A SHATTERED DREAM
On June 23, 1985, 110 miles off the southwest coast of Ireland, a bomb exploded in the forward luggage hold of Air-India Flight 182, bound for New Delhi and Bombay from Toronto and Montreal. In the explosion and resulting crash into the sea, 307 passengers and 22 crew members died. More than 90 per cent of the passengers, most of them holiday-bound women and children, were Canadians. In a dramatic new book published this week, Canadian writers-and husband and wife-Clark Blaise and Bharati Mukherjee reconstruct the events that led up to the worst at-sea air crash of all time. In an excerpt, the authors also chronicle the lives of Venu and Vijaya Thampi:
The story of Vijaya Thampi is a special story, a story about love and dread and self-discovery in the New World. Vijaya was born in Bombay in 1957 into what she thought of as an unhappy family and grew up a lonely, diffi dent girl. Marriage, she assumed, was her only way out. When she was 16 her older brother brought home a friend, Venu Thampi, a dashing, adventurous
young man whose family, like hers, had come to Bombay from the south. She fancied herself in love. She had no idea how beautiful she was, nor could she gauge the impression she had made on Venu Thampi. It took him two years to get up enough courage to ask for her hand in marriage. She was 18, very much of marriageable age. He was a handsome and ambitious young man from a pro-
gressive and well-to-do family, which already had two sons in Canada, and he was an economics graduate, a cus toms agent with a bright future as a civil servant, the kind of groom that Vii aya's parents had not dared hope for. Her parents agreed without fuss to this "love match" in a country where most marriages were still ar ranged by relatives or marriage bro kers. Venu's parents fell for her beauty and her docility, and so did not hold out for a richer girl. Venu and Vijaya were married right away, and Vijaya moved happily into the Thampi house. "What I liked about her in those days," Thampi recalls now, "was her adaptability. She had an immense ability to adapt and adjust." It is spring, 1986. We are sitting on a plush sofa in the living room of his split-level home in suburban Markham, outside Toronto. It seems vast. The house is starkly but expensively furnished. Venu Thampi is a short, bearded, intense man of 32. He has a showcase house, a responsible job with the Toronto Globe and Mail, a demure six-year-old daughter. But we have come to meet him not because of what he has, but because of what he has lost. In Toronto, his name is Vern. They were Vern and Viji Thampi. Vijaya liked Venu's Bombay better than she had hers. She liked to dress up, and he liked her to dress up when he took her out. She liked the perks that came with her husband’s job: the movie and theatre tickets, the cars that businessmen sent over to chauffeur them places. She even liked her husband’s mother—something of a rarity in India—who taught her, with patience and humor, what her husband did and did not like.
Sensational smuggling cases came Venu Thampi’s way. More than any city in India, Bombay drew smuggling high rollers from all over the world. The bays and coves were full of modern-day pirates. Sometimes the pirates tried to bribe the bearded young customs official, but Venu Thampi arrested them and seized the contraband goods. He was getting famous. He had a future in government. And he had a beautiful wife, whom he loved.
All the same he felt discontented. There were no causes he could pin down and root out. But surely there had to be more to life than power and luxury gifts.
One thing he knew about working the Indian docks: sooner or later, the bribe will be offered that you cannot refuse. And then you will wind up like all the others, hypocritical and dishonest. That’s exactly the life he saw for himself in India, the impossibility of remaining honest. That is why Venu Thampi came to Canada. He was an idealist and an enthusiast.
For a South Asian, Toronto in the late 1970s was a heartless city. It was a time when even decent men and women forgot ordinary decencies. It was a time of not being served in stores, of being bounced out of midtown hotels, of being sent to the end of the line by Voyageur bus drivers and of being churlishly treated by Air Canada flight attendants, of being threatened by bullies in subway stations.
It was to this Toronto that Thampi, chasing golden dreams, arrived in 1976. He rented a room. Every day he circled ads and set up interviews; every day smooth-talking personnel managers in clean, well-lit offices told him, “No, we can’t hire you because you don’t have any Canadian work experience.” In their offices he held his head high. But every night he held his head in his hands in a pokey, loveless room, and wept.
But the man who had made criminals quiver in Bombay gritted his teeth and bore his pain. He worked a string of dead-end jobs for impossible hours; he laid aside his bitterness and lived for the future; he saved obsessively. And by November of 1976 he was able to send Vijaya her one-way Bombay-Toronto ticket.
Through the thick glass wall of the customs hall at the airport in Toronto, Venu Thampi watched Vijaya float toward him. She was a knockout. He had forgotten how beautiful she was. She
was wearing her wedding sari and all her bridal jewelry. The red and gold dazzled him. The past six months of despair slipped off him like snakeskin. He felt as though he were a groom again, that good times were starting to roll again.
“She was so trusting,” Thampi recalls now. He plays the night of her arrival over and over again in his mind. “She didn’t realize what I had gone through. She’d always thought of me as very strong, and I didn’t want to spoil that for her. She didn’t realize anything at all except that she was joining me, and that together we were
going to throw ourselves into the wonderful North American lifestyle for which we had given up everything.”
For a while the young, handsome Thampis played at keeping house and were happier than they had ever been. Sure, the husband had to leave for work very early every morning, but they had all evening, every evening. All day the wife cooked. She cooked him curries that she knew he would like; but later she tried out recipes—lasagna, pasta, burritos— from women’s magazines. He took her to shopping malls and loved to watch her spend his money.
She bought herself Canadian clothes. In pants and sweaters she looked like a movie star. On weekends they splurged on fancy meals at French restaurants. He bought her flowers. He took her to the movies. He arranged vacations in New York and Washington. On her birthdays he threw her surprise parties. In winter they took skiing lessons.
The first months could not have been happier. Then Vijaya became restless. The Price is Right lost its charm. She had too much time to experiment with recipes. Keen to improve herself, Vijaya enrolled in secretarial courses. She was an excellent student, better than most others in the class, and she was competitive. After dinner she would ask her husband to dictate letters so she could work on her shorthand. Her excellence scared her. When she was through with the courses, she felt she had to decide between looking for a job and having a baby. The Thampis decided on having the baby.
Their daughter, Nisha, was born in 1979. “Life was getting a little bit easier,” is how Vern Thampi remembers that time. “And the money was building.”
He worked in the Globe’s circulation department. His was a high-pressure, but satisfying, job. A diligent provider, he put in 10and 12-hour shifts while Vijaya looked after the baby and the home.
When Nisha was not quite 2, Vijaya Thampi announced her plans to work full time and within days found herself a job at the Globe’s afternoon competitor, the Star. She began in circulation, taking calls, sending out the route men. She found a good babysitter. She loved her job at the Star; it fulfilled her in new ways. After a few months she enrolled in management courses; soon she was brought into the personnel offices as an assistant. She had been in Canada five years and had already become a superwoman.
“She was so thrilled about going to work every morning,” Thampi would reminisce later. “It was as though she’d found a new meaning in her life. She used to be the traditional, submissive, obedient Indian girl, but then she blossomed. She started to believe in herself. Her self-confidence gave me great satisfaction. Because you know how it so often is with our people: the husband dies and the widow is totally dependent because she’s never had to make decisions or deal with the real world.”
Viji’s ballooning self-confidence meant that she was no longer reluctant to disagree with Vern and to speak her mind. In this community, where most marriages are still arranged by parents and where the wife looks up, and gives in, to her husband, where a phrase like “love match” is salacious, suggesting heartache and lack of control, the Thampis’ relationship—their squabbling and their sweet making-ups—seemed too Canadian. In their community even the word “relationship” itself was troubling and alien.
“Yes, we quarrelled sometimes. Never in front of Nisha. But we quarrelled. There were days when we didn’t speak to each other. But we never let a quarrel last through a Saturday. If we were still mad at each other on Saturday morning, we’d fix Nisha her breakfast, and then we’d say, ‘Let’s go upstairs and talk,’ and we’d go upstairs to our bedroom and we’d make up and everything would be back to perfect.”
In her sharp clothes, Vijaya attracted attention, not all of it wholesome. One evening, on her way home from work, she got off the bus and was whistled at by cruising teenagers. The whistling and catcalling frightened her, and she burst into tears. After that incident, Vern always met her at the bus stop, and when he was travelling, he arranged with a friend to meet her and drive her home.
In 1985, before Vijaya Thampi made an impulsive decision to visit her parents, the Thampis were doing very well. They had bought a house in a brand-new development a little east of the city for $100,000 two years before. They had saved the $25,000 for the down payment, another $8,000 had come from federal and provincial incentives. Their double income was go-
ing entirely into the house, even as its value skyrocketed.
Then, out of the blue, Vijaya made up her mind to go by herself to India for four or five weeks. She wanted to confront her parents, force them to see how far she had come in life, and she wanted to make peace with them.
Thampi tried his best to talk her into delaying the trip for a year or a year and a half. “Let’s wait until all
three of us can go,” he pleaded. “Let’s not waste so much money on a trip now. Let’s use the money more efficiently.”
But Vijaya Thampi, no longer the meek, shy girl she used to be, would not listen. She said: “I can pay for the trip without your help. I have my own savings.”
The spiritedness hardened into stubbornness. “It was as though she was driven,” Thampi would reflect later. “And the main reason that I didn’t want her to go was not the money; it was superstition. I didn’t want to rock the boat when life was going so great for us.”
The Thampis quarrelled long and hard over her going. Finally, Thampi gave in. “Okay, go if you feel you have to,” he said, “but don’t expect me to help you with your gift shopping.”
“Okay,” Vijaya snapped back at him. “You don’t have to help me.”
She called a travel agent and settled on a date: June 15, a Saturday.
“Good,” Thampi said. “I’d like you to be back for Nisha’s birthday.” Nisha’s
birthday was on July 29.
“I’ll be back in time,” Vijaya said.
“Aren’t you forgetting something?” he asked.
“I know what you’re thinking,” she said, laughing. “Our 10th anniversary.” So she rescheduled her flight. Her new departure date was June 22, another Saturday.
Every weekend Vijaya took the family car and drove off to the block of
Indian shops and restaurants on Gerrard Street. No Indian-born Canadian goes back to the home town without bringing a Samsonite bag filled with gifts. People have been known to stuff suitcases with personal computers, color televisions and VCRs, as well as small items like transistor radios, steam irons, blenders, hair driers, pocket calculators, watches, gold jewelry and, of course, Japanese chiffon saris.
Vijaya Thampi went into a frenzy of gift buying. She bought for all her relatives. She bought for all the servants. She bought for all the children of all the servants.
Friends watched in awe as she shopped. The Ramaswamys, who had once loaned the Thampis their new Parisienne so they could vacation at Daytona Beach, told her husband to reconsider and help her with her shopping on weekends. But Vern Thampi remained hurt and angry. “She wants to shop, so let her shop,” he told the Ramaswamys. “She has the car. She has enough money. She can do what she wants. She knows I don’t want her to make this trip.”
His pigheadedness in their last weeks together would bewilder him later. “I don’t know why I didn’t help her,” he would say, weeping. “We used to do all our shopping together. Every Thursday we used to buy something for ourselves and something for Nishi. But the gifts—I didn’t even look at the stuff she bought on Gerrard Street.”
On Sunday, June 16, Thampi’s brother and his wife came over for dinner. The brother brought along his movie camera. He had never taken pictures of the Thampis’ new house, and he thought that Vijaya could carry the film back and show it to Mrs. Thampi Sr. in Bombay. He got the camera rolling. He caught the family walking around the big, comfortable house, sprawling on the expensive sofa, cooking in the hi-tech kitchen. Vijaya made a batch of chapati bread while the camera rolled. Then she looked straight into the camera and spoke for almost half an hour. That night the Thampi brothers and their families had their dinner outdoors. The dinner, too, is on film. Thampi is grateful that the film didn’t get sent back with Vijaya. He has the film now. At least he has that film.
On June 18, Thampi arranged his last “surprise” for his wife. He told Vijaya that they were to meet with the principal of a private school for Nisha, but instead he whisked her off to an expensive French restaurant. She
loved going to dances and eating out in gourmet places. When she realized that he had planned a special night for their 10th anniversary, she hugged him tightly. “May you plan many more surprise anniversaries!” she kept saying.
On Saturday, June 22, Vijaya dressed all in white for the trip to Bombay. Vern Thampi was stunned by her beauty and elegance. “Don’t
go, Viji,” he begged her. On the way to the airport to drop her off, he lost his way. She laughed at him. “You just don’t want me to leave you,” she said.
The area around the Air-India counter at the airport was loud with giggling children. Nisha and her two cousins raced each other. Friends swirled around the Thampis and the Ramaswamys. A Hindu woman said to Vijaya, “Why are you wearing all white?” White is the color for widows. Vern Thampi ignored the woman’s question. But he noticed that his wife had taken off her mangal sutra (a necklace that married women from his village don’t take off until they are widowed). She said the gold and black beads were in her purse, but that she would wear it for his family when she got off in Bombay.
One of Vijaya’s cousins ran up to Vijaya. “Auntie,” the boy said, “please don’t go. Noboby wants you to go.”
“Come on you guys,” Vijaya joked, “don’t give me a hard time. Don’t make it so tough on me.”
All too soon it was time to go through security. She kissed little Nisha. “You must look after Daddy for me,” she said. “Don’t leave him alone.”
To her husband, she said, “I’ll worry about you not eating enough. Please don’t eat junk food. I’ve made a whole week of lasagna for you. It’s in the freezer. Just put the lasagna in the microwave. And if you can’t do that, then go over to your brother’s place. I’ll worry about you.”
And then she walked through security’s metal arches.
Hinduism and its theory of reincarnation do not give Vern Thampi solace. He sighs. He weeps quietly. “God is unfair,” he says. “Even God didn’t prevent the incident.”
His daughter is his whole life now. His real job is that of being a single parent. Five weeks after Vijaya’s death, he made a party for two for Nisha’s birthday. He got a cake and candles. On her birthday Nisha asked her father a riddle. “How do you get to heaven, Daddy?”
“I don’t know, Nishi,” he said. “How do you get to heaven?”
“You take an Air-India plane, Daddy.”
For a while Nisha had nightmares about crashing planes. Now she thinks that if she and her father look happy, then Ammah will see them from heaven where she is and be happy herself. She doesn’t want Ammah ever to cry. And because Ammah told her never to fight, she doesn’t intend to fight the men who put a bomb inside her Ammah’s plane. She forgives those men.
Thampi twists and twists in his grief. “I can’t pardon the men who did it,” he says now. “I know there are good Sikhs, of course. But I tell you, I feel not too thrilled to see a turbanned guy. I hope I don’t ever find myself in a situation where a Sikh needs my help, because I may not be able to give it.
“I want the crash properly investigated,” he says. “I am not saying this out of revenge,” he goes on. “Revenge isn’t the solution. But did Viji die because some man made her disappear like an exterminator working on pests?”
Vern Thampi looks after his sixyear-old daughter, and she, in turn, looks after him, just as Ammah had instructed. “My ambition is to be a responsible parent. I want Nisha to know what a great woman her mother was, how much she made of her life.” So Nishi will know and remember and learn from Vijaya, he has edited the home movie that his brother made that last Sunday when the family was whole and the present was perfect.«^?