Free Press Journal

Missing by Sumana Roy: Review


Book: Missing
Author: Sumana Roy
Publisher: Aleph Book
Pages: 261; Price: Rs 599


There’s an Anglo-French genre in modern novel writing known as new-fangled objectification. To understand this term, readers must read Sumana Roy’s maiden novel How I Became a Tree, in which she objectified a tree and in her second novel, Missing, she has objectified a newspaper. But in both the books, she didn’t personify a tree or a news (item). Both the metaphors are there, but human emotion is the be-all and end-all. That’s why, readers don’t experience deviation, diversion and digression in both the novels.
But this book certainly revolves around Kobita (the social worker who decides to travel to Guwahati in search of the molested girl who has gone missing) and the news-world. This world of news encompasses bulletins, broadsheet reporting, tweeting, and other similar concomitant sources to piece a mystery together and to create a gripping narrative.

In this age of ‘over-newsing’ (a term coined by media baron Rupert Murdoch) and proliferation of social media, often a serious and sombre event, episode or phenomenon may face a black-out. This is ironic and needs some explanation. If news mediums have been able to generate public interest, they have also failed to stay credible and authentic. In other words, they have pandered to superficial curiosity of those who read or watch news channels.

More often than not, a newspaper is a potpourri of sensational news, like who married whom and who impregnated whom, etc. The real news often gets interred in the graveyard of frivolity. To cut the matter short, what is newsworthy remains to be unanswered in this era of over-news.

Blind poet Nayan’s futile search for his 54-year-old missing wife Kobita through an amanuensis reading newspaper for him reminds well-read readers of Urdu novelist Intazaar Hussain’s novelette Meri Gumshuda Begum (My Missing Wife, translated by Surjeet in Hindi/English, 1978). The protagonist Liyaqat of Hussain’s novelette, did the same thing by making his ‘educated’ maid read the newspaper to find the whereabouts of his wife. Liyaqat was also blind! Furthering this point, George Orwell also employed this device in his incomplete novel The Glass Bar. Some students read out a bunch of dailies to a retired police officer who lost his eyes in a gun-battle. He too was searching for someone. In this case, his lost son.

There’s a very subtle socio-political satire in Sumana’s novel. It asks a very pertinent question: How far can news be taken to be credible? Or in the words of Lynn Stockwell, ‘Should we read/hear news only to filter out what’s suitable to us or accept it in its totality?’

The novel also questions: Is there anything new to the news any more? This is a very relevant question that needs an equally convincing reply. Should fulminating against the existing system, chronicling deaths, violence, rapes and gory details be branded as news? Can the whole palaver of repetitiveness and sameness be called news?

Missing is a study of the modern marriage, played out against the awareness of the question that gave birth to the Indian subcontinent’s first epic, The Ramayana: What happens when a wife goes missing? Using pathetic fallacy, this frantic search of a missing wife has tones and shades of fear, worry, anxiety and also a ‘commodity-misuse’ element. In a modern family set-up, even if a woman is not exactly a commodity, she’s certainly an unconscious ‘object’ at any age. Though it’s not been explicitly mentioned in the novel, Kobita facing the same fate as that of the molested girl she went out to rescue can dawn on very perceptive readers. The author has kept that implied and creatively concealed. It’s worthwhile to state that in a mature novel, all answers are not panned out or effortlessly made available to the readers. They (readers) have to hazard an intelligent guess to get to the bottom of the story.
“Reading with an aesthetic effort is what I call reading,” aptly opined the American novelist James Baldwin. It’s applicable here as well.

It echoes Ray Jenner’s words, ‘Whenever a woman goes missing in any country or society, the first natural thought that comes to the mind is: She may have fallen a prey to the ‘wolves’.’ The same dismal fate befalling Kobita cannot be denied. Sumana has very nicely delineated a woman’s inherent vulnerability and her perceived weakness. The ‘Sita Syndrome’ (suggesting a missing woman’s ‘unknown’ future, first coined by the sociologist Meera Kosambi) is here for the discerning readers.

All in all, it’s a good novel with a nice twist and a novel structural treatment of a seemingly simple phenomenon. Sumana has succeeded in keeping the suspense alive till the last. Her knowledgeable snippets in the process add interest to the whole narration. It’s a shoo-in that the readers will like this novel for its novelty.