A former UAE resident is set for an emotional reunion with his family, who believed he died in a plane crash almost 45 years ago.
Sajid Thungal, now 70, left his home in Kerala at the age of 22 to carve out a new life in the Gulf, leaving behind his parents, four sisters and three brothers.
He laid down roots in Abu Dhabi, where he became passionate about the arts and organised screenings of Malayalam films and cultural events featuring singers and dancers from India.
In October 1976, he spent 10 days with a troupe of performers who were to die in a plane crash that month.
All 95 passengers and crew on board the Indian Airlines flight to Madras, via Bombay, died when the plane crashed after one of its engines caught fire shortly after take-off from Bombay's Santa Cruz Airport.
Mr Thungal’s family in the village of Shasthamkotta, in Kerala, thought he too had died in the accident. It was a bitter belief they were to carry with them for decades.
In fact, the man they thought was lost to them forever had flown from Abu Dhabi to Bombay – as Mumbai was then called – in 1982 and has been living there ever since.
He started businesses in an effort to get his life back on track but they failed. Eventually, he relied on odd jobs to survive.
“I didn’t get in touch with the family because I felt like a failure. I was meant to make my fortune in the Gulf and didn’t. Then I kept thinking I would make something of myself in Bombay and then contact everyone. But that didn’t happen either. In this way, 45 years passed,” Mr Thungal said.
In 2019, a friend, finding him destitute and so ill that he could barely walk, brought him to a shelter run by Pastor K M Philip in Mumbai.
It was the first step on the journey back to his family.
For 20 years, Pastor Philip’s Social and Evangelical Association for Love has made it a mission to reunite missing people with their families.
“He has been struggling with all sorts of psychological disorders – depression after the group died in the plane crash, guilt, alcoholism, memory lapses,” Pastor Philip said.
For two years, Thungal did not mention his family, until a few weeks ago. When a Seal social worker visited Kerala recently, Pastor Philip told him to make inquiries at the local mosque in Kottam to see if the family was still there.
Disbelief turns to delight for family
The visit proved fruitful as the imam knew the family and took the social worker to their home.
“They were beyond shocked to hear he was alive. His father died long ago, but his mother is 91,” said Pastor Philip.
A video call was arranged. Mr Thungal was so overcome by the reunion he could barely speak.
“I want to go home. If the people here hadn’t looked after me, I would have died without being reunited with my family,” said Mr Thungal.
His brother Mohammed Kunju will arrive in Mumbai on Wednesday to meet him and finally take him home.
Mr Kunju said he and his siblings have never forgotten Thungal, the family’s firstborn.
He himself had flown to Abu Dhabi after the crash in the hope his brother had survived.
“I showed his photo everywhere but no one knew anything,” he said.
As the years passed, hope inevitably faded but was never completely lost.
When their father died in 2012, he left the “dead” son’s share of the land to Thungal’s brothers.
“We refused to take it. It belonged to our brother,” said Mr Kunju.
“Now that he is finally coming home, we aren’t going to let him out of our sights.”