The ebb and flow of grief lends the narrative a distinct quietude. As though bereft of tears, or embarrassed by them, the narrator has decided to banish melodrama and focus on what happened, and what ought to be done next. The still voice of Life After MH370: Journeying Through a Void is that of a bereaved husband, a loving but helpless father, a worried son and son-in-law. It is also the voice of an unlikely activist – one who finds solace and coherence in the collective questioning of communities grappling with the same tragedy.
The Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 went missing three years ago, on March 8 2014. It was on its way to Mongolia via Kuala Lumpur and Beijing, with 239 people on board. And while investigations remain inconclusive, pieces of debris, like the flaperon that appeared in July 2015 on Reunion Island off Madagascar, have been found from time to time. Hope, like a torn wing flap, makes an appearance every now and then, on the infinite shoreline of dismay that delineates this book. The narrator, K.S. Narendran, (also the author) recalls:
“There was, nonetheless, fuel to carry on. Holding to the dots and waiting for the missing links to reveal themselves, sense making in the thick of a bizarre theatre, and the resolve to not let the situation get the better of me were critical to remaining functional. The mails from Chandrika’s friends, colleagues and ‘comrades’ in solidarity from many countries filled me with pride.”
Chandrika, the narrator’s wife, who, despite her reluctance, takes the flight to cold Mongolia only to disappear in the clouds, is the absentee protagonist of Life After MH370. It is for Chandrika that this sepulchre of memories is built, by her husband. She, the “frequent international flyer”; she the executive secretary of the International Collective in Support of Fishworkers; she who despised large corporations, is the void, the missing wife and parent, the emptiness in a room, the silence at dusk. The narrator tries to cope with this void, and a crack appears in his resolute calm, when he admits to failing frequently:
“The evenings were particularly difficult. Ever so often, Chandrika and I would do the evening walk together. It was our catch-up time, time for serious conversation about work and the world at large, the things that bothered us and the happenings that allowed for some optimism. All I could do now was to acknowledge her presence in my thoughts.”
There are other acknowledgments of overwhelming sorrow, although they are enumerated as instances of feeling a little less than all right. The narrator is distracted at work; he attempts black humour to deal with his overwrought mind; he is preoccupied with vivid images of Chandrika pottering about the house, sipping her green tea or tending to her plants. Each moment of disorientation is described with a deliberate matter-of-factness, as though the only way to mourn is to logically examine every thought or mood. The language of logic and an idiom drawn from the sheer physicality of hardware devices are deployed to vent a very palpable but controlled grief:
“I imagined that what had happened to me was akin to a processor and hard disk corrupted by a power surge or something catastrophic and whose capacity was consequently compromised.”
Life After MH370 is comparable to Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, co-authored by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant. Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, was widowed suddenly in 2015 when her husband, Dave Goldberg, died while exercising on a treadmill at a private resort in Mexico. In the book, published in April this year, Sandberg mentions the elephant in the room, which well-meaning friends ignored:
“Many people who had not experienced loss, even some very close friends, didn’t know what to say to me or my kids. Their discomfort was palpable, especially in contrast to our previous ease. As the elephant in the room when unacknowledged, it started acting up, trampling over my relationships.”
Sandberg, like Narendran, makes a bid for ‘normalcy’ by being present at work, but soon discovers that the solace of a daily routine crumbles quickly in the face of bereavement:
“At first, going back to work provided a bit of a sense of normalcy. But I quickly discovered that it wasn’t business as usual. I have long encouraged people to bring their whole selves to work, but now my ‘whole self’ was just so freaking sad.”
That Narendran too is ‘freaking sad’, even after six months of the MH370’s disappearance, is evident from the bouts of conversation he has with himself, imagining Chandrika by his side. He writes down one conversation:
“How have you been?
I don’t understand.
Where have you been?
Oh, many places. All at the same time. Can you believe that?”
But these exchanges aren’t symptomatic of neurosis; Narendran isn’t falling to pieces. He is reasoning with his anguish, domesticating it, and turning its raging fire into the incandescent flame of a movement. He joins Voice370, a community of passenger families, and Reward370, an initiative that is meant to encourage whistleblowers to provide information that the Malaysian and Australian governments may have held back. And, he writes this book. This principal consultant with Flame TAO Knoware turns into an author, not perhaps, for literary renown or accolades. This book, narrated with all the heartfelt simplicity of one who has an urgent tale to tell, is the distillation of grief into a pure and elemental homage.
Radhika Oberoi is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi.