September 10 to 16, 2021: Remembering the Old Days
September 10 to 16, 2021: Remembering the Old Days. In some horrific ways. It was a cool autumn morning at the Air Force Base. I had the rental car and I remember I was wearing a dress shirt, khakis, a tie, and a sports coat. There was bad news from home. There was internal bleeding, the surgery had gone OK, but there were complications. Always unanticipated. Otherwise, they would not been complications. The jet lag still hung on me as a cloak as I sat there – a small version of a War Room – the walls adorned with pictures of famous people from the Air Force. The coffee was still warm, I was waiting for the meeting to start. I was there to present the findings of the study. Everyone was interested to know. This is why I had returned. The ride to the airport from Salt Lake was dismal. I had seen him being wheeled away, clean shaven, a smile on his face, he had said, “tumi choley jao – kaaj roeche tomar, aar orao ekla roeche (you should go back, you have a lot of work, and they are also alone too).” Yes, thousands of miles away, in a house in the woods, they were alone – mother and child. And as I stepped into the taxi, I told my mother not to worry. The doctor said the surgery was a success. The British Airways flight from Dum Dum was still about 4 hours later. A drink at the bar of the old airport, upstairs, overlooking the atrium, and before security, I was not worried, I just had a backpack. I had traveled light on the trip to St. Louis too, arrived the night before, had picked up a rental carl, stayed at some non-descript dive, saving money, and gotten to the base a little earlier than needed. The overall jet lag – Calcutta to London to Charlotte, a couple of days break, and then to St. Louis. The doctor had said that the surgery was a success. I could go to back to my important meeting in St. Louis. The Air Force had promised payment after the meeting on the 11th, and everyone said I should go back, everything will be OK. Well, the call came as I landed at Heathrow. “Shara raat blood legeche (there was a need for blood all night).” Which way should I board now, there was the flight going back – in both directions – the decision was to go towards the West because St. Louis was waiting. The Air Force was waiting. A person whose rank I could not tell, entered the room hurriedly, “You alone?” Indeed, I was waiting, was thinking of strolling out to get a quick puff of the pipe before the presentation. “Sir, America is under attack, you are a civilian, do you have a car?” The blood was provided by the family members, everyone said that they will handle the situation, because I needed to go and make sure I got paid. The bypass surgery is expensive. The night before the surgery I got a call, and I was told to bring an unimaginable amount of money in cash to the hospital in the morning before the surgery would happen. It was a mad scramble to get the cash. None of my family members are wealthy enough to have that kind of cash sitting at home, under the bed, ATMs dispersed in small amounts. Even though it was 15 years before the infamous demonetization of the 2016, there were daily limits of withdrawal. In those days I thought of myself as an “American in India.” Time has dispelled such mistaken presumptions of being a Non-Resident Indian (NRI) – a strange uncouth entity – today I feel like I have disbanded those presumptions of “Oh! It is so dirty.” I am an Indian as soon as I step past immigration at Delhi, I am an American as soon as I go through the Global Entry at Newark. “Sir, we will have to escort you off the base, New York is under attack.” They do not tell you much, but gloriously, with a lead motorcycle and one behind, I left Scott Air Force Base on that September morning, just 17 days before the phone call came inevitably in the morning as I was sitting in my office between classes. My friend, philosopher, and guide, two doors down the hallway – the man who had brought me to the United States – walked in and in his supremely reassuring way, told me to book my tickets to India. I fly out in less than a week, and this time exactly 20 years later I will be there the day he died. And I intend to celebrate on that day his life as we celebrate on the 11th the sacrifice of many in the fields of Pennsylvania. Different deaths, different circumstances, but all worthy of celebration and remembrance, and on October 6 this year, at that moment when the sun rises, I plan to be at the river doing the “tarpan (the invocation to the elders)” to the ancestors, a tradition that must live through us. And then go and have hot jelabis and kachuri as I used to with my uncle who will be in the tarpan. It is how Pink Floyd said, “Come on you stranger, you legend, you martyr, and shine.” Shine on.