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The Rediff Special/Arthur J Pais
August 20, 2003
Do you think...?" an older woman began asking me, her voice filled with alarm. But she quickly stopped herself. Even in the dark, she could see my features, my dark complexion, and my beard. I was not the right person, she might have thought, to discuss any terrorism-related topic.
She wasn't the only one harboring the fear. As the West 4th Street subway station in Manhattan was plunged into darkness, many people wondered if yet another terrorist attack had taken place.
Even as they waded their way out of the sweltering station, they were speculating and openly what might have gone wrong. The station officials were making a few announcements but you could hardly hear them. There wasn't anything reassuring for many moments till you reached the street. What was amazing was the civility people were showing towards each other.
"My God," whispered a desi, who looked like a student, into my ears. "If anything happens this time Indians will be in trouble, God damn Hemant Lakhani." He was referring to the alleged attempt by the alleged arms dealer to sell contraband missiles.
Even though terrorism was very much on their minds, dozens of people who were slowly making it to the street had not panicked. Outside, as people reached for cell phones which just would not work, radios provided relief.
Even so some people were skeptical.
"We cannot believe anything you hear these days," said an elderly woman. "How can they be so sure that it is a genuine power failure? How can they be sure that Saddam is not behind this?"
"Man, man," muttered a young woman. "My mother takes a train from Brooklyn around this time. God, I wish she is not on the train." She remembered her mother mentioning occasionally how she had been mugged and robbed when the power had shut down in 1977 and thousands of New Yorkers were stranded underground for hours.
The daughter found little comfort even as a group of young born-again Christians began preaching, their voices rising higher and higher as people were getting more and more worried about catching a ride home.
"Repent, repent, repent," intoned an elderly man, independent of the younger men. "You repent," roared a well-built younger man. "You get us transportation first and then we will all repent." The older man seemed oblivious and continued to chant with even more energy.
As many of us were scrambling for cabs and free rides to reach home, we were also worried for our friends and family members who might have been trapped underground. It was only after several hours, we would learn that by and large New York responded to the calamity in a composed and civilized way, that the looting of shops were very few, the muggings were minimal, and crime was in fact less than the daily average.
But in the early hours of the power shutdown, many waited with constricted breath for more assurance, more news and for strangers who would take the risk of giving them a lift. The word had spread that buses were plying free to a number of towns and cities in New Jersey and Connecticut from the Port Authority bus terminal. Some people decided to walk, which would take them some 20 minutes but many decided to wait if the problem could be fixed.
"We cannot fix the power problem in Iraq, that I understand," said a young man who described himself as a campus radical later. "That is because we are more interested in managing the oil fields there. But why is Washington turning America into Iraq?" He was convinced it was a Republican Party strategy to punish the more Democratic states in the country. He was convinced Canada had been also sabotaged by Washington because it had criticized the war on Iraq.
An older man looked at me. "I bet this happens in your country all the time," he said with a small smile.
"Do you know where I come from?" I asked gently.
"From your accent," the man who sounded like an East European said, "I think you are from India. I meant no offense... I wanted to pass time. I am too tired to walk to Port Authority."
As we chatted for the next few minutes, he said: "I haven't eaten for about two hours. I will go to an Indian restaurant, if anyone around is open. With curry powder, I am sure the food will stay good for couple of hours, even if there is no refrigeration."
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh
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