When a Welsh tourist thought he spied Richey Edwards, the missing Manic Street Preachers lyricist, in a scruffy beach market in Goa last November, he did not mention it for four months. He imagined the depressive rock star might have opted for oblivion under the coconut palms instead of drowning himself in the Severn two years ago, as was widely feared.
Vyvyan Morris, 48, a lecturer in media studies at Neath College in South Wales, learnt that the long-haired man with familiar features had been in Goa for 18 months. But he did not approach the lean figure, known as Rick to the old hippies in the area, and now regrets that his belated report of this casual sighting caused "palaver and stress" after the guitarist "had worked so hard to gain this anonymity".
Goa, though one of India's smallest states, has 1.3 million inhabitants. Weekly charters bring in jumbo-jets filled with Western tourists, and hundreds more drift in by train, bus or ferry. Denizens of Anjuna, where Richey Edwards may have surfaced, are described in the Lonely Planet guide as "seers, searchers, and peripatetic expats". Reporters from the tabloids tried all week to pick up Edwards's trail amid the fluorescent- painted palm trees and moonlit beach raves of this hedonistic hide-out. Pallid, jet-lagged and frantic about deadlines, they had difficulty infiltrating the backpack brigade - one was shunned as a suspected narcotics officer. Local police and diplomats rate their chances of success as dismal, unless this missing person suddenly wants to be found.
"It's very common to disappear here," said a British diplomat. "India is a huge place, and it is so easy to get alternative documentation."
On average, five British citizens go missing in India each year, but the High Commission in New Delhi fields phone calls from worried parents of many others who neglect to keep in touch. Any pertinent information is passed on to the police. Two years ago, British backpackers taken hostage for a month in New Delhi were not even missed by their families, who did not expect regular contact.
In many of India's spiritual retreats - along holy rivers, in remote Himalayan valleys, or in teeming cities - foreigners are often encouraged to take a new name and cast aside all earthly concerns before they enter an ashram. Others keep moving in a drugged haze to the next cheap travellers' haunt. Their seasonal migration route goes up to Manali, in the mountains, whenever the beaches of Goa, Diu, or Kerala get unbearably hot, with forays to Pushkar Fair in the Rajasthan desert or the startling ruined cities of south India.
"We have had cases where people walk in after six years on the road," said a consular officer in Calcutta. "All their documentation has expired while they dropped out, and we have to advise them how to regularise their status. It is slightly better now that the Indian airport immigration is computerised. But people do vanish."
Edwards, who left his passport and credit cards in his Cardiff flat after fleeing from his London hotel just before a 1995 US tour, would now be 30 years old. Neither Scotland Yard nor Interpol has officially notified the British embassy in New Delhi with his description.
Inspector General Ranjan Brar, the Goan police chief, said he had seen a circular last month about a missing British man, but did not recall the name. Without a colour photograph, there was too little to go on. Told that Edwards had been anorexic and could be recognised by scars down his left arm, caused by frequent self-mutilation, and by his distinctive high cheekbones, the beleaguered police chief sighed. "There are all sorts here. Who's to say that this man has not long since moved on? "
It is unlikely that Edwards, even if travelling on a false passport, would hurry on to islands in Thailand, as many Goa regulars do. Fans of the Manic Street Preachers are numerous in Bangkok, where it is the number one group. In India, however, celebrities often go unrecognised. Film stars Goldie Hawn and Demi Moore have walked around Bombay undetected, and the Duchess of York managed to see the guru Sai Baba outside Bangalore without being spotted.
Richey Edwards's fellow band member, Nick Wire, is quoted on the Internet as saying: "Wherever Richey is, he's made his own choice and he's doing what he wants. Unless he's gone insane. Maybe he'll disappear for five years and come back with the greatest book ever written, a huge beard, and be really happy."