Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Sweet Smell Of Sorrow

At a distance my God stood

With his hands folded

And said nothing at all


When I think of 9/11, I think of the smell that lasted that whole month.

The sweet smell of sorrow. The young flesh charred too soon. Some were friends. All were family.

For years, it felt like someone had socked me - and my city - in the jaw. The magic was that we took the blow but did not fall. For months the city was a dark, brooding, miserable place. Then, still in the midst of a harsh recession, we found a way to start smiling again.

It had been a tough year. The internet bubble had burst. Buddha's face was shredded in Bamiyan. Politics were ugly from the hanging chads of Florida.

America wasn't ready for jihad on its soil.

Still, there were no riots in New York. Instead, there were inter-faith prayers in Yankee Stadium. Om and Allah and Christ and Yahweh and the Gurus were all invoked.

This wasn't the blood-soaked Delhi of 1984. Too bad Gujarat did not learn.

No, this wasn't about naive self-flagellation and othering that India is so used to doing. America was going to war, united. It would - over the next decade - hunt down Bin Laden, topple a murderous Saddam Hussain, and incite Arab Spring.

I supported both wars. I desperately wished India had the same resolve when hit again and again and again in Kandahar and Kaluchak and Akshardham and Sansad Bhawan and Mumbai and Delhi and so many other places.


We had returned from a meeting that had lasted all morning. Having missed most of what happened, I was trying to grasp it all. A colleague barged in. I'm leaving to re-enlist, he said, I must be in the fight.

He was a marine. He had lost fingers in Desert Storm. He had lost firefighter friends that morning. He was ready to avenge that loss.

All I could tell him is that he should do what he felt he needed to do.

Then I started reading and couldn't stop for years. Ahmed Rashid's Taliban. Huntington's Clash of Civilizations. Fukuyama's The End of History, Kaplan's The Coming Anarchy, Coll's Ghost Wars, Naipaul's Among The Believers, Perkovich's India's Nuclear Bomb, Maxwell's India's China War, and so many others.

I was an engineer discovering history. Radically reshaping my worldview.

I started writing. A few newspaper columns. A lot of blog posts.

It took me years to reconcile my liberalism with the new hawkishness I felt. Eventually, it became self-evident that liberalism must be fought for. That some ideas are superior to others. That while I respect everyone's right to whatever views they hold, only modernity - underpinned by the twinning of freedom and reason - must shape how we live.

I came to see myself as a neoconservative. A liberal mugged by reality.


Ten years later, my rage at jihad's temper tantrum hasn't yet ebbed.

I'm also glad that, unlike India, America doesn't move on. It fights back - whatever the cost.

I watch people taking potshots at this great shining city on the hill. Iraq was a mistake. Drones are wrong. Pakistanis see Americans darkly. The wars have depleted America. Abu Ghraib. Guantanamo.

I've even heard people argue Iraqis were better off under Saddam than under freedom.

I guess they haven't spoken to the little Afghan girls freed from the tyranny of the imposed veil. Or, the Shia of Iraq liberated from genocidal chemical attacks.


Sometimes I feel we are back at 9/10. Commercial buildings are full of people in downtown. Tourists visit where the twin towers stood. Hawkers sell them trinkets. We are mired in yet another recession.

But that smell of 9/11 wakes me up quickly in the sweet hereafter.

The air has been cleansed. The clothes dry cleaned. The dead interred. But the smell is still here.


The caravan departs in a rising dust of memories

The dirge wafts in through the windows of my heart

My God turns and walks away


PhoenixPatronus said...

Thank You.

Dr M Ayaz Alam said...

First of all my prayers for the departed souls [RIP] and gratitude for the heroes of the day, known or known. May God keep bestowing strength to the survivors, who are still coping with it and will continue to do so. It is easy to say, but impossible to move on, in real sense. The scale of the tragedy was unprecedented. Even during WW II mainland America was not attacked. 9/11 did not affect just Americans, everyone (I mean human) on this planet was moved. Terms like Pre- and Post-9/11 became as valid as B.C. and A.D. The price America paid and is paying in the form of different wars to ensure its citizens a dignified and secure life is the least any civilized nation can do.

For me, personally, 9/11 was unbelievable and haunts me to this day. I was back in hostel (H3)after lectures at IIT Bombay, when I heard about it. It was only time I saw students watching news channel. It took few moments to realize that it was second tower that was hit, and was not a replay of the first tower being hit by the jet. Everyone of us sitting in the TV lounge of hostel literally jumped off our seats when we realized that second tower was hit. That image remains frozen in my memory.

Anonymous said...

The ones who died in 9/11 were family and the ones who continue to die every day in Iraq & Afghanistan are just a statistic?
Those who were as iinocent as a new born baby, those who had nothing to do with the attacks, those who didn't support any ideology, hell most of them can't even place Newyork on a map.. yet they have died by tens of thousands, displaced by hundreds of thousands and yet your lust for blood is not satiated?
What was their fault and when will this revenge be complete? How many lives for one lost in Newyork?
Everyone who has died was someone's relative, friend.. Pardon me for failing to see any emotion in this piece, all I see is a self-centered guy who thinks world revolves around him...

Anonymous said...

3000 dead in 9/11..

48,000 dead in Afghanistan since then
100,000 (Conservative estimate as per civic worldwide) dead in Iraq since then.

I am sure all of them were terrorists & were directly/indirectly involved in 9/11