Gurpreet Singh: Philanthropist who lost his wife and kids in Air India bombing pens his memoir
Chandrasekhar Sankurathri is one of those rare human beings who know how to turn one’s grief into strength.
After he lost his wife and two children in the bombing of Air India Flight 182 on June, 23 1985, Sankurathri quit his comfortable life in Ottawa and moved back to India, the country of his birth.
He decided to open a free school and free eye hospital for the poor and needy in memory of his loved ones.
The Air India bombing, which has been blamed on Canadian-based Sikh separatists seeking revenge for state repression of Sikhs in India, turned Sankurathri’s life upside down.
His wife Manjari, seven-year-old son Srikiran, and four-year-old daughter Sarada were among the 329 passengers on the ill-fated flight.
They were heading to India for summer vacation, while Sankurathri—who worked as a scientist for the federal government—was supposed to join them a month later. Their bodies were never found.
After remaining in shock for some time, he finally decided to move back to Kakinada, the native city of his wife in Andhra Pradesh, in 1988. He launched a charity in her name, the Manjari Sankurathri Memorial Foundation, which runs the school and hospital.
Initially, he bought land in Kakinada in 1987 to open an orphanage. Sankurathri later chose to name the hospital after his son, and he was very particular about naming the school after his daughter.
In his autobiography, A Ray of Hope, which is to be released in Ottawa today (June 9), he gives a detailed account of his loss and how this marked the beginning of his journey as a philanthropist.
Sankurathri wanted to create a foundation under the name of his wife, whom he loved to the core, and this is one reason why he chose to make her native city its base. He describes her as an “exceptional woman” in his book and writes how empathetic she was toward poor people.
Manjari was greatly disturbed by the events of 1984 that culminated in the Air India tragedy.
In June that year, then Indian prime minister, Indira Gandhi, had ordered a military invasion on the Golden Temple Complex, the holiest shrine of Sikhs in Amritsar, to flush out religious extremists who had stockpiled arms in the place of worship.
The army attack had left many innocent pilgrims dead and the buildings inside the shrine heavily destroyed. This led to the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards on October 31, 1984.
In the ensuing days, thousands of innocent Sikhs were slaughtered by mobs who were led by supporters of Indira Gandhi.
Sankurathri writes that his wife had a nightmare about facing bullets of armed Sikh men. To this, he responded by saying that this must have been induced by the repetition of new stories about those unfortunate incidents.
He also believes that this dream was like a premonition of the tragedy that took her life, along with the lives of her children.
In her dream, she only saw herself and the kids facing bullets, while Sankurathri wasn’t around. Incidentally, he wasn’t traveling with them when the bombing occurred.
Sankurathri decided to name the school after Sarada because her dream of going to school along with her elder brother ended abruptly with her death. He writes how the little girl was fond of keeping a school bag and was very keen to join her brother.
“When I see hundreds of children go to the school that’s named after her, I feel a great sense of satisfaction,” he writes.
He also shares the memory of his son, who was fond of playing piano, and wonders “how proficient a piano player he would have turned out to be had he been alive today”.
In addition, Sankurathri mentions A.V. Anantaraman, who also lost his wife and two children in the bombing. Like Sankurathri, he too moved from Canada back to India to open a school for needy children in Tamil Nadu.
Going back to India to do humanitarian work was not easy for Sankurathri. He had to face many hardships in a country that is so different from Canada.
He had to cajole parents of the poor children to send them to school. Since these children came from families that lacked resources and relied on child labour as helping hands to earn their livelihood, it was not easy to convince them.
Yet he stood his ground and encouraged the children to start attending classes in the evening while continuing to work in the morning. He began by teaching them for free how to read and write.
By doing this work, Sankurathri felt at ease.
“I am thankful to God for giving me a goal to achieve at a time when I might have turned to despair or rage,” he writes.
Referring to those involved in the bombing, Sankurathri reveals that he was able to forgive them.
“I realized that no amount of anger will get my wife and children back. The court case against the terrorists went on for years. People often asked me why I was not following the judicial process. But I was not interested in seeing those responsible get punished for it.”
Rather, he writes that it is important to know what led to such acts of violence, so that they are not repeated.
Sankurathri draws inspiration from Hinduism and believes that those involved in violence are caught in a cycle of vengeance. He encourages everyone to curb “an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth attitude” that has resulted in bloodshed and misery across the world.
Published by Westland Publications in Chennai, the book also reveals Sankurathri's difficult childhood. He came from a very modest family background in Andhra Pradesh with limited means.
This firsthand experience of hardship, including poverty and natural calamities, gave him an early understanding of the importance of humanitarian work.
His autobiography also conveys the challenges immigrants of his generation faced when they first came to Canada.
Sankurathri moved here for studies in 1967, but eventually made Canada home. He married Manjari in India and brought her as a bride to begin a happy life with his two kids before that was devastated by ugly political events beyond his control.