Mar-velous Monday: Episode 2 – Air India, 1985: The Sari of Sorrow

July 4, 2021
The cloth is pure silk; a deep turquoise - diaphanous and mysterious. The sublime undulating shadows capture both light and dark. Every sari tells a story; and that story has a theme. The story here is the one solid gold continuous thread along the border. It both testifies and belies tragedy and senseless loss of hundreds of lives.

One thread, as if teasing or bullying the person wearing it to figure it out. Figure out the story. Figure out that theme. The design, as ancient as the 5,000 years the oldest garment worn by man; has been worn - is truly a phantom thread. The sari is timeless. This conjecture doesn’t matter.

Thirty-four years after this sari was given to me, I think I know what that continuous phantom thread is about. I think the woman who gave me the sari from her shop on 49th and Main Street in Vancouver in l987 was a shaman or perhaps a vedic angel watching and knowing the power of that story, that theme, that sari, that thread. She knew and she told me. That’s why she gave that sari to me.

That sari, embracing that story, now drapes elegantly in a hallway in my home - in a hall of my own ancients.

This reflection about the Air India bombing, June 23, 1985 - is more than my part as a television researcher forcing the Canadian government to re-examine the case because CSIS had erroneously - and criminally - erased the very tape recordings of the terrorists they were following.

My reflection of the many people I talked to about the Air India crash has more to do with Aristotle’s memoria - memory - the imagining qualified by time. James Hillman said it best in The Force of Character, “…the sole difference between imagining and imagination on one hand, and remembering and memory on the other is the added element of time."

To remember: a suitcase belonging to Mr. L. Singh during a baggage transfer from a Canadian Pacific flight from Vancouver exploded in Narita, Japan — and — fifty-five minutes later off the coast of Ireland another bomb exploded in the hold on a flight from Toronto and Montreal. A Mr. M. Singh had persuaded officials to accept his bag on a flight from Vancouver to transfer to Air India in Toronto. Neither bags on either flight were carried on by the passengers who brought them. That’s how Clark Blaise and Bharati Mukherjee described the bones of the story in their book, The Sorrow and the Terror.

This single most heinous act of terrorism since World War II before 9/11 - killed a total of three-hundred and thirty-one passengers, crew and baggage handlers with those two bombs.

Back to the woman in Vancouver, her shop and the sari that united us. All were pure kismet. She was a friend of my so quiet and refined producer friend who I knew from New Delhi who had worked with me in television. He felt betrayed, ambushed and horrified by these killings; zealots of Amritsar making their political point. These same people who lived in the freedom that Canada provides who chose to fight their battles long distance in the freedom that Canada provided.

In honor of memoria, I am going to say this out loud: Canada has no Girl Guide stamp of approval when it comes to the baksheesh invested over the decades the Air India trial came, went and ended — with not one of the two men charged with mass murder held accountable. Within an hour of that twenty-year investigation and trial, costing millions of dollars, both Bagri and Mailk walked out of the courtroom into the arms of family.

The woman I met who owned the shop - whose name I never knew because I never asked - was grateful to be heard. There was a lot of hate and confusion towards Indo- Canadians at that time, but in speaking about her home, her India, I realized that one on one people are just people. It’s when they get into gangs, that problems arise. And, a gang can be just more than one person. It didn’t help me to understand the carnage that happened, but the humanity of her words did guide my heart to stay open.

There was no internet, no celebrity culture of invading lunkheads dominating the social scene at the time. No catatonic air heads on anything like Fox News. Only a telephone, a decision to meet, and a knock on the door gave you access to a story, to the heartbeat of words. That’s how stories were done when I was a journalist. You were forced to deal with people one on one, face to face. And, it worked.

What do I want to say about this story that still haunts me? When we have been collectively haunted by so many acts of terrorism over three decades?

Amritsar comes from Sanskrit - the oldest surviving literature in all the world, in all the history of man. The word means, immortal.

I used to wear that sari to parties - it was the most feminine of garments I’ve ever owned. Some clever wag once said to me, “you look like page 572 of the Kama Sutra…” I found out that there is no page 572 of Alain Danielou’s version of the Kama Sutra, which I owned.

Over the years of traveling it just plain wore out: parts of the nine yards of cloth simply disintegrated. Somehow the front of the pallu caught on fire. That’s the graceful gathering in front of the body, that folds down below the belly button; with the remainder draped over the shoulder across the chest.

Perhaps it is that simple. The symbol of immortal that hangs in my hallway, being immortal itself.

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  • Jack Remick says:

    Mar: this is a terrific piece of storytelling. Kudos and congrats and all the writerly stuff you can “imagine…”

    • Sulaika says:

      Jack, as ever, the Master.
      Will get back to you tomorrow – happily – about your own work.

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