Immigrant Bengalis

Meeting Gautama

Satya Jeet

My joy is like Spring, so warm
it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.
My pain is like a river of tears,
so vast it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and my laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart
can be left open,
the door of compassion.

On that Saturday morning, I found myself glued to the TV as the memorial ceremonies to mark the 20th anniversary of 9/11 were broadcast. The solemn occasion was led by bagpipes and drums, followed by New York’s finest men and women in blue and firefighters, our heroes from our darkest days. Seeing presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama along with President Biden made me take note how the years have quickly gone by. Amid solemn speeches and military colors, as the names of those who were taken from us were being read, it struck me that the names were less like John or Mary Smith but were more often like Bethke, Guan, Ishkandar, Koo, Meltzer, Agarwal or Shabbir. In some ways, 9/11 was the death of the immigrant dream. People in those towers were mostly from Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and the Jersey Shore; people who had yet to cross the Hudson and assimilate into the heartland.

From the podium, a boy told us his father was taken away from him when he was a mere baby. His father could not be with him at his high school graduation. He missed not having his father beside him on special days. He was the same age as my son, Raphael. I was moved by the sorrow and loss a mere child carried in his heart. I could not watch the ceremonies any longer and turned off my TV.

It is a fair question to ask, “Where were you on 9/11?” A new chapter in modern history was started that day. The story is still unfolding. Each of us have our own recollections of the day. As a photojournalist one would imagine that my recollections would be visual and objective, but the two decades since that day have proved them to be very different.

I was not expecting to be in the US on 9/11. I was on staff at the New York bureau for TVBS TV, a television news network based in Taipei, Taiwan. My colleague, Francis Fie and I had been assigned to cover a story in Sweden. On European assignments, I usually sat around for the first day or two while Francis did the initial research. As such, I begged off to spend a day with my young family in Queens, New York before joining her in Stockholm.

Shortly before nine, I got a call from Francis. She informed me that a small plane had got lost and crashed into one of the towers at the World Trade Center. She asked me quite casually to go downtown and get some footage for our library, for possible use at a later date.

I started packing my video equipment that I kept in the living room that we had converted into the nursery for Raphael. Tara called the limousine service. Methodically I checked my bag for the camera, microphone, cables, and fresh tapes and reached for the batteries that I had put on charge the night before. Something did not feel right. The camera batteries were not where I had placed them.

I looked around the room but could not find the batteries. I was at a loss to explain their absence. A few feet away, Raphael, just two years old, was playing happily with his toys. I was flabbergasted. In twenty- five years of working as a news photographer, I had never missed an assignment due to mismanagement of my equipment. I knew, Raphael could not have taken them as the batteries were too heavy for him to play with.

The limousine had arrived; in a few minutes the driver started honking as he wanted to get on with his day. I looked high and low but could not find the batteries.

My phone rang again. Francis had been monitoring the events in New York from her hotel room in Stockholm. A second plane had crashed into the south tower. The bridges and roads into Manhattan were blocked off. I could not go to my assignment at the World Trade Center that morning.

I took Tara and Raphael and walked slowly towards the park next door. Looking through a store window on Ditmars Boulevard, we saw the pictures of the towers crashing down.

I held my family in my arms.

In the late seventies, I had shot a five-part series for television called, ‘The Smoke Eaters’.  The reporter, Bob Norman and I spent a week in a fire station in New Haven, Connecticut, sharing the life of the brave men who took on such a risky life. In the final episode, Bob is seen running out of a burning house, ahead of me, screaming, “Satya, get out, get out!”.

I had stayed behind in the burning house and kept the camera rolling while the house burnt down around me. That sequence of the inside view of a burning house had brought me notoriety and a job at CBS Television in New York.

Tara had seen The Smoke Eaters. As we played with the baby in the park, I could feel the disquiet that Tara was wrestling with. She knew, and I knew she knew, had I reached the towers, I would have rushed in.

Francis could not return to New York from Stockholm for several days as the flights to New York were put on hold. I was assigned to videotape the aftermath of the events of 9/11. I spent the next five days in the rubble and stench what had been the World Trade Towers. As the bulldozers cleared the rubble, the burnt and mangled bodies emerged. With great respect and sensitivity, the staff from the coroner’s office placed the remains in black plastic bags and carried them away on stretchers to the morgue.

The loss of the iconic towers stabbed me. As a young student of architecture, I had admired these towers. They were the design of the Japanese architect Minoru Yamasaki. He had imagined the towers as symbols of peace and prosperity. At a very personal level I cherished the memory of taking my parents to Windows On The World, the restaurant on the 107th floor of the north tower. Nibbling on Thai coconut shrimp, my mother took a sip of Pina Colada and said, ‘Tastes good. It is made from pineapple, coconut and gur ’

I had started my professional career at a small television station in Lubbock, Texas in the news department. Not much happened there but for a City Council or PTA meeting. Once a year the rodeo came to town. We became, as in most small cities across America, the ‘ambulance chasers.’ We led the news with gruesome footages of the injured or the dead. An occasional bank robbery in progress gave colorful meaning to the day.

Shooting the aftermath of the collapse of the twin towers exposed a different dimension to my job. Coming out of the cordoned area of the fallen towers, I was met by small groups of people. They had been standing in quiet vigil, looking for the smallest sign of hope for their loved ones who had not come home. Small children with bright eyes held signs that read, ‘Have you seen my father?’, ‘Have you seen my mother?’. I did not have an answer for them. Young women stared at me, their eyes drained of the light that had shined at birthday parties and visits to the zoo. There were small photos on the signs, of cheerful times at home, of loving families around a living room or a backyard barbeque.

I went home and held my young son tightly in my arms.

Tara sensed the depression I was slipping into. She told me, “For twenty-five years, you have had more fun on the job than any man can have with his pants on. Let’s get out of here.”

Throwing caution to the wind, we packed our modest belongings into a truck, vowing to get away as far as possible from the tragedy.

Southern California in the middle of winter is God’s country.

I felt I owed myself some time to get myself together. Throughout the years, I had dabbled in writing, drawing and music. In keeping with the ‘Bangali Bhodrolok’ tradition, I signed up for courses at a University of California systems college. That was the Bengali thing to do. We love our books and music and live for them.

I felt I was growing in some ways but could not sink my teeth or open my heart into anything. My newly acquired knowledge remained only skin deep and did not move me.  The courses at the University were a diversion and only worked for a while. Sometimes the horror of a life on the road made itself felt. The gnarled bodies I had photographed for years showed up in my thoughts; the stench from the morgues could not be covered by the sweet aroma of the jasmines in our front yard.

My most celebrated past that rewarded me with the good life mocked me now. Working in the commercial media, my life’s work was full of sound and fury but more often signified very little. In my pain, I became critical of everything and everybody. I could not discern at that time, but I must have been slipping out of my balance. I was asked by Dr. Mani Bhaumik, the noted Bengali scientist and entrepreneur, to direct a film for him but I declined, hurting his feelings.

My family remained steadfast supportive of me, but money was running out. My Sejda (brother) Bobby had told me long ago, ‘You have to be a lot smarter than you are to make the kind of money that you do. You are not that smart; you are gifted with an eye that sees differently’.

If it was true that I was gifted, the gift was not helping me anymore. On a few occasions I did some work in the media to have an income. I grew restless and did not know what to do.

Out of the blue, my childhood friend, Taposh Mukherjee called me from Toronto. Over the years our conversations had grown from soccer and cricket to movies and film stars, to jobs, to wives and children. This call was different. He said he has found a poet who moved him to his core and read his work to me.

The verses bore into me. I was amazed by the clarity of the world view expressed by the poet. I screamed into the phone, “Shala, tell me who is the poet.”

Taposh must have been taken aback. He managed to mumble nervously, “I am not sure, but his name sounds like Tik Tak something.”

I slammed down the phone and rushed off to Barnes and Noble. I picked up all the books by Thich Nhat Hanh they carried.

For the next few days, I took my time to come to grips with the writings of the poet. He was a Buddhist monk who had lived through the bombing of Vietnam by the American B-52s. He created small village schools and taught children to read and write while bombs exploded around him. He too had seen gnarled bodies and smelt the stench from the morgues!

At the end of the war, Thich Nhat Hanh did not harbor any hatred toward America. He lived quietly and mindfully with purpose and resolve. I took to my heart his verse,

“People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer to hold on to the suffering that is familiar.”

Thich Nhat Hanh introduced me to the teaching of the Gautama. I marveled at the fact that I had met the Sakya Muni on the opposite side of the world from the place of our birth.

I would not be off the mark to acknowledge that most of the readers of Immigrant Bengalis are accomplished in the academic tradition, perhaps steeped in science and technology. I have not given up on that tradition, but the practice of mindfulness has allowed me to see science and technology with greater clarity. More important to myself, the practice of mindfulness has brought my peace and equanimity.

It took us almost a decade to return to the East. New York had changed from what we remembered and were fond of. The small bodegas and street musicians were nowhere to be found. Corporate culture had taken over; brand name stores lined the streets.

Tara found a home in her rose garden in North Jersey. Raphael joined a music conservatory in Philadelphia. I took a small job in a motel and took up the practice of writing, drawing and music. In fact, my contributions to Immigrant Bengalis are an expression of that growth. A very elementary practice of Hatha Yoga serves as my meditation for the day.

Raphael graduated from the conservatory in June. He had to complete his senior year of college on Zoom. Despite the pandemic, we mustered some celebration at home to celebrate the occasion. For now, we are all safe and together.

I want to meet that boy who told us on TV that Saturday that his father could not be at his high school graduation as he had been taken away on 9/11. I want to wrap my arms around him. I want to tell that boy there is a place in my heart for him, larger that he can know. I want to stand in for his father at his college graduation and cheer him on, if he will grace me with that privilege.

(Posted October 1, 2021)

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