To know our next hero is to come face to face with love.
This is the story of raw courage. A story of character and of humility. But above all this is a true love story: of a flame that refused to dim in the heart of Chandrasekhar Sankurathri for the last 40 years.
A love that this man has carried for his wife who left him 30 years ago.
Chandrasekhar’s story begins in Kakinada - a small village in India, a village steeped in poverty and where education is given short shrift. Little or no importance is given to literacy and basic health facilities. Girls go to primary schools only to drop out soon after to become wives, mothers and housekeepers. Innocence is sacrificed all too soon at the Altar of expediency, a practice all too acceptable, all too normal to most.
Abigail Adams had once said, “If we mean to have heroes, statesmen and philosophers, we should have learned women.” Although it has been a struggle for generations in countries all over the world to fight for the basic rights of women, basic education has been given the go by in the third world because of the endless struggle to come to terms with life. But all it has taken since time immemorial is for that one courageous person to have taken a stand and bring about a change. A change for the vulnerable, the weak, the sick, the poor and the naive.
In Kakinada, Chandrasekhar Sankurathri came in as that one messiah for the sick, the weak and the poor. But a messiah who had his own cross to bear. A cross that few can carry, and fewer still carry others’.
Chandrasekhar grew up in in Rajahmundry which is 60 kilometers from Kakinada. Immensely talented, his hard work and intelligence saw him complete his Bachelors, then his Masters in Zoology and finally a PhD in Science. His appetite for excellence was insatiable which led him to Alberta for a Fellowship and finally become a biologist at Health Canada in Ottawa.
“The people in Canada were some of the most beautiful, friendly people I had ever met. I came here on a sponsorship to complete my Masters, but then I stayed on.”
In 1975 Chandrasekhar returned to India to get married. His bride was just 24, and like most marriages in India this was an arranged one. But mention the name of his wife and Chandra's eyes light up like a thousand candles.
“She was a born musician, and an artist to her fingertips," he proudly proclaims. And yet, "her humility" was her second name. "The way she spoke to others and treated everyone equally with love and respect, especially children, is what stood out most.”
“We had initially applied for a Green Card to go to US.” Even better job prospects added to the fact that Manjari’s own brothers and sisters were all settled in the U.S. led to this decision. Their green card finally arrived in 1982. “But Manjari refused. She was so happy in Canada. This was her home now.”
Chandrasekhar pauses to laugh when asked if he can recall some really special moments with Manjari. “Where do I begin? They were all special! She was such a passionate mother and a wife, always taking care of the three of us, always cooperating with me. I never saw her getting angry ever!” One can see in Chandrasekhar’s eyes, how deep his love for his wife is.
“But she left me...and so did my children, Srikiran and Sarada. They were just 6 and 3 at the time.” Chandrasekhar’s gentle voice breaks.
June 23rd 1985:
Air India Flight 182, Montreal-New Delhi: Canada’s very own 9/11, this ill-fated Air India flight was close to touch down at Heathrow when a bomb exploded mid-air. It was the first bombing of a 747 jumbo jet and the single largest mass murder in Canadian history. The majority of the victims were Canadian citizens of Indian ancestry.
Manjari, Srikiran and Sarada, Chandrasekhar’s wife and two children were on that flight. “They were going to India to visit family,” says Chandrasekhar. Three of the 329 people killed in that flight, just like that.
The RCMP Air Disaster Task Force zeroed in on Talwinder Singh Parmar, a Sikh preacher to be the mastermind behind the blast. Parmar had fled to Canada from Punjab in 1982, when India issued a warrant for Parmar's arrest and asked for his extradition, alerting Canada that Parmar was a wanted terrorist who had fled India. Canada later denied the request. Three years later, following an official raid that was carried out by the Indian government on the holiest Sikh shrine located in Punjab led to a colossal turmoil among the Sikhs all over the world. Parmar vowed revenge on India. Parmar’s right hand man, Inderjit Singh Reyat, also from Punjab and settled in the UK was originally linked to the International Sikh Youth Federation – a Sikh separatist group banned in the UK under anti-terror laws in 2000, had spent his childhood in Coventry. He finally moved to Vancouver, Canada, with his wife, Satnam Kaur.
“My Manjari loved children,” Chandrasekhar’s account of his wife forces us back to his story.
“When she had first moved from India to Canada, she was very reserved,” Chandrasekhar continues, “but then she went on to make a lot of friends. Kids loved her, and the feelings were always mutual. Music continued to remain her first love. Dividing her time between music and work all the way up until the birth of our children, she finally quit her job to devote all her time raise them.”
“I was asked to go and identify their bodies.”
Chandrasekhar’s horrifying line draws me back to his inescapable truth again. “But I wasn’t able to identify them. I’m happy I wasn’t able to, otherwise I would have had to live with the vision of their lifeless bodies etched in my mind forever.”
How does a man in Chandrasekhar’s shoes make sense of it all? Does he find it convenient to harbour hatred in his heart for those belonging to a certain religious sect? Or is it easier to lose faith in God altogether? Or is it easier still, to plot another revenge to keep the terror going? Perhaps commit suicide, taking down another 300 people with him?
Chandrasekhar chose to dedicate the rest of his life to the poor and helpless instead.
“Yes, I am grateful, that through it all, I did not become a burden on anyone,” is all he says.
Days, weeks, months passed by. Friends, family all came forward to offer emotional support to a dazed man, not quite broken yet.
“I don’t think it sunk in when I got the news that day. It was mainly disbelief. I could not understand why people were coming and talking to me...nothing made sense to me.”
“I searched for answers, for some kind of a meaning. But I didn’t get any answers.”
Chandrasekhar relied on and was thankful to a lot of very close friends and family who stood by him like a rock through the toughest times. “But I couldn’t really openly share my grief with anyone. After all, who could truly understand what I was going through within?”
After the initial couple of years, Chandrasekhar started realizing slowly that had to do something purposeful to keep on living. “I had lost the reason to live for myself, for my family.” It was now time to live for others.
Call it destiny, call it a will to step into something greater, Chandrasekhar gave up his job and was on his flight back to India. “My wife loved children,” he repeats.
Perhaps as a way to feel closer to her, Chandrasekhar decided to work with children in India, in a village where Manjari spent her childhood.
“There is such a huge want of welfare of children in India, for education of the girl child, and for girls to finish higher education, that no matter what one does, it can never be enough.”
Realizing he could not go on living meaninglessly anymore, he decided it was time to pick up the pieces and start his life all over again for those who needed help.
“Manjari had always wanted to do something for kids. I just filled in her shoes.”
Chandrasekhar walked the talk. A foundation was created in his wife Manjari’s name that was dedicated to working for the betterment of children through education. Today, over a span of 25 years of single minded perseverance, one of Chandrasekhar’s many projects has provided free education to over 2,360 rural children, mostly to girls.
Chandrasekhar speaks with equal passion about his project as he does about his wife. “The Manjari Sankurathri Memorial Foundation was established in 1989 towards developing education, health care, and disaster relief programs.” This was followed by the establishment of Sarada Vidyalayam (School in Sanskrit) in 1992 that he named after his daughter Sarada. Since its launch, the school has had a zero drop-out rate. Fees, books, uniforms, meals and medical checkups are all provided free of cost with the help of the money raised by the foundation. “Most girl students in our village did not continue beyond middle school. They would get married by the time they were 12 years old. I wanted to change that. Today, all our girls complete high school. Most complete their graduation, then got jobs and then get married. This is a huge change from the time I had started out more than two decades ago. To be honest. I never expected it.”
No more do elementary school girls in Kakinada and neighbouring areas go to primary classes only to drop out after a few years to assume the responsibility of a wife, a mother and a housekeeper. And most of all, it is not an acceptable part of life for these girls anymore.
“Our number one priority lies in value based quality education for the poor in India, and to eliminate child labour.”Chandrasekhar also runs a vocational school for women who do not have money or are incapacitated. This school provides the much needed job skills to the unemployed youth.
In 1993, Chandrasekhar established the Srikiran Institute of Ophthalmology named after his son. Since the hospital’s inaugural in 1993, more than 2,16,858 cataract surgeries have been performed, giving 100% free treatment to the poor that include free eye examinations, free surgery, free medication, free accommodation, free food while patients are in the hospital and even free transportation. The Government of India has recognized the Srikiran Institute as one of the eleven training centers for Ophthalmologists.
“Eye care is one of the most ignored areas of healthcare in the rural, tribal areas of India. There are no eye doctors or any facilities for the poor and so they don’t even have any knowledge about eye care. When I started out over two decades ago, I noticed that they had to travel 500-600 km to bigger towns and cities to get decent treatment. But in reality how many of these could really travel? They were all just lost. There is rampant blindness in the rural parts of India. And so I set up the Srikiran Institute to provide accessible, affordable, equitable and quality treatment.”
One wonders, what’s in store for Chandrasekhar Sankurathri, a one-man army, who has brought about a colossal change to the helpless and needy but leads an extremely modest life himself.
“I can’t be here forever. My time is running out, I can see that. But there is still so much to do. Mosquitoes are causing horrible diseases among humans that are proving to be fatal. I want to eliminate the root cause of this. So much can be curbed. Being a biologist, I can do this. But I cannot do it alone, and need help from volunteers and sponsors.”Chandrasekhar also talks passionately of starting a mother and child project, to help provide proper healthcare to rural mothers and their infants. All this apart from ‘Spandana’, a disaster relief program, another charity started by him in 1998 to provide basic necessities such as food, drinking water and medications to displaced persons affected by cyclones and floods in eastern India.
Sankurathri Foundation is running because of large hearted sponsors. But now the foundation is struggling to make ends meet as expenses are getting higher and donations are not. I see the disparity. I know disparities are there everywhere in the world. But the disparity in India is so shocking, so wide, and so unacceptable. We have to do more, much, much more.”
Chandrasekhar’s relentless pursuit to make lives of the poor a little bit easier continues tirelessly as he wakes up every morning at 4 am and starts his day. “Nothing can be achieved without discipline,” he explains.
A messiah, an angel, a parent... Call him what you will, but there is not a shadow of doubt that this modern-day God has shown to the world that no matter how hard our struggles, how deep our pain, it is in each one of us to help others no matter what. Only then can we create a better world.
“I am not really alone in all of this. I know that somehow, somewhere, Manjari, Srikiran and Sarada never really left me. They are with me till today in every step of the way,” Chandrasekhar concludes.
Chandrasekhar Sankurathri, we bow down to you, and to the love that you have carried in your heart all these years for your wife, your children and for humanity. Thank you.
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