Srinivasa Shreyas Ranganath's father refused to meet me, and that was understandable. To this elderly employee of Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited, I was just another nosy reporter hounding down a story, and seeking my trophy — a byline. His 26-year-old son, on deputation with Marsh and McLennan in New York's World Trade Center, was among four Wipro employees and hundreds of others killed when terrorists flew hijacked airliners into the Twin Towers. One year later, I had tracked him down to request an interview.
"For you it's just a story," he said acidly over the phone. Until he pointed that out, I must confess it was. Just the previous evening I was in Puttur in southwestern Karnataka to meet the family of his son's colleague Hemant Puttur, another victim of the terrorist attacks. Now, here I was in Bangalore hoping to make my trip worthwhile. I felt like a jerk.
"Just a story."
The truth in Ranganath's words tore into me like shrapnel. Shamed, I flinched. Then I steadied my voice, persisting, tilting the seesaw between duty and humanity. It's a journalist's occupational hazard to absorb the pains of others, then smoke or drink away the day's despair. Or, if you are like me, to silently chew on them until they possessed me like ghosts and sucked away my sleep, and then let the stricken words drain out.
There you have it — a story.
I wrote that story. It made great copy. I coined a wrenching headline. Our photo editor spliced in a telling picture. My editor thumped my back. Readers wrote in to share their empathy. My job was done.
But the pain in Ranganath's voice haunted me.
You can't find words for that kind of pain in any language. You run out of synonyms. Metaphors cheapen it. Even your sharpest sentences amount to frail travesty in the face of that telling grief that is at once real and persistent.
Like many parents of Indian victims with whom I spoke on the first anniversary of 9/11, Ranganath spoke bitterly of Indian officials while praising their American counterparts. A colleague ranted, "These techies and their families are all the same — their worship of American dollars turns them blind."
It was a generalization, perhaps a harmless one. And, on a regular day, I might even have agreed. But having that difficult conversation with a missing son's father prodded me to look beyond the everyday half-truths that prejudice our reportage of events in the West, and vice versa. One year after 9/11 the New York Times wrote about Shreyas among other victims, peppering its word-perfect story with clichés alluding to Bollywood and Indian food. Well, we are all reporters in search of a story.
Within 15 days of 9/11, Ranganath visited New York City on a ticket provided by the US authorities, not his son's employer or the Indian government. He scoured hospitals in the hope of finding his son among the survivors. And that's where he grew to admire the "efficiency" of the US administration.
"The US government and the state of New York went out of their way to help us," he told me.
Ranganath also praised Dr Sudhir Parikh, then a senior trustee of the Association of American Physicians of Indian Origin. The NRI doctor, who was conferred the Padma Shri in 2010, was among those who had formed a makeshift support forum to conduct searches and share information regarding Indians who had gone missing in 9/11. Ranganath met many families, Indian as well as those of other nationalities. "The feeling of loss was the same for everyone," he said.
When the searches led nowhere, Ranganath's worst fears were confirmed. He braced for closure. And then, six months later, he and his family were in for a rude shock. An official in New York, whom he declined to name, issued a statement that Shreyas was alive.
Ranganath's voice frayed for a moment. I can still remember the pang of empathy I felt as he spoke, quietly, cracking the brittle silence.
"One does not lose hope, you know."
We had a bomb blast this morning in Delhi. First, it was reported that nine people had died. Then, someone else said it was ten. We didn't know — or care about — the names of those who died. Or their stories. Or what they were doing there.
Here, life is cheap. Bombs go off all the time. Victims are statistics — they are counted, tagged and bagged, but unremembered. Politicians issue perfunctory mawkish-sounding statements from their guarded citadels, then retreat in bulletproof cars. Our TRP-rabid media raises the pitch of reportage to loud, blank noise. Forgetfulness soon precedes forgiveness. We all return to work.
What made 9/11 an indelible, impregnable monument in the American heart? And where are we different from Americans?
Whichever side of the political fence you may be on, whatever cause you may pledge allegiance to, you will doubtless acknowledge that the American media treated every victim of 9/11, regardless of whether he or she was Americans, as a martyr. In fact, as one newspaper wrote, in that unifying tragedy they were all Americans. Nearly every one of them was eulogized by name, and those names were engraved into America's wounded psyche.
And here in India, barely three years since 26/11, many of us struggle to remember police officers Vijay Salaskar, Hemant Karkare and Ashok Kamte, or NSG commando Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan.
And you expect us to remember the names of those who died in Delhi?
Yes, Ranganath, you were right. For us, it's only a story.