For the next few days the news on television carried little else – and then one day came the announcement that was to change it all for me in ways that I still haven’t fully understood. It was on the government television channel, I think, and the newsreader announced with a solemn face that the Indian government asked its citizens to stop whatever they were doing at an appointed time (noon if I remember rightly) on a particular day and preserve two minutes of silence in memory of the victims of 9/11. For some reason this infuriated me – and many of my friends. What did our government mean by asking us to mourn for these deaths in America? Suddenly, nationalism reared its ugly head all over again. Why hadn’t we been asked to observe two minutes of silence when thousands had died in Bhopal as a result of Union Carbide’s (an American company, note) lax standards of safety in their plants? Did their lives not matter? Or those of people who’d died in the violent aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination? Was the price of an Indian life any less than that of an American? Why, we asked ourselves, did we continue to be so slavish to the West?
I think we were also scared – or at least I was. The war that America was now gearing up for would be fought in our region. India and Pakistan were already flexing their war muscles. The tension that existed between them was such that anything, just anything, could tip the balance. Like many Indians, I thought of little else in those tension-filled days.
When the two-minutes-of-silence day came round, I’d spent the morning teaching and just before noon I got into my car to drive home. Normally an unusually disciplined driver on the noisy and chaotic streets of Delhi, the moment I got into my car I knew what I was going to do. Once on the road, at noon, I pulled over to the side and sat on my horn, blaring it loudly and aggressively for a whole two minutes. At the end, I was exhausted, and exhilarated, but also felt a little foolish – everyone on the road turned around to watch me, a strange woman sitting in her car by the side of the road with her palm on the horn. I think they must have thought I was mad.
And in some ways I guess I was – mad with anger, but mad also as in crazy. Why was I so angry? Who was I protesting against? Would anyone even know what my ineffectual little protest meant? Did I feel any better for it?
Ten years later I’m none the wiser. Would I do the same thing again? I don’t know. For one thing, I now know that this two-minute silence is not a one-off thing that the Indian government thought up just for 9/11. People – and governments – find all kinds of ways to express grief, solidarity, sympathy. Some light candles, some sing songs, some stay silent. And then, in the ten years that have gone by since that moment, so much has happened in our increasingly violent world – in India we’ve had attacks on parliament, the siege of Bombay, bomb blasts in cities, in temples, in mosques, in trains, in crowded marketplaces. I’m not sure what one can do that would be an effective response – or even if there is one.
I do recall, though, a brief and educative encounter that horn-blowing day. As I got off the horn in my car, I noticed a rickshaw-puller staring at me in surprise. ‘What were you doing, Didi?’ he asked. I told him. ‘Oh that!’ he said. ‘I heard about it and I decided I’d take two minutes off and get some shut-eye – I so seldom get a government-sanctioned break!’ he said, and went right back to sleep.
Photograph by ix4svs