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'His death brought us closer'

September 16, 2003 16:50 IST

When Vamsikrishna 'Vamsi' Pendyala moved to the US, he counted on a better life.

He wanted a second master's degree. He wanted to put his wife Prasanna through a dentistry programme. He wanted to spend more time with her.

But he died aboard American Airlines Flight 11 when it was flown into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

A month later Prasanna, Vamsi's wife of two-and-a-half years, committed suicide.

Caught in the maelstrom of international terrorism, Vamsi died for a cause he wanted no part of. But thanks to the efforts of those around him, his death has become a symbol of defiance against those who caused it.

His friends and batch-mates created an organisation, the BITSAA International, to make a positive difference through a scholarship endowment in his name. The Pendyala Vamsikrishna Memorial Scholarship will pay for a year's tuition for a deserving student at the Birla Institute of Technology, Pilani, where Vamsi studied.

"To date we have raised about $10,000 specifically towards the scholarship," says Venu Palaparthi, founder-member of the BITSAA International. "The objective is to raise another $10,000 this year so this scholarship is fully endowed."

Academic performance in the first year at BITS is the primary criterion for selection. Last semester, the scholarship was awarded to Bhupendra Singh Manola, who scored a grade point average of 9.9 on a 10 scale -- among the highest -- in his first year at BITS.

Manola had lost his father, and his family income is less than Rs 20,000 per annum.

In 2002-03, Krishnachitanya P, who is doing a four-year engineering degree in instrumentation, was awarded the scholarship.

Vamsi lived in Los Angeles with Prasanna. She studied at the University of Southern California, and they lived close to the campus.

Since 1998, Vamsi had worked as a project manager for DTI, a Fremont based e-business integration company. As a key contributor to some of DTI's alliances, Vamsi travelled a lot.

For three weeks leading to September 11, 2001, Vamsi was on a 15-hour work schedule to complete a project for a client in Boston. He was scheduled to fly home September 10, but had to stay on to tie up loose ends, working till 3 am September 11.

Just as he boarded Flight 11, he called Prasanna, who was unwell.  'I'll be home soon, sweetie,' he said. 'I boarded the plane. It's on time. I'll be there around lunch time.''

But his flight was the first of the two to be hijacked and flown into the WTC.

At the time of his death, Vamsi was working on a master's in engineering management from the California Coast University. He wanted to save enough money to start his own company. He had also taken a loan to pay for his wife's dental classes.

Prasanna watched the televised images of the flight as it crashed into the WTC, knowing her husband was on board.

"She and her husband were very close," said Nadadur Kumar, an attorney who worked with international students at the USC. "Prasanna had come to lean on him and grow at the same time."

In the beginning, Prasanna appeared focused on her goals despite her loss. In an interview to the San Jose Mercury News, she said, 'I only wish I had more time with him. I wish it will never happen to anyone again. I wish this thing won't be repeated and that we will be more cautious about that. I am sure that would be Vamsi's wish, too.''

Her friends and family felt Prasanna would pull through the crisis. Her family and in-laws flew over from India for the funeral. They offered to take her home. She refused. She felt the best way for her to remember her husband was to complete her program.

"Prasanna was very determined to do what he wanted her to do -- to finish school," said Kumar. "I remember her saying, 'His memory is only going to strengthen my resolve.'"

But October 18, 2001, barely a month later, she hung herself from her husband's Nautilus exercise equipment.

"Prasanna was intelligent, ambitious," says Kumar. "But there was a sadness about her. She was a person unmistakably in great sorrow."

As her distraught family tried to deal with the double loss, Vamsi's friends rallied together. And the BITS alumni decided to do something to honour his memory.

"We knew of Vamsi's humble beginnings," says Palaparthi. "Starting off in the small town of Chilakaluripet in Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh, Vamsi had a dream. He was determined to get the best education India offered. So we agreed the best way to honour his memory was to give a chance to a deserving student."

The BITS Alumni Association, which was an informal organisation till then, was registered as a not-for-profit organisation.

Vamsi's death made the BITS alumni realise the fragility of friendships. They decided to meet more often to preserve their memories. They turned from a close-knit group of BITSians into an international organisation. And today, the BITSAA International is a network with 30 chapters worldwide, which raised  $650,000 for its alma mater this year.

"Vamsi's death showed us how fragile our lives are," says Palaparthi. "His death brought us closer. In Vamsi, we saw ourselves. It could have been any one of us. It reminded us of the times we shared not very long ago, of our journey to the US, of our struggles and successes."

Design: Uttam Ghosh


Priya Ganapati