Empty Handshakes: on Flight MH370

by Madhu Kaza

ScreenHunter_1040 Mar. 02 11.36I was jetlagged during the week in early March 2014 when I heard the news that air traffic controllers had lost contact with Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. The news seemed at first like a seamless detail added to my mental fog. I had just returned to New York from India where I had spent much of January and February thinking about plane crashes. I had begun research on a project that I vaguely imagined would be a history of Indian aviation accidents, and I had spent many days examining news archives that documented incidents and their aftermaths. I had studied the names and capacities different aircraft, learned some of the aviation terminology such as “controlled flight into terrain” (which despite the reassuring word “controlled” is not a good thing), and begun to log a timeline of events. As I read the newspaper accounts I couldn't ignore the political dimensions of these disasters, either, whether they involved international coordination for search and rescue operations, the cover-up of lax security and safety measures, the response of the airlines to victims' families or the settlement of lawsuits. I also noticed that initial newspaper reports often contained inaccuracies that had to corrected later as more information emerged. As much as anything else, I became fascinated by how these articles were written, how the narratives of these disasters took shape over time and by what they told and what they left out. Out of whatever facts were reported and the scant details of these articles, I would try to imagine what it was like to experience these events as a witness, a survivor, a family member of a victim, a responder, or a reader of the morning paper. I became increasingly curious, in particular, about how disaster shapes one's experience of time.

For a while last year the world was enthralled with the mystery of MH370. Wide awake in the small hours of the night, feeling out of proper step with time, I too wondered for many days about the fate of the plane and its 239 passengers. I was struck by all the accounts that circulated around an event that remained beyond account. All the while, the media kept throwing graphs and words and images at the great silence of MH370. By late March the Malaysian prime minister concluded that “flight MH370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean.” More recently in January 2015 the Malaysian government officially determined the disappearance of MH370 to be an accident. But even if the government has come to this conclusion, no debris or definitive evidence of the plane has been found, and there is no closure for anyone who wants to understand what happened.

We know more than we did a year ago. Investigators have projected a flight arc and built a story out of the handshakes that the plane made with an Imarsat satellite in the hours after it disappeared from radar. We have more information, but the handshakes have not led us to answers. Here, I find the term “handshake” suggestive because its also a way to imagine how narrative works. For what does narrative do if not offer a series of handshakes to the reader to guide her along? A year ago, in a bit of a stupor, I wrote (via Twitter) a few thoughts about MH370. I include those thoughts below because now, as then, we have nothing to hold on to.


Malaysia Airlines says it has lost contact with a Boeing 777 traveling from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board.

Nearly a week later the plane, MH370.

Nearly a week later the narrative is still missing.

There's chatter (air travel is safer than/terrorism/ Chinese/oil slicks/sea/ signals) but it's noise. The story of the plane went missing.

A story (or 239 stories) began and then opened into a blank.

How will the story continue? What are the next words?

As if everything in the world were a narrative unfolding.

As if time itself was the time for one word to follow another.

“Or there was no sadness, but a simple fold in time.” -Cole Swenson

In a time inaccessible by words, they [are there are not there] beyond the reach of our words.

All the happenings in the world that our words don't reach.

Or sometimes, as the case may be, can't reach in time.

The narrative won't budge just yet. The words remain huddled in the dark, suspended. No, that's not right.

The words flit about, unconcerned. They are listening to free jazz.

The story remains empty inside.

Death is worse when it retains the right to remain silent.

Worst is death when it disappears you.

Worst is life when it disappears you.

The plane, MH370. We remain at sea, nothing to say.

View as a Twitter timeline here