Early mornings had always been Kuljeet’s favorite time for prayers and meditation. She peeked into her grandson’s room. Three-year-old Ajit was fast asleep. As she walked through the hallway to the puja-room she heard soft voices and laughter coming from her daughter’s bedroom.
“I thought you did not remember,” she heard Amrita laugh.
“How could I ever forget this special day Ammi? I have something for you. Open it,” said her husband, Jaspal.
“O my God! Jessie, are you a spy or something? Who told you I liked this diamond bangle at the Bhindi Jewelers last week? But it was too expensive.”
“I do have my sources you know and nothing is too expensive for my beautiful Ammi.”
Amrita and Jaspal came to the puja room to seek blessings. “Let’s all go out for dinner tonight Ma,” said Jaspal touching her feet.
Overwhelmed with joy, Kuljeet could not say a word. She just raised her hands in blessings. She knew this was a special day. September 11th.
Five years ago today Amrita and Jaspal were married. How difficult it had been to raise Amrita alone after her husband was gone. Not only had everything turned out fine, she had found a son in Jaspal. He was kind, caring, as well as a handsome young man.
Amrita and Jaspal were doing well professionally. Amrita worked as a manager for Chase Manhattan Bank in lower Manhattan. Jaspal had started his own computer consulting company with an office in one of the Twin Towers and was doing extremely well. They owned a beautiful house in New Jersey. Most of all, her little grandson Ajit was a bundle of joy. Ah, all was right with the world.
Kuljeet remembered her mother saying, “Mothers fly on their children’s wings.” She did not know then what that meant. But now she did. She felt that a part of Amrita’s success was her own.
Slowly the house became quiet. Ajit was napping and his parents had left for work. Kuljeet settled down in a chair by the window, her body basking in the early morning sun while her mind wandered down memory lane.
She wished Bhushan had lived to see these happy times, to enjoy life in this great country. She missed him even more on happy occasions. He would have been so proud of their beautiful daughter.
The events were crystal clear in Kuljeet’s memory. She would never forget the horrible day that changed her life—Oct. 31, 1984. Amrita was 9. She was invited to a friend’s birthday party. They decided that Amrita would go to the party with her mother and Bhushan would stay home and take care of the weekly household chores. Their neighborhood was a mix of mostly Hindu and a couple of Sikh families. People were friendly and respected each other’s customs and religious beliefs.
The party was hosted by a Bengali family. Mrs. Ghosh was popular for her mouth-watering Bengali dishes. An hour-and-a-half into the party, the children had finished their snack and were playing Pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. The telephone rang and Mrs. Ghosh answered it and after a minute put it down abruptly. Kuljeet noticed a shadow of fear cross her face as she rushed to turn the television on.
There was a special news bulletin on Vividh Bharati—”We are devastated to inform the nation that Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi has been shot on the lawns of the Prime Minister House by one of her security guard. She has been rushed to the hospital.” Everything in the room went still.
Everyone gathered around the television waiting for more details. The next news bulletin said that Mrs. Gandhi was pronounced dead at the hospital. The security guard in question was a Sikh man and had been taken into custody. People were advised to stay indoors and maintain calm.
It was public knowledge that there were tensions between the Sikh leadership and the ruling Indian party. The Sikhs had been demanding an independent state, which was not acceptable to the Indian government. It was suspected that Sikhs were using the Golden Temple in Amritsar as their headquarters for this movement. Mrs. Gandhi moved decisively to suppress the Sikh insurgents by sending troops into the Golden Temple. This was taken seriously by the Sikh community, yet her life ended with her assassination by Sikh conspirators.
Assassination of a Prime Minister, especially a woman, by her own security guard put the nation in a state of shock. No one could have anticipated what happened next.
The birthday party ended abruptly. Kuljeet was feeling very uneasy. She did not have a telephone at home. It was not the neighbors she feared, but the opportunists who never failed to elevate tensions to further their own interests.
Curfew was declared in certain areas. There were very few vehicles on the roads. Most of the taxi drivers refused to go to Ram Nagar, a Trans Yamuna colony where she lived. Finally one driver agreed to take them, demanding triple the usual fare. While passing through Gandhi Nagar bazaar Kuljeet saw two shops being looted and two buildings on fire. She asked the driver to turn on the radio. Rioting had broken out in the Trans Yamuna areas, but there was no mention of Ram Nagar.
“We will be home soon baby. Just keep praying that daddy is safe,” Kuljeet tried to console her daughter. Her face was white with fear. Her daughter just closed her eyes.
To break the scary silence Kuljeet started praying aloud. “Dear God, please protect my husband. We will go away somewhere else where people do not hate each other. Please God, don’t let anything bad happen to my family.”
After an hour-and-a-half the taxi was able to reach their neighborhood. Thick smoke came from the street, so they had to leave the taxi two blocks away from their house. Walking those two blocks was like walking two miles. Kuljeet’s legs were giving way. Her daughter was shaking with fear. They could not believe their eyes—both the Sikh houses were on fire.
“Bhushan … Bhushan … Bhushan,” she screamed at the top of her lungs, yelling, crying, and beating on the door at the same time.
“Daddy, Daddy,” Amrita was also yelling as loudly as she could.
Today, for the first time in 12 years, none of the neighbors seemed to care. She wished to believe that Bhushan had gone out when the fire broke out. Suddenly Amrita noticed a big metal lock on the door. It was not one they owned. Where had this lock come from? Kuljeet, shaking with outrage, realized that some bastards had set the house on fire and locked the only door from outside.
There were two windows at the back of the house. Mother and daughter ran to the back yelling Bhushan’s name. At first all they could see were the blazing flames. Then, through a crack in the window, Kuljeet saw Bhushan’s body on the floor completely engulfed in flames with no sign of struggles any more. He must have been trying to escape through the windows.
The insistent ringing of the doorbell forced Kuljeet’s attention back to the present. Must be the kaamwali, the maid Amrita had hired to do chores around the house and take care of Ajit. Kuljeet wiped her face and opened the door.
“Were you watching television Maaji?” she asked even before coming in.
Without answering, the maid turned on the television. Kuljeet could not believe what she was seeing. The Twin Towers were burning. Dark thick smoke and chaos dominated the scene.
Amrita got to work 10 minutes early. The bank looked beautiful in the morning sun. How absorbed we become in our daily lives and don’t even notice the beauty of our everyday surroundings, she thought. She paused to enjoy the vastness of the main floor.
“Good morning Amrita,” the receptionist greeted her.
“Good morning to you too.”
What was that mysterious smile on the receptionist’s face? As Amrita approached her office the scent of fresh flowers filled her nostrils. Not one or two, but five beautiful bouquets of flowers and a lovely note from her husband welcomed her. This man of mine never fails to amaze me. She wished she were in his arms right this moment. She knew Jaspal had a morning meeting with clients. She decided to call him after the meeting.
Amrita was reading her email when she heard this on the P.A. system, “Attention everyone, we have been notified that there has been an explosion in one of the Twin Towers. The police and fire department are on the scene. Please stay indoors.”
Immediately Amrita picked up the phone and dialed Jaspal’s number. The line was busy. They did not say which of the towers had the explosion. I better find out, she started panicking. As she was grabbed the phone, the P.A. system came alive again.
“We have been told that the second building of the World Trade Center has also been attacked. We ask everyone to gather on the main floor. Do not panic. Stay calm. We are safe. Please keep moving to the main level.”
The loud ringing of her telephone startled her. “Hello Ammi. We have been told to evacuate the building. I am running down the stairs and am on the 27th floor. I am fine, really Ammi. I will call you again soon or see you soon.”
With a sigh of relief Amrita picked up her purse and headed to the main floor. The scene here was a little more reassuring. Being together with others was a relief. Some were talking to the police to get the facts. It was determined by now that terrorists had attacked the Twin Towers.
Everyone was anxious to get home. She wished she could call home and tell her mother she was fine, but the telephone lines had gone down. It was 11 a.m. Six other women from the bank decided to leave. Ambulances were everywhere. Some of the smoke had cleared out by this time. Amrita wanted to go to the Twin Towers and find her husband, but the entire area was blocked for rescue operations. They started walking towards the Brooklyn Bridge. The streets were packed with people.
After five hours they arrived at a train station. The only trains running at the time were going in the opposite direction from her home, but there was no other way of getting out of the area. She took the train and got off after five stations hoping to find a way to get home.
She called home to tell her mother she was fine and that she would be home as soon as she could. There was no news from Jaspal. It was 9:30 p.m. when she finally reached home. There was still no news from Jaspal. Kuljeet was as shaken as Amrita was.
For the next three days they tried desperately to locate Jaspal. Many friends came to their help. The Emergency Command Center was located in the World Trade Center and was wiped out with the building. The city had swiftly set up a temporary one. That was the first place Amrita and her friends checked. They checked the hospitals in the area. But Jaspal’s name was not listed among the survivors or the dead.
According to the media most of the people from the second tower were either able to get out or were rescued because there was 75 to 80 minutes lag between the attack and the actual collapse of this tower. Yet there was no word of Jaspal.
Three more days passed. Amrita had come back from one more round of the hospitals. Kuljeet heard her talking on the phone.
“Yes, this is Amrita Singh. I need to return the diamond bangle my husband bought from you few days ago. I am sending it back with a friend of mine. One more thing, I would like the check in the name of the Victims Relief Fund. Thank you very much.”
“Why are you doing this Amrita? That bangle is the last gift Jaspal gave you. Do not … “ her words drowned in her sobs.
“My real gift would be Jessie himself, Ma. I don’t need anything beyond that. Besides, have you noticed how many people out there need all kinds of help?” Amrita also started crying.
“I am very scared Amrita. Two women alone in this foreign country, what are we going to do? I wish we were back home in India, among our own people.”
“Is this not home Ma? We just came to this country to make money and run away when there is a problem? Sorry Ma, I disagree with you. Besides, this is where Jessie is going to come back when he does.”
“I don’t mean to be negative Amrita, but it has been six days. The man has never stayed away for an even an hour without calling you. He loves his family too much. Why would he not call?”
“That is exactly my point Mother. He loves us too much and we love him. I don’t know what is holding him and why, but my heart tells me he will come back to us. Let us go to the puja room and pray harder.”
The doorbell rang in the middle of their prayers. During the last six days Amrita had been waiting for a knock on the door, a phone call, or any sound that might bring the whereabouts of her husband. She knew the maid was expected back from the jewelers. But why would she be so impatient?
May be it was Jessie or a friend who might have seen him somewhere. With a thumping heart she rushed to the door. It was the maid all right, trying to tell her something but the words were not coherent. She started pulling Amrita’s hand, brought her outside and pointed to the roadside.
There was a taxi pulled over. The driver was helping Jaspal out. Jaspal looked thin and weak, but otherwise fine. Amrita picked up the maid in her arms, swung her around, and ran to greet her husband.
Jaspal said that he got out of the Twin Towers safely. He was going to Amrita’s bank when he was attacked by an angry mob. They had probably mistaken him for a Muslim. After beating him badly, they took away everything he had—his wallet, watch, and cell phone. The taxi driver, a Sikh himself, happened to be driving down the street. He knew the man needed help but wanted to be safe himself. Instead of taking Jaspal to the hospital he took him home and called a friend—an Indian doctor he knew.
The driver found no identification on Jaspal to notify his family. The doctor expected him to regain consciousness in a day or two. Two days later Jaspal did regain his consciousness, but had lost his memory. The driver feared it was too late to go to the police now. He had no choice but to wait. Finally, this morning when Jaspal woke up his memory had come back. He did not even want to call home, just told the driver to take him home.
Amrita and Jaspal had invited a few friends on New Year’s eve. “I have not seen you wearing that gift, the bangle I gave you, Ammi. Wear it today,” said Jaspal.
“I have traded it for something more precious Jessie—your life. You are the only gift I ever ask for.”
“I am so very proud of you,” Jaspal took her in his arms.