This story was initially published last March, just ahead of the first anniversary of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
Where have you been, Chandrika?
Oh, many places. All at the same time. Can you believe that?
When will you be back?
Your guess is as good as mine.
For good. That is.
What if I am gone for good?
K.S. Narendran wrote these words, an inner dialogue with his wife of 25 years, Chandrika Sharma. She was one of 239 people aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 when it disappeared a year ago on March 8. Narendran still struggles at leading a life without her, as is revealed in the rest of his imagined conversation:
I have been thinking about a good long chat with you, Chandrika.
About time, don’t you think? What has taken you so long? Silly question. You always took far too long. The time you take to think, go through conversations in your head. Was I even needed to be around?
Was that your usual acerbic blast? Should I protest? Be hurt? Was this how I imagined the conversation would go? You read my mind one more time.
I guess I shouldn’t fight. It’s true. On more than one occasion, I took too long and the moment passed. You, on the other hand, spoke with ease about how you felt. You didn’t linger too long and moved on. You always said that life was too short.
You are light and swift now. I see you no longer have to make an effort to keep pace with me on our daily walks.
Yes. Now I move with the speed of your thought. I am the air that you don’t see, your steady companion, moving with you, watching. I don’t have any expectations of getting your attention. I hold no grudges. I am beyond all that.
I have been with numerous people over the months. Across vast distances. Often at the same time. I went back in time and imagined the years ahead. How is that for time and space travel, huh? Unshackled. Free. No memory to chain me to the past. No aches. No pain. No chores. No striving.
No aches. That reminds me. Enough walking. It’s time to go home.
Do you know that you’ve been in our apartment with me through these last few months? Sometimes you are a mute witness. Other times, you’re an impatient whisperer of your likes and your dislikes, appreciations and disapprovals, earnest urging and frantic shoving.
I admit I have just plodded on. I feel empty. Hollow.
Our home – designed and created out of the desires we shared and the disagreements we had and worked through all these years. So come on in.
Do you notice the potted plants in the corridor?
They look pale. Does anybody give them any love?
Well, I have been… No, I can’t make excuses. They do look like they have missed a nurturing touch. Like they have been suffering. They look drawn. Lost. But see, they are still standing. Proud and resolute.
Anyway, come in. Why are you smiling? Is it because you see all the things that need tidying up?
So, some things have been moved around, I see.
That’s true. A lot has been moved out, too. Our room isn’t the same. The bed is now just enough for one. You haven’t been banished yet. Just that you have been closer to me than ever before. You have got me all wrapped up in you. Rearranging the furniture has been a lot easier than reimagining life without you.
I have given away a lot of your stuff, my stuff, our stuff. It was as though I needed to shrink the immediate world to fit the size I could occupy.
Again, foolish to think I could heave away the heaviness of heart by tossing out wood, metal and cotton. Your clothes are gone. Given away to those who needed them. That was hard but I knew you would approve. It was months past the date you promised to return and your wardrobe was going out of fashion. Poor joke.
No. I get it. It was rough.
Do you? You left without a trace. All we had left were things.
They had a story to tell. They acquired a life in our contemplation. Maybe the Egyptians were sensible in packing their goods into tombs for the journey of the departed from one place to the next, the afterlife, or whatever. They left no memorabilia for the living. No yoking to memory. No choking.
Sorry. As usual, I got carried away in my own thoughts and words.
OK, then. Tell me what it has been like? All these months?
I am not sure where or how to begin, Chandrika.
I started off by being strong. By that I guess I mean I was focused, clear-headed, practical. I weighed the odds about when you might be back. Surely, you saw me watching the air crash investigation on TV.
After the initial weeks, I concluded that I may never see you again.
Where the hell have you been? No word, no phone call. No email.
It became harder from there to pick myself up day after day. The stronger I tried to be the more brittle I became. I was angry with the abrupt rupture to an otherwise uneventful existence. I was agitated that there were no satisfactory answers. Most of all, I realized how much I missed you being around. I even missed the sparring, the banter, the annoyances.
I discovered that I didn’t harbor any trace of anger. I had no harsh words for you as if I had gathered a depth of understanding of you and your life.
Over the months, I have withered and wilted. Nothing engages my attention long enough. I feel like I am adrift. My loneliness just grows. The house is bare. The music has stopped. After all these months, I still catch myself turning back tears – remembering you rising early to make the morning coffee or tuning into a melody that’s involuntarily on my lips. Or when I see the plants, when I see your workout apparatus, when I lie on the floor thinking that is what you would do to grab a few minutes of rest. Or when I think of a house in the hills that you and I dreamed of. Passing clouds leave me drenched at unexpected moments.
How is daughter?
That’s how I remember you call out every evening in anticipation when you got back from work. You were quite a pair. So very fond of each other. Meghna misses you deeply but she doesn’t find the words. She is a steely survivor. She has a life ahead and perhaps doesn’t want to feel dislocated.
Actually, you know best. You have read what she has written in her journal. That is private. Daughter? She is a bundle of joy.
Do you have more time? I could tell you about others. Your mother. Your brothers. My mother.
Did you really want to talk about others when we just started our chat a little while ago? Probably not.
So how do I move on? What does that even mean? How do I go forward without answers? Without diminishing your significance? I am not yet clear how I can restore joy, aliveness, a certain anticipation that we all have in life.
I am there as often as you call out to me. I have never wished that you be my hostage. We have strived all these years to discover that optimal distance which keeps us intimately connected without triggering this fear of captivity.
My present freedom possibly can’t be yours now. Or, who knows?
You don’t have to carry me around. There is so much of me that I see in you now.
I don’t think I have learned about how to look at life ahead. I have not reconfigured my house, my life, my outlook to reflect my new reality. I feel a delayed onset of a deep loss.
Lead your life as you will. You are free. But tell me, what would the new configuration of your anchors be? In your world, there is no active freedom without anchorage?
Time to say goodbye, for now.
Narendran sent me this dialogue in early January. He has been corresponding with me from his home in the south Indian city of Chennai since I first contacted him last March, days after Flight 370 disappeared. I am from India and I felt a need to tell the story of a compatriot. His wife was one of five Indians on the flight.
He told me then he did not believe in miracles; he just wanted answers.
We kept in touch mostly via email, and as the first anniversary of the tragedy approached I wondered how he was coping with his new reality. Officials declared Flight 370 an accident, but Narendran still doesn’t know what happened. I asked him again to share his thoughts with me. With his consent, I have written them here as though it were another imaginary conversation with his wife:
Tell me what you have been up to all these months, Naren.
Well, Meghna refused point blank to go to Italy and Spain last spring like the three of us had planned. All the joy was gone from the holiday. I could understand that. But after two months into her college break, she was in a better frame of mind. She agreed to go on a short trip. So in July, I took her to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
Do you know that we caught the very same 3½ hour flight you took on March 7? From Chennai to KL. It felt very strange. It wasn’t easy. I think the crew knew who we were. They took very good care of us.
I feel bad for the crew. The airline, I think, has taken a big hit. The flight was only half full.
We met the director of civil aviation at a hotel where I could see the signs that were a reminder that the hotel had once been a hectic nerve center for MH370. It was where press conferences were held and families had stayed.
Our meeting with the airline people was polite but I was simply quite angry and disbelieving of whatever they had to say. I could tell they were just minions in this wretched game. A sideshow. The investigation was by then a thing between the Malaysian and Australian governments.
It felt good to come face to face with officials and tell them what I thought. And I got my first confirmation that someone in the Malaysian government had seen my open letter to the Prime Minister I wrote last May. I had asked for Najib Razak to issue an apology. I accused his government of not being transparent.
Anyway, they didn’t tell me anything I did not already know. I just felt there was so much more that was not being said. The airline had lost our trust and they needed to have done a lot more to regain it.
Did you meet the families of the other passengers?
Yes. I thought that might be healing. We had dinner with a few Malaysian families. We discussed possibilities for the future. We talked about how to keep global attention on the search because by then public interest had waned.
I met with Sarah Bajc one evening. Her partner, Philip Wood, was on your flight. I knew Sarah via email and Skype. That was the first time I met her in person. Like all others who had lost loved ones, she had suffered. I saw in her, too, a person who was anchored and pragmatic.
She has been a visible and vocal critic of the ongoing search efforts and the lack of transparency. She had just moved from Beijing to Kuala Lumpur and started a new job.
We spent some hours together. Meghna and I went out to dinner with Sarah and her three kids. It was good to be with Sarah. What stayed with me is she was very committed to the pursuit of the truth. To find out what really happened.
Then we went on to Singapore. But you know, that was harder for Meghna. I think it was a relief for her to be away from Chennai but in Singapore, too many memories flooded her. We kept thinking about our visit there together, the three of us. She missed you a lot.
That makes me sad to hear. Have you spoken with anyone else connected to MH370?
Prahlad Shirsath. His wife, Kranti, was with me on the flight.
Yes. She was on her way to see Prahlad in North Korea. He had been working there with a nonprofit. After what happened, he had to return to India. He lives on the outskirts of Pune. I’ve been talking to him for the last eight months or so. I met him for the first time in June. I was on a work trip to Mumbai and decided to drive down to Pune.
I saw myself in him but I think his situation is even tougher. He has two young sons who are still in school. He was left quite helpless without his wife.
You know what many Indians are like, especially men. They do not grieve openly. They are the steadying ship and pretend they are impervious to pain. Prahlad occasionally talks about his hardship – but more often about his dilemmas of everyday life. He gave up everything, including his job, when he had to come back home. He is trying to figure out how he can work and also be at home for his sons.
He came to Chennai once and stayed with me for a day. I think we will always have a bond.
I am glad to hear that you connected with him. It has been almost one year, Naren. One year!
Yes, an entire year. There will be a rehash of old stories and some new ones on the news. Some of it will be speculation. Some of it will be curiosity about what’s happened with the families.
I don’t apprehend such a big deal of attention. In the end what is a date? Tell me, does it make a difference in a cricket match if you score 99 or 100? To me, day 364 has as much significance as day 365. It’s just a marker. It doesn’t make a difference in my life the previous day or the next day or any other day.
But I do understand a year has passed. It’s been a long time but it doesn’t feel that way. The events, the turning points, the feelings are pretty vivid. They simply haven’t dissolved.
There are the days that were so jarring, starting, of course, with when I woke up to the news of the flight’s disappearance. It took half a day to even confirm you were on that flight. And then my first press conference ever a few days later. So many microphones shoved in my face. The stories said I was slamming my government because I had criticized its silence.
On March 24, Prime Minister Razak announced the flight had ended in the southern Indian Ocean. That was completely unexpected. After all, earlier on the same day, the press briefing gave no inkling that such an announcement was afoot. I was with your mother. We were both in shock.
My writing has given me solace. Can you believe I became a Facebook user? I started posting quite a bit. The first one took me 45 minutes to pen. I felt peace and calm. I think the act of writing has become like meditation, a kind of silent communion with self.
In July, I wrote about the MH17 crash in Ukraine and how it would breathe new life into conspiracy theories about your plane. I felt solidarity with the families. And then when Air Asia crashed in December – well, that was jarring.
I knew there would be more air disasters after yours, but that one brought home to me how the search is so daunting. Even though they had pinpointed where they lost contact with the plane, it still took three days to locate it and then a few weeks to salvage the wreckage and bodies. And those waters were some 100 meters deep. MH370 could be 4 kilometers deep “somewhere” in the Indian Ocean. It told me we may never find it. Never find you.
In my mind I find that unacceptable. Where is the goddam plane? Where are the passengers? What happened to them? I wish you could tell me the answers. But perhaps you do not know.
So what am I stuck at? I think it has to do with acceptance of what seems like an irreversible loss. I am not being sufficiently pragmatic in responding to an event that continues to defy explanation.
The other day, after a hard grinding walk, I was lying flat on my back in the apartment doing my stretches in about the same time and place that you would in your daily routine to stay fit. Unannounced, a thought entered: “What if the phone rang and it was you?”
And just then, the phone rang. I told myself: “This can’t be true. It can’t be you calling.” And, of course, it wasn’t. But those seconds let me see that no matter how far my rational mind had moved on, at some indefinable depths of my being there remain remnants of expectations that cold thought or reason could not banish.
I fantasize about new facts being unearthed. Incontrovertible evidence. Then I could say: “That’s it. Case closed. Time to move on.” You know, like the ending of a Sherlock Holmes novel.
I can’t say I have a well-settled or meaningful routine anymore. I do some of the things you used to do, including mundane things like waking up early – around 6:30 – and making coffee for my mother. But I’ve found it quite difficult to remain focused. I get stressed a lot more quickly.
The evenings are particularly difficult. After my walk, I feel I don’t know what I should do. I talk to Meghna. Or catch up with news on the computer. I watch old TV shows. I like “The Guardian” and “Boston Legal.” Generally I doze off.
Shall we say goodbye now, Naren?
OK. But just one more thing. The house in Kotagiri, the one in the hills, the one we planned for so long – I am hoping construction will be finished soon.
Do you remember how we discussed it before you left on your trip? I wrestled with whether I should go ahead with building the place that was going to be our dream home. But who knows how I will feel a few years from now, eh?
It is like you had envisioned it. Full of light and air and warmth. A space to listen to the birds and a space for quiet reflection. It should be ready by March 30, your birthday. You are turning 52.
Maybe you will be there that day, Chandrika. With me.
Goodbye, for now.