In Absentia

In Absentia

Against the backdrop of a politically tumultuous Assam, a discursive meditation on identity, loss and belonging

In Absentia
Guwahati City (Source: Getty images)

Can the measure of absence be a pervasive sense of loss? Or is it something more insidious — like the laboured passage of days, weighed down by loneliness and longing — grievances even — that leaches warmth off memories and colour off the lives of those left behind? In Sumana Roy’s first novel, Missing, a social activist, Kobita leaves her home in West Bengal’s Siliguri to travel to Guwahati in neighbouring Assam in search of a girl who was molested. She leaves behind her husband, Nayan, a blind poet; Kabir, her son, researching on an arterial road in Siliguri in faraway England and an entourage of domestic help — markers of a life of privilege — and sets into motion a relentless wait for her return.

It is 2012 and the nation is in slow churn. Places and people are changing, old landmarks are making way for new, old mistrusts flaring up in discords. Newspapers are full of reports of the floods that have paralysed Assam and the communal riots and Bodoland agitation that have affected, killed or displaced thousands, reminding everyone of the horrors of the Nellie Massacre of 1983 or the language riots of the early Sixties. As the days pass and the political crises escalate, news of Kobita’s journey starts receding, until, one day, the phone calls stop coming altogether.
Stuck in Siliguri, Nayan waits for news from Kobita — his strong-willed wife, his anchor, with “a surfeit of emotions for strangers” and a “stringency” thereof for those close to her, who will be furious if he were to report her absence to the police.

Kobita’s presence looms large over the novel even though she never makes an appearance, facets of her personality coming together from the perceptions of those whose lives she touched. “If Nayan had been a novelist, he thought to himself sometimes, almost never without regret, he would have found it easier to analyse his wife’s character: there would be objectivity, of course, that theoretical word for detachment, and there would have been none of the penalties that would come from analysing a wife’s character in real life. Kobita was one of those, who to avoid doing anything wrong all her life, had actually ended up doing nothing right. That would have been his assessment.” Kabir thinks of his mother with a mix of awe and exasperation: “The belief in equality was such a disease. It was a blessing that so few people actually believed in its mythology. But there were those like his mother who, to achieve that impossible and utopian dream, wasted their lives and of those whose lives were joined with theirs.”

Roy’s previous book, How I Became a Tree, was an unusual philosophical excursion into what it means to slow down and embrace “tree-time” in a world of strife.

Caste, class, religion and community — the notaries of inequality — however, make their presence felt as much within their domestic setup as in the life of the nation. In Kobita’s absence, Nayan finds himself surrounded by a coterie of retainers that includes, among others, caretaker Shibu, carpenter Bimal-da, whom Kobita had entrusted with the task of making a new bed before leaving, his helper Ahmed, and granddaughter Tushi, whom Nayan employs to read out the newspaper to him in the hope of gleaning some information about Kobita’s whereabouts. In their daily communication and altercations, in their prejudices and fears, in their pity for Nayan’s blindness and their interpretation of social and cultural hierarchies emerge a very believable portrait of a nation whose schisms manifest daily. Roy is at her finest here, etching out the supporting cast — in particular, Bimalda, Tushi and Ahmed — with a prescient understanding of the boundaries that run through each of us. In contrast, Kabir, already at a distance from the centre, appears a little stilted.

Roy’s previous book, How I Became a Tree, was an unusual philosophical excursion into what it means to slow down and embrace “tree-time” in a world of strife. Slowness is woven into the texture of Missing, too. The news briefs that Tushi reads out to Nayan captures only the impersonal tumble of wry facts — the reality of lived experiences come in through rambling revelations or the slow burn of micro-aggressions. Missing is not an easy novel to read, but it is an important one that demands of its readers a fullness of attention and a readiness to recalibrate one’s pace to the discursive meditation on loss, belonging, and the insecurity of being forever on the threshold of imminent rejection.