September 10, 2011

America’s year, our decade

Saturday, 10 September 2011 00:17

After 9/11, the NY armoury's walls were plastered with victims' photos. It was hard not to cry.

In the summer of 2001 I reached the United States for a four-month fellowship programme. Almost instantly I was introduced to Congressman Gary Condit. It was difficult to miss him. A Democratic legislator from California, he had been accused of an extramarital relationship with Chandra Levy, an intern half his age who had subsequently gone missing. There was the usual outrage, the simulated frenzy, the calls for impeachment and loud questions about whether Mr Condit would stand for re-election. TheWall Street Journal even carried an editorial on Chandra’s “Sanskrit name”.
Mr Condit was beginning to bore me. Unfortunately channel surfing, from Fox to CNN to NBC to Whatyamacallit TV, had become a habit. One morning in Chicago, it led me to turn on the television while I was brushing my teeth. What I saw changed my day, America’s year and our decade September 11 was crazy. The orderly certitude of a First World society was sucked into the whirlpool of imponderables that so many of us Indians call home. I didn’t need a boss barking orders on the telephone to figure out I had to get to New York and pronto. I called airports, airline offices, bus service companies, Amtrak train stations, car rental agencies. It was all to no avail. New York was tottering; the rest of America was at a standstill.
As I drove through the suddenly empty, suddenly silent streets of midday Chicago — “Everybody’s home, watching television” mumbled an associate — about the only engines whirring were those of US Air Force fighter aircraft patrolling the skies overhead.
America was shaken — but it was also stirred. In the days that followed all across the country Americans were waving the flag, flying it outside their homes, on their cars, wearing scarves depicting the Stars and Stripes. About the only comparable fast-moving commodities were maps and books on Afghanistan. As a store owner in Washington, DC put it, “Everything on Afghanistan is gone. There’s absolutely nothing left.”
Quoting Franklin Roosevelt from World War II, President George W Bush spoke of the “warm current of national unity”. For a man who till two weeks earlier had been seen as a struggling leader, Mr Bush seemed a new man. A USA Today-CNN Gallup poll conducted on September 10 gave Mr Bush a 51 per cent approval rating. By September 17, the figure had climbed to 86 per cent.
An astounding 88 per cent wanted retaliation against the terrorists. You didn’t have to wait for the polls to figure that out. You could see it as you drove down the highways, passing dusty trucks with only one word painted on them: “Revenge”.
It was also a time of new prejudices for old. Joe Spaulding, a fast-talking taxi driver in Chicago, was a little befuddled when his South Asian and West Asian colleagues parked their cars on September 11, fearing trouble or, at the very least, rude customers. They were back on the road the next day but not before Spaulding had had an experience that, despite New York, left him chuckling.
“I’m a Black man,” Spaulding explained to me, seated behind him in his taxi, on the afternoon of 9/11, “and in my time White folks have done some pretty unfair things to my people. So it struck me as funny when a White woman climbed into my cab this morning and exclaimed ‘Thank god it’s you and not one of those foreigners’.”
Exactly a week later, I did finally get to New York. Either La Guardia airport had half-a-dozen passengers around or I had lost the ability to count. The streets of New York seemed busy enough, even if the first hotel I walked into had every single room free.
I went to the still smouldering remains of the World Trade Center. Perhaps it was the cynicism that is every Indian reporter’s lot, perhaps it was simply many hours of television viewing. Whatever it was, as I stared into and smelt the acrid emptiness that was once the Twin Towers, I didn’t feel the horror, the passion, the emotion I had thought I would. I took a train to Midtown Manhattan, still coming to terms with what I’d seen but hadn’t felt. A friend advised me to go to the New York State Armoury on Lexington Avenue, where “families of victims hang around”.
In many ways, the armoury had become a shrine for a grieving city. Pasted on its walls were pictures of the missing, with a name, a description, a phone number and an anguished family’s message. I saw one picture and moved to the next, I saw the second and moved to the third, the fourth, fifth, 500th, 2,000th. They just didn’t stop. There were all sorts of faces, ethnicities, nationalities. It was difficult not to cry. In death as in life, New York had established itself as the world city.
India’s perennially paranoid intelligentsia didn’t see it that way. Nor did its kindred souls in New York’s hyperactive NRI NGO circuit, dominated, I couldn’t help but note, by old Calcuttans like this writer. There were stories of racial crimes against Indians and others. I was asked to find the evidence. I’m afraid I failed. Coming from a country that often pretends the Sikh pogrom of November 1984 never happened, it was difficult not to be impressed by America.
A judge unilaterally postponed the trial of a Black Muslim — for a crime completely unrelated to 9/11 — because she felt the jury wouldn’t be fair. Just after Balbir Singh Sodhi was killed at his gas station in Mesa, Arizona, a Sikh friend of mine working in New York was stopped on the streets of Manhattan by a wizened White woman. “Are you a Seekh?” she demanded. Our man nodded. “"Well,” came the mellowed response, “I’m sorry for what my people are doing to your people. Please don’t worry.”
A few weeks later, I flew out of America. The easy-going society I had landed in was now at war. Anthrax had replaced higher taxes as Public Fear Number 1. An unsure President had become a steely Commander-in-Chief. “The new normal” was a phrase one heard over and over again.
Postscript: Two months later, as the ‘Year that Changed the World’ began its final countdown and as the last of the Taliban’s bastions fell, a friend from Minnesota sent me an e-mail captioned: ‘Earth-shaking news from America’. “Gary Condit has filed for re-election,” he said, “with just 45 minutes to go for nominations. I just thought you’d like to know.”
For the first time in many weeks, I thought of America and laughed.

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