The Unknown

Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan is an author. Her most recent book is The One Who Swam with the Fishes
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Being abstract and absent with Sumana Roy

Missing | Sumana Roy | Aleph | 267 Pages | Rs 470

THE ONLY OTHER time I have come across a blind Indian man who is the protagonist of his pages, the only other time before I read Missing by Sumana Roy, that is, was when I devoured Ved Mehta’s autobiography Face To Face. It was a funny book for a 19-year-old to read so avidly, also it was odd that I happened upon it at a secondhand bookstore in Paris. Perhaps reading about a blind man navigating his way through India and America reflected my own feelings, being in a strange new country and trying to be a tourist alone, while my father worked. I walked across Paris, getting lost in side alleys and trying to interpret the Metro, while I read Mehta’s descriptions of going to the US for the first time, to attend a school for the blind, and how, back in India, his father encouraged him to be as independent as he could possibly be. I think it gave me courage, that book, how laughably easy Paris seemed, even if they were speaking a different language, at least I could see what they were pointing at.

Nayan, the blind man in Missing , is nothing like young Ved. All of the book—a week in his life— has him sitting on his chair, having the newspaper read out to him by a young girl, who is equal parts pitying and scornful, and wondering about his wife, who went in search of a girl who was molested and hasn’t been heard from since. All of Nayan’s news is brought to him by people he employs—a garrulous racist carpenter, his assistant, and his granddaughter, the newspaper reader. Occasionally the house help chimes in. You get the sense that Nayan is (pardon the pun) in the eye of the storm, as it were, inward looking while the world crashes around him, completely absorbed in thinking about his wife Kobita.

Kobita is a complete cipher, no matter how much time the characters devote to talking about her. If it is possible to make someone vanish by just talking around them, that is what has been done to this character. The more the reader learns, the less, paradoxically, do we know. It is as if Kobita is being bricked up behind a wall of description. Who is this woman, why did she leave, will she ever return? We are as helpless as Nayan, waiting for news to be spoonfed to us.

While this is a book about a missing woman, it is populated almost entirely by men. There’s one female character, a teenager, the aforementioned granddaughter, but her reactions are almost chalk outlines; it’s hard to tell what this character wants, let alone thinks and feels. We know she has a boyfriend, but we never meet him; we know she feels the need to invent stories occasionally, but the whys and wherefores of it all are somewhat abstract. ‘Abstract’ is actually a good word for the themes lurking in Roy’s book—which is a highly polished, almost lyrical read. The images are powerful, each word chosen so carefully, that sometimes I stopped and closed the book—a satisfying hardback—and just smiled to myself at the sentence I had just read. I began by marking the sentences I particularly liked, but then there was a flood of pencil underlines and dog eared pages.

Roy writes, ‘What would you do if you were the last person left on this planet, Tushi?’

‘I’d leave the toilet door open. There would be no one to peep in.’

Missing is a roundabout metaphor for the Ramayana, as the cover blurb mentions. It makes sense: the missing wife, Kobita, is almost a perfect human being. But then the metaphor sort of falls apart—Ram was many things, but perhaps not a blind husband, or at least, if he was, by this author’s interpretation, it’s hard for me to see it that way. His son, yearning in his foreign university, is that Bharata? Is the carpenter who keeps Nayan company every day supposed to be Hanuman?

The reader is led by the hand in an unknown direction, almost like Alice in Wonderland; it’s half surreal. Roy’s first book How I Became a Tree has the same effect on readers, it seems almost like a fever dream, you’re coaxed to see the world in a new way, and this makes it not a light read, or a quick read, or any of those damning-by-faint-praise descriptors, but a book that lingers and urges you to take your time.