Traveling in New York recently, my family took a our bus to see the sights. The garrulous tour guide pointed out the various landmarks till the bus trundled down to the financial district. He just said “Ground Zero” and pointed out the hole in the earth. As we passed by, he did not say a word, merely stood and pointed silently. He requested we not take photographs. As we drove past some of the workers still clearing away the debris waved at us. As the bus turned a corner and the buildings closed in on Ground Zero, our guide resumed his chatty spiel. And so he tried somewhat uneasily to weave Sept. 11 into the fabric of his life and job. As a tour guide he could not ignore what became on Sept. 11 the most famous place one earth. At the same time he found it tacky to make it a “landmark” like the State of Liberty with kitschy replicas and picture postcards.

Sept. 11 shocked us all as we realized that even in the richest country in the earth, the one we as immigrants chose as our home, we were not safe. We knew about drive by shootings, muggings, and even the occasional race riots. But those planes literally brought the fires of deadly issues, from faraway countries that we only went to on CNN, right into our living rooms. As the televisions showed that deadly footage of the toppling towers again and again, everyone said we would never be the same again.

For some of us it made us feel more American than we had ever felt before, as we shared a common feeling of loss. Some of us felt strangers in our own land as we were pulled off airplanes because of the way we looked. India Currents asked a range of thinkers, writers, and activists how Sept. 11 changed their worlds. Would their America ever be the same again?

Abha Dawesar

I was at work on Sept.11 and heard the news within seconds of the first plane hitting. Everyone went into the trading room where the brokers had a large television and I saw the second plane hit. At this point I walked to an office on the other side of the building that had a direct view of the Twins. I don’t think I ever will be able to look at the skyline without missing the towers.

Of course America has changed—everyone is a lot more aware of international politics than before. As for me, four or five times a month I have nightmares about collision, destruction, and airplanes. If I learned anything it’s that greatness and courage are still very much part of New York. And from the point of view of international politics and terrorism, I think it shows that neutrality is not a viable position for any nation.

Abha Dawesar is the author of Miniplanner, a novel set in the financial district of New York

Amitava Kumar

I remember being woken up by the sound of my wife sobbing. I saw that she was on the phone. It was my editor from Tehelka, calling from Delhi for a piece on what had happened a few minutes ago.

Though people said America would never be the same again, you have to remember Indians are used to this kind of violence, and they are also used to violent responses. As it became clear that it was some Arabs who were responsible for Sept. 11, my first thought was of the Sikhs being killed in the streets of Delhi.

The first words I had written on the events were very critical of the U.S. When I read other writers, their voices filled with a terrible anguish, I began to think that I had made a mistake, that I had arrived drunk at a funeral.

Later, however, when I heard other people criticize—brave dissenters like Arundhati Roy—I began to think that mere grief emptied of critical intelligence or historical understanding can be a terrible failing. The lesson of Sept.11 for me, as a writer and as a human being, was to learn to produce a writing that shared pain but also promoted genuine understanding.

Amitava Kumar’s latest book is a literary memoir, Bombay-London-New YorBombay-London-New York .

Arun Gandhi

I was at home in Memphis waiting for my turn to use the shower. I heard the news on Good Morning America. My wife and I did come to the office that morning but within half-an-hour we decided we could not work at all and spent the whole day grieving.

My first reaction was one of anger and I wondered, “What kind of animal could do this?” But then I remembered what my grandfather taught me as a young boy and I realized this is what happens when people act in anger.

What caused the Al Qaeda to be so angry towards the U.S? There are some obvious factors. The U.S. has always been arrogant in its relationships around the world. Our attitude is: No one can mess around with us and get away. This is what dictated our response to the Sept. 11 episode. It did not and does not matter to us that we kill many innocent people in our mad rush for revenge. This has taught me that it is not military power alone that makes a nation great, it is moral power too.

Arun Gandhi, grandson of the Mahatma is founder of the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence.

Asif Mandvi

I was in bed sleeping when my sister called me and told me to turn on the television set. I then sat in front of it for the next day-and-a-half like everyone else.

I don’t think America is the same anymore. Now it seems that any white person can point to a brown person on an airplane and say “that person makes me uncomfortable,” and the person in question will be detained. The U.S. Government would like us to believe that it can eradicate the world of terrorism, but anybody who believes strongly enough in what they are doing, always has the ability to carry it out. Who would have thought to put a bomb in their shoe?

I have learned that there is no such thing as a war on terrorism. Because war is terrorism. I have learned that I am much more political than I ever thought I was, that I am angrier than I ever thought I could be. I have learned that if everyone on the planet has enough to eat, a roof over his head, and is treated with dignity, then we will have eradicated terrorism. I have learned that will probably not happen in my lifetime.

Asif Mandvi acted in the play Sakina’s Restaurant and movies like theMystic Masseur.

Chitra Divakaruni

I turned on the computer and saw the news on the Internet. I thought it was a sick joke at first. Then we turned on the television and we saw the plane crashing over and over into the World Trade Center. I remember feeling nauseous.

Of course things are different now—some better, some worse —increased security, reduced civil liberties. South Asians learned how it felt to be in the visible minority vulnerable to hate crimes.

Sept. 11 made me aware of the importance of understanding history, of going down to root causes. I was also very sad when I saw all the devastation that was wreaked on Afghanistan. The event has made me more aware of how it is to live with acts of terrorism, as many thousands of people all over the world do. It has made me want to do what I can to make sure America never becomes such a place.

Chitra Divakaruni is the author of books like Arranged MarriageArranged Marriage and The Vine of DesireThe Vine of Desire .

Debasish Mishra

I was in my office in midtown Manhattan when the planes hit. I had to fill in for our company president at the Four Seasons, running interviews for Shahrukh Khan who was promoting Asoka. He was sealed out of Manhattan, so I went instead. I remember sitting in the hotel room and listening in disbelief as reporters asked Khan about Asoka, his co-stars, while the biggest news story of the 21st century was happening only a few miles away.

America is definitely not the same. When we were working on getting the hate crimes backlash into the national media, we faced willful ignorance by producers who told us that the incidents were “isolated incidents.” It was this attitude that was the genesis of the American Backlash Report which documented 645 press accounts of bias incidents in the first seven days after the attack.

This willful ignorance is not limited to the mainstream. I’ve met countless South Asians who also refuse to believe that what’s happening now has direct impact on them and their children. We will be the second-class citizens and always suspect in the eyes of America unless we come forward and assert our rights to due process and equality under the law.

Debasish Mishra is a founder and Vice Chair of South Asian American Leaders of Tomorrow (SAALT).

Ghalib Shiraz Dhalla

I was asleep. The phone was ringing off the hook and I ignored it until my friend announced through the answering machine that something horrible had happened. My heart sank as I feared that suddenly lines would be drawn and Americans would be on one side and Muslims or anybody that resembled the stereotype of one, would be on the other.

In a curious way, despite the initial insecurity that I felt as a Muslim, this incident has made me appreciate America even more than before. I may have a difference of opinion on some things, which is the tenet of a free society, but nobody can deny the overall courage and indefatigable capacity for forgiveness and growth that Americans possess.

Sept. 11 taught me that life could never be taken for granted. That all those people that lost their lives would have traded anything to be in our places and deal with the mundane problems we dramatize over. It has also taught me that anything, especially religion, when followed fanatically and coupled with repression, can become toxic and destructive; that religion is often used as a whore to promote personal and political agendas that defy the very values it stands for. All faiths are guilty of this.

Ghalib Dhalla is the author of Ode to LataOde to Lata.

Gotham Chopra

Around 8 a.m. on 9/11 I boarded a flight at JFK. It was a lovely day. I remember looking out at the World Trade Center and wishing I weren’t leaving. Forty-five minutes later, the pilot informed us that we were making an emergency landing in Ohio because of apparent terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

America now realizes that it is vulnerable to the same sort of terror and violence that has plagued people all over the world. I also know that some people look at me differently, if not a bit suspiciously, and I don’t blame them, I probably would too.

It’s not as if the terrorists got angry on 9/10 and perpetrated their killing on 9/11. Unfortunately many of us in America and around the world were complicit in the violence because of our ignorance and indifference to what has been going on in Afghanistan for two decades.
If we continue to perceive the world as us vs. them, good vs. evil, we’ll see this sort of violence again. There’s a Vedanta phrase, “if you want to change the world, change your perception of it.”

Gotham Chopra is anchor of Channel One and author of Child of the DawnChild of the Dawn .

Karsh Kale

I was at my home in Brooklyn. My sister called frantically from Long Island to tell me.

America has changed in that people have been forced to act and rethink themselves about where they actually stand. On the other hand it has only uncovered what was already happening around the world … like ripping off a Band-Aid to expose a cancer which has been growing for years.

It has definitely taught me that we, as the second-generation brown people of America, must engage in more visible aspects of American society such as the arts, the media, politics, sports. America must never look at us again with the question “what are you doing here?”

Percussionist/songwriter Karsh Kale’s new album is RealizeRealize.

Kanwal Rekhi

I was just waking up when I got phone calls after the first attack from my daughter who lives in Manhattan.

America has changed. The sense of safety is gone. Will it never be the same again? Never is a long time but last time America mobilized to fight communism, it did not waver for 40 years. I am sure it will get the job done this time also. Personally, like rest of the Americans, I want to see this thing taken care of.

Only thing it has taught me is that there are a whole lot of irrational fanatics out there that one cannot afford to ignore. Also, one has to take a closer look at friends like Saudi Arabia, whose behavior and rhetoric has been despicable.

Kanwal Rekhi is the co-founder of The Indus Entrepreneurs.

Mallika Dutt

I was returning from the World Conference Against Racism in Durban. We were very upset after the U.S. walkout. Then we were stuck in Lagos, Nigeria. We were using phone cards to call the U.S. In the midst of all this, the World Trade Center blew up. It was surreal—there we were stuck in this airport and watching our city in shambles on television.

Two days later we got back to New York. We were one of the first international flights to land at JFK after Sept 11. My husband and I lost friends and classmates, so it became very personal for us.

I think it is true that America is not the same. In the initial aftermath, I was hoping that we would see some shifts in U.S. foreign policy, that the U.S. involvement in the arming of Islamic fundamentalists would be exposed. Instead we are witnessing a very short-sighted response. The possible invasion of Iraq is another insane decision which will make the world more unsafe.

As a South Asian experiencing and witnessing the hate crimes against us and Arab communities since Sept 11, my biggest lesson is that we need to understand how we are all connected. When African Americans got profiled, as South Asians we did not give a damn. But now we know what it is like.

Mallika Dutt is a human rights advocate and the executive director of Breakthrough. (www.breakthrough.tv)

Pratap Chatterjee

Afriend called me to tell me what was up. I watched it on television and started making plans to go to Afghanistan because it was becoming quickly obvious that they would be the target of America’s revenge.

If only it was true that America will never be the same again. America is still continuing its expansionist ways, bombing and killing innocent civilians and propping up fundamentalist, authoritarian governments from Saudia Arabia to Pakistan. We have simply transformed old paranoias into a new paranoia. Once upon a time we were witch-hunting communists, now we are witch-hunting Muslims. It has taught me that the government of the U.S. is fundamentally corrupt and greedy and it will never change. We have to harness the power of ordinary people to challenge the stupid white men in power.

Pratap Chatterjee
is an environmental writer and producer and host of Terra Verde radio show on KPFA 94.1 FM.

Shamita Dasgupta

I returned from Kolkata on Sept. 9. My mother had passed away. The grief of losing the anchor of my life was raw and I was forlorn. As the airplane was descending, the twin towers were gleaming brightly in the glow of the setting sun. I distinctly remember thinking what a symbol of home they were to me. They played a prominent role in a Bengali thriller I had once written.

The cocoon of America’s apparent safety has been ripped apart and its vulnerability laid open. Many nations on the rest of the globe live under such threats constantly, but America had never faced these. The devastation brought out the valiant sides of human beings and simultaneously, it brought out their ugliness also. Patriotism turned into permission for unashamedly indulging in xenophobia, Islam-ophobia, and racism.

On a superficial level, my beautiful and intact city is lost forever. At a much deeper level, I mourn the many friends and acquaintances who have perished with the towers, loved faces I will never see again.

I cannot say that it has taught me something that my third-world upbringing had not. I think it has reinforced knowledge that I already was familiar with—violence will beget violence, and none of us is safe unless all of us are safe.

Shamita Dasgupta is an activist in women’s organizations since the early 1970s, Shamita Das Dasgupta co-founded Manavi.

Sreenath Srinivasan

My wife and I flew into New York City on Sept. 11 around 8:10 a.m. and I saw the familiar skyline with the World Trade Center from my window seat. We landed, got into a cab and near the Triboro bridge into Manhattan, saw dark smoke billowing from one of the towers. The rest, you know.

America has changed a lot—security worries, racial profiling, etc., but it has also absorbed the hit and moved on. It’s taught me that immigrants need to be more involved with the mainstream community and not restrict their non-work activities to their own people. But I am so proud (of the fact that) we were able to get so many people who were willing to talk about hate crimes on the record: Stories of harassment and hate crimes have appeared on most major U.S. newspapers. This is the only way we journalists can help. This is my job, to get the story out.

Sreenath Srinivasan co-founded South Asian Journalists Association.

Vijay Prashad

I was buying a bicycle in my hometown of Northampton, MA, and would have spent the day unawares had my family not called to see if I was in New York City.

I never agreed that this was a fundamental change in the U.S. or U.S. actions overseas. I wrote a book later (War Against the Planet: The Fifth Afghan War, U.S. Imperialism and Other Assorted Fundamentalisms) that chronicled the U.S. Government and oil industry’s relationship with the Arabian peninsula and in the creation of the right-wing in the region. Nothing since 9/11 has changed this structure. The U.S. interventions in the Loya Jirga in Afghanistan shows us that it is business as usual.

But what I learned is that ordinary people are filled with compassion and love, fear and hope, emotions that are far more complex than the viscousness of our elites.

Vijay Prashad is the author of The Karma of Brown Folk.

Sandip Roy-Chowdhury is on the editorial board of India Currents and host of UpFront, a news-magazine show on KALW 91.7 produced by New America Media.

 

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