Politics

How a Canadian scientist turned personal tragedy into a quest to transform lives in India

Dr. Chandra Sankurathri left Canada 30 years ago, grieving for the family he lost in the Air India bombing. What he did with that grief can only be called inspiring.

Dr. Chandra Sankurathri lost his family to terrorism. He chose hope over anger.

Dr. Chandra Sankurathri at a fundraiser for his foundation in Ottawa on June 11, 2016. (Terry Milewski)

By now, his many friends across Canada know the outlines of his story — one which started out grim but ended up inspiring.

After 22 years in Canada, Dr. Chandra Sankurathri went back to India, broken-hearted, after losing his wife and children in the Air India bombing of 1985. But Canada stayed in his system. And the way he overcame his loss, and his impact on his community, has been nothing short of astonishing.

For three decades, the former Ottawa biologist widely known as Dr. Chandra (his full name is Chandrasekhar Sankurathri) has been returning to Canada to quietly describe his charitable work in India and gather small donations. Now, he's back here again to mark the publication of his own, very modest account of what, to everyone else, looks like a dazzling success.

Aptly called A Ray of Hope, Dr. Chandra's autobiography fails utterly as an example of modern marketing and media hype. It includes no politics, no bragging, no complaining and no trendy philosophy.

His narrative is spare and factual. He does not dwell on the terrible loss of his young family. He does not cry out for revenge. He simply lays out what he has done, and why, in the 51 years since he arrived from rural India as an orphaned student, living on ten-cent chocolate bars in the strange world of Memorial University in St John's, Newfoundland.

He could have bragged a little more about what he's built: an elementary school, a high school and a vocational school, plus a world-class eye hospital, all serving the poor at little or no cost in the hardscrabble villages around Kakinada, on the shore of the eastern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.

So far, his eye clinic has treated 2.8 million outpatients and has done nearly a quarter of a million free cataract and glaucoma surgeries. For most of those patients, the only alternative was blindness.

A villager with cataracts is examined at Dr. Chandra's eye clinic.​ (Terry Milewski)

Hope over hatred

Now 72, Dr. Chandra has able managers to help him. He might have decided that he's done enough, that it was time to quit. Instead, he's on the road again, trekking from Texas to New Jersey to Ontario, still talking up his plans to improve his projects in India. From May 31 to June 2, he's at the ophthalmologists' convention in Toronto. After that he goes to Ottawa for a book launch on June 9.

Why? Because, he says, he wanted his life to mean something after losing his family.

After the bombing, he writes, he was consumed by "anger and bitterness and hatred towards everyone around me." He willed himself to shake that off.

Now, he says, "I am thankful to God for giving me a goal to achieve at a time when I might have turned to despair or rage. I realized that no amount of anger will get my wife and children back."

Dr. Chandra teaching a biology class under the mango trees at his school in Kakinada, Andhra Pradesh. (Terry Milewski)

A photo of his family at the hospital entrance reminds visitors that Dr. Chandra isn't just some kind-hearted rich guy. He's a man on a mission to ensure his family is remembered. He named his foundation for his wife, Manjari, his eye clinic for his son, Srikiran, and his school for his daughter, Sarada.

In his book, he writes that he still thinks of them every day. But he seeks no pity.

"I may not have Srikiran and Sarada with me, but I am not bereft of parental joy and pride." He says the success of his students gives him "deep satisfaction" and he's particularly proud of the impact that he's had on the education of girls in the region.

"Educating a girl child in rural areas helps fight the dual evils of child labour and child marriage," he writes. "An educated girl has the capability to be financially independent and socially responsible. She becomes the building block of a better home and a better community."

And they know it. Given the alternative — a life in the sugarcane fields — boys and girls alike seem keen to seize a chance at the kind of decent education the sleepy state school down the road won't give them. At the Sarada School, the dropout rate is near zero. Instead of subsistence farmers and labourers, students aim to be doctors, engineers, teachers.

Students boarding the Sarada School bus. Much of the funding comes from Canadian donors. (Terry Milewski)

High ambitions also distinguish the neighbouring Srikiran Institute of Ophthalmology, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. At first, western experts in eye care used to come to Kakinada to instruct. Now, they do a lot of learning as well.

The crush of patients is itself an education — and a clinic which does cataract surgeries in three minutes flat, with a very low rate of post-operative infections, has much to teach.

'People here truly need help'

But so does Canada. Even today, Dr. Chandra remembers the shock of his first return to India — the crowds, the dirt, the poverty.

"I used to wonder, 'Why is my country like this? Why can't it be clean, like Canada?' I wanted to do something that would make a difference."

He also recalls the Memorial University professor who invited him home for Christmas dinner, and contrasts the generosity of his Canadian mentors with the harsher, tougher world in India.

"People in India, especially educated people, tend to be pretentious and have low integrity ... people have absolutely no qualms about lying, cheating, blaming others for their mistakes ...

"When I initially came to Kakinada, I was so put off by the people's attitudes that I wanted to pack my bags and return to Canada. But then I realized that there are people here who truly need and deserve help."

Of course, he hasn't lived in Canada in 30 years — so let's not tell him that lying and cheating are not entirely unknown in the land he recalls so fondly.

But Canada and India have this much in common: many of the Air India victims' families say they've never really gotten over their loss. Dr. Chandra, though, has transformed his own life — and the lives of countless others.

About the Author

Terry Milewski worked in 50 countries during 38 years with the CBC. He was the CBC's first Middle East Bureau Chief, spent eight years in Washington during the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations and was based in Vancouver for 14 years before returning to Ottawa as senior correspondent.

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