Is there a line Sita can’t cross today?

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If the Ramayana depicted the abducted woman as a victim, does the modern-day woman remain as shackled by the tender clutches of the safe haven?

In her novel, ‘Missing’, Sumana Roy wanted to explore victimhood and volition.

Sumana Roy’s Missing is the third Indian novel I’ve read this year where the central woman character goes missing. Roy has written a fascinating essay about this phenomenon, offering clues about the popularity of this thematic choice. Her own novel was propelled by events in 2012 — a young girl who is molested by a gang of men outside a bar in Guwahati (#GuwahatiGirl), and the riots in Bodoland, which displaced hundreds of thousands of people. Into this chaos, she unleashes Kobita, an activist and wife of the blind poet Nayan, who goes to investigate what has happened. Over seven days, as the novel unfolds, we put together the puzzle of Kobita in her absence. Shadowing this story of course, is the first lady of missing wives — Sita.

Roy tells me that the risks and dangers that a woman’s life becomes subject to if she steps out of the house were made clear hundreds of years ago with the Ramayana; the ‘Lakshman Rekha’ drawn by a man to protect a woman from other men is a tradition that continues. “I’ve been interested in speculating whether Sita left on her own will. I don’t want to see her as a victim alone. In telling Kobita’s story, in making her leave home of her own volition and desire, I wanted to explore the possibilities and consequences available to Sita in stepping out of her home for a journey to an unfamiliar place today.”

Home as amulet and shelter is an idea that is echoed and challenged throughout the novel. Nayan, the blind poet, wakes up to find his wife missing. He cannot get in touch with her on the phone. She has done this before, so he tries not to worry. In the meantime, he must rely upon a cantankerous, casteist carpenter, Bimal-da, who says things like, “Hindu-Muslim love stories are for films, not for real life,” and the carpenter’s feisty daughter, Tushi, who reads him the English newspapers.

Roy wrote the book in real time, and intersects various kinds of text into her narrative — letters, newspapers, poetry. “I don’t believe in the purity of genres,” she says. “Right from the beginning I knew that Missing, because it had been triggered by events around me, could not live in the form of what is understood to be a conventional novel. Just as our lives — and our days — are spaces where newspapers and letters and poetry and gossip and conversation and music and bird cries and hawker-calls coexist, I wanted the same for the pages of Missing. That desire led to this form.”

The novel is dark and claustrophobic but full of Roy’s signature wit and play. Even as Nayan is worried about his wife, he wants someone to chase the pigeons out of his house because he cannot decipher whether the sounds they make are happy or sad, and so he wants them banished. We feel for the blind poet, utterly dependent on the people around him. Roy is good at playing tug of war. Sometimes we begin to take up the judgemental tone of Bimal-da, who wonders why a wife must leave her husband. Other times we cheer on this woman we’ve never met for having the courage to walk into dangerous territory alone.

Roy says she wanted to create this effect of fear. “Fear, at least my experience of it,” she says, “turns the world into a small place, spatially, even temporally. All thoughts and all actions, circle around the subject of fear.” For Nayan, she explains, it is like an amputation, as if something has been severed from his being, because he is without the person who annotates the world for him, and is literally without his kobita (poetry). This fear extends outward, of course, because in the backdrop there is the refugee situation in Bodoland and the difficulties of those displacements.

“There is no certainty about returning home anymore,” she says. “We cannot really say that we will return to those we love. The State and its machinery are unreliable. We turn to the news machine, and what we find there is an incessant cycle of bad news. I wanted the reader to skip reading the news reports in the novel — I meant that to be a simulation of what news does to us, psychosomatically. We feel the urge to return to the sensuousness of life, its fleeting joys, after escaping from media and social media.”

In this novel Roy throws down the gauntlet to the idea of home as certainty, home as safe haven. It is ironic then, that in Missing, she offers a most tender homage to her hometown of Siliguri, this town of no famous people that sits at the foothills of the Himalayas, and is known as Chicken’s Neck, or the Gateway to the Northeast. Roy is its most passionate mascot, custodian and interpreter of its trees, complexes, jokes, language, food, acid reflux — all of it.

“I didn’t know that Siliguri mattered to me until I left it for a long period of time to stay elsewhere,” she says. “The character of light at certain times of the year, the vegetables and dry fish, the conversation on streets and marketplaces — they keep me here. I don’t know how to say it without sounding stupid — I taste places on my tongue. It could be the quality of the air, the slant of light somewhere, the sound of water leaking from a tap. I feel these inside my mouth, and that is how I usually remember them... I don’t think I could live anywhere else.”

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