When a Son Goes Missing

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The story of a man’s search for his son who went missing in Manchester

On 13 January, fans rushing into the Old Trafford stadium in Manchester to watch Manchester United’s Premier League match against Liverpool were stopped by a man handing out fliers of a missing boy. It had been two weeks since Shantanu Pal’s 19-year- old son had gone missing, and he stood outside the stadium clad in borrowed woollens, asking football fans to slow down for a minute and look at his son’s picture. He was hoping that someone in that 70,000-plus crowd would have noticed an undergraduate scholarship student from India who loved football and dancing, and also happened to work part- time as a kiosk attendant at the stadium on match days.

Pal had arrived in the city on 6 January after a phone call from the Manchester police informed him that his son, Souvik, had been reported missing from a New Year’s Eve party. For three weeks, the 44-year-old engineer lived in the city his son had moved to in September 2012 and followed his trail looking for clues. He went to room 644, Cavendish Hall, of Manchester Metropolitan University, where his son had settled down barely three months ago. He met Souvik’s friends, went to the stadium, walked down roads his son had walked, and visited places his son frequented on a hunt for anything that would help him find the teenager.

Exactly nine days after he stood outside the stadium distributing fliers and three weeks since Souvik went missing, Pal was called by the police to identify a body pulled out of Bridgewater canal in Old Trafford. Pal had found his older son.

At dusk, in a Bangalore neighbourhood, three days after Souvik’s cremation, the Pal residence is quietly busy. Old school bags are being dusted to give needy schoolchildren, and lists are being drawn for a puja in Souvik’s memory. His mother lights a lamp in front of his picture. Shantanu Pal smoothens a few creases on the printout of a Google map showing the neighbourhood around the Old Trafford Stadium in Manchester. The map has two cross marks on it to indicate the nearest mobile phone towers that picked up a text message sent out on New Year’s Eve from a party venue in Manchester.

‘Have been kicked out, will try to come back in,’ was the message Souvik sent his friend. It was his last message picked up by the towers. His phone has been untraceable since then.

“We had spoken to him just a couple of hours earlier,” says Pal, who was in Bangalore on vacation in December and was due to go back to work in Saudi Arabia soon. “He was the first person we called to wish ‘Happy New Year’. We were at a friend’s place ringing in 2013. Souvik was also getting ready to celebrate. It wasn’t 2013 in Manchester yet. His mother had her usual conversation with him about eating right and looking after himself. I guess all mothers do that. We hung up saying we would call him on 3 January, his birthday.”

But on 2 January, around 7 pm, Pal received a phone call. The voice on the other end spoke in Hindi, said that the call was being made from the Manchester police station and that their son had been reported missing. “My first reaction was that this had to be a prank,” Pal says. “But it was only after they told me that they had got my number from Facebook since the university was closed and gave me other details did the truth hit home. They told me that they had searched the water canal and nearby localities for two days and had found nothing.”

Pal knew he had to go to Manchester the minute he put the phone down. “My son needed me. I had to rescue him,” he says, adding that it took him a couple of days of preparation and he reached Manchester only on 6 January.

For the next three weeks, Pal searched relentlessly for clues, walked the streets and kept in touch with the police. And, based on the details the police had given him, he retraced the events of 31 December, trying to reconstruct what could have happened that night.

Pal knew that Souvik had made last- minute plans to attend a party at Warehouse Project, a popular nightclub in South Manchester where DJs Annie Mac and Felix Da Housecat were among those performing. The venue was on Trafford Park Road, not very far from the stadium. Souvik had paid extra for the ticket since his decision to attend had been late, and he reached the venue with six friends.

“What happened thereafter is a bit hazy,” says Pal, “According to the police, Souvik was asked to leave the venue before midnight and was not with his friends. According to the bouncers, he was trying to enter a ladies’ toilet and breaking a one-way rule for entry and exit.”

Unsure of what this meant, Pal went to Warehouse Project and walked in just like his son would have. He then went looking for the toilets like his son presumably would have. “One notices the ladies’ toilet sign only once one is almost in front of the door,” says Pal, adding that he walked on assuming that the next door would be marked for gents, but even that was for ladies. “It was a bit confusing, and I can imagine it would have been worse for Souvik because on New Year’s Eve, the place was jampacked.”

Then, according to investigating officers, Souvik sent a text message to his friend at around 11.22 pm local time (GMT), saying that he had been ‘kicked out’ and would try getting back in. A CCTV camera outside the venue shows him walking away from the venue a little later. That was the last anyone saw of Souvik. His roommate filed a missing person’s complaint the next morning.

In the details released by the Manchester police, Souvik was described as ‘5 ft 7 inches tall, of slim build, with a scar on the right side of his forehead and with an Indian accent’. He was last seen wearing a ‘pale denim long- sleeved shirt with a collar, grey chino trousers and navy blue leather boots’.

Pal kept meeting officials, kept distributing fliers, and was in touch with Souvik’s friends. “The police had done their bit, but I was hoping a father’s appeal would have a different impact,” says Pal. In response, the police heard from two people. One motorist mentioned that he had noticed an Asian male trying to climb a wall in front of a canal lock gate. The investigators drained the canal, but all they found were four cellphones and a watch. None belonged to Souvik.

The second caller mentioned an Asian male who had fainted inside the club. But the description did not match Souvik’s.

“I was always hopeful,” says Pal, “because if they hadn’t found a body, then there were chances of my son’s being alive.” Meanwhile, his wife had met an astrologer in Bangalore who told her that Souvik was being held captive in a building. “All this kept our hopes alive,” Pal says. “I had a dream one night that Souvik and another girl were being dragged out of a car. I kept telling the police everything, sharing all my thoughts and concerns.”

All this while, Pal also kept looking for logical explanations. “Souvik was a good swimmer and spent many summers in Bangalore swimming with his friends. He had also spent £150 on a gym membership and was in good physical shape. How could he have drowned?” Pal says he kept asking. “Moreover, it is static water, a man-made canal not more than six feet deep. There is a clear embankment used by joggers, so it is not that one could have slipped into the water. Also, the area is very well lit. Nothing was adding up.”

Two weeks into his search, Pal says he felt emotionally exhausted and drained. At a college friend’s suggestion, he spent two days at their home before returning to his hotel room and to the news that there had been no breakthrough in the investigations to find his son.

Investigators had also told him that their sonar equipment would have picked up even a faint trace of a human body underwater. All this only meant that Souvik would come back. Barring one emotional outburst, Pal says he was always optimistic that it would all turn out well in the end.

But Pal distinctly remembers the day he felt the first signs of his optimism ebbing in Manchester. “It was the day the police told me that they had reviewed their earlier decision and decided to search the canal again,” Pal says. “Somehow I felt very low that day.”

The next day, on 22 January, he identified his son’s body. Pal only saw the face and was told that there were no visible injury marks on Souvik’s body. “They took nearly 40 samples from my son’s body and we are hoping that when the results come out they will answer all our questions.”

BBC News reported that Detective Chief Inspector Colin Larkin had said there was nothing to suggest it was “anything other than a tragic accident”, but they wanted to find out when, how and where Souvik entered the canal. The post mortem report had proved inconclusive. The channel quoted Larkin as saying: “We do not believe there are any suspicious circumstances surrounding Souvik’s death and a file will be submitted to the coroner in due course.”

Meanwhile, in their Bangalore home, Pal and his wife Mahua keep going back to their decision to send Souvik to Manchester for his undergraduate studies. Like all families, the Pals debated their son’s choice. While Mahua was keen that Souvik continue studying in Bangalore, Shantanu looked at the financial implications. But both parents also saw that their son had his heart set on product design course that the Faculty of Science and Engineering at Manchester Metropolitan University offered. “We finally decided to go with what our son wanted,” Pal says, as his wife nods. “And he was so happy. He worked hard and settled in quickly. ”

Flipping through a ‘Down Memory Lane’ book put together by Souvik’s flatmates, the parents point to pictures of their son dancing, hanging out with friends, standing with teammates of a football club after a match. Each little note describes him as an easy person to get along with, a good sport, and ends with wistfully wishing they had gotten to spend more time together.

In his condolence letter to the Pals, Professor Ken Hurst, head of the school of engineering at the university, re- iterates that Souvik had settled in quickly and was doing exceptionally well. University Vice-chancellor Profes- sor John Brooks led the tribute to a “special person” who he described as an “affable young man” and “fine student with great potential”.

“He was happy,” Mahua says, before sending her nine-year-old son Arka out to play.

On his laptop, Pal proudly shows a dumpster model developed by Souvik as part of a project that won him a £25 ‘best project’ award. Also carefully saved are sketches and drawings by Souvik, whom his mother describes as a “science student with an artistic bent of mind”.

In a promotional film for the British Council, a confident and articulate Souvik talks about being at Manchester Metropolitan University and why it was his preference. In the short time that he was at the university, he had been appointed student ambassador and was helping others. “He had everything going for him and we were happy he was doing things he liked,” says Pal. “So many youngsters choose to study abroad just like Souvik did. Who would have imagined…” his voice trails off.

Pal brings out a plastic packet. Wrapped in it are a few belongings of the son he has lost. A wallet stuffed with bills, library membership cards, college identity card, the airline ticket that brought him to Manchester and an entry ticket to the Warehouse Project party. Besides his passport, the packet also has a few friendship bands and a watch still ticking to London time.

“Unfortunately, the watch is still working,” says Pal. “If only it had stopped, it would have given us some clue to the time around which things went wrong. It would have been something for the police to work on. We would have some answers today. We need to know the facts of what happened that night. We just have to know what Souvik went through in a city that he had taken to with such optimism. We are waiting for investigators to reconstruct that night for us with sufficient clarity.”

And while they wait for final closure, the Pals are trying to build lasting memories of their son. When nearly 35 of their son’s classmates arrived at their residence and asked them what they could do to keep the memory of Souvik Pal alive, the parents thought of planting a tree at the school where the boy had spent some of his happiest years. “We will still be going to the school periodically since our younger son studies there,” says Pal, “and each time we see that tree, we’ll get to spend some time with Souvik.”