When Sundaresan Sukumaran landed in Bahrain in 1988 as a 24-year-old, he had hoped his job as a tailor would ensure a better life for his family back home. But what followed over the next 31 years was a rapid slide of events — duped of money and slapped with cheating cases, Sundaresan spent most of his years in Bahrain in hiding, doing odd jobs, hiding in farms and surviving on leftover food – before his miraculous rescue and journey back to India.
Last Friday, Sundaresan, now 55, managed to reach Kerala, the first time since he had left home, and found himself in a “new world”. In his absence, both his parents, Sukumaran and Janaki, had passed away, and his siblings had got married. What remained unchanged was his address — a small house on three cents of land that his father, a daily wager, had built and where he grew up, and where his brother Neelambaran and his family now live.
“Everything has changed. I don’t recognise anything… anyone. Ever since I came back, I have been holed up in our house. I am too scared to step out – the heavy traffic on the roads is scary,’’ says Sundaresan, the third of four siblings.
In 1988, Sundaresan travelled to Mumbai to board his flight to Bahrain. A tailor, Sundaresan had paid an agent Rs 20,000 for the visa. Days after landing in Bahrain’s capital of Manama, Sundaresan started working as a tailor at a shop run by a migrant from Kerala. Things had got off the ground just as he had planned and Sundaresan wrote letters to his parents, talking about his life and work, and how he would soon be back home.
Sometime later — Sundaresan doesn’t remember the dates, “my head is all muddled”, he says — the shop owner left Bahrain, transferring the ownership of the tailoring shop to him for 300 dinars. But unknown to him, he says, “the real owner” of the shop was a local resident called Muhammed Ali Hussain. Days after Sundaresan had “bought” the shop, Hussain turned up, demanding that Sundaresan vacate the shop and pay him 22,850 dinars (around Rs 40 lakh) as compensation towards “unpaid rent”. When Sundaresan refused, Hussain allegedly forced the shop shut, seized Sundaresan’s passport and other documents and filed a cheating case against Sundaresan, alleging theft of machines and materials and non-payment of rent. Subsequently, a travel ban was imposed on Sundaresan.
“I realised I had been cheated and trapped. I pleaded with my Arab sponsor to hand me back my passport and other documents so that I could go home, but he refused. Though I felt hopeless by then, in the letters I sent home, I did not mention any of these problems,’’ says Sundaresan.
With no documents, Sundaresan says he had no option but to go into hiding. “I worked in shops, at constructions sites and farms which were away from the eyes of government agencies. These jobs were usually arranged by expatriates from Kerala. But when they would get to know that that I am in trouble and facing a travel ban, they would begin to exploit me. Whenever I demanded money for the work I did, the local bosses would blackmail me and threaten to hand me over to the police. Already facing a cheating case, I didn’t want to risk another case or a prison term,’’ he says.
Fearing police action, he largely kept away from people and found shelter at construction sites. He even approached several associations of Kerala expatriates for help. “They would hear my case and promise to intervene, but since there was a cheating case pending against me, they had their limitations. I had no money to hire a lawyer,’’ he says.
In 1992, Sundaresan got a single-line telegram informing him of his father’s death. Shattered, he says he wept in the single room that he was confined to. Gradually, the letters from his family in Pathanamthitta dried up.
Over the next few years, Sundaresan led the life of a fugitive, mostly spending time on a camel farm – the Royal Camel Farm on the Janabiyah highway, away from the city — and surviving on leftover food that was fed to camels and horses. By then, his friends say, Sundaresan had slowly started losing his grip on his mind and could hardly remember the life he had left behind in Kerala.
In 2013, by a stroke of luck, Salam Mampattumoola, a expatriate from Malappuram who worked at a super market in Manama, heard of Sundaresan.
“A man from Punjab who used to bring dates from the camel farm told me about a vagabond on the farm who would come to rest under the date palms every evening and leave early morning. One day, I went to the farm and was shocked to see this man with wounds all over. It was a nauseating sight. I took him to my room and gave him a bath. Since my roommates didn’t want such a person in their midst, I had to find another accommodation nearby,’’ says Salam.
Salam got Sundaresan admitted to a hospital in Manama, where he was lodged for six months. After being discharged from the hospital, Salam took Sundaresan home where he nursed him back to health.
As he got better, Sundaresan started speaking – of the life he had left behind in Kerala, of his family, and the time he had spent in hiding. “He told me he would go to the farms to collect the food waste given to camels and horses. He would also rummage through food waste from hotels and restaurants, pick breads or rotis and collect them in a plastic bag. Then, back at the farm, he would soften the dried, hardened rotis by keeping them under a tap and eat them. That’s how he managed to remain alive for years,’’ says Salam.
With the help of other expatriates, Salam joined the dots in Sundaresan’s story and finally tracked his family down to their village in Pathanamthitta. But the joy of finding his family was tinged with grief: Sundaresan’s mother had passed away in 2010, after waiting 22 years for her son.
With the cheating case pending in court, Sundaresan had to wait some more years before he could get home. “Since 1988, when Sundaresan landed in Bahrain, the government had declared general amnesty four times. But he could not make use of it because he had cases pending in the court – six of them,’’ says Salam.
Earlier this year, the court cleared Sundaresan of all charges.
Now back home, Sundaresan says he hopes to start all over again. “I want to start a new life. And I need help to do that.”