[September 11, 2001]
He stood facing the shower from which the water was forced on his face washing all the scattered pieces of ash off his face, hair and body. His eyes stayed open, blurred due to wet eyelashes but steady on the pipes running across the wall in front of him. He hadn’t moved even an inch since he got into the shower. He turned the knob of the shower and the water stopped.
The doorbell rang. He had expected it. He went to open the door and his seven-month-old boy crawled after him. But before he reached the door, the baby was lifted by his grandmother and taken to the next room. He opened the door to see his wife, Rena who rushed home from her office as soon as she heard the news.
“Mark,” spoke Rena, as soon as he opened the door. “Are you alright?”
He nodded. Rena observed her husband carefully. He seemed lost. She would hug him in such situation but before that, she wanted to comfort him with her words. “I know dear. I know.”
Mark turned back and started walking to the last room in the passage which was his and Rena’s. She followed him quietly. On her way, she could hear the baby’s murmur and Mark’s mother’s chatting with the baby.
Mark sat on the bedside and so did Rena. She wanted him to speak something, anything. Minutes of silence filled the void before she heard his voice.
“Dad-” he looked into the distance. “He was in the North Tower. I called him to tell him that I finally wanted to meet him. I wanted to take him to our house to meet the baby, his grandson. I wanted to forget those words which he had spoken to you when I married you in India. I wanted to tell him that I was planning the reunion of my family and your Indian family. After all these years of his plea to forgive him, I was prepared to see him and tell him that he was still my father and I still love him. I didn’t say that on the phone. I thought I would tell him directly when I would meet him upstairs. He was waiting for me, he said. The elevators were taken so I thought I would take some stairs and then would catch the elevator. I reached the first floor when my father called me again. I told him to wait some more as it would take time to reach the 22nd floor. As soon as the phone got disconnected, the ear-piercing, loud and heavy voice filled the air, blocking all other voice around. It gave us no time to think of what was happening when we heard a crash and the entire building got shaken. We felt like we were trapped in some kind of crazy earthquake which not only felt under the feet. The smoke and ashes covered the entire building. The noise broke out and the decent floor changed its face with hundreds of people running here and there, to save lives. I joined those people and dialled Dad’s number again hoping that he was okay. But- he was not okay. His floor was one of those which got smashed by the plane. A plane- ran directly into him, maybe.
“They couldn’t even find his dead body.” His voice broke.
She heard him with a gulp in her throat. She wished if there was anything she could do. She was about to touch his hand when he got up from the bed. He spoke, almost to himself, “He was innocent.”
“I know,” she said in a soft voice. She also got up and reached him. Before she spoke further, he turned back to her and said, “What do you know? How do you even console me?” His eyes were red with rage. A sudden change in his voice alerted Rena. He was angry and that was natural but his anger showed something else which she didn’t understand. Her almond shaped eyes stuck to him, waiting for his next words. Though she wanted him to speak his heart loud, it made her uncomfortable at the same time. But the silence was all she could hear. His stare was sharp and confined. Why was he so hard to read? He was not himself, she felt.
Who should she mourn; Mark’s father’s death or Mark’s unbelievable silence? And in no time, she got the answer when Mark spoke again, “Please- leave.”
“I will leave you alone for as much time as-”
“No. I mean,” he interrupted her. “I don’t want you to be in my life.” He was very clear with his words. He spoke like he meant.
“What?” she said.
“We can’t be together,” he made himself clear once again. This time his calm voice showed the surety of his words.
“Look, I know you are upset. I know-” She noticed that she did not have his attention at all. “You want to end our marriage because?” She demanded an answer getting back his attention.
“We don’t have any future together. I suggest you go back to India,” he said avoiding the eye contact.
“And where will I go? Because as far as I remember, I am dead to my family a long time ago when I married you and came here and was totally depended on you,” she argued.
“But you are independent now. You don’t want me,” he defended his point.
“How do you decide that? And what about our son?” she asked.
“He can’t live here too.”
Hearing this straight from his mouth, she stepped back. Rena could see the direction where the whole situation was heading. “Do you really mean it? You think we will be a problem for you and your family because I am an Asian? How could you-”
“I just washed my Dad’s ashes off my face.” His voice had terror. “He was blown off, literally blown off. Most probably burnt or the pieces of his body are lying- God knows where-” he shouted and punched the table behind him. He walked away from her. Her eyes followed him. It was painful for her to see him in such tremor. She wanted to be the help, but for him, she was the potential problem. Now she was even afraid to speak or touch him. He hastily walked back to her and said, “We can’t. We just can’t be together.”
“Mark,” she said breathlessly. Tears edged her eyes and started to roll down even before she knew. “How any of this is my fault? What do I have anything to do with this?” She pleaded. “Don’t do this. Please. At least think of our son. He doesn’t even have a name.” She folded her hands in front of him. He looked away in dismissal.
“I know you are angry. That’s okay. But I am begging you. Don’t do this to yourself and to me. This is just absurd to take any decision in such an unstable condition.”
“Whenever I will see you, I will see my dead father who had to stay away from me because I had preferred you over him, always,” he said.
“Please don’t say that. Please,” she begged again.
“You all are the same. Today he is dead because of some bastards like you-”
She slapped him before he could finish his sentence. The room echoed with the heavy sound of a raging smack on his right cheek. The pleading stopped. Her hands were not folded anymore. The flood of tears from her eyes stopped. The sheer silence filled the room; no sound sobbing. Her face had only one emotion; disbelief. Was he the man she loved? Was he the man she left her family for? Was he the man for whom she accepted a new country, its people, its customs for? And was he the same man who believed that she was one of those blood-sucking in-human beings?
“We are not the same,” she muttered. “WE ARE NOT THE SAME.” Her lungs ached when she shouted. Mark’s mother came into the room when she heard the shout. Rena took away her son from Mark’s mother and left the house.
[September 13, 2001]
“I can’t believe you didn’t think of us,” said Aahna. Aahna and Jeet were the closest friends of Rena and Mark. They had a 10-year-old boy, Jas. On yesterday, after leaving Mark’s home, Rena went to a bar with her baby and sat there clueless. After a few hours, Jeet spotted her in that bar and asked her if she was alright. When he came to know about the entire incident, he insisted that she came to the home with him. While Jas was playing with the baby, Rena and Aahna sat Aahna’s coffee table placed in the corner of the main room.
“He is going crazy. He was not like this,” said Rena, still bewildered by Mark’s behaviour.
“I don’t know whether I will ever be able to forgive him.”
[September 26, 2001]
Rena and Aahna were getting their sons ready for the walk in the garden nearby when the front door of the home opened. Jeet entered the house. The ladies were about to greet him when Aahna noticed something unusual in him. His turban was roughly re-tied and his shirt was torn from the shoulders. Without even looking at the direction of the table, Jeet rushed to his room. Aahna sprang up from the chair and followed him. When Aahna found Jeet in the washroom, he had taken off the turban and was about to cut his beard.
“Jeet,” cried Aahna. “What are you doing?”
Jeet didn’t respond. A person like him would give up on his life but never his turban and beard which he referred to as his pride. He rushed out of the room and went to Jas. Jeet took off his turban as well and at that time, Aahna pulled him back and turned him towards her. “What is wrong with you?” she screamed.
Rena got up and walked towards them. She suspected what was wrong but kept quiet. Jeet was still too furious to answer. Rena looked at Aahna; she felt pain in her heart.
“They did this to you,” spoke Rena. “Didn’t they?”
Jeet threw himself on the sofa and hugged Jas. He compressed his sobs.
A couple of months passed. During these two months, Rena was fired from her job. She had faced a great difficulty in finding another one. Rena was in the grocery store while her baby was busy with Jas at home. She was waiting for her turn in the queue for the billing in the supermarket. She had a packet of candies in the basket for the children at home. Seeing that packet, a little girl came towards her and tried to peek into the basket. Rena bent to her and asked her if she wanted the candies. The little girl was pulled back forcefully. Rena looked up and saw a frightened woman. That woman looked at the little girl with widened eyes and said, “Don’t go near her. Come with me.” Rena was taken aback. Nothing was changed even after two months. People had not come out of the terror, and moreover, they still had such an absurd idea about the people of her skin.
The months grew into years. And the years came with millions of other experiences to people like Rena, Aahna and Jeet. Mark had not tried to see Rena and the baby even once. Rena had given up the hope. She had managed to get the new job in Jas’s school. She had also rented a house in the Indian neighbourhood. But this passing time had damaged Rena and her spirit a lot. She had forgotten the Rena who blossomed like a flower when she met Mark. With him, she saw her life secure. With him, she felt that she had all the support of the universe. She believed that if he was there with her, she won’t seek the moon and stars. But when he abandoned her and her baby her house of cards demolished. Her eyes were dreamless. Deep, her son was the only one she wanted to live for, no matter where.
To relieve her anxiety, she would go for running. One fine evening, when she was out for running, she started feeling exhausted. Ignoring her uneasiness, she kept running. She ran out of breath and collapsed. People in the park gathered around her. An old man sprinkled some water on her face from his water-bottle. She tried to open her heavy eyes, still feeling the dizziness. She frantically got up and moved back when she saw people around her. She kept moving backwards on her knees. Many of the people gathered there tried to stop her from getting up as she kept stumbling and hurting herself, but she somehow got up and started walking. Still petrified of the audience, she kept walking breathlessly. The old man who sprinkled water on her face approached her.
“Wait for me, lady.”
She stopped and turned back. That man was panting and walked to the nearest bench. Rena was confused; she should be walking away or waiting for him there. That man signalled her to sit near him on the bench. She did the same as she also needed some rest.
“What made you so scared?” asked the old man.
“You got scared of people around you. Why?” specified the man.
She kept quiet. The man said again, “Do you live alone, young lady?”
“I live with my son,” she replied with a smile. The man nodded and asked,
“Where are you from?”
The smile vanished. She replied coldly, “Asia.”
The man chuckled and said, “Heard it for the first time though. Which country I meant.”
“Does that matter? I thought the skin was the only thing which matters to you people.”
Her voice was unchanged.
“Is there something wrong in being in your skin?” The man tried to humour her but had a meaning in his words. She stared at him and said nothing. But she complained silently.
“I know,” said the man who learned the entire situation here. She looked at him. He said,
“My wife was stuck in the North Tower while the 9/11 attack took place. Her colleagues helped my old wife to get out of the building. They didn’t wait to see if the colour of my wife’s skin was as dark as theirs. They didn’t wait to verify if my wife was Asian like them. They just saved her. Humanity looks like that, not like what you think.”
“And we got abandoned by my own husband for being an Asian. He thinks that we would be a trouble to him in the future.” She opened up to the old man.
“People are terrified here. Not that what they do to other innocent people is fair, but they are just scared. Always remember, if all of you are not the same, then all of us are not the same too.”
When words don’t meet the action, hopes seem to slow down. Rena had struggled to get up from the dust; she wanted to leave no stone unturned, for her and Deep’s lives. But whenever she would dare to raise the level of her hopes for the brighter future, something would happen to devastate her positivity. She seemed to be failing to keep her optimism alive. She kept telling her mind the words of that old man, “Not all of us are the same.” She was not a quitter. She didn’t want to leave the land where she started her life with fresh attempts. Her son would witness her each and every step. How could she let him down?
But after a point, 30-year-old Rena gave up. She could not take the pressure suspicious eyes anymore. She started drinking more. She wouldn’t care anymore if people stared at her. She drank more and more so that she would be too numb to get affected by anything and anyone. One evening, she put Deep in the water tub and left the bathroom to grab his towel. She was already high on alcohol. She lost the conscious and fell down on the bathroom floor. Deep tried to get out of the tub and reach his mother, his foot slipped and fell flat in the tub.
When Rena opened her eyes, she was on the sofa and Mark was speaking to some strangers. When Mark noticed that Rena was conscious, he came to her. He sighed and sat in front of her. She was not happy to see him. “Where is Deep?” she asked.
“His name is Deep,” exclaimed Mark. “He is with my mother. You sent me the divorce papers. I came to you to talk about that but I saw-”
“Take Deep to me,” she interrupted him.
“Look, Rena,” he said.
“You have nothing to do with my son. Just take him here.” She tried to get up when Mark pulled her hand.
“Rena,” said Mark. “I am so sorry. I can see what I have done to you. But all I can say is I am sorry.”
She threw herself back on the sofa and exhaled. “Yes, you have done a lot to our lives, Mark. I still find it hard to believe that I fell in love with a person like you. You know what, I am not sorry anymore. I am not sorry that your father died that day. That attack, it really never stopped there. And it has been killing many people like us every single day.”
Mark had nothing to say. He knew that she was right and he also knew that he couldn’t do anything about it. He damaged two persons who were his family once.
Rena got up and went to Mark’s mother who was standing at front door to get Mark and Rena some room to talk. She took Deep from him and turned to Mark. “I am calling social service. They will take care of my son. And I- I will admit myself to the rehabilitation centre. We have had enough devastation.” She stepped aside and cleared the doorway, indicating Mark and his mother to leave; leave them forever.