COVER

The agony of those who waited

Glen Allen July 8 1985
COVER

The agony of those who waited

Glen Allen July 8 1985

Arup Das with picture of his wife and children: ‘suddenly everything is gone away’

It is the children the world will remember. Clutching teddy bears and Cabbage Patch dolls, report cards and other talismans of achievement in their parents’ new land, the 80 young passengers who died long before their time were aboard Air-India’s Flight 182 because it flew directly to Bombay and was the first to leave after school was out. They were returning to their roots—some to attend weddings and take part in coming-of-age ceremonies, others to revisit grandparents and refresh a sense of their ancestral languages, arts and spiritual lives. And when they fell from the sky into the chill waters of the Atlantic off the Irish coast last week, grief that could not be contained even by their fatalistic faiths swept through Indian communities from Vancouver to Halifax. Together with her daughter, Geetanjli Malik, the wife of the Indian consul general in Toronto narrowly escaped death when they cancelled their reservations on Flight 182 two days before its departure. Said Mrs. Malik, who attended a memorial service in a peaceful field near Richmond Hill, Ont.: “Our people love children. Our lives are hollow without them.”

Blame: At that same service, while a Hindu priest chanted Sanskrit prayers seeking peace for the 50 dead—half of them children—from his 800-family congregation, 45-year-old Scarborough, Ont., accountant Lakshminarayana Turlapati wept for his two sons, Deepak, 11, and Sanjay, 14, who had planned to spend a month with grandparents in New Delhi. Both carried photographs of life in Canada as well as academic and athletic awards they had won since leaving India three years ago. Sanjay, said his mother, Padmini, who practises paediatrics in Newfoundland and came to Toronto’s Lester B. Pearson International Airport to see her sons off, also took along a prize-winning poem he had written. Its title: Death Be Not Proud. Among other parents who awoke that Sunday morning to find themselves without families was Firestone Tire employee Parshotam Dhunna, who had sent his two-year-old son, Suneal, back to his Punjab home for a ritual Hindu haircutting ceremony. Another son, Rajesh, 15, daughter Shashi, 16, Rani, Dhunna’s wife of 18 years, and his 62year-old mother-in-law, Nasib Manjamia, also perished. “All of them,” concluded Dhunna, behind the drawn curtains of a Hamilton, Ont., home full of barefoot mourners. “My wife, my little baby, my son, my daughter. Everything is black. Who should I blame?”

Ashok and Suman Wadhwa, also of Scarborough, had sent their son, Akhil, who would have been 6 this week, and his eight-year-old sister, Serina, to visit relatives in the country the couple left in 1971. They chose Air-India because the children would not have had to change planes. Akhil had been wearing his Superman Tshirt and Serina a Glowbug necklace, which she told her parents would protect her “from all the dark shadows.” Said 31year-old Suman, a computer services worker:

“She was my angel, and he was my sunshine. I told them it was safe. I only hope they did not think I was lying when it happened. I am sure that they must have called my name.”

Syed Sadiq: prayers

All week long, radiant family album snapshots of the faces of passengers of the fatal flight—146 of them from the Toronto area, at least 60 from Montreal, 28 from Ottawa, eight from Vancouver and others from Winnipeg, Halifax and Buffalo, N.Y.—smiled out incongruously from newspaper pages and television screens. Among them were Shilpa Seth, 10, her eight-year-old sister, Alpa, and brother Ankur, 1, their mother, Sadhana, and father, Satish, director of computer information services for the department of supply and services in Ottawa. For eight years the Seth family had been planning a trip back to India to introduce their children to far-flung aunts. Said a close family friend: “Satish came here with nothing and turned himself into a success.” 

Insane: In the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby, friends mourned the death of Sam Madon on his 41st birthday as he flew to join his wife and two children on vacation in India. “It has hurt us all,” said Derek Hughes, a friend and the principal  at the Pacific Marine o Training Institute, 3 where Madon was a nautical instructor. Brossard, Que., engineer Tom Soni, 44, was awakened at 8 a.m. the morning of the tragedy with the news that he had lost his 10-year-old twin daughters, Moneka and Rina, his son, Pankaj, 3, and his wife Usha, 39. “All the threads of my life were broken in a matter of moments,” said Soni. Nishith Mukerji, 51, a mathematics and science instructor at Montreal’s Loyola High School, voted one of the city’s three best teachers in a 1980 poll, also took Flight 182 with his wife, Shefali, 50. On June 16—Father’s Day—he had received his doctorate in physics from Concordia University—an institution that lost two professors and three students on the doomed flight. Said his son Sauman, 27: “The world is getting insane. I think my parents have found a better place.”

Bleak: In the airports at Bombay and New Delhi, people waiting for friends and kin from Canada lingered in dismay or wailed their grief when they learned of the tragedy. Said 72-year-old Satyawati Bajaj, who had spent an entire day on a bus getting to New Delhi from her rural home to greet a daughter returning to be married: “It was to be a day of great joy, but it is the blackest of my life.” Then she wept and beat her chest in anguish.

One of many who met with twists of fate—changes in plans, booking mixups or last-minute haunting doubts—was Arup Das, a 45-year-old Mississauga, Ont., civil design engineer with Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.. He had originally planned to send his wife, Ruby, and his son Arindam, 14, and daughter Anita, 16—one of many aspiring Indian classical dancers among the plane’s passengers—on a June 29 flight. But Anita asked her father to change the date to be with a 16-year-old friend already booked on Flight 182. “The memories are unbearable,” said Das, recalling the last minutes with his family last week. The leavetaking at the airport, he said, was “pensive—my wife just squeezed my hand and looked at me. My daughter hugged me and said ‘Daddy, you are a wonderful person.’ They were the centre of my life. With family you have meaning in life. Suddenly, everything is gone away.”

Relatives of victims arriving in Cork, Ireland: confronting the pain of the loss

Das, like many left behind, intends to take the remains of his wife and children, if they can be found, back to the family home in India to be cremated. But by week’s end fewer than half the victims had been recovered and lay in untidy rows of green body bags in a hospital gymnasium in the gentle Irish city of Cork. It was there that surviving relatives headed last week, as much to confront bleak reality as to find their loved ones. One of the first to arrive in Ireland last week was sari-clad Lata Pada, who had lost her husband, Vishnu, a geologist with Inco Ltd. in Sudbury, Ont., and daughters Brinda, 18, and Arti, 15. Staring out of the window of a hotel in the nearby harbor town of Kinsale, where the Irish and Canadian governments and Air-India have set up reception facilities, Pada said: “I have had the greatest loss in my life. But it was important to be here. I can relate this place to where it happened.”

Unity: Meanwhile, across Canada, Indian communities held memorial ceremonies. Most of the victims were Hindu, but some, like Moslem doctor Sugra Sadiq of Willowdale, Ont., who had been carrying a burial cloth with her, and Mukhtiar Brar, 55, a tall noble-looking Sikh in his royal blue turban, were devotees of India’s other faiths. And while the world at large debated culpability for the tragedy, the memorial services were ecumenical. More than 1,000 grieving Hindus, Parsees, Jains, Sikhs and Moslems attended a meeting in the Ottawa suburb of Gloucester and chanted the Sita Ram, a song of unity made popular by Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi. “There is only one God and he is all Gods,” they intoned in unison.

In the smaller Richmond Hill meeting, led by a priest surrounded by dried grass stalks, flowers, bananas and other emblems of his faith, a half-circle of mourners prayed to Yama, the Lord of Death, to transport the souls of the dead to the kingdom of Shiva, the Hindu heaven. Shiva, who shares the Hindu firmament with two other deities, Brahma and Vishnu, is a tempestuous, even malevolent figure in the Hindu Pantheon who sometimes sides with the demons. And it was the unseen spirit of Shiva, many may have concluded last week, that had also booked passage on Flight 182.

-with Chris Wood in Halifax, Dan Burke in Montreal, Hilary Mackenzie in Ottawa, Ann Walmsley, Christopher Gainor and Paul Berton in Toronto, Greg Fjetland in Vancouver, Ajoy Bose in New Delhi, Ian Mather in London and Philip Winslow in Cork.