When 9/11 dawned, my wife and I were staying in New York at the Radisson Hotel, on the corner of 48th and Lexington, and were due to leave the next evening for Mumbai. The previous afternoon had been spent at Columbia University, where Prof. Jack Snyder had been dismissive of my warning that the Taliban’s main foe was the United States, and that even New York could be at risk from the terrorists they harboured.
‘This is the safest city in the world,’ was his response. That evening, a friend came over for dinner, and my wife, Lakshmi, mentioned that she was planning to have breakfast the next day at the Roof of the World restaurant in the World Trade Center.
Coming from a more relaxed civilisation, many in India rarely have their TV sets on, especially on holiday. But the next morning, there was a frantic call from our dinner companion of the previous evening. ‘Did she go to the World Trade Center? Did she? Tell me,’ our friend demanded. She sounded as if she was about to break down in relief when I told her Lakshmi was still in our hotel room, and she immediately ended the call.
Within seconds came another phone call, this time from a friend in Bangalore, who sounded almost as frantic. ‘Put on your television,’ she demanded. After a few muttered protests, I did just this, and was watching as the second aircraft hit the World Trade Center. I would have mistaken it for a movie except for the fact that it was unfolding on a news channel. There were images of people running, of smoke, of something horribly wrong happening.
Lakshmi and I changed as fast as we could and headed for the streets, watching the dust and the people as both came in apparent slow motion toward where we were. Reflexively, we called our family back home in India from our mobile phones and told them that we were safe. Soon afterward, it was impossible to place any more calls.
It was another five days before we could get a plane back to India. Every now and then, I remember the police officers at the precinct house we had visited on September 10 when our dinner companion was unable to locate her car. How many of them had survived the following day? These men were soon to show the world that they were heroes, even though only 12 hours before they had seemed like bored kids.
On the evening of 9/11, Lakshmi and I joined thousands of others who held candles in an effort to escape the darkness of the evil that had stricken the city. Friends in India warned me to be careful in New York because of my brown skin and beard. But there was no hostility in any of the faces that I encountered that day. Instead, all I saw in people’s faces was surprise and hurt. The people of New York showed then exactly why they knew themselves to belong to the most vibrant city in the world.
When we left for the airport to head home, we made sure that we arrived at the airport four hours before we departed to ensure we had enough time to get through security. That day, al-Qaeda took away the America that I loved and replaced it with a nation in lockdown. For this, as for so much else, it is impossible to forgive them.