On September 11, 2001 two airliners loaded with passengers, terrorists and gallons of combustible fuel slammed into twin skyscrapers in New York City, suddenly flinging Puttur in southwestern Karnataka back on the map. The next year in August, as a correspondent for an Indian-American newspaper published from New York, I boarded a dust-caked red state transport bus at Mangalore for this one-horse town. Washed clean by an unexpected shower, the creaky bucket of bolts grunted along the potholed highway past groves of arecanut palms and fulvous fields of ripening paddy. Halfway between Mangalore and Coorg, the balmy countryside made way first for ramshackle hamlets with ruddy tiled roofs and then a thoroughfare crammed with cheek-by-jowl storefronts and concrete houses topped by tacky painted billboards for hosiery, cattle-feed and fertilizer.
"Puttur," the conductor announced as he flung open the squeaky metal door. Hoisting my haversack — stuffed with a point-and-shoot camera, notebooks, an analog voice recorder and tapes — I stepped onto black macadam gleaming with newly fallen rain. Cloven in two by a state highway, this place was no more than a village trying hard to pass off as a town. A diminutive auburn cow brushed past, regarding me with endearing brown eyes before dropping a warm, steaming pat inches from my loafers. My grandmother had told me that stepping on cow-dung in the morning brought luck. Perhaps I'd just stepped clear of a blessing.
With me was Nakul Shenoy, my former junior at journalism school who lived in Udupi, 81 km north. Besides being an up-and-coming performing magician Nakul was a polyglot; he spoke Konkani, Tulu, Kannada and Hindi — talents that made him reasonably indispensable in my quest. For despite looking like a backpacker on an off-day I was really here to make selfish, troubling conversation, to unearth minefields of pain, to provoke a bereaved family into remembering what it really wanted to forget.
It took us no time to locate Anand Tailors, where Puttur S Anand supervised a team of seven understudies at work on a battery of clattering sewing machines. Measuring a length of cloth with a rule, Anand glanced at my tee and Levi's and knew instantly that I wasn't there to get them altered.
"It's about Hemant," Nakul began. The tailors looked up at us, then at their frail, graying boss in the white cotton shirt. Anand nodded, remembering a phone call he had with Nakul the previous day. "Let's go home," he said, and led the way to a salmon-pink double-storey house tucked into a cul-de-sac beside the main road.
The youngest of Anand's three children, 28-year-old Hemant Kumar Puttur was a database manager deployed at Marsh & McLennan, a client of Indian IT behemoth Wipro. His office was on the 97th floor of the north tower, I World Trade Center. "We were told the plane struck the floor where he worked," Anand said, his eyes suddenly glassy with tears.
Anand's wife Kusum, his son Prashant and daughter Seema were at home. I set up my recorder and opened my notebook to a fresh page. I apologized for troubling them, swallowed my guilt and gave in to the call of duty. Talking to this family was like picking at an old scab, peeling off the scar tissue to expose the festering sore underneath. They barely winced as I asked my uncomfortable questions, rifling through their chest of sorrows, unsettling the fragile peace they had cobbled together in the year gone by.
Clearly, watching television doesn't help. On September 11, 2001 Anand and his family watched the evening news just as New York City shuddered awake to a Tuesday of horror. Like so many others glued to the television in India, they watched the second hijacked plane — United Airlines Flight 175 — plow through the South Tower.
"At that time we did not know he worked there," Anand recounted to Nakul and me. As the family watched both towers crash down into drifting dust, it seemed just another tragedy; mercifully, it seemed, it was on the other side of the world.
"Watching that building come down is like watching our son die all over again," Kusum said, bravely steadying her voice as she recalled the indelible images from that day that have been broadcast on every anniversary since.
Our hands trembling with guilt, we thumbed through the family albums that Seema brought us. In them, the dark, lanky and mustachioed Hemant smiled the determined smile of a breadwinner who had elevated his family to respectability. He had last visited in July 2001 to attend his elder brother's engagement, leaving behind enough to finance his wedding.
In death, too, Hemant gifted prosperity to his family. Today, visitors to Puttur are welcomed by a 20-foot high arch inscribed with the legend "Hemant Puttur Memorial", built partly with Rs 30,000 that Anand donated to the village panchayat. Another recent landmark is Hemant Plaza, a shopping complex the family built with the compensation money. Anand also donated Rs 1.6 million to build a dining hall at the Sree Narayana Guruswamy Mandir in Puttur. Prashant, who had fallen on hard times after Hemant's salary stopped supporting the family, now operates a fleet of luxury taxis and minivans from an office in a building named after his late brother.
Although the US got even with 9/11 mastermind Osama Bin Laden after a ten-year manhunt, Anand feels neither relief nor pain at his death. "There is no point in blaming anybody," he shrugged. Yet, the family feels Hemant's absence every day. What gnaws most at Anand is that 9/11 left no material trace of his son, making closure difficult.
"We feel he may still be alive," he told me nine years ago, his eyes flickering with stray hope. "Who knows, he just might walk in that door."