A Passage to India
Vancouver, 22 June 1985, 7:00 a.m.
Sukhwinder Uppal, her two children and her friend Pradeep Sidhu bowed respectfully as they entered the domed Sikh temple in Vancouver. The morning prayers were just coming to an end as the four entered the main prayer hall. They walked towards the priest, who sat on the red carpet in front of the small podium with his legs crossed under him, and sat down before him. With her head bowed, her voice barely higher than a whisper, Sukhwinder asked for a prayer for guidance from the holy man, a portent for her trip halfway around the world to her homeland, India.
The turbaned priest picked up the Guru Granth Sahib – the Sikh Holy Book. A smile played beneath his salt-and-pepper beard. He had offered many such prayers in his years of service to followers of the monotheistic faith, for no devout Sikh ever undertakes a major venture without a prayer and a Hukam Nama – a divine order – for this is required by an ancient tradition. The priest opened a page at random and started to read the first verse on which his eyes fell, his voice rising and falling rhythmically with the cadence of the words.
‘Man does not decide who lives on this earth and who goes away. The decision of life and death is made by God,’ read the learned man of God, in the tongue in which the book was written – Punjabi. As Sukhwinder sat with her head bowed, contemplating the holy pronouncement, her friend Pradeep looked up sharply at the mention of death. The priest’s words had made her heart skip a beat. Sukhwinder Uppal was like a sister to her. She knew well the life of hardship the gentle 37-year-old widow had endured, the trail of disasters that had followed her and robbed her of the joys of life. The verse was a reminder to both women that we are all creatures of destiny. The passage chosen by chance from the Guru Granth Sahib is accepted by the faithful as the divine decision on the task at hand.
The two women and the children stood up and bowed, retreating from the priest and the podium. As they walked out of the temple towards their car, Pradeep’s thoughts were still about the Hukam Nama. The mention of death had taken her back to the terrible day in May 1975 when Sukhwinder, two months pregnant, was left a helpless widow by car accident. The crash was a double blow for the tight-knit family. It had claimed both her husband Harbhajan, who was looking forward to the birth of the new baby and hoping he would have a son, and Sukhwinder’s brother Dilbar Sidhu. With her only daughter Parminder just learning to walk and the baby on the way, Sukhwinder was devastated. Her entire family went into shock. The young widow did not smile again until the day in December when she gave birth to her son, Kuldip.
Living in the basement of her father’s house in South Vancouver, Sukhwinder got on with the task of raising two little children on her own. She got a job with a dry-cleaning firm and led a quiet, earnest life, her intense faith helping her to carry on. But once in a while, memories of her husband would overwhelm her, and she would retreat into a quiet corner of the house and cry silently long into the night.
Her dream through these dreary years was to travel to her birthplace with her children. Slowly the dream was taking shape. Pradeep, a travel agent with Gaba Travel in Vancouver, had done everything she could to make the trip easier for the widow, who did not speak English very well.
She had initially booked Sukhwinder and her two children on an Air India flight leaving from Toronto on 29 June, but her friend wanted to leave a week earlier and had visited the children’s school, Moberley Elementary School, to ask permission for them to leave before the start of the summer holidays. It hadn’t been easy to book a new set of seats for 22 June. It took several phone calls and Pradeep’s considerable influence as a travel agent to get the three seats on Air India Flight 182, which was nearly full already. A day before her friend and the children were to leave, Pradeep also went to the Indian consulate on their behalf to pick up visas for the visit to India.
As she drove them to the airport through the heavy traffic on Marine Drive that Saturday morning, after the visit to the temple, Pradeep was still uneasy. Had Sukhwinder received a message of consolation for her past sorrows from the divine book? Could it be a reference to the miscarriage of twins suffered by the widow’s sister-in-law the previous week after six months of pregnancy? Or was it a warning of future disaster? Still, Pradeep managed a chuckle as she glanced into her rear-view mirror at the children sitting in the back seat of her car. Her thoughts shifted to the visit of a friend to the Uppal’s house the previous night. The friend, Sukhwinder’s workmate, had brought gifts for the trip: a sari, a watch and a box of cookies. Nine-year-old Kuldip beat his sister to the watch, swiftly putting it on before Parminder could even move.
Later, after the visitor had gone, Parminder stood up and gave Kuldip a dirty look. She turned to her mother and demanded, “Well, what did your friend bring for me?’
‘She brought you this sari,’ her mother said with a smile, showing her the garment.
‘She should know I don’t wear saris, I’m too young for that,’ Parminder replied, looking woefully at the proud Kuldip, who was busy checking the time as if he had an important appointment.
They were eating breakfast by the time Sukhwinder’s brother Major dropped in to say goodbye the next morning. As he entered, his eyes fell on the framed portraits of Parminder and Kuldip which sat on the television set. He apologized to his sister for not being able to see her off at the airport. He had to go to work on the early morning shift at the sawmill. Sukhwinder had then phoned Pradeep to ask her help once more, because the luggage wouldn’t fit in the back of her sister-in-law’s car.
At the airport, Pradeep helped her friend check in the baggage and then went over to another family, which was also boarding the connecting flight, Air Canada Flight 136 to Toronto. She asked them to help her friend get around the busy airport at Toronto, explaining that Sukhwinder did not speak English very well. The children were jumping up and down with excitement over the summer holiday in India. But Sukhwinder was sad as she said goodbye to 70-year-old father Mehnga Singh. She cried on Pradeep’s shoulder as they hugged.
‘Will you come and pick us up a the airport when we return?’ Parminder asked Pradeep, who was mopping tears from her eyes. ‘Should we phone you to let you know when we are coming back?’
‘No darling, I already know when you are coming back,’ Pradeep replied.
Then the three, mother and children, walked through the departure gate and disappeared. Pradeep would never see her best friend again, nor the children. There could be no escape now from their date with destiny. The gods had made their decision.
From another part of Vancouver, marine college instructor Sam Madon was on his way to Vancouver Airport to keep a promise he had made to his wife Perviz five weeks earlier. Madon had given his word that he would be in Bombay with her and their children Eddie and Natasha by 24 June, the date of his 42nd birthday. She had gone ahead in May for a planned vacation and a religious ceremony, Navjote, in Bombay for their son Eddie, who at nine was just old enough to be baptized into the Zoroastrian faith. There would be parties and a live band to herald the new era for Eddie, and he would now qualify to wear a special undergarment and a band around his waist to mark his status as a boy who was embracing his faith and becoming a man.
Madon had clung to his five-year-old daughter Natasha to comfort her as his wife and the children prepared to go into the departure lounge. The little girl had cried because Daddy wasn’t going with her to India.
Madon’s friend, Air India’s Western Region manager Jehangir Parakh, also had been at the airport to see the trio off. He brushed his hand through Natasha’s hair and said, ‘Don’t cry darling, Daddy will be with you soon.’
Madon hadn’t made the trip with his wife and children in May because his vacation wasn’t due to begin until the middle of June. After his wife and kids had gone, Madon insisted that Parakh should accompany him on his own trip.
‘You’ll get a free ticket anyway,’ he said to Parakh. ‘Why don’t you come with me?’
Parakh toyed with the idea for some time. At one point he even called Toronto to tell the boss he might take a few days off to visit Bombay, and received clearance. But there was business to attend to in Vancouver and an audio-visual presentation planned on Vancouver Island to promote India to senior citizens, so Parakh told his friend he would have to go by himself. Sam boarded the Air Canada flight out of Vancouver with the Uppal family, never suspecting that less than 24 hours later Perviz would receive a phone call from family members in England to tell her that he wouldn’t be able to keep his promise to be with her.
In a tiny village near the city of Ludhiana, in India’s troubled Punjab State, a 70-year-old woman lay in bed, seriously ill. Doctors had told her family that her heart was weakening and she couldn’t live much longer. The old woman kept asking to see her son Daljit Grewal, who had made his home in the Vancouver suburb of Surrey. She wanted to see him for one last time.
When the news arrived at his home in Surrey, 42-year-old Grewal, a sawmill worker, decided he had to go and see his ailing mother. As he prepared for his trip, though, Grewal had mixed feelings. On the one hand he was sad that he was going because his dying mother needed him. On the other hand, he was happy to be going home to the village where he grew up.
He took his wife Jagjit shopping to help him choose gifts, and bought clothes and a stereo cassette player for relatives back home. Electronic items are particularly popular in India, where the songs on All India Radio are sometimes the only entertainment to break the monotony of life and the struggle to earn bread.
‘Look, you must study hard,’ he said to his 12-year-old son Mundip before they left home to go the Vancouver Airport. ‘I’ll come back and see how well my son is doing at school.’ He had similar words for his 10-year-old daughter Provijod as he hugged her ant the Airport. Just then he had a thought. He walked over to the travel insurance counter and asked the clerk to give him air accident insurance for $400,000. His wife, looking over his shoulder, asked what he was doing.
‘You might need it for the children’s education,’ he quipped with a smile.
He waved happily as he walked into the boarding lounge and passed through the security check for passengers, promising his wife he would bring back films of family members in the Punjab shot with his brand new movie camera.
As the Uppals, Madon and Grewal were checking in for their 9:00 a.m. flight to Toronto from Vancouver, another man was winning an argument with a Canadian Pacific Air clerk about getting his bag aboard Air India Flight 182. The man was insisting that his bag should be checked through all the way to India with Flight 182 although he himself only had a confirmed reservation as far as Toronto on CP Flight 60. There was a long, rapidly growing queue behind the man as he pressed the CP Air agent to do what he wanted. She finally gave in to his demand.
Air Canada Flight 136 and CP Flight 60 left Vancouver 10 minutes apart for the trip to Toronto. Both flights carried travelers who were on their way to connect with Air India and meet their loved ones in that far-off land, but the latter one, CP60 was also carrying the instrument of their destruction.