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first person

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Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

Thirty-six years ago, a bomb exploded on Air India Flight 182, sending the bodies of 329 people hurtling into the Irish Sea. Though this was the largest mass murder in our nation’s history, it took Canada 20 years to declare June 23 a National Day of Remembrance for Victims of Terrorism. And for me, coming to terms with this loss has taken even longer.

The summer I turned 15, I loaded my cello onto a bus for a day’s journey from my hometown of Ottawa to a music academy in Charlevoix, Que. I couldn’t wait to catch up with musicians from my youth orchestra, and maybe get pointers from an international soloist or two.

After the sweltering ride along the St. Lawrence River, I lugged my cello to the girls’ dormitory. The bunk beds were filling up fast but there was no sign of our principal violinist, Aruna, or her whiz-kid sister Rupa from the second violins. Strange. Normally they’d be there. I called out, “Where are Rupa and Aruna?”

The room froze. Everyone stared.

“Didn’t you hear?” someone said at last. “They died in the Air India crash.”

The room of faces blurred before my eyes. Dazed, I shook my head.

The two sisters had travelled to Montreal with their mother, Bhawani, to catch the flight.

A girl from my orchestra filled me in. “One of their violin cases was found floating in the wreck.”

Oh, God. I felt nauseous, sickened by the news. Everyone must have been talking about it for weeks. But I had kept myself scarce all summer, working for a family friend and avoiding my expectant mom. Nine days before I left for music camp, she gave birth to my sister in my parents’ bedroom.

I didn’t know how to explain my ignorance of the tragedy to the girls in my orchestra. While everyone else filed out for dinner, I just stood there, stunned. I couldn’t believe I’d never see Rupa and Aruna again. We’d played together in the National Capital String Academy every week for more than two years. Aruna was my age, studious and wildly talented. Music took up most of our free time, but we always smiled at each other across the music stands. I had a soft spot for Rupa, too. The youngest in our group, just 11 years old, she followed her big sister like a duckling.

Aruna had impeccable technique on the violin, but I never thought about the mechanics of bow strokes or hand positions when she played. I got the feeling she was enraptured by the music and wanted to sweep everyone else away, too. Rupa was fast on her heels, displaying a talent some described as “almost Mozartian.”

Their father, Anant Anantaraman, and mother, Bhawani, came to every concert, every orchestra rehearsal. Their lives seemed to revolve around music out of sheer joy.

Music, I discovered, was the inspiration for the flight. Their mother was taking them to India to give her family a chance to hear her daughters play. Their father, a scientist in the Department of National Defence, stayed in Ottawa for work. I could hardly imagine his horror. He lost his entire family in a flash of light.

Months went by.

The following spring, I performed in the Kiwanis Music Festival – my first competition. Despite my nerves, I won the Edythe Young Browne Trophy for strings. But where was the prize?

“Wait here,” one of the festival organizers said.

I waited so long that volunteers in the auditorium began to stack up the chairs. Then, from a far corner of the room, a man walked up to me holding a golden cup the size of a punch bowl. His eyes were sunken and his hair was pure white. Startled, I realized he was Aruna’s father. The last time I’d seen him, his hair was black.

I stared at the hunk of gilded metal in his arms. Aruna must have won the trophy the previous year. I didn’t know what to say. He handed it to me, not saying much either. Then he gave me something else: a photo of Aruna, radiant and beautiful, holding the golden cup near her face.

I thanked him, my face burning.

The trophy collected dust in a corner of our house for a year until it was my turn to pass it along. At the last minute, my stepfather convinced me to pose for a photo in the park down the street. “We should document this,” he said. I squinted in the sunlight, gripping the trophy with a forced smile.

I still have the photo of Aruna holding the same cup, brimming with happiness, two months before she fell from the sky.

She and her sister, two of the kindest, brightest girls I’ve ever known, will be forever identified as victims of terrorism. This saddens me now more than ever.

During the pandemic, hundreds of thousands have died – of COVID-19, opioid overdose, police brutality. I cannot say their names. There are too many to remember. Instead, I’ve found myself shedding fresh tears at the thought of Aruna’s warm smile, and the little red jacket Rupa used to wear. My grief has taken me aback. After all, it’s been years. But this is a cleansing pain, searing through the numbness that comes from reading so many names, on so many lists.

Recently, I searched for news of Aruna’s father, wondering what happened to him. I read about the music scholarships he set up in his daughters’ names, and the Bhawani Anantaraman Foundation he established in memory of his wife.

In southern India, Dr. Anantaraman founded a tuition-free school for children in need. The school offers hot meals and high academic standards, emphasizing the values of tolerance and peace. In 2010, he told the Ottawa Citizen, “I was searching for a reason to live, any little straw, any little twig, to give a point to my life.”

Working with children helped him cope with the loss of his family, especially his daughters, he said.

“Aruna and Rupa, to me are still 15 and 11. They never grew up. They are just the way I saw them the last time, so beautiful, so innocent, wonderful and talented, playing their Bach and Vivaldi.”

That’s how I will always picture them, too.

Adriana Barton lives in Vancouver.

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