The man on the street was playing a heart-wrenchingly sad music on the flute. It was a cold chilly night and the dry wind blew wisps of hair all over my face. It was one of those cold nights that made you cling tightly to whatever dear you have, which wasn’t a lot more than a few winter clothes that didn’t really help much. I didn’t know if the misty eyes were due to the harsh chilly winds or a response to the sad flute music playing beyond. The music reminded you of pain, of loss, of letting go of everything you have dear.
There was quite a crowd of tourists like me all over the place. It was my first visit to New York City, and all day, I had been excitedly taking pictures. These were the places I had seen in movies, on television, in albums of other people, and now I was seeing everything anew. Even after a hundred pics or so, I thought that I could not have enough of the mightiness of the Empire State Building, the majesty of the Statue of Liberty, the liveliness of the Times Square, the serenity of the Staten Island. If there was a model city I wanted to live in, this was probably it. I walked on the streets and thought-“Wow, is this the Wall Street, the hub of so much going on in the world?” I was like a kid finding my way through wonderland, never knowing what fascinated me more.
NYC gave me neck aches in no time. I was craning my neck every time I wanted to see the sky above the buildings. There was very little sky to see anyway. The place wasn’t called one of the most happening places for nothing. The Manhattan skyline was a complex mesh of the tall sky scrapers straight out of a Matrix movie, and one just had to see them to gape in astonishment. The buildings were so tall and there was so little sky to see beyond them that I was actually beginning to wonder if people didn’t feel claustrophobic walking down the streets.
On one hand there were these tall buildings that made viewing the sky almost impossible. And then there was the broad, clear sky dotted with stars. Though one would expect such a thing, it was a different thing altogether to see it. I am talking about the ground zero- the remnants of the place after the 9/11 tragedy. All these years I saw the videos of people jumping out of the WTC in desperation. I read stuff and saw pictures. I watched documentaries and movies. I replayed and watched them again. But nothing, I repeat, nothing compares to what I saw standing right on ground zero. The place was almost fenced with thick material and there were people at a distance who peeped through a tiny orifice in the fencing material. When I crouched to take a look myself, I could not believe that I was witnessing from that 4” by 4” window one of the worst acts of nefariousness mankind has witnessed in recent times. It was different to read about world wars and disasters and movements in history books and to watch movies and documentaries about them. But here I was peeping out of a window in the NY cold watching the area that had witnessed the loss of everything one could value, and withstood it. There were no signs of wreckage, no mangled metal and trapped bodies, no blood or stench of death. The area looked akin to a large construction site with neat cement and concrete and construction workers wearing helmets and safety gear. I tried to imagine what the site must have looked like 6 years back, but my imagination failed me.
The man was still playing his flute and there were people walking past the spot to catch the train. There were visitors like me, tourists who were taking pictures and were reading the stuff there. There was a list of the people who had lost their lives and given the amount of space the list took, I estimated it to be around 3,000. There were about 3,000 names in front of me, names who meant nothing to me, but names who were people once, who had lives and families, and who had lost their lives on the very spot that I was standing. There was nothing placed deliberately there to attract your sympathy, in fact it was mentioned clearly that no materials were supposed to be distributed or no public speeches were to be made around 25 feet near the place. Yet I saw the names and wondered who they were and what fate had caused them to be there at that particular point that day. My friend later debated that more people died elsewhere, in wars and suffering, and we pay no heed. That is not the point. Here I was standing in that spot, and that is all that mattered to me. I did not care about quantifying how big or how small the loss was. I was standing there like a visitor, like people visit museums and Disneyland, yet it was none. I looked up and saw the biggest stretch of skyline I had seen in New York. They claimed that in the next few years they are going to erect structures and buildings, but that was not the point. I wondered staring at the mangled pieces of construction if the memories of the dead were to reside there forever and to come back and haunt whoever cared to think of them. Life went on, people were busy catching trains and celebrating the holiday and getting on with their life and work. It was good in a way, since life is all about moving on, no matter what. Yet I stood there speechless, transfixed, my vision crystal clear after the tears had wiped the debris off my eyes. I wasn’t really crying, I found out much later on my way back to the train station that my eyes had gone misty. And in that strange moment of realization, I discovered that after spending a holiday taking hundreds of pictures, not once did I remember to take out my camera standing at ground zero. And why would I? It wasn’t a memory I would have loved to take back with me. I could have sent the pictures home, but did it really matter? If you felt the pain and the sadness as much as I did, you would not even remember walking away from there, let alone taking pictures of the place. There were ample pictures on the internet anyway if you googled "Ground Zero" for images. The least you could do was to let the dead rest in peace.