This essay first appeared on Huffington Post, on September 11, 2017.
Above: This pastel was made in 1999, long before 9/11, or before my daughter was born. It is what I remembered of a dream: a mother-child, in a sea of saree-clad women (not shown), near water, in the shadow of the iconic arches of the Brooklyn Bridge. I had never been to New York before this dream. It is untitled.
September 11, 2001
Even the back roads from Ypsilanti to my office in Taylor had been crowded that morning, people were rushing to get to important places. We had just moved apartments two weeks before so I would have a shorter commute, but it was not helping today. We had not fully unpacked. We were hosting a young couple we had never met for two nights, they were arriving in the evening. Their family elders were friends with my husbands’ parents. They were on a road trip from New York to Chicago. They were vegetarians, we were not. We did not have beds – we had been sleeping on old comforters for the last two years. The living room had only floor pillows for seats. We owned one good dining table, a computer, and a work desk. My paintings were in boxes, the walls were bare. I was agonizing over what tales of horror these strangers would relate back to our folks back in India, that I had been a terrible hostess.
The office parking lot was already full, so I parked on the side of the Golf-course parking, and walked in from the side entrance into the building. It was only 8.25 a.m.
The secretary, Sheryll, knew I drove 25 miles on the back roads to get to work because my highway accident four years ago had traumatized me. I had totaled our maroon, rented Buick while moving my now husband to his new job. We both survived, walked out with a whiplash and bruises. But I could not drive on the highways again, I kept picturing myself rolling over and crashing. And dying. Sheryll knew I used to work extra and back an hour or two to wait out the traffic. She knew I worked through lunch because I did not have office-lunch-friends. She did not care as long as the work was done.
With some saved money, I had just bought a new car, a German car in Ford country. My old Mazda simply could not handle the Michigan snowstorms. I do not know what my colleagues hated more, my guts that I purchased a car more expensive than my bosses 16-year-old truck, or that I was a shade too brown for office pictures.
It was my first real job as a Landscape Architect. I did not have to waste my two Master’s degrees being a over-educated housewife. Even though I had been working here for nearly a year, my parents finally became proud of me two weeks prior, as my H1 paperwork came in. An official piece of paper had validated my existence, my place in this country. I was an active part of the American job-force, hoping to live the American dream as scores had before me.
I tossed my bag under the desk, powered up my computer, went to the restroom and returned to find everyone huddled near Sheryll’s desk. There was something on the radio – they were laughing at the antics of a morning show host. Tony, our group boss was in his office looking out at the group, wondering when he should break up the laughter. The workday was just beginning. We had work to do. There was an important meeting that day with our biggest client.
I had just recently taken over a project from another supervisor because she quit over family commitments. I think she quit for other reasons. She lived only 3 miles away but had grown up in Rhode Island and did not care for metro Detroit. She wanted to be home with her two show-dogs, and fuss with their competition schedules, her high school children, and her fake orchids. She loved cheesecake. She knew how to handle large boisterous male colleagues and I think she eventually grew tired of them. I looked over to what used to be her desk to find her replacement, my new Floridian supervisor, a loud man in both voice and personality gaping at the computer. He was browsing the web, planning his vacation to visit the sunny Miami beaches. I missed my old supervisor, even though she had included day lilies in every landscape plan we ever drew up. I hated day lilies, they were unoriginal, boring, they did not even smell good. But they were sturdy and could deal with neglect. The sight of my new Floridian supervisor made me I missed her more, her name was Martha.
The clock had inched towards 9 a.m., there was a meeting in the board room for the staff at 9. But Sheryll had cranked up her radio louder instead of getting ready for the meeting. She was not in the board room, she was listening at her desk, her curly blonde locks scattered about her, the whites of her eyes peering through her heavy glasses at the little tape deck on her desk, gaping, looking around for reassurance. Surely, she was hearing things. Something was not right. Tony was pacing outside his office – we needed to be elsewhere, Sheryll had not set up the meeting yet. It was unlike her. I could see her pulse racing, beads of trepidation slowly form at the base of her hairline, soaking into her collar. She found a hair tie and pulled her curls into a high ponytail. Fear had trickled down the nape of her neck, into the scalloped collar of her Fall-floral dress, her foundation was beginning to run at her jawline. She did not care anymore.
Sheryll was letting out slow gasps. Her arms were beginning to tremble, she found the computer mouse and tried to find a trusty news website. There were just bold words written all over. Bad words. Horrifying words. I was struggling to understand what the words meant to her. What did it mean when the news said a plane had flown into a building? Why were the women afraid? Their fear only showed in their eyes, in their lips and gaping mouths hurriedly covered up with shaking fingers. The men stood and watched, their hands never leaving their pockets, toying with loose change in impatience, their feet pacing around because we were late for a meeting. Our client was our top priority. We should check the news during our lunch hour, Tony said.
We started ten minutes late. When we returned 90 minutes later, the open office plan was bathed in hushed voices, like a dense fog. There were murmurings and gasps, one woman was crying. Sheryll flicked on her radio again, we heard the same words over and over again. Horror inducing strings of words. Someone had found an old television in the copy room, she rushed over, leading everyone else. Tony’s phone was ringing loudly. His voicemail was blinking furiously, his wife had been trying to call him, the receptionist informed. Tony promptly left to be with his family.
As the news unfolded, everyone’s faces became colorless in more ways than one – all devoid of expression, united in the same fear, sadness and shock of the horrors of the loss of innocent life, the terrorism, the shared hatred for heinous acts of cowardice, at the loss of innocence and security. I had intense flashbacks to the series of bomb blasts in Bombay in 1993. I had been a silent bystander both times and yet, I shared in fear and sadness that connected me with the thousands of mourners. We were all united by our humanity. I became afraid of what this meant for America, in America. We stood around in fear, tried to find ways to be productive, moved papers around our table when we thought we were being watched, but nothing helped. I called my husband. He informed our families in India – we were safe and hope the same for everyone else. We prayed.
Although we waited for more news- those became increasingly horrifying. Most of us were too shocked to do anything, feel anything. I knew no one in New York, except those people who we were hosting the next few days, we had never met. I had never been there. My husband had promised me a trip there, it was a beautiful city and there was the ‘some-day’ promise. By noon, the staggering losses and horrors were unfolding. Most people in the office were on the phones, checking on their family members in New York and Pennsylvania. Many were crying, they could not reach loved ones, even if they were looking to find a distant relative with whom they had not exchanged a card or a holiday greeting in a few years over a wedding snub or a missed invitation. It did not matter, they were united in grief, in fear, in shock and sadness.
All, except my Floridian supervisor. He was smiling, showing off glossy yellow teeth, beaming at his office wing-man Jim, he had found a good flight deal for next weekend, he was going golfing with his buddies again. What was I looking at him for? We had a site visit to make that afternoon. “Get ready”, he nearly barked at me, as he gave me a once over. He had deliberately ‘forgotten’ to tell me about this muddy site visit. I was wearing heels and a dress that day instead of sturdy lace-up work boots and khakis. No, we could not reschedule because of my wardrobe. I was young and inexperienced enough to not have a change of clothes and shoes in my car. I could not complain. I dare not complain. I could not be distracted. I did not have reason to mourn or be sad because I was not directly affected by the tragedy. To him, I was only a foreigner, an immigrant, I needed permission to be in his country. I needed his permission to be in that building. He wanted to teach me a lesson, he was the boss. Perhaps I was too ‘different’ for his liking. I do not know.
So, on Friday, September 14, 2001, he found his reason. He made sure I lost my validation, my job. He sat snickering at his desk as I gathered up my things in a cardboard box, to add to my boxed up and still not unpacked apartment. I knew it would be impossible for find another job in my line of work anytime soon.
I drove on the highway that evening. What else could go wrong? It was drizzling, and I hated driving in the rain. It reminded me of the foggy January morning when I had totaled the maroon rented Buick. But we had survived by the skin of our teeth that day, by the blessings of an unknown power and the humanity of a stranger who stopped to help. Perhaps I would survive again.
And perhaps I did.
Showcasing my first cookbook ‘A Dozen Ways to Celebrate’ on a panel with international celebrity chefs, Chef Suvir Saran, Chef Vikas Khanna and Chef Saransh Goila (not pictured) at the Indo-American Art Council’s Literary Festival in 2015, in NYC. Photo-credit: V Umashankar (2015)