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The children of Air-India

The Globe and Mail, Feb. 15, 2003

What does it mean to lose a parent in the worst act of terror in Canadian history? Five people who had a mother or father aboard doomed Flight 182 share their stories in this article published in the Globe and Mail Feb. 15, 2003.

NATASHA MADON

Vancouver

Lost her father at 4

Natasha Madon was attending a birthday party in Bombay when she learned the airplane that was to reunite her father with his vacationing family had fallen into the ocean.

It was not an accident, she was told. Someone had put something on the plane and it had exploded. Almost five years old, she didn't understand what they were talking about.

"Maybe he just couldn't find us in Bombay," she now remembers thinking. "I had the feeling that, when I go home, he will be there."

Sam Madon had been on his way from Vancouver to join Natasha, her mother Perviz and eight-year-old brother Eddie, who had gone ahead a month earlier to visit family members. The Madons had emigrated in the late 1960s, and were bringing Eddie back to Bombay for his navjote,the coming-of-age ceremony of their Zoroastrian faith.

When news of the tragedy came, Perviz Madon was already on the way to the airport to pick up her husband. "I remember jumping into the back of a cab and not understanding what was going on at all," her daughter says. "I was sitting there, with Eddie, quite confused."

Her memories of what happened afterward are blurry. Her mother left a few days later for Ireland to recover the body while she stayed with an aunt. A few weeks later, there a funeral service, a cremation and then the flight home to Vancouver, where her father was a professor at the Pacific Marine Training Institute, which merged with the British Columbia Institute of Technology in 1994 (a picture of him still hangs on a wall there).

Now, at 22, the petite Ms. Madon has an easy smile and an optimistic outlook. But tears well up when she talks about life without her father.

She feels cheated. She was too young, she has too few memories. She can recall going to the park with him but can't remember what his voice sounded like. For more, she must rely on others. "People describe my dad as a very loving person, with a great sense of humour and a great love of life. He was well-liked, well-respected.

She constantly wishes he would come back. "I think of him every day. Sometimes I'm just sitting somewhere and I think of him. Or I see a picture."

Losing him cost the family so much. She cannot remember a Father's Day with him. He was not there for her dance recitals or her high-school graduation. He will not be there for her wedding or when her children are born.

"It can never be made better. Nothing can ever fix it."

And yet, she feels lucky. "Despite what we went through, we managed to have a somewhat normal and happy life. My mom has ensured that. We are a very close family."

And they speak often of the disaster. "We deal with our emotions openly in this family, especially with this."

The Madons did not get together with other Air-India families, and for many years thought they were the only ones in the Vancouver area. But they had many close friends who made sure they were well-loved and cared for.

And most of all, Ms. Madon had dance. "It's, like, my first love."

She says she abandons herself to movement. "I don't think about anything when I dance. My mind is blank. That's the thing about dance, you just enjoy it."

Until tendinitis in both knees halted her career, she danced as much as four hours a day, six days a week. She danced tap, ballet and jazz, travelling to Boston, Philadelphia and Hawaii for training.

She competed and won trophies. But she could never escape June 23, 1985. Another anniversary, another headline, another court date.

As she got older, she asked Eddie about what happened. She started to look into the political movements allegedly involved in putting a bomb on the plane, the reasons behind their terrorism and why they felt they had to do it.

She is almost apologetic about her search for an explanation. "It won't help any, to understand the cause behind it. I just need to know where it comes from."

Although still striving to piece the story together, she concedes that "it will never fully make sense to me."

She has found some pieces of the puzzle at the B.C. Supreme Court. She braces herself before walking in and seeing those accused of killing her father. But she feels she must. "We waited so long for this. It is important to be there," she says.

She grew up expecting to become a lawyer. Her mother often joked that her father predicted that because she liked to talk so much. However, she now expects to complete an undergraduate degree this spring in criminology and wants to do postgraduate work in the field.

"Some suggest it is hard for a victim of crime to look objectively to other offenders, but my experience has helped me gain some understanding," she says, adding that she's not the only child of an Air-India victim to go into crime fighting.

She says she is not looking to the court for revenge. "I want those who are responsible to be dealt with by the criminal justice system.

"But I realize, no matter what happens, it's not going to change the way I feel. My life will be the same, regardless. Nothing we can do to them would make it any better for me."

-- Robert Matas

'I've been angry all my life'

SUSHEEL GUPTA

Ottawa

Lost his mother at 12

Susheel Gupta wishes that his final memory of his mother was seeing her off at the Toronto airport, her long black hair newly permed to match his own curls, her face bright at the thought of visiting her family in India for the first time in years, her last motherly gesture delivered in a hug and gentle warning to "be good" for his dad.

He has so few memories as it is; he was only 12 on that Saturday afternoon in 1985, a "brat" by his own account, with a paper route and knack for mouthing off at his teachers. He didn't know he would need to remember. Death was not something he understood, let alone death delivered by design.

But he learned quickly. Because when he thinks of his mother, which is often, the most vivid image is the one he wishes he could rub out: standing beside his father, Bal Gupta, in a room in Cork, Ireland, searching for her grey face in the rows of head shots posted on the wall.

His father, he remembers, knew some others -- an entire family that was blown out the sky, friends they hadn't even known were making the trip.

There, among more than 100 lost faces, they found Ramwati Gupta, and were eventually led into another room, where her body lay on a hospital slab, as if sleeping, waiting for someone who loved her to name her and take her home.

Looking back 18 years later, her son is glad that his father was not alone, but he has a hard time recalling his mother without placing her on that table. "I search for other memories, but I don't have a lot. That kills me every day."

He hopes that she would be proud of him today, a 30-year-old federal prosecutor working cyber-crime cases and advising the government on computer offences. He is there, in large part, because what happened to her made a little boy think seriously about justice and evil and what he intended to do about it.

"I think," he says, "I've been angry all my life," a factor he believes drove him to excel, fast-tracking through high school and then university. "I understood how shitty the world could be for some people." Now, he volunteers with the local school board and the police department, teaching kids about Internet safety.

Everything changed for him at 6:30 the morning after his mother left. His father awoke to a call from a friend who had set his alarm clock thinking it was Monday and heard an early radio report. The elder Mr. Gupta awoke Susheel and his 18-year-old brother, Suneel, and told them that an Air-India plane was missing. There was no Internet to track news, so he started to phone the local media.

Friends began to arrive, and Susheel went out to deliver his newspapers. At the end of the route, not wanting to face the crowd at home, he sat on the edge of a creek that ran near his neighbourhood, and cried for his mother. Two days later, he boarded a plane for Ireland with his father.

It was not until he was in university that he began to study seriously what happened to the plane and the police work that followed. He has read the books, and his father collects the news clippings. "I don't know how anyone can avoid it," he says.

Of the investigation, he says, "I don't think it was the best that's ever been done," and he wonders whether a warning about the bombing was ignored.

As for Inderjit Singh Reyat's five-year sentence for manslaughter, "I don't understand the math," he says. "I only hope there's a lot more information that we're not privy to."

He is still debating whether to ask for a transfer to Vancouver, so he can watch the trial of the two remaining accused firsthand.

He finds it hard to describe what he's lost by not having his mother in his teenaged years. His father, an engineer and physicist, assumed both roles, cooking the meals, caring for the house and setting strict rules for his sons.

If he is confident today, Susheel Gupta says, it's because "I learned to rely on myself a lot more."

He wishes only that he knew more about his mother; growing up, he worried about his father's feelings too much to ask many questions. He has her passport picture, enlarged and framed, in his bedroom. And every year, on the anniversary of the crash, he takes the day off, and if he can, he goes home to attend the memorial service in Toronto. On his mother's birthday, his family has a cake and lights a candle in her honour.

"I know that some day, when I have kids, I will miss her a lot. That was something she really would have loved."

-- Erin Anderssen

'You don't get to say goodbye'

PREETI BERAR

Burlington, Ont.

Lost her father at 3

The baby wanted her bottle. It was dawn, on June 23, 1985. Oddly, her aunt and uncle were at the door, and everyone was crying. Preeti, 3, just wanted her bottle. "Just a minute," her mother whispered.

Soon, all kinds of relatives began to arrive. But it wasn't the normal family gathering with great food and her father playing the violin, piano and guitar. Everyone looked shocked. One aunt was wailing. Something about a plane, the sea and her father.

An uncle whisked away Preeti and her sister, Mona, 10. That evening, he announced that they would sleep at his house. Mona silently acquiesced, but Ms. Berar remembers feeling frightened. She insisted on going home, where one of her mother's friends tried to cheer her up, joking and pinching the little girl's fat cheeks until she had a temper tantrum.

"I can't remember when I realized what it meant," says Ms. Berar, now 21 and statuesque with a chestnut mane and her father's expressive eyes, fringed with impossibly long lashes.

Her memories of him are episodic and painfully scant. Once, he turned off the ignition and let her sit in his lap and pretend-steer the car. Once, he let her help to wash it. She remembers splashing with him in a round vinyl pool. "He was a hairy man," she says with a tiny smile.

Mainly, the flashbacks are built around a void. At her Grade 8 graduation party, when all the girls were asked to dance with their fathers, "I was the one sitting in the corner." At her graduation from Sheridan College, he wasn't there to see her glowing, in cap and gown, with an armful of rose.

Jogeshwar Berar was 45 when he boarded Flight 182. He missed his oldest daughter, Reena, 14, who had been sent back to Punjab two years earlier to live with her grandparents and go to high school. Everyone knew he was going to see Reena, except Reena. He wanted to surprise her.

Ms. Berar remembers the first week after her father died. To purify their Burlington home, a Sikh priest came daily to pray, clad in a long white shirt, white trousers and a white turban. "I thought he was God. I was scared of him. I thought, 'I can't act bad in front of him.' "

She tried hard to be good. But the little girl, who loved to cuddle in her daddy's lap while he played the mouth organ, lost her impish smile. And when her grief-stricken mother put her in daycare, she fell apart. "I used to yell every time she dropped me off: 'You're leaving me like my father left me.' "

Then she would cry for 2 hours. "The kids hated me." After several months, her mother let her stay home.

A strong swimmer, Mr. Berar wanted his girls to swim as well. He signed up Preeti for waterbaby lessons at the municipal pool that summer. When the time came, she refused to get in the water.

But kindergarten wasn't optional. She cried every day. She drew weird pictures, in white and royal blue, the colours of the foaming Celtic Sea that had claimed her father's body, and never gave it back. The title she gave her drawings: Torture.

Other children avoided her. When she finally stopped crying at school, she still cried herself to sleep every night, straight through elementary school. She was never invited to birthday parties and had no friends until Grade 11. She blames herself.

"I used to be very mean. I would rather say something mean to you than something nice. I just wanted attention, I guess."

Her father had owned a ceramic-mould factory in Punjab when his parents arranged for him to marry a beautiful young woman named Sukhwinder. They had Reena, then emigrated to Canada in the early 1970s. He opened another mould factory in Burlington, and sponsored his two brothers to join him. He also sponsored his parents. They were admitted to Canada two years after his death.

He never wanted his wife to work outside the home. After his death, she became a silent partner in the factory, but money was tight. At 39, Sukhwinder found menial jobs (lunchroom supervisor, janitor) at school that didn't take her from her daughters. On weekends, Reena watched Preeti, and their proud, reserved mother worked on a mushroom farm.

The three girls reacted differently to their father's death. While Preeti was prickly, she says Reena felt guilty. Mona, once talkative and bubbly, grew silent and introverted. They all tried to help their mother. Mona and Reena learned to cook. Preeti took over mowing the lawn and shovelling the snow. They never asked to go to school dances. "We just assumed it was a 'no.' Even going to the movies was an issue."

Ms. Berar still lives at home, and works as an aesthetician and makeup artist while studying for a certificate in reflexology. She still has the last present her father gave her, a Sesame Street garage for her third birthday.

This week, she sat in her living room, surrounded by ceramic figurines from her father's factory, and considered the man who bought the parts for the bomb that killed him.

"The person who did it was a Sikh. We're Sikhs as well," she says slowly. His sentence, a plea bargain that works out to five days for each death, has brought only more pain. "You don't get a sense of closure. You don't know what happened on the plane. You don't get to say goodbye."

She has never learned to swim. A few years ago, she did the Canadian thing and vacationed in Florida. Naturally, she went to the beach. "I walked into the ocean and I walked right out," she says. "I just couldn't do it."

-- Jan Wong

'The last thing he told me was take care of Mom'

ROB ALEXANDER

Hamilton

Lost his father at 15

The phone call woke him. Then he heard his mother scream. Rob Alexander jumped out of bed and ran into her room.

"She said, 'The plane went down.' "

The first days passed in a haze of tears and agonizing uncertainty. By week's end, the news was final: no survivors. Bodies and body parts began to wash up, but not that of Dr. Mathew Alexander, a surgeon and chief of staff at West Haldimand General Hospital in Hagersville, Ont.

Mr. Alexander remembers that it had been raining the day his father left for Pearson International Airport. His mother didn't feel confident about driving him. At 15, Rob didn't have his licence, so his father took an airport van from Hamilton.

"The last thing he told me was take care of Mom."

He did his best, and looked out for his sister, Tania, too. She was 11, and had been closest to their dad. Then there was little brother, Jamie, 9, who had trouble understanding what was happening.

"It kind of makes you grow up fairly quickly. I was the oldest son," says Mr. Alexander, now 32 and employed by a Hamilton insurance company.

The Alexanders were Christians from Kerala State in south India. They had come to Canada when Rob was one, and Dr. Alexander, a cardiac surgeon, requalified at McMaster University.

In 1985, he was 40. He and his wife, Esmie, had two more children. He juggled two practices. They paid off their mortgage. Then came bad news.

His widowed mother was ill back in India. Esmie booked him on Air France, but he feared his mother wouldn't make it and was delighted when a friend managed to get him on an earlier flight, Air-India 182.

Afterward, Mr. Alexander's maternal grandfather and uncle flew to Ireland, hoping to identify the body. It wasn't found. The family held a memorial service anyway.

That summer, Dr. Alexander had arranged for Rob, a six-footer, to attend two basketball camps. He skipped one, but his mother wanted him to go to the other. He did as she asked.

In the fall, he resumed classes at Hillfield Strathallan College, a private school in Hamilton. Mrs. Alexander, then 39, was determined to keep all three children there. It was the only thing she knew for sure her husband would have wanted. The school gave her a break on one tuition. She paid for the other two by selling her husband's two practices, collecting his life insurance, cashing in some investments and borrowing where she could.

Five months later, the RCMP called. Dr. Alexander's body had been found in some wreckage. He was still strapped to the seat, his passport in his pocket. The family arranged a funeral, the children's schoolmates and teachers came again, and all the relatives arrived from Edmonton and Montreal.

Mr. Alexander remembers that he was having Grade 11 exams in advanced French and math. He asked his teachers for an exemption. They said he could have one, but urged him to try, to keep his mind occupied. He did as he was told, and aced the exams. The funeral was held on Nov. 5, the day Jamie turned 10.

The following April, Mr. Alexander turned 16 and immediately got his driver's licence. He began to drive his mother wherever she needed to go. He handled the lawn, recruiting Jamie to pull the weeds. And he took over the grocery shopping for his mother, "when she would trust me." He laughs, now, at the spectacle of a gawky teenage boy, alone, shopping for a week's worth of milk and chicken and bananas.

He had considered going into medicine. He saw his classmates working for their dads, as he had once helped out in his father's office. But he chose economics instead. He was accepted at several universities, but picked McMaster so he could stay home.

When the children grew, Mrs. Alexander didn't downsize. She bought an even bigger house, using compensation from Air-India's insurance company. Each child had received a sum according to a sliding scale of maturity: Jamie got $68,000; Tania $63,000 and Rob, the oldest, $42,000. Considering their father had been a surgeon, it was no more than a year or two of wages.

The children knew their mother, who never remarried, didn't want to be alone. For six years, Tania lived in the house with her husband. Jamie is still there, as is Rob, living downstairs with his wife, Linda.

At their wedding in 1998, his mother walked him down the aisle. His grandfather was there too. Jamie, his best man, made a speech about how proud the family was of Rob. "He said my father would have been proud too."

At that, his voice breaks. He cries almost inaudibly, swallowing, gulping air. He's a man now, with salt-and-pepper hair, but he remembers his father's death as though it were yesterday and he were still 15.

He considers Sept. 11, and how swiftly the United States reacted. The government set up a fund for victims and now is about to go to war. In Canada, it has taken 18 years for one perpetrator to plea-bargain his way to a five-year sentence. And despite extravagant promises from politicians at the time, the Canadian government never paid the victims a cent. It has, however, spent $82-million so far on its investigation.

Each June 23, Mr. Alexander and his family hold a quiet memorial for their father. They never saw their grandmother in Kerala; everyone else in the family was too frightened to fly. She lived another three years, dying at 83 in 1988. Dr. Alexander had been her only child.

-- Jan Wong

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