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September 13, 2001

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The Rediff Special/ Radhika Yeddanapudi


Fall is the beloved season of the eastern United States; it is the time I am most happy that I am living in Washington. The days are warm and the nights are cool. Senators and models, diplomats and soccer moms walk around looking beautiful and enjoying Nature's gifts. Leaves turn red and gold, the trees look like they are on fire and, over the course of a few weeks, the leaves turn to dust. Perhaps commemorating this fall spirit, unknown or unacknowledged (terrorist) powers-that-be set buildings, planes and mostly people on fire on Tuesday, September 11.

A day that began normally for me. Cars leaving parking lots, steady stream of water from the showers, the cling and clang of the main door of the apartment building being opened and closed. What have I missed today, I thought as I woke up. Ah! "Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Amma, happy birthday to you" I sang blissfully into the phone.

"Where are you right now? We have been watching the Pentagon!"

"The Pentagon," I repeated stupidly.

"Don't you have a television?"

"I do. Wait, let me switch on NPR."

"America under siege... Continuing live coverage of the national tragedy..."

"Amma, I have to go!"

Half an hour later, I step out. It's sunny and America's skies are blue and white and friendly. The red is only in the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. Georgetown is teeming with cars and lost tourists. The subway -- closed. The Body Shop -- closed. The Staples -- 'Closed Due to Uncert Stances' -- how spare the language of fear!

The only place that is open on that stretch is Amma's Vegetarian Kitchen, where I stop for a soothing mango lassi and a wada sambhar, keeping terror at abeyance. Then, I walk on. Barnes and Noble, the one place that is always teeming with books and people -- 'Due to dangerous situations today, we are closed.' Dangerous situations? Terrorists visiting Barnes and Noble to pick up a book or two?

I'm on the bridge leading to Washington Circle and getting closer to the White House. Tourists walk along with me. I step into a barů cool darkness. Today, the bartender doesn't bat an eyelid as I stand and watch the television set without pretending I will have a drink.

'Osama Bin Laden denies responsibility. Afghan government denies Osama hand,' the headlines flash. Henry Kissinger is interviewed and expresses shock.

"Do you know if there is an Internet cafe anywhere around? I am here from Austria and want to send a message to my family and tell them I am okay," says a lean bespectacled man standing next to me. "I wish I knew of one. Everything is closed," I replied.

At work, only the security guards mill around. "Is the world closed? I mean, the bank?" I ask. "Yes." My identification works so I go into one of the other buildings where I have an office. The ID works at the gate, it works at the glass doors and, finally, I am here in my office. Where I can get to CNN, rediff and all the usual sites. Where I can sit and write this article and get rid of the fear.

The first year I came to the US as a student, there were racial riots in LA reminding me of rioting mobs in New Delhi in 1984. In 1994, I worked at one of the World Trade Center buildings where there had been a bombing six months before. That building and the office where I worked, the chair that I sat in, is dust today. Then came Oklahoma City and Timothy McVeigh. Now this. In an awful parody of American advertising, "now this." Between the peaceful moments of your life, you must be allowed to see the advertising that crazy terrorists and fanatics provide in the form of extensive fireworks.

When I was leaving for the US in 1992, an enemy posing as a friend had remarked that America was a good place for mediocre people. The remark angered me then. But, in the years since, I had begun to think that he might have been right.

This may be the only place where mediocre people can live and be prevented from being violent through a curious process of politics, dissension and dialogue. As opposed to many other places, where the mediocre and unwise sway the masses to allegiance to commit acts that hurt themselves and other people.

I admit I have a great internal dread of crowds, of what I see as uncomprehending, hostile humanity. Perhaps it is an invention of my mind, but I want to be protected from the intolerant. Living in America has always seemed the answer.

Until clouds of smoke billowed on CNN, buildings imploded, people screamed and wept, to announce as it were, that the intolerant were here, on the shores of these eastern United States.

Also see:
Terrorism in America: The complete coverage

Photographs: Paresh Gandhi

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