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Missing plane mystery: A hole in the clouds, an empty space on earth

By Moni Basu, CNN
June 17, 2014 -- Updated 1322 GMT (2122 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • More than three months ago Chandrika Sharma disappeared on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
  • Her husband, K.S. Narendran, struggles with "ambiguous loss," knowing she isn't coming back
  • He understands that recognizing there were no survivors doesn't mean acceptance
  • Life's "in limbo between the call to move on and the restless wait for a credible explanation"

Editor's note: This story is based on conversations and e-mail exchanges between K.S. Narendran and CNN's Moni Basu as well as essays written by Narendran after the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Excerpts from those essays appear in italics.

(CNN) -- He should have been in Rome this week, with his wife and daughter, marveling at the architectural glory of the Colosseum. He was about to book airline tickets for their summer vacation when his wife left for a work trip.

But she never returned home.

She was one of 239 people aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 -- missing now more than three months.

After all this time, K.S. Narendran feels the kind of weariness that comes from hope that is not squashed but not fulfilled either. He is left to imagine the worst of possible truths without knowing.

Invariably, he wakes up with thoughts of Chandrika, the woman he married 25 years ago, as though she is still here, except he now goes for a long morning walk on a workday without having to rush back to the house to give her a ride to the train station.

The lows in his life come pressing down when he must furrow along alone in ventures they did together, when he has to figure out how she might have proceeded.

He joined a fund-raising effort on the crowdsourcing site Indiegogo.com. The goal is to raise $5 million for an independent investigation into what happened to the plane that disappeared shortly after takeoff from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on March 8.

Narendran feels the effort is an honorable one. He remains open to anything that might offer clues. So far everything has led only to more questions.

Some passengers' families have made no secret of their indignation over the lack of information from officials in charge. Others were caught on camera in their days of utter grief, their unfettered wailing and moaning unbearable to watch.

Narendran is no closer to knowing what happened to his wife, a passenger on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
Narendran is no closer to knowing what happened to his wife, a passenger on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

Not Narendran. Except for a few brief interviews, he has been dealing with his agony in private.

He grapples with grief when he is alone in their home in the south Indian city of Chennai, or when he chances upon something that his wife liked, hated, doubted, enjoyed, wished for, strived for or left unfinished.

Sometimes, the sadness crushes him in moments of anonymity, at a crowded club where a band is playing and people are screaming. It is the kind of place where his wife would have enjoyed letting her hair down (dyed and all), he thinks.

Grieving, he believes, is partly about acceptance. Intellectually, he concluded his wife is not coming back but at the same time, he has not taken any steps to occupy the space vacated by her in the tasks they shared or the plans they made for the future. He is still thinking about where to take their daughter, Meghna, in place of the trip to Rome.

Sometimes, he wonders if he is being hasty in foreclosing on possibilities. It has become so difficult to decipher reality through all the noise about Flight 370. Who to believe? What to believe?

Only one belief is firm: With each passing day, the possibility of his wife's survival becomes slimmer. Left alone, Narendran oddly believes he can make peace with that.

Families offer reward for MH370 info
Family of MH370 passenger reacts to film
Snapshot of the passengers on Flight 370

Learning the news

Chandrika Sharma readied to leave home in Chennai on the morning of March 7. She was the executive secretary of the International Collective in Support of Fishworkers and traveled a lot for work. This time, she was going to Mongolia for a U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization meeting.

Narendran thought her job with the fish workers collective was fitting. She was the daughter of a naval commander who loved the ocean.

In the hours before she left, she spoke with her husband about the dream home they were planning to build in Kotagiri, a town high in the Nilgiri Hills and away from the madding crowds of the Chennai megalopolis. They had worked on the design of the house and made several trips up there, near the clouds, to arrange everything. Construction was going to begin in a few days after they made an initial payment.

Sharma made sure her husband knew all the tasks at hand. Narendran felt a bit reluctant to pick up the ball in her place. There was a certain unease on her part as well. It was her first visit to Mongolia, a remote and bitterly cold place.

Their time together was further cramped by business calls he had to make. And before he knew it, he was saying goodbye to his wife at the gate of their apartment building.

They'd moved into the fourth floor flat in 2002 and had made a happy life for themselves there. They loved that the breeze from the Bay of Bengal filled the rooms and that they were surrounded by greenery -- they especially liked the view from their balcony of a massive rain tree.

Sharma loved to visit nurseries and grew plants in the small outdoor space that also accommodated a jhula, a swing that their daughter, Meghna, had insisted upon years ago. The swing was still there even though Meghna had grown up and left home for university in Delhi.

Sharma caught a cab for the 20-minute ride to the airport. Narendran thought he would see her soon enough. She was only going for eight days this time and would be back long before her birthday at the end of March.

But at 6:30 the next morning, the phone rang.

It was a woman calling from his wife's office. She said Malaysia Airlines 370, which was supposed to have landed in Beijing by then, was missing.

Things didn't click at first. Narendran didn't know his wife's itinerary or where she was flying through to get to the Mongolian capital, Ulan Bator. But her colleague was telling him now that his wife was on the missing flight.

He turned on the television and checked the news. Roughly one hour after takeoff, Flight 370 lost contact with ground control. Narendran called the local Malaysia Airlines office. Then the airlines' office in Kuala Lumpur. He needed to know whether his wife actually got on that flight.

Five hours went by before he got his answer -- on Twitter. Someone had posted an attachment of a passenger manifest. Sharma's name was on it.

Shortly afterward, Narendran called his daughter in Delhi.

Chandrika Sharma met her husband in college. The two got married 25 years ago.
Chandrika Sharma met her husband in college. The two got married 25 years ago.

Meghna was always pragmatic and adaptable but also sensitive and not always overtly expressive. Narendran felt that his wife probably knew their daughter better. Mother and daughter spoke by phone three times a day and updated each other on the minute details of their lives.

Meghna turned 18 last year and was eligible to vote in India, but her father, perhaps not surprisingly, saw her as an adult under construction.

"Do you want to stay in Delhi or come down to Chennai?" he asked her, hesitating to make any demands.

"I don't know."

"Well, think about it."

Meghna decided to fly home.

Narendran spent that first day hyper-engaged with the news until it was time to go to sleep. It was only then that the catastrophic implications of a missing plane sank in. That's when he felt the first punch to the gut.

Navigating a new normal

In the first few days, friends and family called or stopped by Narendran's house.

They monitored the news for him and reported significant developments. He found it helpful not to engage in speculation, however compelling it seemed, and to stay focused on the facts. He learned the transponder was turned off, what the pilot's last words were, that two passengers were traveling on stolen passports and that the search area was being expanded.

At first, he oscillated between harboring hope for survivors and seeking evidence that it was all over. Either way, he thought it would end soon. He expected to hear that the aircraft -- intact or in parts -- had surfaced, and he'd receive official word from the airline. He assumed something wretched had happened. Most likely, he thought, the plane had crashed.

That was until March 11, when he learned the plane had turned around and veered away from its planned flight path. The search expanded from the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea to the Strait of Malacca and the Andaman Sea.

Narendran grew angry for the lost time on that score. He also realized that the search and rescue operation was heading into unfamiliar territory in more ways than one.

He was forced to reset his expectations and his preparedness, whatever that was. He faced the fact that the waiting might be indefinite, which intensified the sense that life had come to a standstill. He knew he could make no plans or commitments for the foreseeable future except in carrying out the mundane tasks of daily life.

In any case, he lacked energy to do anything of consequence. He felt like a motor unplugged.

Some friends expected that Narendran would fly to Kuala Lumpur. He thought about keeping his travel documents and a packed bag ready. But what purpose would be served by his presence in the Malaysian capital? What if they found the plane somewhere else?

He didn't want to be holed up in a hotel room, herded off to briefings where he wouldn't learn anything more than what he could from watching the news at home. He decided to remain in Chennai, surrounded by family and friends.

He took long walks as he tried to navigate a new daily routine.

The search and rescue efforts stopped every day when it grew dark in that part of the world. But it was still afternoon in India. It was crushing each time to know there would be no more information until morning.

Before bed, he found some quiet time with Meghna. He asked how she was feeling, and she asked the same. That created a private space where father and daughter could be vulnerable.

He gave her assessments of the search, though she followed the news closely online.

"What if she doesn't come back?" she asked one night, almost as though she knew her father's updates were calculated to be more safe than accurate.

"Amma's not coming back is a very real possibility," he told her.

"We are already a few days into the search and there is still nothing to go by," he continued. "We know that as the days go by, the probability of survivors diminishes and approaches zero. I don't know what life will be without her. What I do know is that we have a life ahead of us."

He knew his family wasn't given to histrionics, even when they were tethered to the edge like this. He assured Meghna it was OK to express her sorrow, that there was no "right" way to grieve.

Narendran and Sharma planned to build their dream house in the Nilgiri Hills in India.
Narendran and Sharma planned to build their dream house in the Nilgiri Hills in India.

That night, he went to sleep acutely conscious that his daughter was suffering.

Losing trust

Eight days after Sharma left home, Narendran learned that Flight 370 might have flown for 6½ hours after its transponder stopped sending signals. Officials announced the search area now extended over 11 countries, stretching as far north as Kazakhstan.

This theory seemed as far-fetched as a Bollywood movie plot. Central Asia had not entered his wildest imagination. He felt investigators were grasping at straws. They might as well be searching all of the Atlantic, he thought.

He began to develop a healthy dose of skepticism for what officials and investigators claimed. He did not deliberately track every twist and turn of the flight path, though many people around him did. He decided that discussion of the plane's whereabouts was a conversational crutch, a convenient deflection from talking about the shock and pain of losing his wife.

He began writing to help sort through his emotions and penned this:

I am not a believer in miracles. Miracles are our way of dealing with our surprise and delight with something that has happened -- incompletely understood or what was thought to be improbable. It is part of our sense making of what apparently doesn't make sense. I remain focused on what we have at hand by way of information, and stay with the knowledge that Chandrika is strong and courageous, that her goodness must count for something, somewhere.

I carry firmly the faith that the forces of life are eternal, immutable and ever present. In the ultimate analysis, I am neither favored nor deserted. No one is.

On March 20, Australian officials announced that satellite imagery had spotted debris that could be related to the plane many miles southwest of Perth.

By then, it had become clear to Narendran that the search operation was going to be drawn out and perhaps inconclusive. Friends and family made plans to return to their homes in various cities across India. No happy ending seemed imminent. Nor would there be a funeral.

Narendran grew concerned about Meghna remaining in Chennai. University administrators had assured him they would accommodate leave for Meghna, but father and daughter decided it would be best for her to resume life. School would provide a path for managing her anxiety and longing for her mother.

They also agreed that he would accompany her to Delhi and stay until she felt settled.

The airport in Chennai was so familiar to Narendran, but now he viewed every detail through a lens clouded by suspicion. He settled into his seat on the IndiGo jet and took a hard look at his fellow passengers and the crew.

"Can I trust the pilot or co-pilot? Can I trust ground control? Can I trust a co-passenger? Can I trust that every time the aircraft swerves, it is smart piloting and not sinister? Every time we hit turbulence, can I trust that it hasn't started inside the cockpit? Can I trust technology to render me safely, place to place?"

Beyond those questions were tougher ones that had to do with his immediate future. He had an answer for only this: How long would he stay in Delhi?

As long as Meghna needed him.

He was taking his daughter to a new environment for the third time. The first had been to a college in Pune; the second was when she transferred to Ambedkar University in Delhi.

Now they were returning to a familiar place changed by new circumstances. He knew he would feel torn, as though he were leaving Meghna at the edge of a dense forest to find her own way through.

All is lost

In Delhi, Meghna returned to her classes and Narendran decided to pay a visit to his wife's mother, who lives a short train ride away in the city of Bareilly.

Shakuntala Sharma was more than 85 years old and had toughed out a lifetime of challenges. Narendran saw her as a warrior, but he could tell that hope was all she had to lean on at this juncture. Chandrika was one of the anchors in her mother's life -- the two spoke every night at 9.

Shakuntala Sharma believed miracles had blessed her life many times. Narendran knew she was certain that another one was coming her way. But after so many days, he felt drained by those who vociferously entertained speculation that his wife was returning home.

On his last evening in Bareilly, Narendran decided to watch the latest press conference from Kuala Lumpur with his mother-in-law. These had become routine events to him; he had learned precious little in the last one. He expected no differently on this evening.

Sharma was especially close to Meghna. Mother and daughter spoke three times a day on the phone.
Sharma was especially close to Meghna. Mother and daughter spoke three times a day on the phone.

They watched in silence as Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak spoke. There had been no hints that his words would feel like a bomb exploding in their living room.

"It is therefore with deep sadness and regret that I must inform you that according to new data, light MH370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean," he declared.

Sharma withdrew, grew quiet. Narendran was left fumbling. What would he do now? He felt isolated in Bareilly and wished he were in Delhi instead. What was Meghna doing, he wondered.

Not even 10 minutes passed before his phone began ringing. Reporters wanted his reaction.

"When will you go to Kuala Lumpur to bring back the body?" one asked.

Narendran gave the reporter the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he was a rookie and did not realize the insensitivity of his question.

Soon after, text messages of condolences began pouring in. Then came one from Malaysia Airlines.

"We deeply regret that we have to assume beyond any reasonable doubt that MH370 has been lost and that none of those on board survived."

The message was like a second bomb.

It was midnight before the phone was quiet. Narendran's train was at 4:50 a.m.

He had no energy left but could not leave his mother-in-law so soon after such devastating news. He canceled his train reservation and wrestled with the Malaysian leader's words. Many families rejected them. But Narendran thought he must have had a very good reason to say them.

In his mind, Narendran saw images of a plane in infinite space with no time left to stay afloat.

The family conferred on what step to take next. Was it really all over? Enough doubt had surfaced to suggest that the conclusions could be challenged.

Narendran left for Delhi with a bundle of contradictions, his insides torn by the turbulence of an emotional tornado.

The journey back seemed unending. He picked up his daughter and headed to a friend's house. There, he sat down to write.

There has been much emphasis on the audacity of hope, and hope as the energizer of dreams and visions, the warm glow, the bright ray. ... Perhaps it is time to also reflect on the atrocity of hope. I have come to see it as wasteful and unproductive. ... It intervenes in the process of reckoning with the present with clarity about things as they are; it presents itself as a companion of the "miracle," where we expect outcomes without our play/agency. It keeps us wedded to our particular hypothesis. It asks of us to put our faith in specific possibilities regardless of probability.

My daughter and I are more or less reconciled to Chandrika's long leave of absence where we have to carry on, drawing from our collective memory of what she symbolized. We are agreed that she may never be seen again. After the initial days of the disappearance of MH370, I would say after a fashion that I hope for the best and prepare for the worst. In preparing, one doesn't will the worst to happen as some superstitiously might suggest, just as in hoping one doesn't "reveal the aircraft."

What I learn each day is that no amount of preparing equips one to deal with living life one day at a time, and having no plans or routines.

When he finished writing, he felt he had regained a semblance of clarity and control. Void of any tangible evidence, he decided, Najib's announcement now seemed preposterous.

Needing proof

March 30 was tough. It was his wife's 51st birthday.

Narendran celebrated with Meghna and his friends in Delhi. He put his arm around his daughter and blew out candles on two different cakes. He posted a photo from the celebration on Facebook. Then he returned home to Chennai, to try and resume life.

The house felt bare without his wife and daughter.

He'd dealt with loss before. He was only 17 when his father died. He watched him battle illness and knew when the end was near. He'd lost a friend in a drowning in the Bay of Bengal. That was unexpected, of course. Both memories were vivid.

After Flight 370 went missing, a friend had mentioned the term "ambiguous loss," when there is loss but no knowledge of what happened, when there is no evidence of death, no body to bury.

He found it difficult to dismiss a host of speculation and conspiracy theories. Without evidence, any one of them seemed plausible, though he recognized many were on a grand scale befitting a Bond flick.

We live in a crazy world, where deceit and diplomacy have gone hand in hand to justify war and maim hundreds of thousands. We are simply told "stuff happens" by way of explaining away the loss of lives. ... We are left to look for clues and crooks amidst the Chinese, the Russians, the Americans, the Malays. ... The list can be endless given that the world's hotspots and actors are many.

One of Narendran's early struggles with ambiguous loss was in making a choice with verb tenses when referring to his wife. Past tense or present? The former, he thought, seemed unjustified and hasty; the latter was forced, an attempt to keep alive a fantasy.

Chandrika Sharma loved the ocean. Her husband thinks it a cruel irony that she might be buried at sea.
Chandrika Sharma loved the ocean. Her husband thinks it a cruel irony that she might be buried at sea.

The calendar on his computer still showed his wife's work trips. Next, to the Maldives and then in June, on to Rome, where he and Meghna had planned to meet her for their vacation.

He sought to make sense of his actions, again through his writing:

Seeking credible physical evidence has just been perhaps a way of postponing any reckoning with tragic conclusions. One may well ask whether debris that may be located is in any way more comforting. Yet the desire to see some concrete evidence to establish the truth is overpowering. Imagine someone defeating Roger Federer at Wimbledon in a video game and actually staking claim to the title ... the real thing! Our immediate response is likely to point out how preposterous this is. To suggest that MH370 ended in the Indian Ocean on the basis of satellite data had the same ring of incredulity. It has been as difficult to embrace as the numerous conspiracy/hijack/waylaying/kidnap scenarios that have captured the imagination.

The unintended consequence of this dogged attempt to "stay with the present" is to put aside with some effort serious consideration of the probabilities of Chandrika's return, postponement of actions and decisions on the home front, any attempt to reset and chart a fresh course in one's life.

Narendran works as an organizational development consultant for midsize companies that dream of growing. In the first week of April, he returned to his clients.

He was edgy, impatient and paced a lot at a preparatory meeting. In a more formal meeting with a client, he asked if he could keep his phone on, just in case. He focused on work and yet, his energy was spent keeping up with the missing plane.

It is bizarre to plug into the expectation of people who are hoping for a hijack rather than a crash. It is equally bizarre to end each day by sullenly telling oneself and others: no debris today.

Day 40

So it was that by Day 40, fatigue set in.

He had no expectations that parts of the plane would be found. And as the days wore on, the black hole created by an information void became intolerable.

I suspect it has to do with emotional/psychological acceptance of the reality of permanent irreversible loss. I was close to it the night when (Najib) Razak spoke on television and the morning after. Since then, this acceptance has remained suspended. I also realize that such acceptance is a wider communal process, and not merely a unilateral choice. So life has continued to remain in limbo between the call to move on and the restless wait for a credible explanation of the last few hours of MH370.

On Day 45, he heard the words "acoustic event." He was fascinated by the expression used to report pings purportedly from the plane's data recorder. It was like the use of "objects of interest." They were masterful uses of language, he thought, to suggest something and not say anything.

Did he want the search teams to succeed in finding something? He didn't know.

His nightmare scenario was always a crash at sea. What cruel irony, he thought, that his wife -- whose work revolved around water -- would die in such manner. The other unbearable thought was the prospect of having to travel across the seas to Kuala Lumpur or Perth or somewhere else to identify remains.

"Maybe it is better," he said, "not to disturb those who sleep in the depths."

Acceptance

On May 4, Narendran wrote an open letter to the Malaysian leader. It had been almost two months since the plane went missing.

Narendran wrote that he'd heard Najib speak on three occasions: when he announced Flight 370 had turned around; when he delivered the devastating news that the plane had ended in the Indian Ocean (a message that Narendran described as "unpalatable and cryptic"); and most recently on CNN when he spoke of mistakes that were made in the investigation.

Each time, I experienced you as measured, somber in a way that could be easily taken as sincere, and as a man with good intentions. You and perhaps your managers have ensured that you are statesman-like. The time has come now for you to actually be the part.

Narendran urged Najib to deliver a heartfelt apology, his frustration surfacing in almost every paragraph. He accused the Malaysian government of a lack of transparency.

For a number if us, a lot rides on how diligently and persistently your government pursues the truth through investigation, how compassionate it is towards all the affected and how humble and receptive it is in taking the waves of criticism from interested parties. It needs to measure up to international benchmarks of transparency, public scrutiny and challenge, and assure the skeptical world that there is indeed no cover-up, no attempt to be creative or economical with the truth. ... We do need a fresh start here, Mr. Prime Minister.

Four days later, Narendran added his name to another open letter. This one, sent on behalf of the Flight 370 families, was addressed not just to Najib but also to Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

I have been teary eyed the last two-three weeks. It is as if they are held back each time by just a blink and a moment of silence.
K.S. Narendran

The letter reiterated that because of the lack of physical evidence, investigators should confirm the accuracy of satellite data provided by British company Inmarsat. That information, the letter said, was the only lead anyone had and was key to establishing the plane's flight path after it disappeared from radar.

As the families waited for the release of more data, Narendran arrived at an important conclusion: He recognized that understanding there were no survivors was not the same thing as acceptance.

To him, acceptance meant moving on. It meant entering and claiming the space vacated by his wife: taking charge, taking stock of things such as bank accounts, insurance and investments. It meant actively making decisions on their dream house in the hills.

On Day 70, he knew he had a long way to go toward acceptance. He had not even opened her closet yet.

He felt lost.

He stared vacantly while in his mind flashed vignettes from a life that was, one now relegated solely to memory. He heard conversations between himself and Chandrika in his head.

He stumbled onto reminders everywhere, even the terra-cotta floor tiles in their flat. She had picked them out after seeing the flooring in the homes in Kerala, tracked down a supplier and hired a mason who was experienced in laying such tiles.

And now, mangos had arrived with the monsoons. The season is here, he thought. And she isn't.

His wife's absence hung in the air, heavy like the moisture-drenched air of southern India in the summer.

A song that unsuspectingly escapes from within is sufficient too to choke and to free the tears trapped. In general, I have been teary eyed the last two-three weeks. It is as if they are held back each time by just a blink and a moment of silence. It seems every experience is held like a bubble wrap, fragile under pressure, enveloping tears carefully contained and held together, randomly pricked and put back again.

Three months after she left home, Narendran still does not know what happened to Flight 370 or who is responsible or where Chandrika is.

"She has not come back," he says. He recognizes now that he cannot run away from all that reminds him of Chandrika. He can no longer hold it at a distance.

"I suppose," he says, "you have to walk into the fire."

For vacation, he may take Meghna to Singapore and then to Malaysia, where they could meet other Flight 370 families. That might be healing, he thinks.

For now, he finds solace in one fact. His wife believed the frailty of old age to be a curse. It hurt her to see her elderly mother suffer and wished never to go through such suffering herself.

She had her way.

He decided recently to proceed with building their dream house in the hills. He doesn't want his current state of mind to taint something that will last much longer. He wants to be able to go to the place where he planned to be with her, near the clouds.

Follow CNN's Moni Basu on Twitter.

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