Sometime in late October 1989, Dibyendu Moitra went out.
He was twenty-six and lived alone. It had been a few months since he had moved to Calcutta and started a new job at a paint company. It was my mother who had insisted he find a place not far from our own dingy neighbourhood in the suburban south of the city. He was her little cousin.
The neighbourhood was still aglow from the last embers of Durga Puja when he came for dinner earlier that month. It was Bijoya, we had had biryani. That was the last time we saw him.
His landlord was at our door a few months later. Dibyo was two months behind on rent and hadn’t been home in weeks. Had we seen him?
I don’t remember if I noticed he was gone. But a year later, when an unsigned airmail package arrived with my name on it, I decided it was from him. I was four. This was the first mail I ever received. Two more parcels and a postcard arrived over the next three years.
A frantic search revealed nothing. Few knew my uncle, he led a quiet, solitary life. No one noted his absence or thought of raising an alarm when he didn’t appear at the local ‘rice hotel’ he ate at every night. The police was informed, as were Dibyendu’s parents in Kanpur. But after a few months their efforts too slumped. There was no trace of him anywhere. He hadn’t been found in hospitals or morgues, nor did he seem to have been abducted by ransom-hungry kidnappers. No thug he might have owed money to or had stolen from came looking for him, no potential romantic partner had gone missing alongside. An announcement in the local newspaper requesting anyone who had seen him to inform the police elicited no result.
The man seemed to have dissolved into thin air.
For the few months that I knew him, Dibyo Mama and I had been friends. When I think of him I see him in his undershirt and pajamas, smoking Charminars on the living room divan at our old rented flat. He is holding a feeding bottle and, between puffs, cajoling me to drink the chocolate milk my parents had failed to make me try. It is the only memory I have of him, in that shabby room with windows fitted with mosquito nets. In my head his face is a blurred burst of hair, beard, moustache and thick black-rimmed glasses. There are no photographs of him at home.
By my teens I had tried to flee home several times, my uncle had become my hero for having succeeded. I admired him for having stepped outside the borders of his life and erasing the lines altogether. How had he managed, I wondered even as an adult.
I don’t remember if I noticed he was gone. But a year later, when an unsigned airmail package arrived with my name on it, I decided it was from him. I was four and had just started school. This was the first mail I ever received. Two more parcels and a postcard arrived over the next three years. They left me with three English copies of Tintin comics and a famous picture of a windmill. I flipped through the pages of the books in search of messages, a code, a sign, even a stray coffee bill. But neither the packets nor the books held any secrets. My name and address had been typed on paper and pasted everywhere. The message section of the postcard was an empty square of white.
My parents didn’t know what to make of the packages and were sceptical about my theory. So I pored over the atlas alone, drawing dotted lines from the source of the packets to my city, trying to figure out how far they—and he—must have travelled.
Anecdotes about the temporary disappearances of poets, writers and artists abounded. Stories about them vanishing suddenly—sometimes for days, sometimes months—were merrily recounted as charming examples of genius masculinity. The air grew heavier, however, when the stories were told by those who the men left behind.
In a year we shifted homes. No packages arrived again.
Hundreds disappear in India every day. A recent study by the National Crime Records Bureau reveals that more than 5,86,024 women and 73,138 children were registered as missing over 2018 and 2019. That translates to roughly 550 women and 200 children going missing in the country every day. These figures would escalate if they included the thousands who have been forced to ‘disappear’ by the Indian security forces efforts to ‘counter homegrown insurgency’ in Kashmir and North-eastern states like Manipur. The Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons in Kashmir estimates the number of involuntary disappearances in the state to be anywhere from 8,000 to 10,000 between the years 1989 and 2000. A majority of those ‘missing’ are young men.
Over the years, in the story I have told myself about my uncle, he encountered none of the misfortunes that these others who disappear in India do. Unlike most of them he is an educated, middle class, adult Hindu man with mainland India and caste privileges, I have reminded myself of this, listing out his social advantages as only one familiar with their power can. If nothing else, these would keep him afloat, I knew. And then there were the parcels: surely incontrovertible proof of life.
It was on the strength of these rationales, stacked shakily against each other, that I became convinced that my uncle had disappeared deliberately. He had escaped a dreary life and started from scratch, creating a new identity at one of the faraway places from which he had sent me the packages. It was because he had reinvented himself as someone new that his old self had proved impossible to find, went my argument.
Unlike men, who choose to disappear in pursuit of the idyllic, palm-tree lifestyle, women are compelled to run and change their identities to escape violence, Richmond says. It isn’t the anticipation of a carefree new life that fuels their escape, but fear.
Over time this house of cards grew sturdier. By my teens I had tried to flee home several times, my uncle had become my hero for having succeeded. I admired him for having stepped outside the borders of his life and erasing the lines altogether. How had he managed, I wondered even as an adult. Traces of my youthful will to leave never quite left me.
Stories of people who choose to disappear are all around us. Growing up in Calcutta they certainly surrounded me. The most persistent narrative in this mythological structure pertained, of course, to Netaji, or Subhash Chandra Bose. Every now and then, people who believed that he disappeared strategically—that he did not die in a plane crash in Taihoku in 1945—would emerge at tea shops, bus stops and markets to argue their case.
They would bring up the fact that Netaji had disappeared several times earlier in his life to suggest his experience in the matter. They would talk of how his body had not been seen by anyone who knew him, that no official reports regarding his death had been released, and that several of his close associates often let slip that he was in Russia. Finally, they would bring up Bhagwanji, an Uttar Pradesh-based monk they thought was Bose leading a new life.
Although neither as elaborate nor, sadly, as thrilling, anecdotes about the temporary disappearances of poets, writers and artists (among them the Sahitya Akademi-award winner Shakti Chattopadhyay) abounded. Stories about them vanishing suddenly—sometimes for days, sometimes months—were merrily recounted at dinner tables as charming examples of genius masculinity. The air grew heavier, however, when the stories were told by those who the men left behind.
I was in my final year at school when I discovered that one of my closest friends’ father had disappeared after stepping out to buy a pack of cigarettes after dinner. “Four years ago,” she had said between hiccups. We had been experimenting with alcohol. By my third year in college, similar experiments had led me to learn of at least five other fathers who had been stepping out to buy postprandial cigarettes for years.
One hot afternoon a few years later I chanced upon Doug Richmond’s 1985 book, How to Disappear Completely and Never be Found, at a rundown bookshop in Delhi’s Paharganj. Just a casual flip through it told me that the cigarette story was a well-known trope for deadbeat dads. I told my boyfriend that I was buying the book because it reminded me of one of my favourite Radiohead songs.
But what I wanted really was to see if the instructions it issued could work.
So my death certificate says, NSO certified true copy of death certificate issued to Elizabeth Logan Greenwood …I have an accompanying police report which details the accident. It says ‘Both vehicles suffered severe damages. The driver of the Innova’ which is the car that slammed into me ‘was rushed to the nearby San Juan de Dios hospital along with Ms. Greenwood, where they were proclaimed dead on arrival.
Greenwood, a resident of Brooklyn, New York had ‘died’ in 2013. I was listening to her describe how, in an episode on journalist Phoebe Judge’s acclaimed podcast, Criminal.
It had all started with her wanting to escape her student debt, she was saying. Over a plate of spring rolls she had mentioned to a friend her intention to “slip through the cracks”. It wasn’t the most watertight plan, but it was straightforward. To avoid the burden of repaying her loans, Greenwood would fly to some sunny island country with shaky authorities and no extradition policy (“maybe Belize”), where she would stay put for the rest of her life. Simple. “Or,” her friend had said facetiously, “you could just fake your own death.”
The comment had lit her up like a thousand-watt bulb. Some offhand research over the next few days told her that faking a death—what Doug Richmond calls ‘pseudosuicide’—is one of the oldest methods of disappearing. Until recently it merely involved placing an obituary in the local newspaper.
“I wanted to see how far I could get if I faked my own death,” Greenwood said as a background to her 2017 book, Playing Dead: A Journey through the World of Death Fraud. Her curiosity landed her in dark places—crematoriums and morgues that sold corpses, funeral parlours that held fraudulent funerals, offices of forgers who made fake documents. Finally, after wading through a sea of stories (often cautionary tales) about people who had ‘died’, and realising that the business of death staging was big money, Greenwood managed to land what she had set out to get—a death certificate with her name on it.
Disappearing, she had gathered in the course of her efforts, was not a ‘woman’s job’. Unlike men, who choose to disappear in pursuit of the idyllic, palm-tree lifestyle, women are compelled to run and change their identities to escape violence, Richmond says. It isn’t the anticipation of a carefree new life that fuels their escape, but fear. Once successful, therefore, women guard their secret zealously. This is why Richmond’s book, which relies on disclosures by braggarts “justifiably proud of their achievements”, doesn’t bother with them.
Such casual reduction of all women to frightened damsels in distress is eye-roll-worthy. But, as Greenwood’s own research reiterated, most women who leave are in fact victims, not pleasure-chasing responsibility-shirkers. As an unmarried, untethered, childless woman who intended to vanish, Greenwood, however, is herself an exception to this rule. As am I.
It is perhaps because Richmond had been too lazy to imagine women like us that I found his book quite useful. The best thing about it is that it doesn’t trouble itself over the ‘whys’ and jumps straight into the ‘hows’, carefully covering all ground—how to plan, what to take, where to go, who to trust and even how to build a second identity.
As I read him I tried to imagine how my uncle’s adventure might have panned out. (Had Dibyendu been familiar with Richmond’s book? Would it have helped him jump over the hurdles he must have encountered?) But mostly I marvelled at how much the world had altered over the three decades since How to Disappear Completely… was published and the many difficulties these changes posed to disappearing today.
It wasn’t the first time Dibyo mama had gone missing.
About a year and a half before he disappeared, my mother had spotted my uncle at the rear end of a crowded mini-bus. She hadn’t seen him in over a year, nobody had, not since he left his parents’ home in Kanpur. And now here he was in Calcutta without my mother’s knowledge, two stones lighter and in a shirt too big for him, seated in a packed Gariahat-Jadavpur mini on a Tuesday afternoon.
“You!” she had hollered from afar. It had been a hot day and she had been late to pick me up from kindergarten. With rage on her lips and me with my backpack and water bottle on her hip, she had pushed through a sea of sweat-drenched people to reach him. “You,” she had cried. ‘Where Have You Been?’
Shocked, Dibyo had shrunk back in his seat. Shaking his head he had protested, “You’re making a mistake, madam,” he had said, “It’s not me, I am not who you think I am!”
After a good shaking and a few slaps she had brought him home.
Together with the other agents of globalisation, the internet boom of the 1990s gave us much—mobility, access, information. All of this revolutionised how we inhabited the world and interacted with each other. But just as our applause for it began dying down it became obvious that the ‘information age’ was also the ‘surveillance age’. While it had made moving between places easier it had also devised novel checkpoints at which our identity needed ‘proving’ constantly. Passwords, pins, CAPTCHA, codes, holograms and micro text slowly wormed their way into our everyday. 9/11 and the ensuing ‘War on Terror’ made routine checks of almost all aspects of our life not just pervasive but normal.
Papers and cards have long been signbearers of modern citizenship. But their role intensified in the course of these developments. In India, for instance, the common state-issued ID proofs one possessed in the 1980s included a birth certificate, ration card and, sometimes, a driver’s licence and passport. By 2009, when the Indian government launched Aadhaar —the world’s largest biometric ID system—this list had swollen to include the PAN (permanent account number) Card and Voter ID Card. Aadhaar completed the trifecta.
Not all these documents are mandatory. But not having them can keep you from availing of services big (tax returns, unemployment benefits, subsidies on cooking gas, opening bank accounts) and small (paying at a hotel or buying a SIM card, a car or jewellery). IDs in India today more than just evidence identity. They are tokens of manageability, symbolising the citizen’s willingness to grant access to their most intimate information, from the insides of their retinas to the contents of their bank accounts.
And it isn’t just the government; little about us is unknown to the devices that make our lives easier. They carefully store every fibre of our existence—from the geometry of our face to the tenor of our voice, our likes, dislikes, desires, and susceptibilities. Predictive algorithms bring us what we need without asking. Virtual assistants scan our email and remind us of flights and travel plans, bills to pay, friends’ anniversaries. They finish our sentences for us when we write emails and fix our faces so we look like the people we want to be. Little of who we are, where we are—and sometimes where we are going—remains hidden from them.
And this is why my escape plans as an adult always fail.
To disappear would mean to cut assiduously through this thicket of laptops, phones and online personas, an arduous task that would require not just strategy but stamina. Instead of where I would go and what I would do, I worry about giving up my calendar, my playlist recommendations, about getting a new phone and having to sync it up to new accounts that I will have to personalise all over again.
Notwithstanding how cautiously you delink, how tightly you plan, what trickery you pull, technology will soon make you buckle, says Frank Ahearn. He should know; his 2010 book How to Disappear: Erase Your Digital Footprint, Leave False Trails and Vanish without a Trace reportedly still sells over 150 copies a week. “Everything” is traceable, he tells Greenwood. All new technologies promising citizens privacy inevitably become obsolete in a matter of moments. No matter how careful one is, their image can be captured on Google street view, by drones, by CCTV cameras installed everywhere. To erase a digital footprint, Ahearn maintains, is now impossible. All one can do is take measures to disconnect themselves from the trail.
That is exactly what American journalist Evan Ratliff did for a segment on WIRED magazine in 2009. Taking all possible precautions to remain undetected, Ratliff went completely off-grid, leaving his home, staying off the internet and using proxy servers and multiple different computers to avoid leaving any digital trace when he did log in. Readers of the WIRED were challenged to locate him for a prize of $5,000. They put their heads together, forming aggressively active online search parties that tracked his every move…and found him in 23 days.
Perhaps the most important thing one needs to ‘disappear’ is to have someone searching. Like in a game of hide and seek, without a seeker there is no hiding, only you standing by yourself behind a cupboard. There are no laws against vanishing. Unless you use it to commit fraud, changing your name and identity is also not a crime. Without anything or anyone to run from, a person who leaves is therefore only someone who packed a bag and exited a door.
To disappear would mean to cut assiduously through this thicket of laptops, phones and online personas, an arduous task that would require not just strategy but stamina. I worry about getting a new phone and having to sync it up to accounts that I will have to personalise all over again.
This makes me wonder why I never looked for my uncle. Never tried to sieve him out from the ocean of people who share his name on the internet, like my mother. Never chased after airmail for their records of who sent me those packages thirty years ago. In choosing to let him stay lost rather than bring him back, I had perhaps chosen, selfishly, to preserve my fantasy of a brand new life and live it vicariously through him.
But is it up to us to bring back the people—even the people we love—from across the borders of the self they have chosen to leave behind? When is a request to come out and show oneself an act of care, kindness and safe-keeping, and when of power?
The evening after his landlord came home, my mother and I went to my uncle’s flat. The door was to the rear of the building. As we stood at the door, I looked in through the window next to it. There was nothing inside. It was a single room, still unfurnished. A newspaper lay on the floor next to the bare mattress. A striped shirt hung on the wall in one corner. We walked around in circles for a while, wondering what to do, where to look. We closed the dripping tap in the bathroom, shut the windows, folded the mosquito net that had been still up. Then it was time to go.
As my mother locked up, I looked back through the window again, cupping my hands around my eyes to look in properly. The sun had set, it was getting dark. In the warm dusk light seeping through the cracks the room looked bigger, emptier. On the wall, the shirt swayed gently.
“Like shed skin,” I thought.