Little India riot: I am now your son

MOVING: Mr Suresh Vanaz embracing Mr Sakthivel Kumaravelu's mother, Madam Rajalakshmi. Mr Sakthivel (R) died in a bus accident that sparked off the Little India riot.

INDIA - Freelance artist Suresh Vanaz was so affected by Indian national Sakthivel Kumaravelu's death in the Little India accident that he visited the victim's village in India to help his family.

There, he pledged to Mr Sakthivel's mother: "I am your son now."

The death of Mr Sakthivel, who was killed in a bus accident on Dec 8, sparked the Little India riot.

Mr Suresh visited Mr Sakthivel's family at their village, Chattiram, 200km from Chennai earlier this month.

He had read about the foreign worker's family and was moved by their plight.

The 35-year-old returned to Singapore last Thursday, after the 10-day trip to India, where he also visited his relatives.

Last year, Mr Suresh started a donation drive on his Facebook page and managed to raise about $8,000, including about $2,000 of his own money.

With the help of his uncle in India, Mr Suresh managed to locate Mr Sakthivel's family.

Mr Suresh had been to India a few times since 2007, but he was shocked by the abject poverty of the Chattiram villagers.

The single-storey concrete house with two rooms and one bathroom, where Mr Sakthivel's younger brother lives with their mother, was uncompleted and bare.

 

And the reaction of Mr Sakthivel's mother, Madam Rajalakshmi, 53, left him very emotional.

"She kept crying and crying when she saw me and kept mentioning her dead son.

"I told her I will treat her like my mother now," said Mr Suresh, whose mother died four years ago.

Mr Sakthivel, 33, also left a disabled younger brother, Ramesh.

He also had a younger sister, 22, who was killed during a robbery just three months before Mr Sakthivel's death.

Mr Suresh felt he could relate to the foreign worker because he also has a disabled younger brother, whom he is caring for.

'OUT OF GOODWILL'

"I don't know Sakthivel personally, but I am doing this out of goodwill. I was taken aback by their story because I have lost my mum and I miss her very much, and I have a disabled brother whom I love."

He spent more than three hours in Mr Sakthivel's village home on Feb 2, and donated money and groceries such as rice and vegetables. His visit also caught the attention of the Indian media.

"The mother told me that they were in debt because of their dead daughter's dowry, and they also borrowed money so Sakthivel could go overseas to work.

"Their house was built because Sakthivel wanted to get married soon, but now it's only half completed because of their debts," said Mr Suresh, who added that he became even more affected by their plight after the visit.

"I kept thinking about them even when I was eating at home. They were really, really poor," he said.

The trip took almost two months to plan because it had been difficult to reach Mr Sakthivel's family.

When he was in Tamil Nadu state, he also had to deal with people who asked him for money in exchange for taking him to Mr Sakthivel's family.

He managed to get Madam Rajalakshmi's bank account number, and plans to send her money for the next three years.

Mr Suresh, who earns about $3,000 a month, will also continue to raise funds for the family through his Facebook page.

He hopes the money would help the family complete building their home.

"The house didn't have windows or doors. The walls were all unpainted," recalled Mr Suresh.

Although Mr Suresh was praised by netizens on his Facebook page for his efforts to help Mr Sakthivel's family, he had some detractors too.

"I'm really grateful for the people from all walks of life in Singapore, including taxi drivers and maids, who approached me to donate money," he said. "There were also people who called me in the middle of the night to ask why I wanted to help Sakthivel because he sparked off the riot."

"But he is also a victim and his family really needs help."

"I don't know Sakthivel personally, but I am doing this out of goodwill. I was taken aback by their story because I have lost my mum and I miss her very much, and I have a disabled brother whom I love."

- Freelance artist Suresh Vanaz

WHAT HAPPENED THAT DAY

Mr Sakthivel's death is widely believed to have sparked the Little India riots on Dec 8.

He was run over by a bus at the junction of Tekka Lane and Race Course Road. An angry mob soon gathered, leading to a riot.

The foreign worker was initially turned away from the same bus because he was behaving aggressively. He was also drunk, with a blood alcohol level three times above the legal limit.

Thirty-four police and rescue officers were injured in the riot.

On Tuesday, the Attorney-General's chamber ruled that the bus driver who knocked him down, Mr Lee Kim Huat, did not commit a crime.

The Committee of Inquiry into the riot will start on Wednesday.

FAMILY TRAGEDY

Indian national Sakthivel Kumaravelu leaves behind his mother, 53, and younger brother Ramesh, 25.

Mr Sakthivel had been the sole breadwinner of his family. His father died four years ago.

A younger sister, 22, was killed just three months before his death. The family is in debt because of her dowry.

His brother, who used to work as a driver, suffered from a brain injury after an accident.

'I was very touched by his compassion'

When Mr Suresh Vanaz told his friend of his plan to help Mr Sakthivel Kumaravelu, she thought he would merely be making a donation.

Ms Kusula Kumari, 49, a long-time friend of Mr Suresh, never imagined he would actually make the journey to Mr Sakthivel's village in Tamil Nadu.

After a Facebook appeal to raise funds for Mr Sakthivel's family, support poured in and Ms Kusula decided to help him keep accounts.

"He is a very, very kind person and likes helping people, but you would usually help someone you know and not a stranger.

"He just felt that he should help. I was very touched by his compassion."

Mr Suresh even managed to convince Ms Kusula to join him on the trip to India.

Like Mr Suresh, Ms Kusula was struck by how poor Mr Sakthivel's family was. She personally handed $300 to the family.

"She (Mr Sakthivel's mother) was very touched by what Suresh did and he also comforted her to tell her that she'll get a monthly sum," said Ms Kusula.

Mr Jolovan Wham, the executive director of Home which supports migrant workers in Singapore, had also visited Mr Sakthivel's village in January with civil group Workfair Singapore.

He said of Mr Suresh's efforts: "Singaporeans may be politically apathetic but they are sympathetic to families in grief and very compassionate when it comes to responding to tragedy."

He is a very, very kind person and likes helping people, but you would usually help someone you know and not a stranger. - Ms Kusula Kumari (above, right), 49, a long-time friend of Mr Suresh

linheng@sph.com.sg


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