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A 9/11 scar that won’t fade away

To my horror, I then saw the streamer that read “WTC under Terrorist attack”.

Yambem Laba | New Delhi |

It was evening in India on that fateful day of 11 September. I was sitting in a hotel room with a national political leader friend visiting my hometown of Imphal. The TV was on and I thought a new blockbuster Hollywood movie was being released as it showed an airliner crash into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York.

To my horror, I then saw the streamer that read “WTC under Terrorist attack”. I remember blurting out “that’s where my brother works”. The whole night was spent checking e-mail and trying to get to his family, but all lines were jammed. Past midnight I got a call from an international journalist friend who was somehow able to speak to his wife, Nancy, who confirmed that my brother Jupiter was at work when the tragedy struck.

He was working as Senior Banquet Manager in the Windows on the World which was located on the 106th and 107th floors of the 110-storeyed WTC Building. He must have reached the rooftop because his cell phone had kept ringing for two more days. It was on the third day that the New York Fire Department found his body.

Although he had been in the USA for 20 years and married an Irish-American woman, he had never given up his Indian Passport. The Statesman had then broken the news, “Terrible Tuesday claims Jupiter”. His body was cremated in New York, but his ashes were brought home and immersed in the Loktak lake and a portion at Gaumukh where the Bhagirathi Ganga emerges from the Gangotri Glacier and begins its long journey to the sea. It was on a hot June day in 1981 that Jupiter and I had left New Delhi.

He was headed for the US as a Camp Counsellor for the Camp America programme and I was headed for Darjeeling to take up my teaching and House Mastering assignment at North Point where we had both studied. Prior to their departure for the US, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had hosted the team for breakfast and had termed them as India’s Young Ambassadors. In the US, he was placed in charge of an outdoor camp for the visually impaired in Vermont.

Later, in 2002, when we had gone to Ground Zero to pray for his soul and offer flowers and incense sticks, we caught up with one of his fellow Camp Counsellors who told us how one of the boys was sick and could not make it to the top of the mountain on his own. Jupiter was not on the peak when the group had arrived but some 20 minutes later, he emerged, carrying the sick boy on his back. He stayed on in the US and worked his way through college, working in restaurants and even chopping wood to fund his way through school at the State University of New York at New Paltz. After school, he plunged into the hospitability industry.

His clients ranged from Elizabeth Taylor at World Yacht Inc, where clients would be entertained while cruising the Hudson River, to Hillary Clinton and the Levi brothers at the Windows on the World. He was also very socially involved, teaming up with legendary American folk singer Pete Seeger to clean up the Hudson. Seeger also later sang at Jupiter’s Vine Yard wedding to Nancy McCardle.

He later sang at his memorial service, also by the side of the Hudson. Jupiter left a 5-year-old son whom his parents had named Santi to signify peace. Part of Jupiter’s ashes were also taken to the top of Tiger Hills in Darjeeling and strewn in the air and also at North Point’s Upper Division Flats (playground) where the record he had set in 1974 still stands today. The Jesuit priests at North Point had organized the memorial services there.

Jupiter’s dreams of reaching the pinnacle of the great American dream had almost come true for he was poised to become Vice-President of the Windows of the World, which was not just a posh eating place but one where multi-million dollars deals were struck. Then Laden arrived and shattered the lives and dreams of thousands. The US misadventure in Afghanistan began to oust the Taliban and 20 years later as the world braces for the 20th anniversary of the tragedy, Joe Biden has handed power back to the Taliban. Nothing could be more ironic than this.

Anyway, Barack Obama was able to liquidate Osama Bin Laden and all that I had said at the time was that “with Bin Laden’s death my brother Jupiter’s soul can now finally be at peace.