Krishna Gone Missing

Krishna, on Queens Boulevard.Photo: Jeff Riedel

The park should have been right there. A long set of stairs, leading through a children’s playground to a track where Krishna Gurung was planning to jog. She was running every day now, trying to lose the twenty pounds she had gained since coming to New York from Nepal. She looked around in frustration. It was seven o’clock on a Friday morning and raining again, as it had been for what seemed like weeks. Who knew the U.S. had a rainy season? No matter—she would jog with an umbrella.

The 53-year-old Krishna had come here, to Woodside, Queens, to visit her daughter Anu, whom she hadn’t seen since Anu moved to the States twelve years ago. Krishna had been here for a couple of months now, and Anu and her husband, Shyam, had taken her on family outings around Manhattan and down to Washington, D.C. Krishna’s native Pokhara is a city of 200,000, but New York was a different story. Krishna spoke no English; her tongue refused to form those mushy R’s and meowing vowels. Even the street and building numbers had to be translated for her. The Nepali language has its own way of writing numbers, insidiously close to ours but not identical. The numeral 1 looks like 9, 4 like 8, 5 like 4. To help keep Krishna safe, Anu and Shyam had defined a kind of comfort zone for her. Roosevelt Avenue, shaded by the elevated track of the 7 train, formed its southern boundary, and Broadway the northern one. The house, on 62nd Street, represented the area’s westernmost point; the intersection of Roosevelt Avenue and Broadway (the two streets merge) its eastern one. The area spans less than twenty blocks, and as long as the 7-train tracks were in sight, Krishna could find her way home by following them. Anu had also outfitted her mother with an emergency kit: a cell phone with the home number preprogrammed, some cash, and a laminated card with Anu’s home address in English on top.

The park with the jogging track sits on a green hill on Woodside Avenue at 54th Street, a fifteen-minute walk from Anu and Shyam’s house. There is basically one turn required to get there—a right on Roosevelt. But something—the early hour, the rain—disoriented Krishna. She followed 62nd Street toward Roosevelt Avenue, as intended, and that’s where she made her mistake. Instead of turning right, toward the park, she turned left. Believing she couldn’t get lost if she kept the train tracks in sight, Krishna marched on. When she arrived at the corner where Roosevelt meets Broadway, she recognized it as the eastern tip of the safety zone. If she turned left there, she could be home in ten minutes. But left was now right, and Krishna turned in the wrong direction, spinning out of the neighborhood.

She was confused now. The avenue looked familiar, but only in the sense that it looked like every other avenue. The city was like a mountain range, cartoon-simple from a distance, indecipherably complex up close. After a bit of wandering, Krishna passed a Hindu temple, Satya Narayan Mandir on Woodside Avenue, where Anu had once taken her. Krishna was Buddhist, despite her name, but spoke Hindi well. There were people inside the temple who could have helped her, yet the sight of it only strengthened Krishna’s feeling that she was close to home and didn’t need help. She looked around, saw a distant bridge that resembled the elevated 7-train tracks, and set off for it.

What Krishna thought was the train trestle was actually the BQE overpass. She crossed under it and walked alongside Queens Boulevard. She marveled at the garish colors of Pop Diner and was briefly startled by a lifelike, if green, deer statue in front of the nearby Queens Borough Elks Lodge. But all these new sights didn’t quite add up, and Krishna didn’t know what to do. She had left the house wearing American jogging clothes—later to be described on a missing flyer as a burgundy top, black velvet track pants, and white sneakers with blue and yellow stripes. She was also wearing a $1,000 gold chain around her neck, $4,000 worth of gold bracelets on her right arm, and a pair of bulky gold earrings (Nepalese women tend to wear their wealth). What she didn’t bother to bring was the preprogrammed cell phone or address card Anu had given her. Or cash, a credit card, or any I.D. It was past 8 a.m. now, and Krishna was gradually coming to terms with an undeniable set of facts. She was thousands of miles from home, unable to communicate with anyone, alone, without money, and hopelessly, utterly lost.

Krishna is a Gurkha, a member of a Nepalese people famed for its tireless trackers and fearless soldiers. The British had used Gurkha battalions since 1817, and still do. Even in the modern U.K., their regimental heraldry includes a fully functional kukri knife. She wasn’t scared, not yet anyway, so much as determined. She was faced with a task and set out to accomplish it: I’m going to find home.

She wandered the stretch of Queens Boulevard for a time, poking around side streets with alien names like Jacobus and Ireland. Krishna still believed Anu’s home was just around the corner. In reality, she was now in Elmhurst and heading toward LeFrak City.

Krishna knew the word home. She also knew help—Anu had taught it to her as part of her emergency-training boot camp. Somehow, from the depths of memory, a third word appeared: mistake. Perhaps these words could be fashioned into something useful. “Help, mistake, home.” No, even better: “Help, home, mistake.” This could work. She approached a friendly looking man with it, but he recoiled. Am I saying it right? “Help, home, mistake.” She tried it again, on a woman with a small child, but got the same reaction, plus a few unintelligible words over the shoulder as the woman speed-walked away, pushing her stroller. This was hopeless. Even if someone understood her, she wouldn’t be able to understand the response.

At about 10 a.m., Krishna saw two girls in tracksuits and sneakers, walking purposefully in front of her down Queens Boulevard. She concluded they were going jogging in the same park she had been headed for. The scale of the city was still incomprehensible to her—she didn’t even ponder the idea that there could be other parks. So she followed the girls around the corner and down Grand Avenue, for a dozen blocks. When Krishna began to lose faith in the effort, a promising thatch of greenery appeared in front of her, and she hurried toward it. But it wasn’t a park. It was a Catholic cemetery. Shocked by the size of it, Krishna missed the moment when her accidental tour guides abruptly disappeared. Steeped in the supernatural lore in Nepal, she assumed the two girls were apparitions. Cemetery ghosts. She kept walking.

Soon it was past noon. Her feet were beginning to hurt. Hunger made itself known. Having wandered for five hours, she was now nearly five miles away from home and more uncertain than ever of how to find her way back there.

Back in Woodside, Anu, who works as an au pair, had awakened around 8 a.m. By 9, she knew something was off—her mother should have been back from her jog. Another hour later, Anu called Shyam, who was at work in New Jersey. He took the rest of the day off and returned to Queens.

Anu’s first thought was a robbery gone wrong. After all, Krishna was wearing all that jewelry. Anu had never been mugged herself but was convinced, from films, TV, and press, that this sort of thing happens all over the place and to everybody. “In New York,” she says, “you see this story every time you read the newspaper.” Shyam assumed the voice-of-calm role, but Anu was still worried. Even if there wasn’t a robbery, so what? Her mother, the mother she had brought all the way here, the mother who had, upon her arrival, essentially become a child—naïve, vulnerable, dependent on her—was gone.

The Gurungs, like many Gurkhas, prefer to exhaust all other options before involving the police, but by 6:30 p.m. the couple had become concerned enough to call 911. Almost an hour later, when no one had showed up at the house, they went to the police themselves. The Gurungs’ house, it turns out, stands near the border of three precincts, and an hour or so was wasted on jurisdictional back-and-forth. When the family finally got to the right precinct, they were told the officers were waiting for them at the house. To Anu’s shock, the police began by conducting a full-blown search, looking under the bed and into the closets while a detective started by asking if she and her mother had had an argument recently. At 9 p.m., the police filed a missing persons report. They told Anu that they would begin calling hospitals and checking for a Nepalese Jane Doe matching Krishna’s description. They suggested the family do the same.

The Gurungs brought with them from Nepal a deep belief in astrology and fortune-telling. On Friday night, a friend of Anu’s went to a local fortune-teller, who told her Krishna was “under water.” Anu began to cry. Shyam tried to convince her that “under water” might mean “in the rain”—it was, after all, still raining. But he, too, began to imagine the worst.

One of the 500 MISSING flyers Anu made for Krishna.Photo: Hannah Whitaker/New York Magazine

Krishna, meanwhile, had spent most of the afternoon gradually wending her way south. At one point she wound up in Brooklyn. She then picked up on the same cue that had already betrayed her—the elevated train tracks. Although Krishna didn’t know it, she was now following the J line back toward Queens. She still assumed that walking under the trestle would eventually get her home.

As darkness fell, around 8 p.m., Krishna found herself in East New York. She walked into the enormous bus depot at the intersection of Jamaica Avenue and Broadway and roamed among empty buses until someone shooed her away. Several more times she tried to approach people with “Help, home, mistake.” It didn’t do any good.

Later, she wandered up a ramp and onto the Jackie Robinson Parkway. Cars whizzed by, dangerously fast. After another bit of walking, she came across a second cemetery. This one was bigger than her native village. It seemed bigger than Kathmandu, the capital. Its size, stretching toward the horizon, made the mind ache: a city of the dead nestled inside a city of the unresponsive living. She spent hours wandering in the dark, and all she saw were graves.

Anu didn’t sleep that night. By the morning, she was convinced Krishna was dead. It was all her fault—dragging her mother to America, tossing her into this vast concrete maze. Shyam kept telling Anu that her mother would come home any minute now, but after 24 hours, that was getting harder for anyone to believe.

A burst of hope came directly from Nepal. Krishna’s husband, Maita, spooked by, but mistrustful of, the American psychic’s prediction, went to a different astrologer in Pokhara. That one saw Krishna “in a park near the water.” This was vastly preferable to the “under water” vision. Maita called Anu and relayed the vision. The family went searching the East River waterfront.

Krishna told them what she had seen— the city of the dead, the green deer, the ghosts in tracksuits.

Midway through the night, Krishna had found her way out of the cemetery. Led by the light of a distant McDonald’s billboard, she walked along the cemetery border, past darkened gas stations and body shops, until she came upon a 24-hour coffee shop. The shop was deserted except for a single middle-aged waitress whiling away the graveyard shift behind the counter. Krishna opened the door, triggering the chime, and sat down in the booth closest to the door. The waitress offered her a sandwich and a glass of water, but Krishna was too proud to accept food from a stranger. Couldn’t they tell from the gold? She was no beggar. She had a perfectly lovely home; she just couldn’t find it at the moment. After a moment of silent negotiation with herself, Krishna took the water.

She felt her head grow heavy and dozed off, waking to a rude shove a couple of hours later. The waitress’s shift was over. The man who had come to relieve her yelled at her, probably for letting a vagrant in, and kicked out Krishna. Krishna slept a little more on a cemetery bench, woke with the sunrise, and decided to retrace her steps, orienting herself by the light from the east to walk north, the direction she believed would lead her home. A friend of the Gurungs’ would later report a sighting of her in Ridgewood. He saw her from afar and didn’t realize she was lost.

By Saturday afternoon, Krishna had gotten herself back on Queens Boulevard. She looked for the green deer, but couldn’t find it, and hatched a new plan. Off in the distance, about four miles away, the Citigroup tower loomed, the tallest building in the borough. Krishna decided that the tower marked the city’s center or main square. So she marched to Long Island City, narrowly bypassing Woodside on the way. She’d been gone now for almost a day and a half.

Just a few blocks north, the clan was pulling together to find one of its own. The call was put out to the Gurungs all over the United States. Uncles, aunts, and cousins were streaming in from Boston, Baltimore, Virginia, and South Carolina. The house on 62nd Street became a center of almost martial operations. Small teams trawled Woodside, Maspeth, LeFrak City, Hunters Point, Astoria (where a subset of the Nepalese community resides). Point persons were assigned—Anu, Shyam, Anu’s sister Babita and Shyam’s friend Pravakar. A rotating team of volunteers stayed at Anu and Shyam’s home, in case Krishna unexpectedly called or came back. Anu went to the corner store and used the copy machine to print out 500 missing-person flyers in English and Nepali. Each showed a photo of Krishna taken on the family trip to Washington, D.C., looking characteristically stoic, with the Capitol in the background.

In Long Island City, Krishna was crushed to find out that the skyscraper she had been marching toward wasn’t the city’s focal point. A larger, impossibly larger city opened up behind it, across the river—with dozens, hundreds of skyscrapers filling the western horizon. Exhausted, she made her way to the river and began studying the waterfront. Later, Krishna couldn’t even explain why she thought going over to Manhattan was a good idea that afternoon. She was grasping for anything even remotely familiar; Shyam and Anu had taken her to Manhattan over the Queensboro Bridge, so she had a vague notion that they would look for her along the same route.

She soon found a grime-covered bridge and crossed it, but the city on the other side was a bit weird. It was small, for one thing, and seemed to have only one street. One of the most notable structures was a huge parking garage. Krishna dutifully walked around the garage and, having wasted an hour or so, decided to return to Queens. She made her way back over the bridge, leaving behind what she had initially taken for Manhattan but what was, in fact, Roosevelt Island. The darkening sky portended another wet night on the streets. Exhausted, she began looking for a place to sleep.

This is when the hallucinations came. Krishna began to hear the voices of her daughters, Anu and Babita. They were speaking from two different directions, Anu into Krishna’s left ear and Anu’s sister, Babita, into the right one—they were talking over each other. Mostly, they just repeated the word mom: “Ama.”

With the daughterly din in her head, Krishna moved ahead. She found a fountain in a small waterfront park and drank. She found a public restroom in another park and cleaned herself up (accidentally walking into the men’s room first). She came upon Astoria Park, where Anu had taken her before, and once again felt a trace of hope that she could regain her compass. The voices kept going. Ama. Ama. Later, she’d say she heard Shyam’s voice too, paired with that of Anu’s, but she would just say that to be nice to her son-in-law.

In the gathering darkness, Krishna left the waterfront and turned east, toward Ditmars-Steinway. Had the sun not set, she might have seen the flag of Nepal hung in the front yard of one house she passed: another missed shortcut home. Instead, she wound up at a power plant that sits on the northernmost tip of Astoria. It looked like the end of the world, a vast landscape of asphalt and silent machinery. Krishna settled on a concrete bench just outside the fence. She pulled a piece of cardboard she’d found under her and fell asleep sitting up, legs crossed, head bowed, her daughters’ calls growing quieter in her ears until they wafted away.

Forty-eight hours had passed since Krishna had disappeared. At midnight on Sunday, Anu was on her 40th sleepless hour. Shyam was beginning to worry for his wife’s health. He didn’t know it was possible to cry nonstop for almost two days, that a human body had such a pool of tears to dispense. On Sunday morning in Pokhara, Maita went to a different astrologer for a second session, taking along Krishna’s picture for a more accurate reading. The astrologer studied the photo, concurred that Krishna was “in the park,” and added that she was closer than the Gurungs thought. The search party continued combing Queens.

The birds awakened her. A flock had perched on a small tree next to the concrete bench, chirping like mad. It was 5:30 on Sunday morning, and the rain had passed. The cardboard under Krishna was wet and spongy. Her feet were swollen, and her sneakers cut into her feet.

She got up and continued walking for six more hours. She saw a man hose down a car in his front yard and asked him for some water from the hose. She saw a guard’s booth at the entrance to a parking lot that said notice in blue and white, an inscription that looked to her like police; she accosted the man inside, mistaking him for an officer. When he didn’t respond, it only fortified Krishna’s newfound belief in the callousness of New Yorkers.

She was now on the verge of losing consciousness. Even the hallucinations had taken leave of her. She just walked, putting all her concentration into the very process of moving forward while staying upright. The direction no longer mattered—it was all the same everywhere. She would never find home, never see Anu or Babita. She walked some more.

“Are you okay?”

Did she just miraculously learn English? Is that what happens to people at the last flicker of sanity—total understanding? No, it wasn’t English. Or Nepali either. It was the other language she knew but didn’t think useful here—Hindi. The speaker was a taxi driver. He had pulled up behind her, stopped the car and was now hanging out of the window, concerned. Krishna doesn’t remember what he looked like. She does remember thinking, without a shadow of doubt, that he was a god. She told him so.

“No, no, ma’am,” said the driver. “I am a man. Do you know where you live?”

“Woodside” came to her. It wasn’t much, but it was enough. “Woodside,” she said, “Woodside. Woodside. Woodside.”

The cabbie knew what she meant—the Nepalese neighborhood. It was easy to find. Every other house had a flag in front of it. He would have taken her directly to Anu’s home, but as soon as she saw some familiar landmarks—a Chinese fruit vendor and a Sports Authority sign—she asked the driver to stop the car and let her out. Then she walked the remaining few blocks home.

Anu’s friend Aarati, manning the home front, heard someone open the door. A second later, she was frantically mashing buttons on her cell phone. It was noon on Sunday, 53 hours since Krishna’s first wrong turn. Anu, Shyam, and Aarati’s mother were methodically combing a local park one more time, on the astrologer’s advice. When Aarati’s call came, they ran to Shyam’s Nissan and sped home. Anu cried in the park, and she cried in the car, and she cried when she saw her mother for the first time in almost three days. Then she cried for a few hours more.

When she woke up the next day in her own bed, Krishna told the family what she had seen. She told them about the city of the dead, the green deer, the ghosts in tracksuits.

Krishna soon confided in her daughter that she’d like to go back to Nepal, and left for Pokhara six weeks later—well before her visa ran out. Against all odds, she had developed a mild but persistent claustrophobia. She spent most of her remaining New York nights sleepless, and would often slip outside in the dark. She’d drape a blanket over the top step of the porch and sit there, looking at the night sky and a Buddhist flag flapping on the lawn pole, her head thrumming with the maddening knowledge of the enormity that hid just beyond the corner.

Krishna Gone Missing