What can be more compelling than a story that takes a leap back in time to recount a case of molestation that occurred on a busy street in Assam, and that too by exploring the psyche of the molester, the molested and a society that has become desensitized to sexual violence given the frequency of the occurrences? Missing, set in 2012, is a relevant novel at a crucial time—a novel that stresses nothing significant has changed in six years since the incident took place. A year has elapsed since its publication in 2018 and we still wake up to the news of a three-year-old being raped by a middle-aged man in Punjab, or a deaf-mute girl being gang raped by three men in Uttar Pradesh. The picture is not any better in Bangladesh: 279 minors have faced sexual harassment within the first four months in 2019!
Missing recalls “the 2012 Guwahati molestation case” where a girl fell victim to sexual assault led by a group of 30 men outside a bar.The molestation continued for about 40 minutes and a journalist filmed it when a curious crowd watched it from a distance. No one reached out; the police arrived late.
The novel begins as the girl goes missing and Kobita, a fifty-four-year-old activist, heads out on a mission from Siliguri to Guwahati with a view to finding her. At one point, communal riot breaks out in Assam and phone calls stop coming from Kobita. Consequently, her blind husband back home, a poet ironically named Nayan, and a worrying son studying overseas, undergo a series of emotional outbursts, as they try to reason with her whimsical decision leading to her disappearance for weeks.
The novel shows what happens when a South Asian mother—an essential figure in the family—goes out into the world, leaving her shongshar behind. Sumana Roy gives her female character a breath of fresh air by liberating her from the duties of a mother and a wife— from being “the angel in the house”— and giving her the rights to venture out into the world when she feels she must.
Classics in literature, in general, talk about chivalrous men heading out to risky adventures, while the women stay at home or await a knight-in-shining-armor to rescue them from distress. We cheer for Sir Lancelot when he comes back from a quest for the Holy Grail. We celebrate the rajputra in Tasher Desh who sails across the sea and sets a foreign land free from tyranny. And when Siddhartha leaves for the jungle leaving his wife and infant son at home, he comes out a saint after years of sadhana. We seldom question his role as a father or a husband. But what happens when Sita crosses the line drawn out by her brother-in-law, a line that limits her movement? The narrator complains, “If a man left his wife to discover the world or to make a home elsewhere, it seemed the most natural thing to do.”
The author rids Kobita of the traditional role of a woman, putting her in the context of a savior or a modern equivalent of an adventurous knight. Roy’s rebellion against the existing norms and a society violent toward women previously prompted her to put herself in the position of a tree in her nonfiction How I Became a Tree.
Fearless as Tilottama in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness who travels all the way to war-torn Kashmir to look for her lover, Kobita answers to her calling by setting out to Assam ignoring the ongoing riot in a flood-affected area. And thus, when the world pushes women further inside the four walls of their house, Missing lets a woman move out of it to save a girl, when media and those in power fail to protect her.
Missing studies a diverse expression of sexual perversion, revealing the actions and internal conflicts of a few minor characters. The novel is replete with a number of newspaper clippings on sexual harassment cases that facilitate the investigation. To help understand the mind of a pedophile, the narrator in a subplot lays bare the subconscious of a potential offender, showing how he reacts to the sight of children. Eventually, she draws a line between a harmless affection for children and an unusual sexual desire for them. The narrator clarifies that molesters are humans just like us, “Rapists and molesters and murderers do not have a third eye or an ear or a tail to distinguish them from other humans.”
Roy examines “missing” in different situations. Apart from the central plot, there is a “hut-faced girl” who complains about “The Missing Cupboard”, signifying the stress encountered by doctoral students. Kabir finds a page missing in an old British letter; while back in Siliguri, certain letters go mistakenly missing when Tushi reads out the newspaper to Nayan. Interestingly, in an interview Roy reveals, “That Kobita—poetry—should go missing from the life of a poet is also a metaphor for the disappearance of the poetic from our lives.”
The theme of home and homelessness in the novel exposes the paradoxical stance of home that simultaneously confines and gives us identity. While the women are confined to their duties at home, the refugees from Bangladesh and Nepal are alienated and othered.
The narrator rightly draws our attention to the growing unreliability on news media and journalism. She shows how certain pieces of news have been fabricated to serve the interests of certain groups. The narrator states, “the newspaper had, however, almost abandoned its relationship with fact.”
Another notable trait is that the author has adorned the narrative with multiple elements of Bengali culture like “the snatch of bhatiali” or “the cries of a fishmonger”. To clear out the discrepancies of an English narrative in a Bengali setting, Roy emphasizes it is only the language that she has adapted to tell the tale. The narrator explains, “The words came in Bangla of course, the mother tongue, where hurt always strikes deepest.”
Missing is a pleasant read with an abundance of similes on a primary school life. Despite its serious plot, the narrative occasionally provides a comic relief introducing Bimal-da who has a curious way of pronouncing English words, for example “alu bera” for “aloe vera”, “aamer-er-daam” (cost of mango) for Amsterdam. All of the characters are relatable and, most importantly, human with their compassion and imperfections.
Shahroza Nahrin is Staff Writer, Arts & Letters, Dhaka Tribune.