(This is the written version of a speech I delivered today at the book launch of A Ray of Hope, by Chandra Sankurathri, at the George Mackie Library in North Delta. Sankurathri, a former federal government scientist, lost his wife and two children in the bombing of Air India Flight 182 on June 23, 1985. He moved back to India and created a free school and free hospital through his charity, the Manjari Sankurathri Memorial Foundation, which is named after his wife.)
I want to thank my friend, Gurpreet Singh, for organizing this event.
And it's great to speak after Robert Matas, who's one of the most fair-minded journalists in Canada.
Then there's Dr. Chandra Sankurathri. What can you say about a man with his level of wisdom and compassion?
A man who absorbed an unimaginable loss—and transformed it into a great act of love and service to humanity.
When I read the beginning of his book, A Ray of Hope, I found it easy to relate to his upbringing, even though we were raised in two different worlds.
This is the case though what I've done in my life pales in comparison to his contributions.
Like Dr. Sankurathri, I had many older brothers and sisters.
Like him, I lost my mom at a young age. I could identify with the feelings he described in his book.
But I didn't also lose my dad in childhood, like he did. And I didn't lose my sister, like he did.
I was amazed to read that in the face of losing both of his parents before the age of 10, he was still able to achieve great educational success, obtaining a PhD.
It was those brothers and sisters who played such an important role for him.
Like Dr. Sankurathri, I too can thank my older brothers and sisters for helping me through turbulent times as a teenager.
When you lose a parent at a young age, you realize there's an impermanence to life. It stays with you.
After my mom died, I used to worry that my dad was going to die, too. It was a fear that cropped up on a regular basis for years.
But I also learned many positive things: the value of curiosity, the value of learning, the value of hard work, the value of reading.
I didn't dwell on outcomes. You focus on the process, do the work, and the results will take care of themselves.
Only much later did I learn that this is also a message in the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita. And it's something that guided Mahatma Gandhi.
I read on the Internet that the Gita has at least 100 references to attachment.
Desire is the cause. Attachment is the result. It becomes a vicious circle.
The attachment fuels and inflames the desire. And the desire reinforces the attachment.
The Gita teaches that attachments interfere with a person's ability to think clearly or rationally.
It can be an attachment to a pair of shoes or to something much bigger, like our bank accounts.
I've also learned about the value of seva—the concept of service—which infuses, Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam, Christianity and other religions.
The MLA for this area of Delta North, Ravi Kahlon, understands the value of seva. It's something he's discussed with me.
Hindu scripture teaches us not to become too selfishly attached. Non-attachment can give freedom.
And this is important: non-attachment does not mean a lack of love for other people.
It simply means not becoming a prisoner of your possessions, your wealth, your job, your social status, and your desire.
Gandhi understood perils of selfish attachment
There's a story about Mahatma Gandhi boarding a train. One of his shoes slipped off and was caught in the track. He couldn't retrieve it.
He tried and he tried without success.
So what did he do? He decided to take off his other shoe and leave it on the track beside it.
Now, he was barefoot on the train.
Why did he do this?
"The poor man who finds the shoe lying on the track will have a pair he can use," he said.
Most of us would have gotten on the train with one shoe...and expressed exasperation about losing the other shoe.
We would have been frustrated about this all the way to our next destination.
But Gandhi, in his wisdom, figured out how to make the best of a bad situation.
He left the other shoe on the track because he knew that this offered a better outcome for a fellow human being. The person would find two shoes, not one.
In this way, Gandhi demonstrated non-attachment.
He gave up his shoes to do something productive.
It was an act born out of a deep philosophical understanding that guided his life.
Gandhi could do this because he came to appreciate the perils of attachment. He understood the message of the Gita.
He was not attached to his personal safety when he went on fasts to bring about peace.
He was not attached to his legal career when he gave it up to lead the fight against colonialism.
He once described this non-attachment as "skillfulness in action".
"The man or woman who is detached from results and tries only to do his or her best without thought of profit or power or prestige does not waver when difficulties come."
Detachment is not apathy or indifference, according to Gandhi.
This is key: it is the prerequisite for effective involvement.
This is a message that I have kept on my desk for years.
The perils of attachment were also encapsulated in one of my favourite books, Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse.
When I experienced difficulties as a young man, I used to rely on this book to keep me centred.
Serving others helps Dr. Sankurathri heal
Dr. Chandra Sankurathri could have easily become attached to his comfortable life in Ottawa as a well-paid federal scientist.
He could have become attached to his grief over the magnitude of what happened on the day in 1985 when a bomb exploded on an Air India plane and he lost his beloved children and wife.
But instead, he turned his grief into action.
He created a charity in the name of his wife.
He created a school for underprivileged children in the name of his daughter.
He built a hospital to provide proper vision care in the name of his son.
He cultivated a sense of volunteering. Volunteering is one of the best ways to demonstrate love for fellow human beings.
It's a selfless act, but we invariably end up gaining more than we give from this experience.
Dr. Sankurathri never lost sight of his loss. But he wasn't so completely consumed by it that he became paralyzed and frozen in time.
He volunteered. He gave to the community. And this helped him heal.
It's hard not to get emotional when you read his book, Ray of Hope.
He writes that in August 2014, Srikiran Hospital reached an amazing milestone: 200,000 surgeries completed.
He points out that there are 19 million blind people in India, and over 80 percent of this is curable.
Cataracts are a major cause. It costs only 2,500 rupees to get rid of a cataract.
That's less than $50 Canadian to provide a person with the gift of sight.
You can give people a Ray of Hope by going to the charity's website, msmf.ca, and making a donation.
It can be your way of turning the collective grief we all feel in Canada over the Air India tragedy into action.
It's a way to move forward in a positive way, rather than being paralyzed by an attachment to the past. It can help us heal.
Through this act of volunteerism, we will actually gain more than we give.
Attachment and the Air India story
Now, I'm going to go on a detour, so I hope you can stay with me on this.
After I read Dr. Chandra Sankurathri's book, I had an epiphany. And I'm going to share this with you.
I questioned whether I may have developed an unhealthy attachment to the story of the Air India bombing.
It shows how attachment can sometimes take on unusual forms.
I wasn't personally touched in the way that the families were. Those families lived in every province in Canada with the exception of Prince Edward Island.
I didn't know any of the 86 children on that plane who were under the age of 12.
I didn't have a father or a son or a daughter or a wife or an aunt or an uncle on the plane.
But this event has shaped my life in its own way.
The horror occurred in the summer as I was preparing to move from Victoria to Vancouver to attend journalism school.
I remember watching the news coverage—I was taking a break from painting the house owned by a friend's parent. I turned on the TV in the living room. I saw images of wreckage being pulled from the Irish Sea. It was so surreal and disturbing.
Just as I was embarking on what's turned out to be a 33-year adventure in journalism, I was exposed to the biggest news story of them all.
The worst mass murder in Canadian history that was executed in my home province.
And it's been with me ever since.
There was the time I met Bharati Mukherjee, an Indian-American author, who cowrote The Sorrow and the Terror with her husband, Clark Blaise.
My first media job was at a local talk-radio station. I booked her as a guest after reading their book.
It was a chilling account—and it almost seemed to amplify divisions between the Hindu community, then mostly in Ontario, and B.C. Sikhs.
But their characterization of B.C. Sikhs didn't fit with my perceptions growing up in Victoria.
There was a distinct difference between the Sikhs who visited my childhood home, Amrit the school teacher and Dan the bridge player, and the way B.C. Sikhs were described in this book.
The Sorrow and the Terror drove home the point that this was a made-in-Canada tragedy. It was exquisitely written.
There's a haunting passage that remains with me to this day.
It's about how the plot was planned to coincide with the end of the school year because that's when there would be the most children on the plane.
I didn't know a lot about India in those days—just some of the history. I had never travelled there at that point, and wasn't particularly knowledgeable about the events in India that preceded the bombing.
The Sorrow and the Terror made a convincing argument that the Air India tragedy was a homegrown tragedy. And a contributing factor, in part, was Canada's embrace of official multiculturalism.
Mukherjee and Blaise argued this so passionately, and it was troubling to me, as someone who's appreciated Canada's approach to multiculturalism. I liked it and preferred it to the American melting pot. But there it was.
Reasonable people can disagree on certain points.
This theme was advanced in the media again and again in subsequent years.
Families left a lasting impression
I think The Sorrow and the Terror, more than anything else that was written, defined the tragedy in the eyes of those in the media who were paying attention. This shaped the narrative for years to come.
In those years, I can remember the families of the victims being in the news. The dancer Lata Pada, the families' association spokesperson Dr. Bal Gupta, and here in B.C., Perviz Madon.
Later, I met Major Sidhu and Renée Sarojini Saklikar, whose lives were also profoundly affected.
They were all so dignified. This reinforced to me that the perpetrators must have been so barbaric to do what they did.
More than 80 kids were on the plane. Who could do something so dastardly?
In this regard, I wasn't alone. Many people were upset that there were these killers in our midst in British Columbia.
That was apparent again in the 1990s when I started working at CBC. I became friends with Sudha Krishna. He moved to Canada when he was eight years old from what was then known as Madras.
Sudha knew something like 18 people who were on the plane, including his high school girlfriend. This is what drove him to go into the media.
At CBC I also worked alongside Shachi Kurl, who's now an executive vice president of the Angus Reid Institute. Her dad, Suresh, was a senior civil servant and a columnist for the Link newspaper
Suresh Kurl also knew people on the plane. He was pushing the Liberal party to hold a public inquiry.
Suresh is a sophisticated man. And he was having success with Jean Chrétien, then the Opposition leader. One of the MPs, John Nunziata, was especially vocal about the need for a public inquiry.
It was a no-brainer to me, as a young journalist in those days.
But the RCMP and CSIS were sometimes at odds in those days. A journalist named Richard Cleroux told me that when CSIS was created in 1985, the Mounties wouldn't even ride in the same elevator as security service staff.
I was never as close to the story as Robert Matas at the Globe and Mail, but I followed it. I would book guests on radio shows that employed me in those days to discuss the story.
The fascination—or dare I say, the attachment—continued, especially after Chrétien went back on his word and refused to order a public inquiry.
I was at the news conference when the RCMP announced charges had been laid against several accused.
I was sitting in a car in New Westminster when I heard on the radio that they had been acquitted.
I watched a docudrama on the Air India tragedy by director Sturla Gunnarsson.
One of the people featured was Renée Sarojini Saklikar, who lost her aunt and uncle on the plane.
I asked her to present her thoughts in our newspaper, which remains one of the most beautifully written pieces ever published in the Georgia Straight.
I've since read Renée's heartfelt poetry.
Writers drew different conclusions
I read other books on the tragedy with radically different perspectives. They included Kim Bolan's Loss of Faith, Gurpreet Singh's Fighting Hatred With Love: Voices of the Air India Victims' Families, Salim Jiwa and Don Hauka's Margin of Terror, and Zuhair Kashmeri and Brian McAndrew's Soft Target.
I learned there were many different perspectives. Each came across as honestly held.
But they were also, at times, wildly at odds with one another.
I wondered how so many intelligent and well-meaning people could see things so differently.
I have a message at the top of my Twitter feed.
It's there to remind people that sometimes, we're not right. We're wrong. I'm not always right.
But when it comes to the Air India bombing, many of us become attached to our beliefs about who's responsible. Everybody thinks they're right.
The debate has even permeated federal politics, more than three decades afterward.
It underscored the prime minister's recent trip to India. It's swirled around Jagmeet Singh's tenure as federal NDP leader.
The Conservatives are trying to score points on this issue.
Then I read Dr. Sankurathri's Ray of Hope.
I found it astonishing to come across this passage: "People often ask me why I was not following the judicial process. But I was not interested in seeing those responsible get punished for it."
Dr. Sankurathri only wanted to know why it happened—so that this type of violence would not be repeated.
Perhaps the answer won't come from the courts. Maybe the answer will come from somewhere else, like neuroscience.
"An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth has resulted in a lot of bloodshed and misery across the world," he writes.
This, to me, is an example non-attachment in the best sense of the word.
Truly kind souls do not seek revenge.
From that, I can only conclude that Dr. Sankurathri is truly a kind soul.
As I noted before, the Gita teaches us that attachments interfere with a person's ability to think clearly or rationally.
He's not driven by desire—he's driven by a sense of service and that's what enables him to see so clearly what so many of us in the media have missed.
Dr. Sankurathri has lived a life that offers lessons to all of us—even after facing loss after loss after loss after loss after loss.
The loss of his mom.
The loss of his dad.
The loss of his sister.
The loss of his wife.
The loss of his son.
The loss of his daughter.
We're fortunate to learn of such a great man.
Let's hope that the suffering inflicted on him can teach all of us some lessons about the value of volunteering.
It's a cause that's close to his heart.
So if we want to honour Dr. Sankurathri's contributions, perhaps the best way for us to do this is to think of ways that we can benefit our own communities.
Oh yes, and also make a donation at msmf.ca.
Help a child see the world—and hopefully, if we're lucky—this child will turn out to be as clear-eyed as Dr. Sankurathri.
Thank you very much.