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For family of Canadians on MH370, ‘a time for despair’

A Facebook photo of Muktesh Mukherjee, 42, and Xiaomo Bai, 37, the two Canadian citizens aboard vanished Flight MH370.

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.

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"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.

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"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."

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Malay was in London on March 8, a Saturday, when his son's company called to say Muktesh was on the missing plane. With the local Chinese embassy closed, Malay and his wife – in India at the time – flew to Dubai, where the embassy was open on the weekend. A visa was issued in two hours' time by a Chinese government that has sought to offer what help it can. In Beijing, they are now sharing parenting duties with the other grandparents across a significant language barrier, which staff for Muktesh's employer have been helping to bridge. The two boys will likely move to London, or perhaps the United States, to complete their studies in English.

"It has been a time for despair. It's very difficult to even believe what has happened," Malay says.

Muktesh was born in New Delhi and studied engineering in India before moving to Montreal for MBA studies at McGill University. The family's ties to Canada date back to his father's business travels. Malay served as an executive and then director at what is now ArcelorMittal, the world's largest steelmaker, with a substantial Canadian footprint. Muktesh chose McGill, Malay said, "rather than an American university because he felt it would be more international."

After graduation, Muktesh remained in Quebec to work for the Iron Ore Company of Canada. On a business trip to China, he was introduced to Ms. Bai, who worked for an agency providing language and logistics support. They fell in love and she moved to Montreal, where they were married in 2002.

"Muktesh has always been an international person," Malay says. "They were the ideal couple."

Both secured Canadian citizenship, and Ms. Bai worked in corporate marketing in Montreal before leaving for the U.S. for Muktesh's work. Ms. Bai, who had attended Beijing Foreign Studies University, was sophisticated, fiery and good fun, says Christian Boushey, a former colleague. The couple's last vacation, in Vietnam, was at an Aman resort where rooms start at $750 (U.S.) per night.

"She appreciated the finer things in life and enjoyed travelling and experiencing the world," Mr. Boushey says. It was a passion she shared with Muktesh, who frequently brought her, and later their children, on business trips.

They moved to Beijing in 2010, where Ms. Bai volunteered on school trips and took her son to piano lessons. Muktesh looked after Chinese investments for ArcelorMittal, the same company his father had helped lead. In 2011, he took over the China operations for Xcoal, a Philadelphia company that is the top exporter of U.S. coal to China and which valued his easy way with others.

His "ability to socially interact with the members of our team there, and also our customers, was quite impressive," says Ernie Thrasher, Xcoal's chief executive. The couple had planned to move to Pittsburgh at the end of this year.

In early March, when they flew to Vietnam for a quick holiday, they left the two boys with Ms. Bai's parents, both retired. They never returned. The last photo Ms. Bai posted to Facebook is of her floating in turquoise water. A bubble caption reads: "Fly Away."

It may be the last her family ever sees of her, as they prepare for life without the couple. The Indian grandparents plan to stay in Beijing through the end of the school semester, sorting through myriad details of the life they are assuming. Malay credited officials from China, Canada, the U.S. and India for their help. The banks, however, have been obstinate, refusing to disclose any details about the couple's finances.

Malaysia Airlines, too, has proven difficult: The airline promised to meet Malay and his wife when they landed in Beijing, but no one was there. Then there was the airline notification that all hope had been lost. It was sent by text message, which Malay called "shocking, to say the least. I felt it was not at all human."

Still, he has resigned himself to his son's death. He thinks some sort of catastrophic airline failure must have taken place. Ms. Bai's mother thinks very differently.

"I still believe my daughter and son-in-law are somewhere and waiting for people to rescue them," she told CTV this week.

Where the grandparents find common ground is their wish to know for certain, whether it be in the discovery of wreckage or otherwise. They want the finality of knowing, even if it's likely to be a meagre salve.

"The main sorrow hits you when you are alone. At night, going to sleep, is the most dreadful time," Malay says. When that happens, he begins to speak to a son he knows he won't see again.

"What I have been doing is having a dialogue with Muktesh. I speak with him," he says. He talks the way the two always used to. "How is the industry doing? Just keeping the memory alive in a much more positive way."

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About the Author
Asia Bureau Chief

Nathan VanderKlippe is the Asia correspondent for The Globe and Mail. He was previously a print and television correspondent in Western Canada based in Calgary, Vancouver and Yellowknife, where he covered the energy industry, aboriginal issues and Canada’s north.He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award and a Best in Business award from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. More

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