Family awaits jailed Mumbai sailor's return to lay baby to rest
Tragedy strikes the family of Sunil James the sailor languishing in a Togo prison after pirates captured his ship as his son Vivaan succumbs to illness just days short of his first birthday. Relatives refuse to perform his last rites until his father returns home
To say that this is a trying time for the James family would be an understatement. While Sunil (28) has been languishing in a Togo prison for months after the ship he was manning was captured by pirates earlier this year, he now has to bear the grief to losing his 11-month-old son to septicaemia.
Vivaan who passed away on December 2 is now identified by badge no 7 at the Cooper Hospital mortuary, his lifeless body waiting for a final embrace from his father. The family is hoping against hope that Sunil will be able to return to familiar shores and perform the last rites for his son, but as hours lengthen into days, that ray of hope is a flickering one.
James left Mumbai in the last week of April on a four-month contract with M/s Union Maritime, a UK-based shipping company. He flew to Lagos, Africa and took charge of the vessel MT Ocean Centurion there. “Sunil was to return to India in August and had promised a joint celebration for his wife Aditi’s birthday in September and Vivaan’s first birthday in December. But destiny has played a cruel game with us,” said Rakesh Madappa (33), Sunil’s brother-in-law, who has flown from Bangalore to be with Aditi.
At the time of his detention, Sunil was told that the Togo authorities were probing if any of the sailors in any way abetted the piracy. While the case hangs in limbo, his family members wait. “Please send my husband back so that he put his child to rest and bid him goodbye for the last time,” is Aditi’s desperate refrain to everyone who visits the family at their Malad home.
According to Rakesh, Vivaan was diagnosed with intussusceptions, a condition in which a part of the intestine slides into an adjacent part. This ‘telescoping’ often blocks food or fluid from passing through. Vivaan had undergone a surgical procedure when he was only three months old. On November 30, around 7.30 pm, the child started throwing up and was taken to a nearby private nursing home.
He was prescribed medicines for a suspected stomach infection, but the vomiting persisted. On Sunday, he was taken to Holy Spirit Hospital in Andheri and was referred to paediatric surgeon Dr Nishat Nanavati, who conducted various tests on him and found a blockage. He conducted an emergency surgery which started at 2.30 am on December 2 and lasted three hours.
Rakesh said, “It was during the operation that the surgeon found that Vivaan’s intestine had developed gangrene with septicemia that had spread to his blood stream. An approximate 12 inches of the intestine had to be removed, but post- surgery around 8.30 am, Vivaan passed away in the ICU.”
Speaking to MiD DAY, Dr Nishat Nanavati said, “This is a case of severe gangrene of the small intestine. The child was in a bad shape and had already developed septicemia. We had to remove and rejoin one third of his affected intestine during the surgery. The child could withstand the surgery, but even before the antibiotic could control the spread of septicemia, he succumbed.”
Waiting for dad
The family has made the difficult decision not to perform his last rites just yet. Rakesh said, “We do not want to deprive a father of his right to lay his only child to rest. Vivaan is being kept in the mortuary and identified as number 7 in the morgue. I go every morning to see him.”
He added, “We have been told by numerous people to go ahead with the cremation. Let’s face it: going ahead with the funeral will help a lot of people move on and forget about Sunil, especially the Government of India, since we refuse to forget about him. But this is so much larger than that. How can we not afford Sunil the only chance he will ever get in this life to say goodbye to his darling angel?
“We have informed all the officials concerned, including the embassy, about the demise of Vivaan. The death certificate copies have been sent to them but we still haven’t heard from the authorities,” said Rakesh. “My government, the people I voted for, the people I pay taxes to, have so far done nothing for my family.
Captain Sunil James is my brother-in-law. He is being held captive in Togo pending investigation since July 20. We approached the Indian government at the time whereby the Minster for External Affairs, Salman Khurshid, provided a statement on national television that his office is aware of the incident and is looking into it. Must be a very deep well, since they are still ‘looking into it’,” said an emotional Rakesh.
Trip to Togo
“I took it upon myself to visit Togo, a land where I knew no one and where people speak a language I don’t understand, just to try and do what the government did not walk the walk and not just talk.
I spent approximately 25 days in Togo from mid-September to mid-October, running from pillar to post against insurmountable odds, not to just secure the freedom of my brother-in-law but the other two crewmembers who are being held with him,” said Rakesh. “Upon considerable follow-up, the abetment to piracy charges against Sunil that were previously being investigated were dropped, or so my lawyer in Togo informed me. Yes, I secured legal services in Togo since our government certainly didn’t. The shipping company, Accord Marine, also confirmed the dropping of charges.”
“What else is the crew being investigated for? Not a single person in Togo is able to answer, but rest assured, they are being investigated or so I am told,” Rakesh said sarcastically. “Since then I have been diligently following up with various individuals from Togo many times a day, every day, to no effect. I am being told that they will be released shortly, that there is no evidence of any crime against them, but that ‘shortly’ is stretching out to be months, maybe years. I had to return empty-handed.”
We have put our request through our lawyers in Togo seeking immediate release of Sunil James for the last rites of his son. We are also in touch with the local agent, counsellor office and even the superintendent, but haven’t got any feedback yet. We were hoping for Sunil’s release, and had even kept the ticket ready for him to return to India. We understand the trauma that the family is going through and are providing every possible support to them at this hour or crisis.
- Captain Nilesh Gandhi, (Head Fleet Personnel) Accord Marine
I have explained to the lawyers in Togo that the body of the child is lying in the morgue for the last three days, and they have assured us that they would put the facts before the court today. We as owners are pushing hard to ensure that Sunil and others arrested are set free and they return to India at the earliest, but the court has to finally pass its order. We all are standing by the family of Sunil James in this hour of crisis and supporting them in every possible manner.
- Bhuvanesh Dogra, technical manager, Union Maritime (ship owners), United Kingdom
We have approached the Togo government, requesting their intervention and asking them to release Sunil James, but we have been informed that as the matter is under judicial process, the government cannot intervene and would have to wait for the court order. We have been informed that the investigating agency (Togo police) claim to have circumstantial evidence against the arrested crewmembers, who have been accused of abetting the pirates.
We do not have any direct access to the authorities probing the case, but we have learnt that the Togo police claim that Sunil had allegedly instructed the second engineer to switch off the engine, leading to settlement with the pirates.
- Senior official, Indian High Commission in Ghana