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From the ashes of grief

From Monday's Globe and Mail

Thornhill, Ont. — Venu Thampi didn't think much about it when he was invited to a friend's home for dinner more than a year after his wife was killed in the Air-India terrorist attack.

He was still grieving for his wife, Vijaya, and struggling with the burdens of life. He had a six-year-old daughter to take care of and a job that kept him away from home too much. But the dinner was supposed to be a casual evening and Mr. Thampi didn't know who was going to be at his friend's place.

Jayashree Lakshman was there. Mr. Thampi had seen her at meetings for families of Air-India victims: Her husband and seven-year-old daughter were also among the 331 people killed in the June 23, 1985, bombing attacks.

Neither of them was ready for any kind of relationship. It was too soon. But after the dinner party, Jayashree began helping with his daughter, Nisha, taking her to weekend activities and pitching in when he needed a helping hand during the week.

After a while they started talking about a life together. By March, 1988, they were married. "There was a chemistry there," he recalls. The following summer they had a son, Vivek.

"God has funny ways of working," Mr. Thampi, 55, said in an interview. "I question God's way of making us all live through [the Air-India disaster], but at the same time we now have peace at home."

"We learned to live happily," said Mrs. Thampi, who is two years younger than her husband. "The grief is always there ..... but we have a life."

The Thampis are unique among families of the Air-India victims — two grieving spouses who married and had a child who would not have been born but for the tragedy.

In the 20 years since the attack, the Thampis tuned out the government pronouncements on the disaster, the protracted police investigation and the convoluted processes of Canada's justice system. They built a new life, devoting themselves to their children and their life together.

For almost two decades they protected their privacy. "I carry on my life without wanting to make anyone miserable," Mr. Thampi said.

But they agreed to break their silence in the days before the verdict in the Air-India trial, which is to be delivered on Wednesday, March 16.

Vancouver businessman Ripudaman Singh Malik and mill worker Ajaib Singh Bagri face charges of murder for the deaths of 331 people in two co-ordinated bomb explosions, one in Japan and a second on an Air-India flight en route from Canada to England.

As many as 70 members of victims' families will be in the public gallery of the Vancouver courtroom to hear the verdict. The Thampis will not be with them. Long ago, the couple say, they started a new chapter in their lives.

"The past is not erased," Mrs. Thampi emphasized. "We are not avoiding or forgetting the past. It is going to be there forever and ever."

But their hope was to raise children who would grow up without grudges and without vindictiveness, despite what their parents went through. "Jay and I do everything possible to keep a civil approach to the whole matter," Mr. Thampi said.

Before they married, the couple weighed whether it was a good idea for two grieving Air-India families to join together. Both of them had happy first marriages, rich family lives. If the clock were turned back, they would never have met.

"It was a conscious decision on our part to be together in these circumstances," Mr. Thampi said. "We made a conscious decision to live our life. That is what made, for us, a difference. We became a true family."

***

The Thampis and their children were interviewed at their home in a quiet residential enclave north of Toronto, where youngsters of Korean, Chinese, Caribbean, Indian, South African and European background play together on the street and families get together on Canada Day to set off firecrackers.

The conversation took place in their front room, dominated by impressive statues of Hindu gods, representing birth, life and wisdom.

Although his wife found it difficult to discuss her private life, Mr. Thampi felt it was important to share their thoughts on the disaster and its aftermath. "We are not reluctant to talk about this. Vivek is the most beautiful addition to this whole thing. ..... We live our lives every day as family, and we treasure this."

Vivek, an active 15-year-old, said he often thinks about how he would not have been born if the Air-India attack had not occurred, and reflects on how his parents' lives evolved as a result.

"It's interesting," he said. "They get involved in grief and everything, and then they become happy just to be with each other.

"They were two people who lost someone and needed someone else," he said, as if retelling a fairy tale with a happy ending. "Each one was missing something, like missing pieces of a puzzle ..... and those pieces just came together, and they created me."

Although his own life is linked directly to the disaster, Vivek said he has not paid much attention to the tragedy over the years and does not have strong opinions about what happened.

A typical carefree teenager, he is enthusiastic about tennis and wishes he could play more often. He volunteers at a rehab hospital and helps organize a biweekly food-and-clothing drive for charity. He enjoys school, especially his math and science classes, and his civics class has started to pique his interest. The Air-India disaster is just not a big part of his life.

Vivek said he was about 6 or 7 when he first heard grownups talking about an airplane blowing up over the ocean years earlier. He did not give much thought to it. He did not understand what had happened, and did not connect the Air-India disaster with his life in his safe suburban neighbourhood.

Two or three years later, his parents and sister sat down with him and told him about their previous families and the disaster. He remembers feeling sadness and anger. "I thought it was so inhuman. What kind of person could kill another person just for their own pleasure or happiness? It just did not make any sense to me ..... Why would they do it?"

***

Nisha Thampi is now 25, and in her third year of medical school. She speaks easily about growing up in the wake of the tragedy.

She went with her father to Ireland in 1986, when families gathered to mark the first anniversary of the disaster near the site where Flight 182 crashed into the ocean. She was one of two children who lifted a curtain draped over the stone memorial. She remembers wearing a blue dress and a white hat, and laughing a lot.

Mr. Thampi recalls how difficult it was at that time to raise Nisha alone, trying to be both father and mother. "I did not know how to handle her," he said. He changed jobs in 1987 so he could spend more time with his daughter, starting a small business that allowed him to be home more.

He was pleased when Jayashree took an interest in Nisha, who was close in age to her own lost daughter, though he knew it was not easy for her. "There were days when I could see her hurting," he said. Nevertheless, Jayashree developed an extremely close relationship with Nisha.

"I don't remember the first time I saw her, but I remember I thought she was really cool," Nisha recalled. "I liked her because she was a lot more fun than him," she added, nodding playfully toward her father. "He would always fall asleep at the movies. She actually enjoyed them, and talked about them with me. ..... She was a lot more encouraging of my childhood."

Despite her parents' past, the Air-India disaster did not figure prominently in Nisha's teen years during the 1990s. She rarely saw media reports, and no one was talking about it. Her parents had told her about the disaster, "but I did not care to know, because it was all a personal experience we all had gone through, and that was the extent for me."

She learned about Sikh politics and the Air-India investigation mostly from the news media, after two suspects were arrested in October, 2000. She said the Air-India attack assumed much more importance to her after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.

"It was amazingly fast, the response to an act of terrorism, and the media was saying this was the first act of terrorism in North America. It was like they completely discredited the Air-India disaster as an act of terrorism," she noted.

She was also bothered by the Canadian government's response to Sept. 11, which was in sharp contrast to what the federal government did after the Air-India attack, the deadliest crime in Canadian history. "9/11 didn't even happen in Canada, and the Canadian government was so much more responsive than they were in 1985," she said. "That made me bitter to see."

But she said her family, despite its history, is not consumed by bitterness or sorrow. "We function just like any other family," she said. They are not afraid to fly, and fly together on the same plane; they even use Air-India if the flight is convenient.

Still, Nisha admits she worries when her parents are on a plane without her. "It's a bit of a reflex action, a knot in the stomach until they land."

And there is another aspect of living in the shadow of such a disaster. "We treasure our time together," Nisha said. "When we argue, we try our best to make up right away."

***

Although the Thampi family does not spend much time talking about the Air-India disaster, they do not shy from the subject.

"We never tried to hide it. It is with us every day. But what is most important to us is to realize what happened and carry on with this life, without being vindictive," Mr. Thampi said.

"There has been a lot of unfairness in the way things happened. The [attack] was unfair and the follow-up ..... everything was flawed," he said. But he and his wife prefer not to focus on finding fault.

"I want to teach the children the right thing," he said. He wants his children "to appreciate what is good in everybody."

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