Around seven in the evening on July 3, a 35-year-old scientist stepped out of his rented apartment in South Calcutta’s posh Swiss Park area in nothing but his bedroom slippers, a casual half-sleeved shirt and trousers. He left his cell phone at home—on silent mode, under his pillow. A half-read book, One Minute Mindfulness: How to Live in the Moment by Simon Park, sat mindfully on the window sill next to his bed. Evidently, he was not planning to go far. But after three weeks, Dr Sunil Upadhyay, chief heritage conservationist at Calcutta’s Indian Museum, has disappeared without a trace.
Calcutta Police handles hundreds of ‘missing person’ cases every year—but this one is not like any of them, says Pallav Kanti Ghosh, joint commissioner. “Sunil Upadhyay’s case is different. In most of the other cases, motives are not difficult to establish. They include all kinds of things...you have elopements and you have kidnappings for ransom. Sometimes, they’re even related to murders, when bodies are discovered. The present case involves a very important scientist associated with a prestigious institution, but there are a number of possible scenarios which could have led to his disappearance.”
At the top of the list of ‘motives’ is one that suggests a link to the Indian Museum’s vast trove of ancient art. The theory is that Upadhyay was a ‘whistleblower’ who was ‘removed’ because he was in the process of exposing widespread—and high-level—corruption in the museum. “He is an exceptionally honest man with a sense of integrity, intolerant of slackness or immoral conduct, not to mention irregularities in financial dealings,” says a colleague of Upadhyay. “Unfortunately, corruption is rampant in the museum, which houses works of art and antiques valued at crores of rupees and conducts dealings worth crores also.”
The investigation is taking into account every aspect of the mystery. “We cannot leave any stone unturned,” says Murlidhar Sharma, deputy commissioner (south), who is dealing with the case. “Our investigation has thrown up the issue of his conflicts at the workplace and we are beginning to interrogate people.” Sharma points out that arrests cannot be made without evidence, but every suspicious lead or person is being probed. Though initially only a ‘missing person’ diary was registered at the Charu Market police station, the family has now been advised to file an FIR saying he was ‘kidnapped’. In fact, it is the ‘silencing of a whistleblower’ theory that has featured prominently in the outrage over Upadhyay’s disappearance, which is spreading beyond his immediate context. A candle- light protest was organised at his alma mater, Delhi University, and a Facebook page dedicated to Upadhyay’s unexplained disappearance has appeared.
Photograph by Sandipan Chatterjee
Then there are the other issues for the police to consider. “He was ill and on medication,” Sunil’s elder brother Anil Upadhyay, who’s the railway station master at Sultanpur in Uttar Pradesh, lets on. The youngest of four brothers, Sunil is eight years younger than Anil, and was always seen as “the pride of the family”. Anil was at Sultanpur the night of July 3 when he got news of the disappearance over the phone from his cousin Saroj Upadhyay. (Saroj and his wife lived in the same Calcutta apartment with Sunil.) “He was always a brilliant student. Though we were from a backward village, he has gone far by sheer grit and the dint of hard work and dedication,” the brother adds.
Anil says he didn’t know about “office politics and corruption” till he rushed to Calcutta with his other brothers. He had thought that Sunil might have suffered a heart attack and taken to hospital by strangers. In fact, in the last three weeks since the disappearance, the brothers have searched every hospital in the city in the vain hope that they would find him there. The theory that Upadhyay is lying somewhere gravely ill gains ground from the fact that he had been on medication and was directed by his doctor to take bed rest after he fell ill on July 1. Anil remembers his phone conversation with his brother that day. “He called me after returning from office and told me he was feeling very unwell and had chest pain. I could hear him wheezing on the phone. He was clearly having trouble breathing. I told him to go to a doctor right away. Saroj took him to the Rabindranath Tagore Hospital and the cardiologist prescribed medicines as well as a series of medical tests.” These were to be conducted on July 4. Upadhyay disappeared the day before.
Upadhyay’s family wears a confused look. “If he left on his own, why didn’t he tell us?” Saroj’s wife asks. “He never used to step out without saying. That day, he just left without saying anything.” Saroj’s wife, who had recently arrived from their UP village to live with her husband, used to be rather “daunted by his personality and was afraid to approach him”.
Saroj has lived in Calcutta for the last 20 years and had recently moved in with Sunil in his two-bedroom rented apartment (“We are brothers; why should we live in separate places?” Sunil had told Saroj when he moved to Calcutta from New Delhi and rented the apartment). Since they stayed together, Sunil had confided in his cousin: Saroj knew about the office politics that was plaguing Sunil and the resultant depression. He admits to having consulted ‘pandits’ and soothsayers after his disappearance. “Strangely, all of them said that he was being held captive, was alive and well, but those around him were not good people,” says Saroj.
Saroj and his wife admit to feeling “extremely scared”. “Unlike the rest of his family, we live in Calcutta and could become targets of these unknown people who may have kidnapped him,” says Saroj. “My wife lives in dread that something would happen to me too.”
At the other end of this narrative is the Indian Museum, set up by the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1814, and celebrating its bicentennial year. It’s one of the largest repositories of antique Indian art objects, collected over the many decades under British rule and thereafter—boasting everything from 2nd century BC Gandhara busts to Chalukya-era Vengi sculpture from a millennium later to countless natural history specimens. The space crunch in the museum is such that a lot of its holdings are just stocked in the basement. Against this, consider the existence of an old and flourishing global market for Indian antiquities, with its points of acquisition being often shrouded in mystery and stealth. Plus, there is the talk of corruption over funds released by the Centre for museum upkeep.
Whether all this has any bearing on Sunil Upadhyay’s vanishing will only be known when something tangible pops up. All police stations across Bengal and beyond have been alerted and Sunil’s photo circulated. For now, we have only a bemused and scared family, trying to come to terms with the empty feeling in a house they shared with a young, idealist man. That, and a half-read book.
By Dola Mitra in Calcutta
Apropos the Museum of Little Secrets (Aug 4), the report wrongly says that I, Dr B. Venugopal, have been the director of the Indian Museum, Calcutta, for several years. I joined the museum only in the last week of October 2013.
Dr B. Venugopal, Director, Indian Museum, Calcutta
The timely report in Outlook on the disappearance of Dr Sunil Upadhyay refers to the possibility of the scientist leaving on a spiritual quest. As his nephew, I find the suggestion unacceptable. He was keenly involved in promoting education in our ancestral village. He had set up a library and spent part of his salary to offer scholarships to poor but deserving students. He would visit the village every six months and conduct a test, for which he himself would prepare the questions. He had asked his friends to give donations for the library, which he was planning to expand, and for a table tennis board. He had travelled to Delhi some weeks before he went missing and discussed with me details of the projects. It is unlikely therefore he would have left home and disappeared voluntarily.
Prabhat Upadhyay, New Delhi
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