In just 59 days, 1,70,000 Indians were rescued using 488 Air India flight, and Sunny was one of the key men who made it all happen.

Toyota Sunny unsung hero of Kuwait war who inspired the film Airlift passes away
news Death Sunday, May 21, 2017 - 13:27

Mathunny Mathew, better known as ‘Toyota’ Sunny passed away at the age of 81 in Kuwait after prolonged illness on Saturday, his funeral will be held at Pathanamthitta district.. Many from the current generation may be ignorant of Sunny’s immense contributions to his fellow Indians, but for the lakhs of his countrymen who safely escaped the Kuwait war and returned to India in 1990, Sunny was nothing short of a hero and a saviour.

Sunny, then a Kuwait-based businessman, played perhaps the most crucial role in the efforts to bring 1,70,000 people out of Kuwait in 488 flights over just 59 days, after Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces invaded the country in 1990. Indeed, it was Sunny, and an architect Harbhajan Singh Vedi, who formed the inspiration for the recent Akshay Kumar hit Airlift, based on the incidents in Kuwait.

Sunny first landed in Kuwait in 1956 as a 20-year-old, before the country attained its independence. During his decades-long life in Kuwait he built up a large circle of well-wishers and friends within the expat Indian community there, and headed prominent Indian institutions including the Indian School in Kuwait.

His long association with the Al Sayer automotives group in Kuwait, which dealt in Toyota vehicles, earned him the nickname Toyota Sunny.

When war broke out, and large-scale evacuation became necessary, Sunny was on bed rest after surgery. However, he still put together an informal committee to help his fellow Indians, as the Indian Embassy had been closed down.

Sunny and the committee arranged a number of temporary refugee centres, with the first at the Kuwait Indian School, providing much needed food and emergency supplies for Indian refugees. Another key task this committee undertook was to arrange for stamping of passports of those Indians leaving Kuwait and arranging temporary papers for those who had lost their travel documents.

He reportedly also arranged transportation for about 70,000 Indians from Kuwait to Jordan via Bhagdad, using mini buses. According to Sunny’s son James, Sunny was at the centre of this plan, coordinating between Indian authorities, the United Nations and Iraqi transporters. “This meant 60 people per bus, around 200 buses and 10 trips per bus over 1,200 km one way; it was a logistical wonder and a mammoth task,” James told The Hindu.

Only after this great venture did Sunny and his friends themselves leave for India.

‘Operation Desert Shield’, the massive operation involving 488 Air India flights undertaken by the Indian government, with the help of the United Nations and key local civilians like Mathunny, even found its way into the Guinness World Records.

When Airlift hit the screens, Mathunny’s grand-daughter Rhea Mathews wrote on Facebook:

“Akshay Kumar's leading role is based on a few people such as my grandfather, who facilitated the evacuation of nearly 170,000 Indians and brought them safely home. My grandfather stayed through the turmoil of it all and put his life at risk to secure safety for all those he could help. He is a great man and through all his success has always stressed on the importance of humility, gratitude and love, especially to those not so fortunate. An inspirational icon who has touched the hearts of many and lived a life of service. I wish I could even be half the man he is. He may not have many years left but through this movie, his legacy will live on and for that I will be forever proud.”

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan expressed his condolences to Mathunny’s family on Sunday. The CM said that Mathunny's selfless acts to rescue thousands of Indians stranded in Kuwait will always be remembered.

Mathunny is survived by wife Mary Mathew and children James, Annie and Susan.


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