Winter 2008
The Woman Who Vanished 
(From Lost in Transit)
by Anjana Basu
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The whole thing should have been wrapped up within a few days – everyone knew what had happened even though there were no exact witnesses on hand. After all, on New Year's Eve, everyone is slightly bleary eyed. But the media was singing the praises of Rana Sen the braveheart because there were enough journalists like me happy to switch from their five star hotel party reporting to more high profile coverage. And if the party hoppers insisted that they hadn't seen a thing or sidled away from the police when they began crawling all over Park Street at least an hour or more after the event, there was always a paanseller or a chai and chewing gum wala who were willing to talk to the Press for a photograph and a few sales. 

Perhaps we are unfair to the police, we think that they will always defend their own at the cost of the public. They had declared that they would take strong measures against eve teasing, though everyone was convinced that that was due to the Chief Minister's daughter's influence. And then this thing which you might say was the ultimate in eve teasing. I actually got to the scene after it had happened, early enough to find the guy sprawled in a puddle of black against the black road, a puddle that the passing cars picked red glints out of with their headlights. The cars jerked this way and the traffic was snarled up to the race course because all this beating a thrashing had taken some time. If it had been street fighters the whole crowd would have boiled off the pavements and shouted advice because it was the sort of night when everyone was so drunk that they minded everyone else's business. Or a normal day, a danga, well, most people took their heels and let the guys involved get lynched, or joined in the lynching. But New Year's Eve…

Nalini had been waiting for me on the pavement while I finished my up and coming media person act, but then, she knew that was the price she had to pay for being a journo's girlfriend. While it meant free tickets to some of the best tables in town, it also meant hanging around quite a bit late at night. That New Year's Eve she was wearing a wispy piece of scarlet that skimmed her body and hugged it in just the right places and rubbed smooth and electric under my palms except when I grazed a sequin. It was just perfect for midnight when everyone was crawling skin to skin on a dark dance floor and yelling out the countdown. We got out of our clinch and made our way through the kissing couples a while later which was why I missed all the tamasha outside. 

 A few people glanced at us, perhaps it was because the scarlet caught the strobes briefly, otherwise it was dark enough to melt into the night the way it melted on her body. "I like it," she told me later, "because it attracts the right kind of attention." And watching her vanish into the shadows of her gate, I had to agree that she was right about that. Even if the neons had fallen on her, no one would have seen very much. Only a man who was close enough would have seen what she wanted him to see. 

There must have been blood on the streets that night, but the darkness hid it so that at first Nalini thought someone had been run over, one of those drunk high rollers whizzing through the night to have the motorbike turn turtle. "Stay here on the pavement," I told her. "Let me go and see what's happened." And I walked into the mass of bystanders and the whole thing hit me like a wave. Blood on the streets happened and we wrote it down and went on making resolutions to change the traffic rules and introduce breathalyser tests .The police were the loudest about those things. But this was different, in the same line as the college girl raped by a cop under a bridge in Mumbai. People were going beyond saying she asked for it, or at any rate, trying to go beyond. 

Not that anyone had even seen the girl barring glimpsing a silhouette on the back of a motorbike. That she had bare arms they knew because the neon had outlined her in gold. Like a goddess, declared the paanseller on the Park Hotel pavement reverently, overdoing it for all he was worth in case the Bangla media quoted him verbatim. There was a rickshaw man who wrote scripts for Bollywood somewhere, wasn't there, in Pune, I think? Well in Kolkata that was even more possible. But to get back to the goddess on the bike, she had been riding pillion behind her boyfriend or husband but even that hadn't kept her safe. And when Rana Sen had gone down, the boyfriend had unfrozen from his fright, kicked his bike into action and roared past everyone's wide open mouths, vanishing into the early hours of the New Year.

Some of the chikna boys remembered the sound of the bike over the golden girl, it was a Yamaha, they said, one of those powerful models because you couldn't forget that roar. They came huddled in their leather jackets to confess to the Press, just in case the uncles at the station took it into their heads to haul them in as well for being accessories to the fact. The socialites among the women's action groups talked seriously to their children and asked them to spread the world through the schools and colleges, but that usually infallible dragnet came up empty. 

However everyone agreed that if the girl were a decent sort, she would come forward when she read the stories in the papers and tell the world what she knew. It was the Fourth Estate's duty to do that we all declared and every morning first thing over the deadlines we would fumble through the day's mail and our inboxes, come up empty and discuss what kind of girl she was. There was funda galore about her – the most popular being that she was someone's daughter out on a stolen joyride with her boyfriend who had bitten off more than she could chew and was cowering somewhere terrified to tell her parents. Nilina, who had strict parents and a defensive chip on her shoulder about them, insisted that the girl had to be a Mossie. "They're all so busy rebelling against their burkha mentality and then when something like this happens they don't know what to do!" As a theory went, it was logical, though in a city full of conservative parents and girls with a taste for spaghetti straps, religion didn't have to make a difference. And there were conservative parents who took their daughters out flimsily dressed, flaunting them in front of the eligible boys they knew. But then, on the other hand she could have been an Anglo out on the town with her boyfriend who just hit it unlucky. That was also possible. 

Diana Hayden had just become Miss World and was flaunting her long slim legs and newly coloured hair on television ads and her whole community was celebrating – "We always knew we had it in us!" Every Bengali was convinced that it couldn't be one of them, such a bhadro community after all, we stick to all the recognised vices and even those two goons insisted that it was not daal bhaat they had gone after, but someone really special. "They're making excuses," Nalini insisted. "The police can't be allowed to get away with it. From the beginning she had a proprietary interest in the case, I thought it was because of me and the fact that she had almost seen what had happened, hovered on the brink. I told her we were doing our best and we really were. Though, from what we knew of Anglos they were more free and easy and likely to stand up for their rights in the face of police brutality. 

The police kept sending us frantic messages that they wanted us to flash because they were so desperate for the girl to help them make some kind of sense of it all. The TV channels were all over them wanting to know why they couldn't clean their act up and how such a thing could have happened. There was a collection taken up for Rana Sen's family and the whole world trailed the cremation procession down to the ghats in a kind of collective hysteria with screens flashing close ups of Rana's wife's tears. As a media person I was disgusted at some of those close ups, but it made for good ratings. If there was no earth shattering news you could always put it on the front page with the statutory snappy three-word headline. 

Two weeks ticked by and the girl was silent. The two goons were dragged to court and tried to plead temporary insanity or drunkenness. Obviously no one, including their defence, was buying it. However, the cops made sure that no one flashed their photographs in the papers, just in case they got out and you found them directing traffic under Netaji's statue at the five point crossing. The girl's moral character was questioned – someone suggested, again plausibly, that she was a sex worker drumming up customers with her pimp and it had got out of hand – but without the girl or a witness with the authority that just became a useless paper chase. 

Nalini had her own opinions on why the girl was hiding, but she refused to come out with them. "There are enough people telling you what to think anyway," she said. She wanted to come to the funeral procession with me, but I told her that the jostling and shoving would be too much to bear. Instead, she joined a protest march that snaked its way down to Esplanade at the same time as the procession to Nimtola, with women dressed in black carrying placards demanding an end to eve teasing. As I told her later, her timing was bad. If she and her friends wanted to make a media event of it, she should have chosen another evening. She was in her room turning out the contents of her cupboard while Mashima was busy organising tea for me in the kitchen. Nalini's mother approved of me, she thought I was the perfect up and coming son in law, which meant that I could walk into Nalini's room without anyone raising too many eyebrows, though it also meant that I had to listen to Mashima's views on why the girl had vanished like that or any other views on the world and its sins before I could get to Nalini. I could hear sounds of scrabbling coming from the room before I walked in because the door was open. I shut it behind me and the little noise that it made was muffled by the scrabbling. 

 The floor and the bed were covered with tops, skirts, jeans, bits of fuzzy things here, smooth things there, a glint of watery coloured fabric and in the middle of it all, no room for me to sit. I threw an armful onto the dressing table stool and cleared space for myself. The fabric caught the air briefly before falling silently on the stool. Nalini had her back to me and she was kneeling on the floor while she rummaged. Her spine was a perfect curve under her dark blue T-shirt and I watched it admiringly for a while as she swivelled this way and that from shelf to shelf.  However, she continued to do it for so long that I finally cleared my throat noisily. "Oh," she said and turned her neck briefly to look at me over her shoulder, her hair cascading like a waterfall over her forehead.  It was a moment out of one of those ads - I got up and brushed the hair back behind her ear, but instead of looking at me in melting gratitude, she turned her head away again. Her hands scuttled backwards and forwards. "Well," she asked after a while, "heard anything yet?" Her voice was curt.

"Can't you stop that and talk to me?" I asked. I could still feel the brush of hair on my fingertips, like a whisper in the dark,  "What are you doing anyway? It's early for spring cleaning." 

She sat back on her heels with her back still turned to me, "Just going through the cupboard and sorting out a few things. Have you heard?" 

"No," I answered. "Not one word," and I added, "de nada" to make it sound smart and even more final than it actually was. After the march she and her friends had signed a long petition promising to join hands against eve teasing and they had managed to get a copy to the Governor, which was smart of them because it got them an inch of black and white on page 3 in one or two papers. Since I had to have something else to look at instead of her long, long back, I picked up one of the fluffy bits lying on the bed and rubbed it against my cheek. It felt like her hair, soft and fragrant. I put it down again abruptly because judging by the way Nalini was behaving, I was not about to get very much pleasure out of the moment. 

The girl and her silence had started invading our space as well, though I couldn't quite tell when it crossed the danger line. "Are you going to keep sitting with your back to me?" I asked. She finally turned around and got a little clumsily to her feet – obviously she had been sitting on the floor for quite a while. "So now what theories do your people have about why the girl isn't coming forward?" she asked.

"Hey," I said, "do we have to keep talking about her?"

"Not really." She picked up an armful of stuff from the bed and moved it to the stool. Then she sat down next to me, close but not close enough, though that could be manoeuvred if I was careful. Of course, there was always the danger that Mashima might come bustling in with tea – I had just shut the door, not locked it. She looked around the room and shuffled a little on the mattress. The shuffling brought her even closer. "I'm cleaning out my cupboard," she said. "Just getting rid of a few things. I might give them to the Church sale or to Ma for her social service lot."

I laughed and picked up the fluffy thing – it was a feathered pink scarf – lying on the bed. "Things like this? What do you think Mashima's samiti will do with it? Try the dings – they'll lap it up." 

"I wish you wouldn't use that word," she mumbled, fiddling with the scarf. Judging by what I could see there was something on her mind, but what it was I couldn't tell. Normally she and I were people who completed each other – as a couple went, we could sometimes fill in the blanks for things that we hadn't yet said. This wasn't one of those moments. "I didn't know you minded dings so much," I observed, keeping my tone light.

"Was that girl a ding?" That came out in a kind of rush.

"You know we have no information," I told her patiently. "And I'd call you the moment I had any."

"But you didn't send a photographer to cover our march." Yes that had been part of what had been bothering her, though I had given her all the reasonable, politically correct explanations, like the fact that the whole office knew that she was my girlfriend and nepotism wasn't exactly encouraged by the Powers that Be. She thought I could pull photographers out of my pocket the way I pulled tables at Tantra. "Let's not get into that again," I said. "Anyway you got coverage."

"Do you think I dress like an Anglo Indian?" That was another shift of stance, though come to think of it I could almost feel that one bubbling under her skin, without quite knowing why. 

The Anglo Indian theory was more politically correct and less controversial than the Muslim lobby – all in all more convenient for people to believe. As to the girl's disappearance, perhaps she had just packed her bags and left for Australia. When I had last seen the OC, which was at the funeral, he had muttered something like that while adding that they were pursuing all possible leads. "There's no evidence to say that the girl was an Anglo Indian," I replied formally, answering what she hadn't asked. 

She wasn't a suspect, after all, so forces could not be deployed to hunt her down. All that was needed was her voluntary surrender. They had promised her immunity in print and sworn that no one would know her identity, if that was what was troubling her. A girl's reputation is such a fragile, beautiful thing, one of the Ministers had breathed, like a flower that can be destroyed if handled too roughly. Very poetic and totally rabindrosangeet. That appeal was the last of them and, as I said, the hype was beginning to die down, Everyone had put Rana Sen to the back of their minds and was busy chasing fresher murders and terrorists. Except for the girls. Except for my girl. What Nalini was doing that day as I sat on her bed, was sorting out all her skimpy and see through clothes and giving them away. Well, at least the ones that she thought fitted that description, even though hers were always understated, as I have told you before. She had the figure for skimpy clothes but, quite simply, preferred not to flaunt it. 

 But I understood that later, long after that evening when it seemed I was surrounded by all the silken things that belonged in Nalini's wardrobe, a flutter of tantalising feminine mysteries. She expected me to understand what she was doing as instinctively as we understood each other and I failed. Then she stood there listening to me hold forth pompously on the subject of a community that I only knew, talking down because she was such a sweet little thing. Mashima came in with the tea as I was in full spew and she heard the words Anglo Indian and stopped to nod approvingly because, as far as she was concerned, there was D'Souza the guitarist at the Grand and D'Mello the crooner in Trincas and they were all tarred with a doubtful kind of brush. 

With Mashima in the room the argument had to peter out into a truce, not that it was anywhere near full blown. I drank my tea while Nalini muttered that she would have to tidy out all the clothes into neat piles and call a few friends to have them taken away. Mashima sighed, "Spends so much money on clothes and then gives them away almost new. Such a waste of money, no? We were never like this." Nalini turned her back on us both and began fumbling among the piles of fabric, picking up something from here and putting it there, her back getting stiffer and stiffer till she began to look like a stiff exotic fishing bird.  Her mother would not leave the room, so I drank my tea and left with those words still floating unsaid in the air. 

It was nothing in our relationship, less than nothing. I kept telling myself that as I sat in the newsroom listening to what was phoned in. The usual night police things, a man run over by a demented truck, a suicide on the morning of a wedding anniversary, a child rape, she was three and a half and part of someone's mad power game. And of course, eve teasing. "Dull night," observed the sub sitting with me and yawning widely. "Now, if that girl were to call…" He meant it as a joke of course and expected an answering snigger. I saw Nalini's stiff back in front of my eyes and answered him with a stiffness to match the back. He got up muttering something about coffee and left the room taking his grumbles with him  to the coffee machine, "That Samir such a kharoos guy, yaar, no juice in him…" I could almost hear him muttering as his coffee whooshed into the cup. 

At least I did that much for her. 

I waited for a few days before calling Nalini again. Normally I would have called the next day, or she would have, but she was awkward about something and I respected the awkwardness without really understanding the reason. It was an occasion that called for a grand gesture to pull it back on track, like my finding the girl against all odds. I found myself sitting at my desk surrounded by all the paperwork with people sticking their heads in and asking me if I was trying for a promotion or planning to write a book. Perhaps I should write a book on how all these things wear away relationships drop by drop without people realising it.

The piles of paper scattered around said the same things to me that they had said to the police. A man had died saving a girl and she had vanished into the night. I fumbled through them and moved a paper from a pile here to a pile there. At the end of it, I thought, I could sell the papers to a bikriwala and see them turned into little bags for jhal moori, disappearing where all the countless exams answers and legal documents went, slide of oil and a heft of potatoes warming my hand out of the blue one day when I had forgotten it all and was feeling hungry. And while I was doing it, I had my ears pinned back for the buzz of my mobile. 

It rang twice, none of the calls were from Nalini. The Editor sent me off to Behala to hunt out an ageing hijra and extract his life's story with bribes or otherwise. The papers lay around my cubicle and were still there when I returned, without the story. I half thought of punching the button for Nalini's number and telling her about the man who had more woman in him than most women and the marigold behind his ear, tucked there as a gesture of defiance at the people who didn't understand his life and whom he didn't intend to talk to. My finger ran up and down the button as I though how she would respond when she heard my voice and how she would listen as I rambled and then tell me that I never understood anyone. That dingy room with a pot of flowers and a table at the back of a NGO's office with that man hiding his face with one hand while the sun bounced off the marigold and my photographer angling himself trying at least for one picture so that the whole episode would not be a failure danced in front my eyes. But then he had threatened us shrilly with the police and other ugly things, shaking his lehenga in front of us and hitching it up obscenely, the way hijras were supposed to do and sometimes even did. Would Nalini have understood it at all? "You guys just stand there letting it all happen so you can get famous," she had said once.

I put the phone down and put away the papers. And repeated those actions for the next few days with an obsessive kind of fumbling, thinking it was penance and if I did it often enough the phone would ring or I could ring. The clothes must have gone away to the Church sales by them and perhaps she had space in her mind for me. I told myself that she was on the other end of the button, that she was tied to me as she had always been.   

 After five days when I was certain that she was waiting for me to call because women always waited for men no matter how liberated they are, I called. It wasn't as easy as that, of course. I fretted around the phone the whole morning, pulling it out of my pocket, then putting it back thinking that she would be the bath; sliding it half out and immediately sliding it back again because a sub had walked into the room with a copy sheet to be marked. It was a good thing that my pockets were sturdy. Finally, I waited till I was out of the office around five thirty when I could be reasonably certain that she would be home and dialed. Her ring tone hadn't changed – Robbie Williams' Something Stupid - and she answered before he had got through three lines. But her 'hello' was wrong, forced and I started babbling, telling her how busy I had been and dragged out that stale hijra story hoping that she would laugh. She listened to it all with a hoonh and a haanh, from time to time, followed by a long heavy sigh. "I was going to call you," she said. Her voice was quite, deliberately held down over the uncertainty of the line. "I've been thinking," she said.

"You'd better hurry," I said, still joking, trying hard. "This line is going."

"Need space…" that came in between the crackles and then the line went dead.

I stood there stupidly because I had got to my feet and started pacing around the room as I spoke to her, holding the phone in my hand, not even aware that it was there. 

Nalini never did call and even I understood that she was not waiting for me to call back. Mashima might have wondered what happened to me and asked her. What did she say, I wonder to explain my disappearance?  I saw her once at a distance making her way through the crowds on Esplanade, dressed like anyone else, sober and brown, a salwar kameez with a rusty dupatta draped across. By the time I got to where I had caught sight of her, she was gone and the people shuttling back and forth trampled my feet. But she was there in my head still, standing next to me on a night starred with golden glitter. Like that night actually had been before New Year struck. All I had to do was find her. And I would. 

(Anjana Basu's novel Curses in Ivory was published by HarperCollins India in January 2003. A second novel,  Black Tongue, was published in 2007 by India Ink/Roli. Ms Basu is also the author of The Agency Raga, a collection of short stories [Orient Longman], and her poems have been featured in an anthology published by Penguin India. Her short fiction  has appeared  in Wolfhead Quarterly, Amethyst Review, The Blue Moon Review, Kimera and Recursive Angel.)