IN DEPTH: AIR INDIA|
A ray of light
CBC News Online | March 2005
From The National, March 18, 2005
Reporter: Terry Milewski
The Air India bombing killed 329 people. It left hundreds more bereft, forced to recreate their lives the best they could. Some concentrated their energy on the investigation.
Others turned away from that process entirely.
This is the story of one such man. His search for meaning led him to another continent and to a completely different life.
This is the story of a ray of light that has fallen on an impoverished part of the state of Andhra Pradesh in southern India.
Andhra Pradesh is the rice bowl of a huge and fast-growing nation of one billion, and yet for those who plant the rice and cut the sugar cane, India's economic resurgence is a distant concept.
In fact, outside the cities, little has changed for the 75 million people of Andhra Pradesh. In these villages, most people cannot read and write. Their children can expect no better. Schools are primitive, and a life under the blazing sun with a poor diet means that millions end up crippled by blindness. It is fate, they say. It has always been this way.
But fate can change.
It has for Adi. She is seven years old and getting ready for school in a rural backwater where decent education and basic health care are things to dream about. Adi's family doesn't have much, a few chickens, a couple of water buffalos.
If Adi were like millions of other kids in rural India, school wouldn't be much to look forward to. Still, her mother says Adi is learning things she never had a chance to learn. The family only speaks Telugu, the language of Andhra Pradesh, but Adi is going to learn Hindi and English and a lot more. She likes drawing, she says, and social studies and science and mathematics.
As she sets off with a friend, Adi walks right past the sleepy government school where students graduate barely able to read and write.
Adi and some other students have somewhere else to go, a school with much higher standards than that. A hundred other kids from surrounding villages arrive at the same time. All brushed and cleaned in neat new uniforms, despite the poverty of their homes. They have come to a school that is for them the chance of a lifetime. It was founded by a former government scientist from Ottawa named Chandrasekhar Sankurathri, known here as Dr. Chandra.
"I needed a purpose for my life. I wanted to do something useful with my life, so that's why I quit my job in Canada," Sankurathri says.
Dr. Chandra's skin is strangely bleached by a disorder called vitiligo, often blamed on stress, and of that, he's had more than his share.
The story begins on the other side of the world on the day his wife and children left Canada for a vacation on Air India's Flight 182 to London.
It was June 23, 1985, almost 20 years ago. The pilot checked in with Shannon airport as he flew over the coast of Ireland. Then controllers heard a strangled sound.
It was a bomb placed by Sikh separatists; 329 lives were lost in the Indian Ocean, whole families wiped out.
Dr. Chandra's wife and his two children were among them and he was left wondering what the point of his own life was.
Dr. Chandra's wife and kids
"I struggled for three years. I didn't know what I was doing. I was going to work every morning, coming back. At work, no problem. But when I come home, it used to hit me that I am so lonely there. What happened to my family? They're not there anymore. So I could not reconcile nor could I accept it. What is the purpose for me? Why should I go and make this living? For whose sake I'm doing here? So ultimately, I said no, no, it's not for me. So I had to do something useful."
Chandrasekhar Sankurathri used to be one of Canada's immigrant success stories, a student from India who rose to a job as a biologist with Health Canada and settled in Ottawa with his wife and their two children, who were born in Canada. They were three and six when they died with their mother on Air India. The bodies were never found.
Dr. Chandra as a young man
"I never seen their bodies also, so I didn't know. I still think they're still out there. I used to think that for many, many years. After three years, I said, what am I doing here?" Sankurathri asks.
He kept thinking about his wife's concern for the poor in her home state of Andhra Pradesh, so he came back to her neighbourhood and set up a school named for his lost daughter.
The Sarada school represents a ticket out of poverty for these kids, and there's no fooling around at morning assembly. If you show up late, you'll stick out like a sore thumb standing there with your backpack until it's over.
The children solemnly pledge their loyalty to their country... to their teachers, to their neighbours, and to their gods. After the assembly, there is a ritual walk around the statue of the goddess who is sometimes also known as Sarada, the name of the school and of the girl who inspired it.
As the school day unfolds underneath the huge mango trees, you get a sense of what education means to these kids. Ask them how many have parents who cannot read and write. Most of the hands go up. For themselves, they have bigger ambitions. What do they want to be when they grow up?
They answer: English teacher, doctor, teacher, police officer.
Best of all, this school is free. It doesn't get a dime from the government or the parents. It is funded entirely by charitable donations raised by Dr. Chandra.
He provides the school bus, meals, uniforms, books, and medical checkups with medicine if needed.
Normally for children growing up in a tiny village in rural India, the future doesn't hold very many options.
It is a long way here from the new high tech booming India. For the children, the future for the girls is perhaps helping their mothers at home, for the boys working in the fields, and that's about it.
But these children are very fortunate to live in a district near a school that can give them options, the ability to dream something better. Not just to get a better job, but perhaps to teach others.
So it's a dramatic step not just for them, but for their families and for the next generation. Interestingly, this deep change is accompanied by a deep reverence for tradition and good manners and discipline. Discipline.
Some of these kids got little or no breakfast, but at lunchtime nobody is eating until everything is all lined up perfectly. Nobody's talking, either, and they still don't eat until they've said a traditional prayer giving thanks for the food.
No wonder they seem to mean it. It may be the only decent meal some of the children get that day.
When they finally do eat, silence reigns. It's a monastic atmosphere. They are quiet at mealtimes, they are very well behaved.
"Unless we impart the discipline, I don't think we can bring out the best out of any kid, not any human being, as a matter of fact," Sankurathri says. "So discipline comes first and then comes education to me. So since the beginning, something has to go according to the plan the way we say it, no compromise, no negotiations."
No negotiations. Behind Dr. Chandra's mild manners, there is some steel.
When the former biologist teaches his science class, you see a little of what he might have been like as a father. You see the kids responding. He says he can't ever get his own lost children out of his mind, but this helps.
"The way I do now here, every time I see children, I always remember my children. It gives me joy to see children," he says.
You would forgive him for being well satisfied to see so many children launched in to a better life, but he's not.
Dr. Chandra teaches
In fact, right from the start, Dr. Chandra planned to achieve much more.
Long past school hours, Dr. Chandra's school bus is still at work collecting new passengers. They are the blind and the half blind, crippled by cataracts in their eyes. A hundred of them emerge slowly into a strange world, a bustling eye hospital. They've come from remote villages where an ophthalmologist is almost unheard of, and Dr. Chandra's team is going to restore their sight overnight.
"They may not know exactly what's happening or what's going to happen to them, but I think they know they've come for help," Sankurathri says.
They've come to the Srikiran Institute of Ophthalmology. It's named for the six-year-old boy, Dr. Chandra's son from Ottawa who died in Air India Fight 182 in 1985.
That name, Srikiran, means "God's ray of light."
A light is shining now on one man, a blind watchman. Thick cataracts have developed in his eyes, and for a year now, he's been finding his way around with a stick. He's just one of 150 patients on this day and one of millions in India.
The country has about a quarter of all the world's blind people, a fact blamed on genetics, on the burning sun, and on vitamin deficiencies. So when the word goes out that a team from the Srikiran Institute is visiting a remote village, nearly 200 people show up. Nearly half of those turn out to need the cataract surgery.
If one waited for these poor people to come to the hospital, it would not work. They wouldn't come. For one thing, very few of them even know that cataracts are curable, and for another, they don't have the means to travel.
So every week, the doctors come here to spread the word that treatment is available and free.
It is a big event in the life of the village, and now fireworks herald the arrival of a distinguished visitor. He is the local member of parliament, Pallam Raju. Raju is a software mogul and a rising star in the governing Congress party of Sonia Gandhi.
He is here to salute Dr. Chandra's work. Still, as a government member, Raju also has to explain why the Indian government cannot do what one private citizen can do.
"When we have a limited amount of funds, which we are trying to, you know... with which we are trying to do a number of things, with numbers like this, whatever planning we do may fail because of the numbers," Raju says.
Seven million new cases of cataracts arise every year in India. Only two million of those get the surgery they need.
As Dr. Chandra patrols the crowded hallways of his hospital, you don't hear him complaining that there are just too many. Patients are shepherded through a round of eye exams.
There's some form filling with the help of Dr. Chandra's staff. They are local people who get training, a small salary, and room and board. They're quite used to patients who don't know how to sign their names and who must mark their consent form for cataract surgery with a thumbprint.
The patients have their eyelashes trimmed to guard against infections after surgery, and at last, they sleep.
In the morning, the surgeon will make a tiny incision in each patient's eye and then remove the clouded lens and insert a new plastic lens.
At first, it looks pretty much like any hospital as the surgeon scrubs before going to work. But to make a dent in the daunting numbers of patients here, one doctor will have to work faster than her colleagues in the West, a lot faster, 150 surgeries a day, taking 2½ to three minutes.
There is a large staff backing up the doctor, but still, 150 surgeries a day is 10 times as many as a surgeon will do in the West, and it comes at a fraction of the price.
Each of the five ophthalmologists is paid about $1,500 a month.
Dr. Madhavi Ganta really does work on each patient for three minutes or less. Then it's off with the used gloves and on with the new, and while one patient is under the knife, another is being led out. Dr. Ganta says the key here is she's not bogged down by bureaucracy like doctors in the West.
"In the West, usually they have a lot of guidelines they should be following in operating rooms. You know, they have to change and scrub in between cases and other things. Here, we don't follow that many guidelines and a lot of paperwork," she says.
Cataract surgery is a life changing experience whatever country you're in. But it still inspires awe to see its impact on people who couldn't possibly pay for it and who otherwise would be condemned to darkness for the rest of their lives.
The blind watchman can see.
"I can work as long as I want now because I can see, two grandsons, grandchildren, so I'll be happy to see them again," he says.
"It's really gratifying to see that satisfaction, the feeling on their faces, the elderly people. Those who thought they'd reached the end of their life, end of the tunnel," Sankurathri says.
The watchman gets his final check before going home. Already he can read most of the numbers on the wall and his sight will improve further in the days to come. Other men are crowding round to say it worked. They could not work before, now they can happily work because they can see better, they say.
In the next room is Nagama, a washerwoman whose right eye was beyond repair, but her left eye has been saved.
"She can see everything, she can see all the colours," Sankurathri says.
About 150 lives have changed overnight, and it didn't cost much. The high volume of cases and the low salaries all bring the cost of each cataract surgery way down to about $50, which compares with about $3,000 in North America.
Dr. Chandra's one-man war on blindness is moving so fast now that there have been 95,000 cataract surgeries. Add to that about a half a million outpatients who have come here for other eye problems like glaucoma.
One of the patients
It's all funded by donations from Dr. Chandra's network around the world, a little from the Indian government, a little from charities like Help the Aged, and a little from CIDA, the Canadian aid agency.
He gets a little, too, from strangers on the other side of the world. Like school principal Theresa Crisky and her students at St. Gregory's Catholic School in the Ottawa suburb of Nepean. The kids have been raising money through bake sales and the like every year, a total of $14,000 to date.
"I found the work that Dr. Chandra is doing is absolutely unbelievable. He has taken a tragedy from his life and made it into something that is so helpful to many, many people," Crisky says.
"So far, luckily, I should say there's not a single day we stop the work for lack of money. I think it's not our greatness, but somehow..." Sankurathri says. "There are pretty close calls. Sometimes we wonder, how are we going to pay the bills this month."
Still, the subject of money doesn't seem to interest him much. What seems to matter to him instead is that the memory of his wife and children be honoured and that their names live on.
"My family are still even today, after 20 years, in the back of my mind always. You can't erase those memories. They're forever there. As long as I live, I have to live with them, I know that," Sankurathri says.
For many of the Air India victims' families, those painful memories are even sharper now because of their intense disappointment over the Air India verdict in Vancouver.
But Dr. Chandra did not follow the trial saying those who lost loved ones should move on.
"Forget and forgive, and you get on with your life," Sankurathri says, "Don't be, you know, vengeful and you wanted to see that, you know, somebody should get punished. By doing so, you are so preoccupied in that and we cannot do anything in life. You know, 20 years has gone by. If I didn't do this, I'd be sitting there waiting for something to happen for those criminals."
Dr. Chandra Sankurathri established the Manjari Sankurathri Memorial Foundation. It is a registered charitable organization in Canada. Its goal is "to promote rural community development in India, through education and vocational training, health care and emergency relief."
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Instead, day after day in his corner of India, Chandrasekhar Sankurathri is changing a seemingly unchangeable history of illiteracy and blindness. And along the way, he has made sure that the names of his family will live on. His wife Munjari, and little Sarada, and Srikiran, God's ray of light.