The disappearance of flight MH370 left KS Narendran, whose wife was onboard, struggling to come to terms with loss.

What if she doesnt return The story of a Chennai family struggling to cope with MH370 crashPTI
Features Book Excerpt Thursday, June 08, 2017 - 19:12

Thinking back, the initial days, regardless of what the developments were on the ‘search and rescue’ (SAR) front, were days of clarity, focus, equanimity, and acceptance of the way things were. I have heard from others, that in the midst of intense grieving, the agony of waiting and the anger with delay in availability of vital information all around, I was balanced and devoid of agitation. What made this possible?

I believe finding a quiet space within and investing an hour or two in writing was crucial. The writing itself was typically preceded by ruminations during the daily hour–long walk. It helped me find the words to describe to myself my state of being. It took various tones: a rant, a scream, a sigh, a cry. It often settled the inner agitation, and offered solace and a perspective that helped me be functional. It allowed compassion towards myself that I found otherwise easily on offer to others but seldom for self.


There was a recognition that we all carry an expiry date and it comes upon us without notice or warning. If MH370 was the carrier of this truth, so be it. It became clear fairly early that as individuals, we could do very little. We waited patiently. With every passing day and each fragment of information that came in, we would revise the narrative strung together, and articulate a new set of perplexing and urgent questions that inevitably came up.


For some length of time, I remained open to news that pointed to clear, incontrovertible evidence of what happened, and actions taken or were afoot that could help bring the whole incident to a satisfactory close. What was a priority was information that could get us a step closer to bringing Chandrika back, and for us to plan our next steps to redesign our life from that moment.

To be exposed to the prayers and statements of hope, and to not feed the expectations that Chandrika is safe and will be back that were voiced by many was difficult. To remain in an open state of mind of ‘I don’t know’ or that ‘we don’t know enough’ was helpful but emotionally and mentally demanding. The belief then was that sooner than later the aircraft and passengers, intact or in parts will surface . . . that one will receive official word from the airline. Expecting survivors without any basis was to set oneself for disappointment and grief.

Till about the time that one heard for the first time about the mysterious “turn back” by MH370 close to the Vietnamese Air Traffic Control area, I assumed that the plane had crashed and something catastrophic had happened. As news started trickling in of sightings on Malaysian military radar after the ‘turn back’ that were reported and later denied, I was surprised and thought it odd. What was being suggested by reports was that MH370 had actually turned back a little before it entered Vietnamese airspace and flown past the Malaysian mainland before being lost. I was angry for the lost time on this score.

It was also the first time that it occurred to me that the SAR process itself was headed in unfamiliar territory in more ways than one — the airline and Malaysia had hit a “black box”, the search was now going to be a prolonged affair and the wait was likely to be for an indeterminate period. It called for a reset of all expectations, and preparedness.

The possibility of an indefinite wait aggravated the feeling of life having come to a standstill, a pause where barring the minimum of routines, no plans or commitments could be made. Carrying on in Chandrika’s absence felt like having to carry on “alone”, and I felt a lack of energy to pursue anything of consequence. It felt like the motive force of an engine had been unplugged, and life had become a frozen frame of objects and people, and a backdrop into which much could be read but nothing could be enlivened.

There was, nonetheless, fuel to carry on. Holding to the dots and waiting for the missing links to reveal themselves, sense making in the thick of a bizarre theatre, and the resolve to not let the situation get the better of me were critical to remaining functional.


There was barely time for me in the initial days to be with Meghna. She had been watching from close quarters the calls and the cops, the wait for information, and the repetitive nature of discussions/speculations with numerous visitors. The limited time that we had together – quiet, undisturbed and private – was before we went to bed. I would ask her how she was feeling and she in turn would ask me the same. I liked that. It created a space between us where we could be vulnerable with each other and find the words to describe what was happening to us. I once broke down as I tried telling her how there were ever so many things in the house that were constant reminders of Chandrika – words, what she liked, what she did, what she lavished attention on, the familiar banter and arguments. She, in turn, was in tears and sobbing and I can’t remember the time that elapsed while we hugged, said our goodnights and attempted to sleep.

On another occasion, after the first few days of the flight’s disappearance, I was giving her an end-of-day update and my assessment of where the search was headed. She, by then, was quite clued in and figured that I was not giving her a safe but inaccurate picture. She confirmed that she was following the SAR effort through the internet and then asked ‘what if she doesn’t come back?’ Verbalising the question itself had been too much for her and she was in tears, suggesting that she had been considering this scenario well before and the thought had perhaps been too hard to contemplate. What followed was a long conversation, where we offered answers that seemed right, but woefully insufficient to contain the flooding sadness of it all.

I told her: ‘Amma not coming back is a very real possibility. We are already a few days into the search and there is still nothing to go by. We know that as the days go by, the probability of survivors diminishes and approaches zero. I don’t know what life will be without her. What I do know is that we have a life ahead of us. We have received a lot from her. We know what she lived for, what was dear to her. She has done things that we can be proud of. She is not replaceable. But we know that there are a lot of very loving people to whom we mean a lot . . .people who truly care . . . people who are willing to walk with us if we need to rebuild our lives anew. We are blessed with a world of people who love us dearly. So we are not alone. Feeling Amma’s absence is real and will not go away soon. Don’t even try. Don’t pretend that our sense of loss is the torment of our imagination. It is real, natural and nothing to be embarrassed or feel awkward about. To express sadness is OK. To share it is a way of acknowledging how you feel. So talk if you must. Write if it helps. Sketch if that is your way. We all express ourselves in our own ways. There isn’t a “right” way.’ We spoke for a little longer and felt somewhat settled. Another day had been navigated and it was time to sleep. I went to sleep acutely conscious that my daughter was struggling, suffering.

Excerpted with the permission of Bloomsbury from the book ‘Life after MH370: Journeying through a void’ by KS Narendran. 

You can buy the book here.


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