Memoir of loss and coping

Urvashi Bahuguna | Updated on January 08, 2018

Grief and after: An artwork dedicated to the passengers and crew of MH370 at a gallery in Kuala Lumpur International Airport in 2014 Image: Reuters/Edgar Su   -  reuters/edgar su

KS Narendran with daughter Meghna Image: V Ganesan   -  v ganesan

Life After MH370 tries to make sense of an unthinkable event — the loss of one’s wife in a flight that vanished mysteriously — and the struggle to carry on

KS Narendran’s Life After MH370 is a memoir of a man who lost his wife of many decades, Chandrika, when the Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 mysteriously disappeared. As he struggles to make sense of an unthinkable event and parent his teenage daughter, he discovers a bewildering resilience to forge a life despite her absence. Edited excerpts from an interview.

Why did you decide to write this book?

I wrote it to offer people an up-close view of what grieving, coping, rebuilding a life could look like under ‘special’ circumstances. While the specific context was of the missing MH370, I was acutely aware that people ‘disappear’ in accidents and ‘accidents’, leaving families behind to make sense of the events, search for the truth, reconcile with realities and, where possible, make new beginnings.

It is also my response to many who wanted me to move on, ‘be positive’ and offered other such exhortations without being sufficiently patient or understanding what was happening to me, and what was at stake for all of us collectively. The families of MH370 passengers were seldom heard or consulted, but their name was invoked by authorities often to justify actions. The voices of family were heard through the press occasionally. But it was episodic, and rarely conveyed the family’s journey over time, the degrees of despair and upheaval, and their resilience. I was keen to go beyond ‘family-speak’ as a two-minute segment, and lay out a fuller story where it is possible to mourn, laugh, celebrate and agonise without splintering.

How long did you work on it?

I started writing the first draft in April 2016 and finished it by mid-August. I received feedback that was wide and varied from family and friends, and took a break to figure out how best to respond while retaining my intent. I made a second attempt around November, and spent about three weeks on it. This version passed through the gates with fairly favourable comments, and very few sharp pencil marks.

Did you read other memoirs before or during the writing process?

I have barely read a book in the last three years. Partly because I felt incapacitated to handle long tracts requiring attention and retention. The only book I read, as part of a set of challenges I set for myself, was Talking India featuring Ashis Nandy. I failed in the second — Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. I was clear what my book should be about. The only one I needed to consult was myself, since it was an account of my life after MH370. The timeline was etched in my mind, and the process was to retrace my steps, locate myself at various points on this timeline one more time, and stay in there for as long as needed or as I could.

What has remained unchanged after the disappearance of the plane?

The pragmatics of existence — the need to put food on the table, to earn a living, fix what is broken, a duty to care for people around me, being open, welcoming and loving of friends, the habitual long walk daily… and, of course, paying taxes.

The book is dedicated to those on the plane and the human spirit of those left behind. Do you think many of them will read this book?

Of the 239 passengers and crew on board MH370, a large percentage of the affected families may not be at ease with English. So, until a translated version comes along, say in Chinese, the book will remain inaccessible to many. Language is one issue, the other is of emotional readiness. While I remain a steadfast believer in the resilience of an individual, I know of families that are still emerging from shock and trauma (yes, even after three years). While I can be certain that if they read the book, they will feel ‘understood’, they may not yet be willing to revisit their journey and feel raw again. Some of my own family and friends say they have bought the book, but have hesitated to start, apprehensive of encountering emotional upheaval.

What was it like when you finished writing the book?

Relieved, for one. Very early on, I told my agent Kanishka Gupta that I was unsure if I had the energy, patience, and the capacity to hold it all together. In a way, I surprised myself by staying focused (without prematurely losing interest), and offering a level of self-disclosure (which I was unaccustomed to). I told myself that, maybe, I should not give up on myself.

Will you keep writing? Is there another story?

I would like to. I did start one before Life after MH370 happened. I intend to get back to it this year. The backdrop remains MH370. It is twisted fiction and promises to be an adventurous personal exploration.

U rvashi Bahuguna is a poet living in Delhi

Published on October 06, 2017

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