The young woman struggles to maintain her composure as she talks about her parents, who have gone missing in the cataclysmic flash floods that occurred in June in the Himalayan region of Uttarakhand. A month has gone by and the government talks about abandoning the search for the approximately 6000 people who are unaccounted for, devastating for their families.
‘They might have sought shelter in some remote village,’ she says in a tear drenched voice. ‘Why can’t they ask the army to search?’
In the end she adds her own message to the numerous others people have put up on a wall for their missing loved ones. In a beautiful, rounded hand she writes: ‘Mummy-Papa, jaldi aa jaana. Hum intezar kar rahe hain.’ (‘Mummy-Papa, please come back soon. We’re waiting for you.’)
Her story, like that of the other affected people holding up photographs on the TV show is heartrending. A father who has lost his son along with his wife and grandchild, another who has lost several members of his family. These are the ones left behind, who are engaged in a search made cruelly frustrating by the inefficiency of the bureaucracy handling the disaster.
As I watch, their belief that their dear ones might be alive somewhere seems unrealistic.
Then suddenly I’m reminded of the time my older sister Shanta was reported missing in a cyclone that hit the east coast of South India. She had gone to Chennai on official work and the car she was travelling in was swept off an inundated road some distance from the city. When we got the news, I refused to consider the worst.
‘Someone must have rescued her. She must be in a hospital somewhere…’ I told my husband confidently. And I firmly believed it. How could my sister die?
When her body was recovered, however, I was forced to accept that she was gone.
Affectionate, ever cheerful despite her many problems, Shanta di had been an enormous support in the confusing early years of my married life and now she would never come back. It was extremely difficult to come to terms with this fact. The worst was she left an eight-year-old son behind, a child for whom it was hard to comprehend what had happened, and a shattered husband.
We grieved and as time passed we came to accept the inevitable. We were compelled to find closure and move on with our lives.
But what if her body had not been found? We would have gone on hoping and waited for her to reappear miraculously. It would have been too difficult to give up.
This is the predicament of the families of the missing persons in the Uttarakhand disaster. One hopes that some are indeed alive and safe somewhere. But till they are found or it is established that they are no more, their families will remain poised between hope and despair.
That I think is the cruellest thing that can happen to anyone. And I pray sincerely that their ordeal is not prolonged and they can find solace somehow.