By Bhaswati Ghosh
At age three, I first sensed the agony of those having to deal with the news of a missing loved one. On a hot summer evening, as my family members started gathering in the living room for tea, they noticed I wasn’t in the courtyard playing with my brother. Nor was I in any of the rooms, or the lone bathroom, in the house. Tea flew out the window and was replaced by an immediate search mission. My grandfather, uncle, and the landlord’s sons went out in Delhi’s oppressive heat to find me. Nearly half an hour later, they all returned empty-handed, even as their anxiety grew with each passing minute. I don’t remember at what point the orchestrator of the plot – I – surrendered before them. I emerged from behind a couch, where I had been hiding all along.
As the search continues for the Malaysian Airlines flight MH 370, which seems to have vanished from the face of earth more than a month ago, one can almost feel the collective restiveness brewing around the world. From the time the flight went missing on March 8, theory after theory has surfaced to explain the plane’s disappearance – from hijacking to uncontrollable fire to a bomb, pilot suicide, mid-air collision, and an accidental shoot down.
This is perhaps the curse of a missing entity – the unending conjecture it must suffer, even as a conclusive answer eludes the anguished survivors.
Closer home, in Canada, my current location, a particular ‘missing’ news has, sadly, itself been missing from the country’s mainstream media. For more than five decades now, hundreds of women – most of them aboriginals – have gone missing or been murdered. And, yet, the first time I ever heard about this since migrating here three years ago was a few months ago, when a colleague at work referred to her daughter’s research on this subject.
According to a new research, the number of missing or murdered women is more than 800. The most recent case came to light with the murder of Loretta Saunders, an Inuk aboriginal young woman, who, ironically, was writing a thesis on the missing or murdered aboriginal women. Her death reinforces the need for a national inquiry into the matter, an idea the federal government doesn’t deem necessary.
If that wasn’t apathy enough, nearly fifty per cent of the cases remain unsolved, and no charges have been laid. This, despite government statistics showing that the indigenous women are five to seven times more likely than other women to die as the result of violence. As in the case of most marginalized groups anywhere in the world, the women of those groups are even more vulnerable.
Arguably, the most chilling symbol of this ongoing missing-murder mystery is the highway of tears – a 724 kilometre stretch of Highway 16 in British Columbia, where between 1969 and 2011, a number of women (18 according to official records; as many as 43 otherwise) have gone missing or were found murdered. Most of these women were from aboriginal communities.
Statistics are one thing but my thoughts invariably turn to the mental state of the family members of these women. I try to think of the mother, whose daughter never returned home after going out for a smoke one evening three years ago. Or the aunt whose beautiful niece’s body was found, naked and slain, in a bush three days after she went missing. Or the twelve-year-old whose parents allowed her to go biking alone for the first time, only to find her remains 17 years later.
Yet, despite these heart-wrenching stories of loss and unanswered questions, more often than not, the media portrayal of missing or murdered indigenous women tends to focus on how such women make themselves easy targets – whether because of addiction or hitchhiking or wrong relationship choices. As evidenced by the conspiracy theories for the missing plane, finger-pointing can be a convenient recourse to explain the tragic disappearance of these disadvantaged women.
In the last week of March, when the Malaysian authorities announced that MH 370 had sunk in the Indian Ocean, the near and dear ones of the passengers on-board that flight erupted in anger. “Where is the evidence?” they clamoured even as they tried reconciling to the worst. The living experience is one of swinging between hope and despair. But while hope’s sprightly footfalls dance in the realm of the unknown, despair wants a concrete footing – tangible evidence, closure – to make itself acceptable to us.
At age three, I understood that a missing me meant panicking grandparents, a weeping mother, and immense sadness all around. My convoluted sense of mischief auto-corrected itself so I would never inflict that pain on them again. I shudder to imagine the haunting spectre of memory, decaying hope, and crushing despair the families and friends of people, who really go missing, have to live with. Not for half an hour but for years. Decades. Sometimes, for ever.
Bhaswati Ghosh writes and translates fiction and non-fiction. Her website: bhaswatighosh.com.
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