right leg was raised behind her and bent at the knee. Her lips were pouted as if for a kiss. A boy stood beside her, laughing. Both looked into the camera.
“Who is this?” Archana had asked me.
“I can see that. But who is this girl by your side?”
I could not recall her name at that moment. The argument got much worse before a truce was finally called. Then, some ten or twelve days later, while we sat drinking tea in the evening, her name came to me, and I simply uttered it aloud: “Anasuya”. Although there would be more occasions when names of other girls would come up between us, the fallout of that argument was such that Anasuya was never mentioned again.
Whatever the true reasons for Archana’s anger may have been then, the apparent one was that I had never told her about Anasuya. I wasn’t prepared for her onslaught. Holding on to old photographs and letters is a strange disease, I admit, but it is one that I am afflicted by. And what was the big deal about an old photo anyway? If I had wanted to tiptoe around this fact, I could have simply told Archana the name of an old friend she knew about.
Before I could pursue this train of thought further, Archana said, “Call Anasuya immediately, tell her you’re coming. She must be getting worried.” After a pause, she calmly added, “If you don’t mind, can I speak to her?”
I realised that Archana must be thinking along entirely different lines. She must be thinking that I wanted to stay away from Anasuya because of our past. But the truth was that I did not want to go to Noma. It’s preposterous to call someone after years and expect them to turn up immediately. And Archana knew I did not like to travel at all.
I knew about Deoria very well.
A certain “Deoraha Baba” had influenced my father quite a bit, and he said Deoria had got its name because of the godman. There was another recent bit of news about how a policeman had saved a couple from a mob in a town called Deoria. But above all, I had been writing a story on Anjan Agarwal, an MLA from Deoria. He had won the elections despite being on the run.
I had always been fascinated by the nexus between the police and politicians. In this case, the helplessness of the police was most interesting; they could not arrest Agarwal even when the nefarious criminal was filing his nomination papers for the elections. If I had to go to Noma, I would try and meet the legislator or his supporters.
While Archana booked the ticket, I searched online for news from Deoria, Noma and Gorakhpur. Most were related to the legislator or his businesses. A couple of news items from Noma spoke about a “deemed” university and sounded like advertorials pretending to be news. One spoke about a Union minister’s impending visit to the town to inaugurate the famous fair of Dol Mela. This news item was full of pictures.
I kept going through the sites of various newspapers. But there was nothing about a missing person. Then I realised I should have asked Anasuya her husband’s name.
In my rush to catch the flight and with all the anxiety on my mind, I made a mistake.
It’s difficult to reach the Delhi airport from Gurgaon in the early hours of the morning – the state road tax is so high that Ola and Uber cabs do not want to cross the border. Sometimes, they cancel on their own. You are then left to fend for yourself, the imminent risk of missing your flight notwithstanding.
This is exactly what happened. Anything that had to go wrong, did – Murphy’s Law in action. Two cabs cancelled on me, and I did not know what to do.
Hurriedly, Archana decided to drop me at the airport. Except for a passing remark about Archana calling her older brother Ravi later in the day, we spent the half-hour ride in silence.
Ravi Bhaiyya was a sore point with me. He was in a powerful position in the Ministry of Home Affairs. We had come to loggerheads over trivial issues several times in the past. He did not like me and had no qualms about making it known every now and then. Although the feeling was reciprocated, my failures had put me in a position where I could not criticise him openly, especially since he had done us a lot of favours.
Although Archana got her job on her own merit, my job had come about as a result of his recommendation. Around seven or eight years ago, when Archana and I were newlyweds, Ravi Bhaiyya would say he liked my poems, and that since his sister had chosen me, there had to be something in me. But as the years passed, I fell behind.
At the airport, when Archana repeated that she would call Ravi Bhaiyya, I realised that she had been asking for my opinion the first time, but now she was simply informing me. “Fly back this evening or tomorrow morning. If Anasuya is in trouble, bring her with you. Whatever the situation is, let me know and I will book the tickets accordingly,” she said.
If it wasn’t for the lines we drew around ourselves outside of darkened rooms, I would have embraced her right there, outside the airport. But those lines found us a rationale for not doing so – there was no parking space, and she would be fined if she got down from the vehicle.
In any case, by the time I emerged from the slumber of my thoughts, the car had begun to pull away.
The fact that I did not hug my wife goodbye was not the mistake I was talking about.
Rather, I asked Anasuya her husband’s name over SMS, texting her while boarding the aircraft: “What was your husband’s name?”
A thought sprung out of nowhere, either because of the message I’d sent Anasuya or because of the relief I felt upon reaching the airport on time. I wanted to see if I knew someone in Gorakhpur, Deoria, Salempur or Noma. I thought of saying something on my Facebook or Twitter, but then, language presented itself as an obstacle.
Language and vocabulary render us helpless in moments of despair – a helplessness one can only express in language. Words abandon us, and one doesn’t know the right ones to use. What could I have written, then? That my ex’s husband hadn’t returned home for three days? Or that I had once abandoned an extraordinary woman, and now her husband had gone missing? What could I have written?
Excerpted with permission from Legal Fiction, Chandan Pandey, translated from the Hindi by Bharatbhooshan Tiwari, HarperCollins India.