The boys are two and seven. They both have birthdays in May. The younger, Miles, can’t yet comprehend that his parents are gone, likely forever. He simply says: “Where is Mommy? Where is Daddy?” When those around him fall into tears, he does, too.
The older, Mirav, knows the television news keeps saying a jetliner has disappeared and that hope is lost of finding anyone alive. He also knows that his parents were on that plane – Muktesh Mukherjee, 42, and Xiaomo Bai, 37, the two Canadian citizens aboard vanished Flight MH370.
But he can’t bring himself to grasp the finality of it.
“There are boats and other things which will save my mommy and daddy,” he tells his grandfather.
It has been three weeks since the Malaysia Airlines flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing veered off its intended course and into the unknown. On Friday, search authorities again dramatically shifted their best estimate of where the plane’s remnants might lie to an area some 1,850 kilometres west of Australia. Five aircraft reported finding debris there that may be related to the disappearance of the Boeing 777. Or it may not, adding to the emotional whiplash for relatives of the 239 people on board that has accompanied days of promising leads – all of them, so far, subsequently discounted. Hurt and embittered, some in recent days took loudly to the streets, venting anger at authorities they accuse of botching the search and killing their loved ones.
But off the streets, in tear-stained homes in Malaysia, the United States, China and elsewhere, families are seeking to quietly rebuild lives empty of those they love.
Muktesh was the eldest son of Malay Mukherjee, who is now, at 66, preparing to become a father to the two orphaned boys, even as he is afflicted by a painful question.
“I am trying to understand: What did I do wrong that I have to be punished?” he says. “I wouldn’t say I am angry. I am not able to comprehend why this had to happen to me and our family.”
He speaks from a couch in a furnished apartment where he, his wife and their other son are now living, after flying to Beijing soon after they heard Muktesh was missing. Ms. Bai’s parents are a two-minute walk across
the street, in the apartment where the happiness of a young family has drained away. The couple’s presence hangs heavy in photos on the wall and spaces still filled by the shadow of better days.
“It impacts on you, getting to that apartment. Because you have so many memories of what used to happen,” Malay says.
Adding to the grief for his wife, Uma: This is the second family member stolen by an air disaster. Indian Airlines Flight 440 crashed on approach to New Delhi in May, 1973. On board was her father, Mohan Kumaramangalam, a federal cabinet minister and intimate of Indira Gandhi, who died.
“It’s a double tragedy for her,” Malay says. “She is definitely heartbroken.”
Yet to her, and the rest of the family, now falls the task of piecing back together young lives rent asunder. Their days have been both mundane – attempting to find paperwork and passports – and distressing, like trying to explain what has happened to children when neither they, nor anyone leading the search, knows what happened.
“It is even more tragic in the sense that there is no one to comfort the children in the same way a parent does,” Malay says. He plans to shepherd the family, both sets of grandparents and the children, to India soon for a short trip. He wants to find a place not suffused with loss. “Because it is definitely impacting every one of us – when you walk into that house, you look at the surroundings. And you miss them.”
It’s a trip for the children, but also for parents whose grief is acute. Ms. Bai was an only child, born in China, a country that has long restricted family size. Muktesh was someone his father turned to in times of need, a counsellor. Whenever he faced “an issue on which I did not know how to react, my first call would be to Muktesh. Because he was very mature for his age and he could take me out of indecision or depression.”