The picture on the poster with “MISSING” written on it is of my sister, Preeta. I call her Didi. She is two years older than I am. She has mushroom style hair like mine, only that she parts hers in the middle. She has a mole on her left foot.
The day she went missing, she was in a green frock with frills around the neck and was wearing white sandals—her very new. Ma said that this was not the first time she went missing.
We’d lost her at a crowded temple fair when she was six and found her waiting outside a makeshift kiosk where a man looked after our shoes in exchange for coins. Ma said that she was smart and had averted a huge tragedy by herself. A few months ago, she turned eleven and time flew so fast that only days ago papa made the police write a letter called FIR. I heard it fire the first time. The police said that my Didi might have walked too far into the crowd present during the Ram-leela play hosted that day and could have been stolen. Papa asked me to speak to her friends at school; a girl from her class handed me a math book she had borrowed from Didi. Papa scrounged our city in search of clues. He scanned the newspaper, checked with the betel leaf seller, the tea seller, the ricksha-wallahs and kept visiting the police. He is so smart and hardworking that I can bet that any day tomorrow or the day after, he’d find Didi hogging on lumps of butter in a fairy’s hut and would refuse to come home. After all, I never shared my butter with her. But the magnitude in which papa struggles is saddening sometimes. It seems to keep going on and on.
Ma is going a little mad for now. From the day Didi was stolen, ma keeps forgetting things; sometimes it is combing her hair, sometimes it is wearing her bangles or bindi. I had never seen her so careless. There were days when it had been easy for her to locate Didi in a crowd. My aunties would point to a girl and tell my ma how the girl’s hairs were like Didi’s, and ma would snap back saying that her Preeta had thicker bangs. Now, on the other hand, she keeps asking all our relatives if they saw anyone resembling Didi in any way. Every neighbour knows what ma is going to end a conversation with. ‘Did you see anyone looking like Preeta? Or not looking like her but somewhat like her? Somewhat?’ Her senses are hungry for any news about Didi.
Nothing eases her worries. She takes me to a new temple daily and makes me wait for food till I pray to God. If I insist on having food first, she stares at me with her red, baggy eyes. Papa said that the incident is bearing down on her. She took me to the shops where we got maize roasted into popcorns and to the huckster from where we ate boiled eggs during winter. We have searched dimly lit, smoke-filled eateries—she never allowed us to even peep into these places—where lazy men sipped from small glasses and snacked on roasted groundnuts amid the stench of their own sweats. I had to ask Ma, ‘what was that gold thing? Was it the glass? Was it the water?’ She said, ‘Out of all the things you saw only the sharab.’ At times, she becomes harsh on me but quickly makes up for it in an embrace.
Ma had my days rescheduled and papa couldn’t help. Instead of going out to the park, I’ m supposed to sit down on a scaffold outside the house and enjoy my time doing things like drumming on the door while keeping an eye on what’s happening on the road. The road, a sad, dark shade of grey. Sometimes I don’t watch the road but closely look at the grasshoppers and the ants and the snails, observing their movement, their game when I hear myself calling out, ‘Didi! See this!’ Didi is not around, I realise. Oh no. Did she become an insect? She is ghaayub, lapatah, missing. All of a sudden, she can’t be traced. Is she dead? Ma doesn’t want to believe that Didi could be dead. She knows Didi will come back, but I am not too sure if we will recognize her. I miss those gorgeous platefuls of blood-red pomegranates ma would make us eat. I would chew them and spit the red juice out onto our neighbour’s mozzarella white car in the presence of Didi so that she could save me if I was caught. Though that was only when she’d learnt playfulness. She took some time to lie, to evade elders. She was scared of lying and hurting. Little did she know that nobody is hurt by a small red splash of chewed pomegranates. At the most, it riles a few elders. But we did not do it for them. We did it to have fun in a small, sneaky way.
One day after the afternoon meal, Ma and Papa had an argument post which Ma called him a failure. That was the last we heard from him about Didi. After four days, they were talking to each other. I did not see them sorting out. They behaved as if nothing ever happened.
It’s been more than two months I have been watching the same activities on the road. A Bullock cart pulls in and leaves without warning. A truck pulls out in front of one of the houses opposite ours, is loaded with sacks of wheat and then the truck whirs away. It comes back the next day to take more. It is that simple. A woman leans on the window sill of the first floor knitting a sweater. It is exactly at 6 PM that she turns on the light. Ma seems unconcerned about what’s happening here but she still wants me to keep an eye sitting on the porch.
Children don’t play here. The last time I went out to play with other children in the park was with Didi. I am allowed to go out only in the company of papa or ma. I get bored observing people on the road and, at times, wish the color of the road were pink or purple, but the men and women gathering on the grey span of the road in colorful clothing is somewhat enthralling, too. I play a lot at school and wait for papa or ma to take me out. They don’t lose hold of my arm, but on those occasions when they do—I never told Ma—I hear my sister’s laughter roaring from somewhere nearby, still looking like she looked last, never, never growing.