It has been a week since a few officers walked into their house in Kochi's Kakkanad, to inform Harikumar and his wife Sandhya that their only son Ashwin had gone missing.
24-year-old Ashwin worked as a trainee electrical officer on board MV Shahrastani - an LPG tanker ship that is managed by Mumbai-based M/s Anglo Eastern Company Ltd.
Seven days after the news reached them, Harikumar, who is an employee of FACT and his wife, are desperately waiting to hear news of their son. Ashwin was on a 6-month training period on board the ship since March 6, after he finished a 4-month course from Anglo Eastern Maritime Training Institute in Maharashtra. He joined the vessel from Shenzen in China.
While the company maintains that Ashwin went missing on March 29, his parents told TNM that they suspect foul play in their son's disappearance. The last time they spoke to Ashwin was at 8.30pm on March 28, nearly 24 hours before he is said to have gone missing. Harikumar expressed doubts over the company's claim that Ashwin was last seen at 8pm on March 29.
"Since he joined work, we used to contact him on IMO (an app for making video calls) and if the network is too bad, then message on WhatsApp. He was happy with the job, satisfied with the work environment and his colleagues. He used to tell us about how his day went by... On March 28, we spoke on WhatsApp. He told us what he ate... there was nothing suspicious in his messages at all. Ashwin also asked me to check his bank account, to see whether his salary has come," Harikumar said.
That was the last message he sent to his parents. Although Harikumar replied to his son's message about his salary, neither was that message delivered, nor did they get a reply from Ashwin.
"That means after he sent that message, something happened. He has not switched on his phone since then. If he had switched it on, then the message would have been delivered. It is only on March 30 that three officers from the shipping company visited us and gave us a letter explaining that our son went missing," Harikumar said.
According to the letter handed over by the company to the family, Ashwin had gone to ECR (engine control room) to read the manuals.
The letter said that the onboard staff on realising his absence when he did not turn up for the meeting the next morning, launched a search operation. "Presently the search operation was being carried out on site in coordination with MRCC Australia/ Maurituis/ La reunion," said the letter dated March 30.
Since then, the family has been getting the response that their son hasn't been found, Harikumar pointed out. The company has also not elaborated on what kind of search operations were or are being conducted.
When TNM reached out to Anglo Eastern, the company refused to divulge any details of the case, maintaining that the issue is being investigated.
The family filed a missing person complaint with the Kochi police on March 31 and has also written to the central government to intervene in the matter. In a complaint sent to External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, Harikumar said that the family suspects foul play in the missing of their son pointing out "the date and time of missing mentioned in the company letter."
He has sought immediate action to investigate the case and also to obtain the original Simple Voyage Data Recorder (SVDR) report of the vessel from March 27 from the company. An SVDR is a simplified data recording device employed in small vessels or watercraft.
Incidentally, this is not the first time that staff on board a ship managed by Anglo Eastern company has gone missing. In 2009, 23-year-old Febin James, also from Kerala and working as a cadet on board a container ship, had gone missing just days after he joined.