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9/11: 20 Years Later, A Father Mourns A Dead Son

By VAIHAYASI PANDE DANIEL
November 22, 2021 10:24 IST
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Death anniversaries are simply dates on a calendar.
But dates like 9/11 should never be allowed to pass by forgotten because terrorism is not to be borne, inhumanity is not to borne.
Nor disasters like COVID-19.
We must mark them. Remember those less lucky than us who suffered, says Vaihayasi Pande Daniel.
Read on for a father's account from Pune on The Death of a Son 20 years ago.

All Illustrations: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com
 

Lieutenant Colonel Shamrao Thatte's lovely Indian-American granddaughter, of eloquent light eyes and long shiny black hair, turned 21 at the end of August.

He last met her 20 years ago. And has not spoken to her in between either.

It's his misfortune he feels.

There's regret that he doesn't know her. But not overpowering sadness.

For Colonel Thatte, 88, is a great follower of destiny.

He, with his army background, firmly looks at life stoically.

And with courage. The same kind of courage with which he faced fierce fire on the battlefield through three wars, serving India.

Destiny granted him an only son named Harshad, the third of his three children, when he had planned on having only two.

Destiny robbed him of his brilliant, beloved Harshad, way too soon, two decades ago.

Destiny gave him a granddaughter, his son's only child, and took her away too.

Maybe destiny will return her?

His granddaughter looks faintly like her father, Colonel Thatte's son. They have the same eyes.

Harshad was tragically killed 20 years ago, probably instantaneously, on the 96th floor of the North Tower at the World Trade Center, when the macabrely terrorist-piloted, LA-bound American Airlines Flight 11 ploughed into the Marsh & McLennan offices at 08.46 am, where he, who was Atlanta based, was working on an interim seven-week assignment on behalf of computer software giant, Oracle Corporation.

On the 20th anniversary of Harshad's death, in a year when another tragedy, COVID-19, is ravaging the world, Colonel Thatte, who now lives in Pune, ponders over what life generously gives and what it arrogantly takes back too.

"I served in the Rajput Regiment. I fought all the three wars, 1952, 1965 and 1971. In the '71 war, I was the commanding officer of the battalion. We started off with 16 commissioned officers, including myself. We lost six officers -- six were killed and five wounded. We were in Fazilka at the Punjab border.

"For the commanding officer all the men are like children. I realised (in 2001) now it was my turn. My son has passed away. That gave me a lot of consolation and courage to face the situation.

"But I had to look after my wife. She was hurt very badly. So, I went out in a car for a long drive and did all the crying that I had to do and came back. Thereafter I shed not a tear. Not even at the WTC (site).

"Whatever you may do, everybody's destiny is fixed. Nobody knows who is going to pass away when, under what circumstances, happily or otherwise. It's destiny. It's all decided," he declares with stout conviction.

Colonel Thatte, who has a very sharp memory, a perfect diction, whose steely fauji backbone is detectable in the strong tones of his voice, remembers the events of September 11, 2001, before he discovered the death of his son, perfectly, as if it was yesterday. He and his wife Vijaya were visiting his elder brother in Goregaon, north west Mumbai.

He had spoken to Harshad the Saturday before, on September 8. It was general chitchat. Harshad updated them on the news of his wife and little daughter, who had just celebrated her first birthday. And asked about their health. He said he was planning to come to India in October after the job for worldwide professional services firm Marsh & McLennan was done.

It was one of those regular catchup trans-Atlantic calls between father-mother and son, that happened twice a week or so, ever since Harshad relocated to Atlanta.

In 1999 Harshad had moved to the US with his wife from Mumbai.

He wasn't a Mumbai boy. His boyhood was spent in New Delhi, Mumbai, Chungthang (Sikkim), Abohar (Punjab); places where his dad was posted. But at 13 he was sent to study at Mayo College, Ajmer, and later did his post-graduation in north west Mumbai from N M College. He worked for several prestigious large firms in Mumbai, before getting an opportunity to take on an assignment in the US for GE and later joined the Oracle office in Georgia.

Says the colonel: "All I remember was he was a brilliant person, who completed his BCom and chartered accountants' final exams when he was just 24 years old."

Harshad and his wife were very content in the US -- America suited them, welcomed them.

"He had all the opportunities for hard work. He was a business-minded person. He wanted to create business. He would boast that I can go and sell ice in the North Pole. Our Indian children, perform very well there (the US) -- in a different atmosphere, a clean atmosphere, challenging working conditions, and no nonsense."

His son, says Colonel Thatte was also a very upright, determined, "straightforward" man, whose young life was guided by the teachings of Swami Vivekananada. But he was outgoing, popular too among friends and his Mayo old boys, who he helped organise into a club, and Legacy.com has several heartfelt tributes from them.

A daughter was born to Harshad and his wife in August 2000. Colonel Thatte and his wife were in the US for a month for the birth of their granddaughter, assisting their daughter-in-law.

Those were joyous days, that brought about so many special, gilt-edged memories, the colonel recalls. "The child was born and we celebrated. We decorated the house. She was very happy because a grand welcome was given to her when she came from the hospital with the child."

The Oracle project for Marsh & McLennan took Harshad to New York City in the second half of 2001.

But since Harshad was only temporarily working there - it had been just three weeks up until his death -- on the assignment at Marsh & McLennan, because the original project coordinator got sick, he would go back to his family in Atlanta on the weekends, taking the last flight down on Fridays and flying back to New York just before the new week began, staying always in Room 1009 at the Comfort Inn near mid-town in Manhattan.

About four weeks were left and his work would finally be complete, and he would then not have to return to the North Tower again.

Except destiny, which Colonel Thatte has always deeply respected, saluted, ensured Harshad never left the tower, like the 358 others working in the Marsh & McLennan offices, which occupied eight floors, who never made it out either.

As was customary, Colonel Thatte decided to catch the nightly news on September 11, 2001, at his brother's place in Mumbai.

"On that fateful day in the evening, around six or so, my wife and I went to look them (his brother's family) up. I had the habit of seeing the news at 6 or 7 pm. We had put on the TV there and found these planes going around and hitting and all that. The second plane, we actually saw on TV, hitting the second tower. The North Tower was already on fire.

"We were not at that time aware that he was on the 96th floor. And we didn't have his telephone number also. We said (to each other): 'Well, what the hell is happening'. My wife said he was in this (that very same) place."

Colonel Thatte and his wife, fervently wishing for the best, quickly hurried home to Andheri, north west Mumbai, hoping to call Harshad in Atlanta. No one was at home, so they left a message for his wife.

When they ultimately spoke to Harshad's wife, she said she had spoken to Harshad earlier in the morning, or perhaps it was the night before, and was "frantically" attempting to get him on the phone.

"After this (the planes hit the towers), she was trying to contact him, but there was no response from him. Probably, he was already gone," muses Colonel Thatte, matter-of-factly, the inflection in his voice more accepting than emotional, as his mind travels back to the apocalyptic happenings of that black day that numbed the world.

They immediately advised their daughter-in-law to head towards New York quickly and stay with Harshad's eldest sister in Plainsboro, New Jersey, and wait hopefully for any kind of update.

Flights were not operating within the US for many days after the Twin Towers collapsed and the shocked, wounded, beleaguered America was shut down.

Harshad's company organised for his wife and daughter to be driven the many 1,380 odd km from Atlanta to New York by car, most likely the longest and most gruelling journey of her life.

It took Lt Colonel Thatte and his wife 10 days to find a flight to the US and help get a visa for Harshad's father-in-law, who came with them on their grim, nightmarish mission, touching down in New York hardly a year after a much cheerier visit, to establish if their dear son was indeed dead.

It was quite evident, given the location of the Marsh & McLennan offices, that Harshad had perished instantly.

There were no remains.

The plane, navigated by al-Qaeda cadre Egyptian Mohamed Atta had hit between floors 93 and 99, just below the tony Windows of the World restaurant. "He would tell us, if I turn my chair, and look down below, I can see the Statue of Liberty. The height of the plane itself would have been between the (93rd and 99th) floors. His desk was right in that area. He was outside the plane and the passengers were inside the plane -- that was the only difference."

So, it was destiny again following its inexorable playbook.

Destiny that Harshad had to handle the project at Marsh & McLennan in Manhattan because his colleague was sick.

Destiny that hardly a few weeks of work were left on the project after which he wouldn't have even been in Manhattan, but far away back home safe in Atlanta.

Destiny that Harshad was on the 96th floor.

It was very apparent to the clear-eyed, pragmatic Lt Colonel Thatte that they could expect no miracles and he felt his daughter-in-law and granddaughter needed to immediately focus on their future - they were after all a mother on a visa and US-born young child, alone, without financial support in a new country.

It was their duty to help her make a fresh beginning.

He had a chat with his daughter-in-law's father. "I said: 'Look this is how it is. We know our son has gone forever. We are not going to get him back. Now, we have to think of my daughter-in-law and her daughter. They have a long way to go. She was only 27. You must start looking for someone for (your daughter)."

His daughter-in-law's father had to return to India as his leave was running out. Lt Colonel Thatte and his wife opted to stay on for six months to resettle their daughter-in-law.

"Again, it was a matter of destiny: There was a doctor working in North Carolina. Probably he and his wife had done medicine together and they got married and moved to the US. In 1996 or 1997 they went to celebrate their first wedding anniversary to Florida. They were driving back -- she was driving - they met with an accident. They hit a trolley and she died on the spot.

"He was alone. And for four years he had not re-married. But whenever he came to India, after that, the first thing he did was to go to his in-laws and look them up and then go to his parents. A very fine person. And it was very lucky that we got him."

They met a few times, got along rather well and were married in Pune the following year in December. All the parents were present and for both Lt Colonel Thatte and his wife it was an occasion full of hope, gratified that their daughter-in-law and granddaughter might find happiness once again.

Says Lt Colonel Thatte, "When the pandits asked, 'Well, what about her in-laws (the Thattes)', they said, 'Yes, they are here'. The panditji said that they should be doing the kanya daan (giving the girl away). So, we did the kanya daan, no problem. We sat for the puja and with my own hands I handed over my granddaughter to the doctor."

Colonel Thatte's daughter-in-law and granddaughter then began a promising new life in North Carolina, with a new husband and a new father, and his granddaughter was fortunate to later gain two half-siblings as well.

It was a misunderstanding over the compensation paid out from various funds to the victim's families that lead to a sad break in the relationship between the Thattes and their daughter in law and Harshad's child.

"There were lawyers on both sides. And all sorts of things were happening... It created unnecessary bitterness. She (the daughter-in-law) eventually said she did not want to meet us. We said, 'Okay fine'. That is her wish.

"(We were) I am in contact with all her maushis and mamas. All of them, the whole family, are in touch with me. Each one of them, except her and her parents. Even today. Whenever they get some photographs, they send them to me. Her mamas and maushis when they come in touch with my granddaughter, they must be telling her about us. She may be also questioning." His daughter-in-law and granddaughter have been to India too.

Colonel Thatte and his wife made several more trips, 19 in all, back to the US, some to coincide with memorial services at the Ground Zero of the WTC. Two years in a row Colonel Thatte participated in the roll call for the dead and read out 20 names of the deceased on September 11 and met Senator Hillary Clinton.

He and his wife were also part of the group of victims' families who met and spoke on behalf of the Indians lost at WTC to then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2002.

Every time they were in New York they would stay at the Comfort Inn where Harshad had stayed in 2001, in Room 1009. "We stayed in the same hotel, same room. That gave us the feeling that our son has stayed here, and he spent his last few hours in that place."

Now 20 years after Harshad's death, day-to-day life has changed considerably for Colonel Thatte.

His beloved wife died in 2014. He has moved into a seniors' condominium complex outside Pune, maintaining a busy, starchy schedule, not hanging up his boots -- his alarm goes off daily at 4.55 am, a one-hour morning walk, administrative work for the complex as its president, yoga some days, he plays bridge from 3 to 4.30 and has his "happy hour" with "one small tot" in the evenings before dinner and turning in.

Every year when September 11 comes around, he and his two daughters are in touch on that key date. His friends at the Pune complex send him their wishes.

The 20th anniversary of 9/11 was significant: "It meant a lot to the family -- all of us. Both the daughters and myself, we talked privately, we think. We thought of the day this happened and how we handled it. Of course, we miss him. My younger daughter was only one year and nine months older than Harshad and she missed him a hell of a lot."

The colonel has vigorous views on terrorism. It has to be stamped out aggressively, is his opinion and India, he says, should go after terrorist camps like Israel does. When al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden was killed, he said he made a statement that "killing one terrorist is not enough. Osama bin Laden's end should be the beginning of an intensified fight against fundamentalism."

This year, like each year, Colonel Thatte touchingly got a call from Atlanta from the man who Harshad filled in for at Marsh & McLennan, the project manager who took ill, with whom Harshad traded his destiny.

"Invariably, for the last 20 years, every 11th September they call up and chat with me."

He doesn't, still, hear from his granddaughter, who is studying statistics and computer science*, who he knows has grown into a "beautiful young lady."

"I am sure it is in her heart to find out who is her father and his background."

Maybe that bright, shiny day will come soon and destiny will reunite a fond grandpa with his precious granddaughter.

*Any information about the granddaughter was obtained from the Internet. Not from the Thattes.

Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/Rediff.com

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