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Kanishka bombing: Meet the man who recovered from a personal tragedy by serving the poor

After loosing his family in the terror attack on Air India Flight 182 Kanishka, Chandrasekhar Sankurathri quit his Canada job and returned to India, where he founded many projects to help the poor

world Updated: Jun 10, 2018 21:54 IST
Anirudh Bhattacharyya
Anirudh Bhattacharyya
Hindustan Times, Toronto
Chandrasekhar Sankurathri at the Manjari Sankurathri Memorial Foundation stall during the recent Canadian Ophthalmological Society’s annual exhibition in Toronto.
Chandrasekhar Sankurathri at the Manjari Sankurathri Memorial Foundation stall during the recent Canadian Ophthalmological Society’s annual exhibition in Toronto.

On June 23, 1985, Chandrasekhar Sankurathri, then a scientific evaluator with Health Canada in Ottawa, lost his family in the terror attack on Air India Flight 182 Kanishka. The bombing, which resulted in 329 deaths, also claimed the lives of his wife Manjari, son Srikiran and daughter Sarada.

The devastating incident led Sankurathri to quit his job and return to India. “I didn’t see any purpose in continuing the same job and continuing to live here (in Canada),” Sankurathri said. The tragedy almost consumed his life when it occurred. “Initially, I could not even accept it had happened. To believe it had happened took a long time, because I did not see their dead bodies also,” he said.

Over three decades later, the trauma still haunts him: “That doesn’t mean it’s over now, I still have feelings but I’m focusing on how I can help others,” he said.

After returning to India, he founded, among other projects, an eyecare facility that has provided free procedures to nearly a quarter million underprivileged patients since it came into existence 25 years ago. As that facility, the Srikiran Institute of Ophthalmology, completed its silver jubilee this year, Sankurathri has also released his autobiography, A Ray of Hope, at a function in Ottawa on Saturday.

His book, he hopes, will help youngsters cope with depression. “If I can survive such terrible times, such dramatic experiences, if I can do something with my life, they can also overcome those small little hurdles and move ahead in life,” he remarked.

He also established the Manjari Sankurathri Memorial Foundation in Canada (MSMF) in 1989, and the body receives the bulk of the funds from donors to operate the various projects. In 1992, he founded the Sarada Vidyalayam in Kakinada, his wife’s hometown, to provide education to underprivileged children. The ophthalmological institute came a year later, and the Spandana Disaster Relief Program came into existence in 1998.

Chandrasekhar Sankurathri signing a copy of his memoir, A Ray of Hope, at its release function in Ottawa on Saturday. (Courtesy: MSMF)

In an interview earlier in Toronto, Sankurathri said that devoting his life to serving the poor, particularly those from the rural belt of the East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh, has been “therapy” for coping with that unimaginable loss. “It has helped me a lot,” he said.

Among those taken with Sankurathri’s achievements is senior Canadian journalist Terry Milewski. He made a one-hour documentary for the national broadcaster CBC in 2005. “What was doubly amazing about Chandra’s story is that until then the whole saga of the Air India bombing and its aftermath always meant bad news,” he said. “Chandra somehow turned over this horror into something positive.”

As CBC telecast that film (and reran it several times), there was “an outpouring of support” for Sankurathri’s works.

Jacket of Chandrasekhar Sankurathri’s memoir, A Ray of Hope, which was released at a function in Ottawa on Saturday. (Courtesy: Westland Books)

Now 74, Sankurathri said: “It is very satisfying. I never imagined I would do something like that but that doesn’t mean the work is over. There’s still a lot more to do.”

Raising funds remains a constant challenge. The major part of it comes from donors in Canada, some from the United States, but curiously he has found scant support in India. The eyecare facility, headquartered in Kakinada with 11 branches and with several mobile camps, means buying state-of-the-art equipment like a visual field analyser, which can cost up to Rs 18 lakh. Sankurathri said the struggle remains about “how to continue this mission and make it self-sustainable so that it can be there for the next few generations because the need will always be there”.

Sankurathri isn’t given to visiting the various memorials for the victims of that terrorist bombing. Instead, remembrance of his wife and children has taken another route for him. “This (work) is in their memory. I think this will last for a long time so that their names should be immortalised. This is the best tribute I could give them,” he said.