The car stopped in the driveway and he checked the time. After a moment of deliberation, he stepped out and rang the doorbell. As he waited for his wife, Ila, to appear, he let his eyes wander about in the garden, taking in the children’s swing set that remained as broken as it had been when he had left. Then the door opened and he saw her face after, what was it? Eight years? Nine? That would have to be a lie, because he couldn’t ignore all the times her face came in the papers. But he saw now what the cameras hadn’t managed to capture. How the years and the sorrows had stolen her glow, and, in return, bestowed her only with lines on her face. She looked frailer than ever in the airy cream- coloured kurta she was wearing.
“Oh Kunal, you’re early, how lovely!” she exclaimed, a genuine delight lilting in her voice. “I was hoping you’d have time for some coffee before we left. Come in, come in.”
“Or we could just go straight to the car and leave immediately,” he suggested tentatively.
Ila leaned against the doorway, and crossed her arms. “The house won’t hurt you, silly.” But the laugh she let out betrayed some of the same consternation as his. Then he took in a deep breath and walked in, as she smiled and shut the door behind him.
He looked around the place, curiosity getting the better of him. In an attempt to restrain himself, he turned to her again. “I’m sorry, I didn’t want to come in and bother you with anything. I thought I’d drop Sameera off at her internship on the way, but I ended up overestimating the traffic, so … here I am, early.”
“She’s not coming?” she tried to ask casually. “I’d been hoping I’d get a chance to meet my daughter again after all these years.”
“No, she’s… busy.”
He saw the hurt flash in her eyes, but she bit her lip in an attempt to hide it away. “I should bring you that coffee I promised you,” she said hastily. She made to move to the kitchen, then paused. “You still like it beaten, yes?”
He smiled and nodded, appreciating the tiny familiarity that lingered between them still. She turned into the corridor and disappeared, and he sat down uncertainly in the drawing room, waiting, as his ears took in the sounds from the kitchen. He heard the stove being turned on and the spoon hitting the inside of the cup as Ila turned instant coffee and sugar into smooth velvet. His eyes, meanwhile, continued to pore over the many pictures that had been put up, covering every inch of the walls. They were all of their other daughter, Sumegha, who had gone missing ten years ago, when she had been only six. Then his eyes stopped at one particular picture and he got up and walked over to touch it. Behind him, Ila walked in with a tray.
“That’s from when she lost her first tooth. She had read about the tooth fairy in that little Enid Blyton book of hers, so we’d got her some present, remember?”
“Vaguely,” he replied. He took a sip of the coffee, a moment before Ila could warn him that it was too hot, and he hissed as he burnt his tongue. She looked apologetically at him, and helped him pour the coffee onto the saucer so that it would cool down faster.
His eyes fell to a poster with Sumegha’s picture on it, making out the words ‘missing’ and ‘last seen’ and several descriptions of what she had been wearing, and the colour of her eyes. He remembered Ila sitting at the cyber- café, printing out those posters herself, breaking down into tears when the printer jammed, and the owner of the place thinking the broken printer was the only source of her anguish. His eyes took in Sumegha’s height and weight written on the posters, remembering how those numbers used to keep flashing before his eyes back then. He barely remembered them now. He wanted to say those numbers were now meaningless, but he was not brave enough for that.
When he finished his coffee, she asked him if he wanted to see the place, and he followed her around, taking in sights that felt half-familiar, like the dolls in Sumegha and Sameera’s old room, neatly kept away, as though after a long day of playing.
“You did so much for her,” he said tenderly. “You never lost hope. Even after I left. You kept making new posters, putting out rewards, making sure the police never really closed her case.” His eyes travelled to a whiteboard, where he could faintly make out names of suspects and their motives, words that had been written so many times that they lingered on the board even after they had been erased. “You even tried to solve the case yourself,” he chuckled. Then his eyes took in her emaciated figure and her thinning hair, and his smile disappeared. “And you let all of it take such an immense toll on you.” He paused, and she just laughed.
“I was crazy, wasn’t I? I know that’s what you think when you see the shape I’m in, when you see the walls, the house. It looks like a stalker’s place, like I have some sort of obsession. But maybe I do,” she said forlornly.
“It’s like she’s everywhere. In those pictures. In that room. In the broken swing set outside the house. You can feel her presence all over the place, Ila. Or maybe her absence, I don’t know.”
“But in your house, you feel neither. Because you act as if she never existed.”
Kunal didn’t know what to say. “Well, I can’t believe the police finally found her after so long. And we’ll meet her again. She’ll be with us in a short while. You must be ecstatic.”
“Of course,” he said immediately, more out of instinct than defensiveness.
But the truth was, he didn’t know how he felt. He had left Ila and Sameera out of guilt, a few months after the kidnapping, and then, about a year after he left, when Sameera decided she wanted to come to live with him instead, he had seen what could happen if he missed Sumegha just a bit too much. Sameera, the poor girl, had been only ten when Sumi went missing. Sameera had been right there in front of Ila, but the woman never bothered to see her daughter for who she was. An entity of her own. So Kunal had become hell-bent on not letting Sumegha become his identity as well. Or Sameera’s. But he had spent so much time running away from that ache, it was only now, when the news came about Sumi being found, that he finally felt the pain. They had sent pictures, and she was all grown up and not the girl who got lost all those years ago. Somehow, her being returned to them in that manner, so different from what was taken away, felt more permanent a loss than never having her back. If she were never returned, she would always have stayed in their heads the way she was when they lost her. But now, all he could see were the years with her he had lost out on.
He stood up. “We should get going, or we’ll be late. She’s in that welfare centre, some New Life or New Hope or something. The driver has the address. Let’s go.”
She locked up the doors, and he made fun of the old-fashioned lock that seemed anachronistic in comparison with the rest of the house, saying it would stand no chance against thieves. But she merely looked at him defiantly and asked, “And what will they take? Everything is already gone.”
She was silent for a long time after they got into the car. “You know,” she began, “when I put up those posters, and put out those rewards, and went on the radio begging for them to return my Sumi, all the while, the picture I had in my head was a little girl who would come running back to me, calling me Mamma, desperate to be in my arms again. But the girl we’re getting today, she’s been calling someone else Mamma for longer than she called me that. I spoke to those social workers, Kunal, she told them she was happy there, with those other people. They broke our whole family, they ruined everything, but they kept her happy. They told her they were her real parents, not us. And now we tell her the same thing, and she won’t know whom to believe. Kunal – can’t we just…return her?”
He looked at her dumbfounded. “Are you hearing yourself right now?” When she was silent, he continued. “You’re afraid, aren’t you?”
She nodded. “I spent all these years looking for her, it’s become a part of who I am. And now I don’t know who I am without it. ‘What do we do, now that we are happy?’” she quoted.
“Samuel Beckett,” he nodded.
“For ten years I’ve been trying to find her, and this is my identity now. I mean, after a while, it stopped being about actually finding her and more about reminding myself that I’m still looking. That she’s still gone. And eventually, the longing and the searching and the waiting, it just became something I got used to. And as everything else changed around us, this whole campaign that I started to find her and bring her back home… it became something I could hold onto, some semblance of stability.”
“You know you’re a good mother, Ila. You’ve done so much for her. Sumi will see it too. You didn’t care how many years passed, you never stopped looking. Or hoping. Not for a moment.”
“I didn’t stop looking not because I never lost hope. And definitely not because I’m a good mother.” She shook her head. “I failed Sameera. I remember her words, the day she told me she wanted to live with you. ‘You have a perfectly alive and present daughter with you, but instead, you choose to focus on the one that’s gone.’ After you left, she needed me the most, but I wasn’t there.”
“Well, neither was I.”
“Because I failed you too. I drove you out of the house, reminding you and convincing you, again and again that it was your fault we lost Sumegha.”
He let out a dry laugh. “And I chose to believe it, didn’t I? What does that say about me?”
She just shook her head again. Then after a pause, she asked, “How is Sameera?”
“She’s a good kid. She’s doing some big project now at her internship. Doesn’t get into trouble. She’s not happy, but at least she’s not angry with me like she was when she first came.”
“I thought I was the one she hated?”
“She never hated you. She was only hurt by you. Sumegha is the one she hates, the one she blames for our whole mess. I’m sure you must have guessed that’s why she didn’t come today. She knows Sumi is the reason you never had time for her. You know, most kids get jealous when their younger siblings are born. For Sameera, the jealousy came only after Sumegha was gone.”
“But why was she angry with you?”
“She felt I should have stood up for myself when you and I fought. She said it was never my fault Sumegha was gone. She was angry with me for leaving, because she said I was no different from you. That I was worse, in fact, because while you at least maintained some proximity with her, if only physical, I had completely walked out of both your lives.”
“And how does she feel now?”
“We’ve built a small world for ourselves. You know, she looks just like you when she wears those kurtas. She doesn’t like it when I tell her that, so now I just tell her she looks nice. But eventually she picked up that I only say that to her when she looks like you.” She offered him a smile that was only partially forced. He continued, “We’ve been trying to build our own identities. You were so eager to hold onto the part of your identity that was tied to Sumegha, and I was desperate to turn my back on it. When Sameera came to me, the girl had already spent a year growing up in a shadow, known only as the ‘missing girl’s big sister’. I hadn’t wanted that to become all she would ever be. Or all I would ever be. I wanted both of us to discover our own dreams and our own hopes, to not drown ourselves lamenting over the happenings of one night. I wanted us to discover who we could be. But I’d forgotten how those things that we run away from, the things that hurt us, our regrets and our demons – they’re as much a part of our identity as anything else. And now I don’t know who I am.”
“I want Sumegha to stay with you,” Ila blurted out of nowhere. He frowned. Then he noticed the driver slowing down. “Listen, we’ll talk about it later, okay? We can even ask her what she wants. For now, let’s just see her, get to know her, yeah? See, we’re here already.”
They got out of the car, and stared at the building. Kunal started walking towards the entrance, but saw that Ila hadn’t budged.
“I can’t do this.”
He looked confused. “Ila, we’re here, we talked about this. You’re a good mother…” Seeing her shake her head, he continued in disbelief. “So, what do you want to do, go back?”
“I came with you hoping I would change my mind. But I don’t know. Tell her I’m dead or something, or even the truth, that I wasn’t brave enough.”
“So, what now? You’ll just walk away? Not after everything you did for ten years! You can’t just walk away from your child, Ila!”
“But I already did. That night at the shopping fest, just before she disappeared, I had walked away from her to look at bangles. I lied to you later, saying that she had gone behind you to catch up with you. I spent ten years looking for her not because I’m a good mother but to remind myself that I had been a bad mother. That’s who I am, my identity. And that’s why I’m leaving now. Because you can walk away from your child, but not from who you are.”
She bit her lip and he watched her walk to the curb to hail an auto rickshaw. She turned to him one last time.
“I hope Sumegha helps you discover who you are.”