March 8, 2014, started as any other day. What turned the day memorable was a news report about a missing Malaysian Airlines aircraft that had taken off, but went off the radar, and was untrackable.
Reading the initial reports made us wonder the practical possibility of an entire aircraft just missing from the face of earth. Three years on, the whereabouts of Malaysian Airlines MH-370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing has become a conspiracy theorists’ favourite.
We talk to K S Narendra, whose wife, Chandrika, was one of the five Indians onboard the fateful flight. He has written a book on the incident, published by Bloomsbury. Excerpts:
What were the challenges you faced while writing the book, since it’s an intensely private account?
The challenges were many. The book was not so much about people or events from a distant past but more about the life that was being lived and unfolding every moment.
I lost my wife in a baffling aviation incident that defies explanation. While the book offers a ‘slice of life’, its context needed exposition. How far back in time do I go without it becoming an autobiography of sorts? How much do I say about my lost wife and a relationship, without it becoming an unrestrained self-congratulatory tribute?
I had defined certain boundaries:
-As far as possible, I must be mindful of the other MH370 families’ situation, their sensitivities and sensibilities.
-I must exercise care in presenting facts, given the conspiracy theories about the plane’s whereabouts.
-While it was important to talk about the search for MH370, I could not afford to get mired in the technical details.
-Since legal claims for compensation and damages were being litigated in the courts, I must ensure that I do not unwittingly jeopardise the cases that MH370 families were pursuing.
-Writing must help in the process of unravelling my subjective truths, and towards this end, candor and personal honesty was essential.
-Decency and a striving for balance. So anger was okay, abuse was not, for instance.
One of the challenges was to see that I didn’t stray from these boundaries. The other challenge was to painstakingly revisit the days and months following the plane’s disappearance.
What went through your mind while you relived the day and the memories?
As I relived the day, what I got in touch with one more time was the agonising wait for information/confirmation that my wife, Chandrika had indeed boarded MH370; the utter incredulity of it all; the exhaustion in dealing with the scores of well wishers who dropped in to enquire; and by end of day, the creeping sense that the lack of resolution didn’t augur too well for a happy ending.
How has your family coped with it?
On the whole, most in my family and circle of friends, coped quite admirably. In the initial months, some held out hopes for a miraculous turn of events and a happy homecoming for the missing one and felt crushed when this had to be given up.
For many of us, every day, every image, object, smell, sound or song that reminded us of Chandrika was impossible to ignore and hard to dwell on.
We have learnt over the months to release ourselves slowly, and gently.
Are you scared to fly? What goes through your mind if you or anyone in your family has to take a flight?
If I travel alone, I try and sleep even before the aircraft taxies and moves to the take-off runway. When I travel with colleagues or family, I distract myself with banter till everyone has had enough, and then I fall asleep. I have to trust that the cockpit crew is in good health, physically and mentally, and that my co-travellers have been screened/scrutinised just as thoroughly as I was before I boarded. I have to assume that the pilot has enough flying hours under his belt to weather any storm and stay on course.
Sometimes when I am awake mid flight, my mind wanders and I imagine that the plane is off course to a destination not of my choosing, a silent engineering/technical glitch was at play, or a malevolent crew has put my life under threat. I can do nothing except to see how it all ends. And then I think about Chandrika and wonder if she was awake at that hour past midnight when her flight supposedly veered off course and vanished into the dark.
True, I am afraid.
What has been the reaction of the people to your book?
People have told me that it was well written, riveting and something that helped them connect with the MH370 tragedy at a personal level. It touched a chord, evoking memories of their own experience with losing someone. After all who has not lost someone near and dear?
Are there still hopes of a miraculous return?
Three pieces of debris located on or off the coast of East/South Africa have till now been confirmed to be from MH370. Ironically, the underwater search till date has been concentrated solely on the southern Indian Ocean off the coast of Western Australia, thousands of miles away from where debris has actually been found.
I am not a purveyor of hope or miracles. Most families have come to accept by now that their loved ones on MH370 are not coming back. However, even as we come close to the four-year mark since MH370 was last seen, there are families that believe that the passengers are alive, possibly in some inaccessible place or held hostage, since there is no conclusive evidence to prove that they have perished.