11/9 by Anubha Yadav

As if it were a seasonal fruit that has to ripen in autumn, and blast its seeds to survive, the issue of my return to my parents, to USA, always re-emerged with full force in September. ‘Come now, at least come now – we miss you Tapu.’ My mother starts to plead even before I say the customary, ‘hello’ from this side of the Pacific. ‘What an unfortunate woman I am whose only child isn’t with her since ten years?’ Five years ago I would have cried bitterly at this point but now I just stare at the television in my room which is on mute, or I focus on the deep American twang her voice has acquired in these years. I parse her words into sounds and syllables, ‘waa-ak’, ‘were-k’, ‘pay’eh’in’, till the syllables make her a stranger, until I get scared.


Slowly the conversation gravitates towards re-assessing the indecisions and mistakes of the past (something my mother relishes), this leads to the expected fight, and then a cease fire comes: a silence. Finally, after a long sigh, almost always, she adds loudly, ‘Another curse of 9/11’. She says it in a very Fox-news-anchor way. Her saying it means nothing, she isn’t political, but immediately after she says it I react, ‘Ma, its 11/9, 11/9!’


My father is the opposite. He asks about the weather in Delhi and as if returning a favour tells me about the weather in Brooklyn. He labours to get the details in, some days he tries so hard to make it seem different that it appears like a writing exercise: ‘describe autumn in New York in seven ways.’ When I reject the weather conversation we have nothing to talk about. Perhaps we have only talked weather for so long, everything else on which conversation builds itself in families has frozen. He avoids any talk on my return so sincerely that it’s painful. In the end my mother’s sobbing and direct pleading feels therapeutic.



My mother is an ordinary Indian Punjabi woman who always had an extraordinary degree of desire to migrate to the United States of America. At times her desire would suck all air from our three room apartment in New Delhi. My father was a journalist then, the type that writes two column pieces on city pages and files obscure obits. At forty-five, he was still shuttling between two part-time jobs, one at a small magazine, and the other at a start-up independent newspaper. He had this bushy beard so he could feel like a journalist.


We lived in our grandmother’s house. Like me, my father too is an only child. My grandmother was the single reason my father offered against going to America. ‘She can’t be left alone in India,’ he told my mother. I often heard my mother wishing for my grandmother’s death as she rolled a roti standing in the kitchen. The babble always started when she began to flatten the round ball of dough, and as the dough expanded on the small marble slab my mother’s voice became louder: a soft thud sound followed by a loud – ‘She doesn’t even die’. My grandmother was quite aware of this carnal need; indeed she chewed the roti with extra relish after over-hearing the whole thing. My mother didn’t realise she gave a purpose to my grandmother. Old people like that kind of goalkeeping, even if it’s just out of boredom.


My mother’s desire for America was not unreasonable. Her loneliness was palpable; over time all her siblings had settled there.  I was about ten years old when things had devolved into a cold war at home, even the neighbours chose sides. Some young women were supportive of my mother; their mothers-in-law sat with my grandmother for hours as evening fell. Somehow both opposing groups sympathised with my father.


An old friend of my father offered him a managerial position at an online newspaper in the USA.  Within a month, without consulting or asking anyone my father accepted the offer, and announced his decision to us over dinner. It seemed we were finally going to USA. Grandmother was no longer a reason to stay.


The day after was strange for everyone. Both my grandmother and mother cried the whole day. I didn’t know what to feel. It seemed feeling any one emotion would be choosing a team, so I stayed out of the house.


The first person I told was Tipsy. Tipsy did her pacing and barking drill as if she got the gravity of the pronouncement. In the evening, after the usual cricket match, I told my close friends, and they fell silent. As we inched towards the day of departure I understood the meaning of their silence. I had to leave behind many cherished things forever. One morning I made a list:

1. Tipsy
2. 9 good friends
3. 8 ok friends
4. Jalebi shop close by
5. Cricket team (no cricket in USA)
6. Hindi songs
7. My grandmother
8. The window from which I scare people


I said, ‘No’. I sat at the dining table and announced my decision. My parents laughed. Then there was a breathless silence. My mother gave a piercing look to my father and said, ‘Mrs Raman is ready to take the plasma screen tv for Rs. 10,000.’ My father glanced at my grandmother for approval. My grandmother was removing her dentures. Her thumb and forefinger were inside her slightly open mouth – first the upper jaw came out and then the lower jaw was extracted. She dropped them gently in the small glass bowl full of water. Like always some saliva fell through, and she cleaned it with the end of her sari. All of us were staring at the bowl and waiting. It seemed the teeth were staring back at us: the long incisors, artificially white and alert; the molars, jaundiced and tired; the gums, pink like the insides of a dead fish.


Grandmother refused to look up or answer. She did this at times, pretended to be deaf. My father finally lost patience.  ‘Yes, let’s sell it,’ he decided on behalf of her. ‘Anyways Ammaji never watches tv.’ Father had this great ability to make his decisions sound like everybody’s. I didn’t get a chance to talk again that night. Tipsy sat behind my chair, her tail standing erect.


The next day I received a mail from father.


From- Neeraj.nanda@gmail.com
To- Tapasnanda@gmail.com
Subject – List of things to do in USA


Dear Tapas –
I am writing to let you know that America is a wonderful opportunity for you. It is a window to the world. Many children dream about going there all their life. Here is a list I have made for you in a hurry. I am sure there will be more, much more!
1. Mc Donalds
2. Disney land
3. No dirt or rubbish
4. Nani and nana
5. Niagara Falls




I immediately sent my list in reply but he never wrote back.



My school uniform, shoes, belt, books were given to the washer man’s son. I felt light, like I was sitting on a water bubble, just floating aimlessly through some leftover life, waiting for a new life. By now I had shown my anger in many ways: I got my friends to talk to my mother, didn’t have dinner at home for a week, locked myself inside the store room and broke a glass window. ‘Enough! We are sick of your tantrums,’ shouted my mother one evening just after dinner.


Father liked talking and discussing things with me, especially when my mother was dictating or being stubborn with me. So he called me to his corner in the bedroom, the corner where he had been writing his debut novel for a decade. It had an HP-1740 desktop on an old table which was flooded with books and papers. Even to find the computer mouse my father had to tap all over the table till the shape was unearthed. We sat formally. I was on the bed just an inch away from his chair. ‘How can you reject something without trying it? Tapu, this is a sure sign of myopia!’ His beard was white, completely white this month.  He looked old without the dyed-dashes of black. His small eyes were swallowed by wrinkles and folds. Dark oval patches hung under them. He was bending and talking to me, peering at me. I saw that he had lost a lot of hair in the centre of his scalp. His explanations made even less sense after I googled myopic.


Every evening my friends and I stood in a corner after the match. Our shadows would slowly dissolve into our bodies. Tired and sweaty from the cricket match we collapsed against the Neem and Gulmohar trees of the park. I can’t recount what we talked about, but we stood there and chatted for hours. The dust rising from the maidan would mix with the hues of the setting sun. It seemed the sun controlled the audio of the place; as it dipped everything became softer, including us. We stood till we heard our names being called by our mothers. ‘How about telling them, suiii side?’ said Ravi once, his body falling on an ancient Neem in this angular way guided by the slanting bark of the tree, his hands crossed over his chest, one leg over the other. We all laughed. It was not like we had failed our final exam.


I sat a lot with my grandmother now.  She kept saying, ‘Leave him with me. Poor thing he does not want to go.’ Her sari gathered together in the centre, her huge soft stomach looming under it. As she spoke her finger tips gently stroked my hair. As I was lying in her lap one afternoon, it struck me, my father treated my grandmother just the way he used to treat my mother before. He didn’t answer anything she asked, as if she was important no more.


We were to fly in two days. I had taken a termination certificate from school. It was a very pretty piece of pink paper. This was the only time I entered the Principal’s room with my parents. I was sure they would sit together and discuss me. But instead I kept hearing 9/11, 9/11. Finally, after returning home from school I saw the newspaper and there it was: ‘9/11’.


This 9/11 filled me with fleeting happiness and hope. Could be a blessing in disguise! I told my friends about 9/11 the same evening. We all thought, it will surely scare them. But it seemed I alone had nightmares about it for the next two nights. A plane nosedived into the centre of my stomach, flew right through my navel. Another bird chose my right knee. Its wings were on fire, flapping with ceaseless energy. I stood still in the dream.


On the day of the flight, a lot of farewell gifts poured into the house. The luggage was lying packed in the veranda. My father refused to re-open the bags for the gifts, ‘We are already overweight,’ he said. So I locked all my gifts in my Godrej cupboard before we left.


It was late evening. The sun had set and the moon had just risen. The sombre invisible monotone of crickets filled the evening. Our taxi was parked outside the apartment. My friends stood all around the taxi with their cricket bats in their sweaty palms. My father avoided them, busying himself with stashing the luggage in the back of the taxi. My grandmother never came out, not even to the verandah. She sat on her bed with the Hanuman Chalisa. Her neck would emerge every few minutes and then slump to her bosom again, as if she were an old ostrich.


Tipsy ran behind the taxi. When she followed us to the main road we had to stop. I peeped from the back of the taxi. My father sat on his haunches as he cuddled and kissed her; he finally got up and ran inside the apartment gate. Tipsy jumped like an excited horse and followed him. Then he ran out and closed the gate behind him.  Tipsy forced her black nostrils between the gaps of the iron grill and barked. I heard her even after we had turned onto the busy road to the airport. Bark, silence of the car, honking.



I enjoyed the plane ride – the nicely packed food, the small bright television sets, the night lights, the clouds. Plane rides!  As soon as we got out of the airport I saw a banana peel, also some plastic bottles and coke cans lying outside the green dustbin. ‘Banana peel!’ I tugged forcefully at my mother’s hand, but she kept staring at father who was taking directions from a uniformed man.


I was almost certain we would turn back for home: when the visa officer didn’t smile although my father smiled; when the luggage cart’s wheel got stuck and the bags fell over; when my mother lost her spectacles at Frankfurt airport. But adults can like things even when they hate them, I think.


A really white person, the kind we see on television drove us from the airport. Daddy took out his old wallet but now dollars came out of it. He paid the fare like he paid in dollars every day. He behaved a bit differently with the driver, usually he always smiled and chatted with them, asked their name, but today he was like a crisp winter suit, formal and precise, in English.


My aunt welcomed us with lots of Indian food, laid out on a small round table in the kitchen. I told her that I’d seen a banana peel on the road outside the airport. She laughed, ‘So his campaign is still on?’ She was looking at my mother now. My mother was chewing hungrily on an onion pakoda: ‘Like his father, he can’t let go of an idea once it gets hold of him.’


I hardly saw my father for the next few days. My mother said: ‘It’s because of 9/11, it will settle.’ My mother would chat with my aunt late into the night, even till the morning at times. They made tea over and over again as they talked. It only stopped after my uncle growled my aunt’s name one night. They giggled like school girls and started sitting outside, on the porch, from the next evening. They sat there under the moon light till the morning at times, dunking tea bags in hot water as they talked. I had never seen my mother so happy.


My uncle, a lawyer, decided I should go to the Nelson A Rockefeller School. He looked like those new jazzy cars, shining and extra clean. His hair was held together by a gel in contrast to my father’s ruffled look. My father laughed and said – ‘Republican banana hai?’ I wondered how one spelled Rockfellow as they joked a little more on my becoming Republican.


I stayed home for the next few days, watched television most of the time. Aunty kept asking me to watch a Hindi film from her collection, but I couldn’t bear to hear Hindi.  Just once we stepped out, went to this place called 7/11. I asked my aunt if it was connected to 9/11. Mother got furious. ‘Stop the tantrums!’ she growled. I saw more garbage in a corner at the end of the parking lot. But I never told anyone – anything – anymore.


September 30th is when I joined my new school: Nelson A Rockefeller. I finally got the spelling. My mother was allowed to ride with me on the school bus on the first day. I was glad she was with me; the whole journey was most scary. A super white girl with golden hair kept staring at me all through the ride to school. Another boy whose friends called him Raa-gave kept pulling my hair from behind. Every time someone in the bus said, ‘Raa-gave’ my mother turned and corrected them. ‘Raa-ghav, say Raa-ghav.’ Her teeth popped out as she did the ‘ghav’ with force. She looked a fool. I realised she didn’t care. Strangely that made me proud of her. By the time we reached school my head had been tweezed more than a seventeen times. I was praying ‘Raa-gave’ wasn’t in my class.


Raa-gave was in my class! The class was so colourful that my eyes could not settle on anything. It seemed I had gone back to nursery. Back home we never used colours for older children. They have to study seriously. Mother kept pointing at the colourful boards, exactly like when we had gone to the zoo in Delhi last summer. Before leaving, she had a short chat with the teacher who to my relief had black hair. She wore a knee length skirt and didn’t look like a teacher at all.  Every time I said, ‘Madam’, she said, ‘Call me Miss Claire.’ Miss Claire, Miss Claire – I kept rehearsing it in my mind. ‘Miss Claire’, I repeated it till I walked to her desk. But as I stood before her, I uttered ‘Madam’ again. All around me, my classmates jumped to the tune of ‘Miss Claire’ without difficulty.


I had not seen so many types of human beings ever. Black, super black, brown, white, super white. Whatever can be there was there. Skin colours, class room colours. I felt my head was spinning like a cricket ball. In the evening my mother told me I had fainted.


All the subjects seemed different. In Claire Madam’s talking style even arithmetic seemed new. At times she asked me questions. I wanted to tell her, ‘Write it on the board for me Miss Claire.’ But I didn’t because that meant more talk with her, which in turn meant she would say my name again. She had already said it twice today. As soon as she said my name Raa-gave tapped my back and said,  ‘Hello Tap-ass.’ I wanted to go home. I wanted Miss Claire to be quiet.


My uncle and my father discussed 9/11 all the time at the dining table. No one could talk about anything else. Even my mother and aunt would add small comments here and there as they served food or passed the salt. When they did that I thought about home, about Tipsy, about cricket in the maidan, about grandmother.


The trees were golden in New York by now. It reminded me of Diwali diyas. The sidewalks were full of these heart shaped diyas. I carefully selected one every day. The game was that they all wanted me to pick them up but I could only choose one for each day. So I had to think of a good reason for the choice. I whispered a reason as I picked one quickly and hid it in my palm. I kept it in my blazer the whole day, and later put it in an old notebook.


October itself was quite cold for me. Everybody smiled as I stood in layers of clothes and gloves at the bus stop. Most of the kids were not even wearing their half sleeve sweaters yet. On some mornings I would shiver standing at the bus stop and had to re-adjust my muffler every few minutes. ‘Twirl it around your neck,’ said a lady who waited with us on the school bus stop. After saying it she smiled at my mother. Every time I mentioned the cold, my mother said, ‘Wait till the first snow happens.’ Everything that scared me excited her lately.


By now I had seen eleven banana peels in America. Raa-gave was still tapping my ass and calling me Tap-ass. Miss Claire was wearing tights and sweaters instead of skirts. That day when she entered our class I was wondering what my nine cricket friends would do to Raa-gave if he somehow bumped into us back home in Delhi. Miss Claire announced –‘It’s a month since 9/11 happened. So today we will have a small commemoration in class.’ She waited. No one spoke. Then she added, ‘It’s an open session. Anyone can start.’ Nobody spoke for some time.


I was still making plans of being in India and beating Raa-gave with cricket bats. I kept hearing words like – ‘Terror attack’, ‘3000 people’, ‘fire workers’, ‘my neighbours’, ‘America’. I looked up for a moment and saw that Miss Claire was shaking her head slowly. It meant, ‘keep talking’, ‘go on’, ‘you are doing well’. I returned to my notebook. That is when Raa-gave tapped my shoulder and whispered – ‘Tap-ass.’ He kept hissing behind my back – ‘Tap-ass, hey Tap-ass do you know 9/11?’ I was grinding my teeth when Miss Claire asked me, ‘So Tap-ass, what do you think of 9/11?’ I stared at Miss Claire before I stood-up. The desk made a squeaking sound as I pushed it forward. Miss Claire was already shaking her head expectantly.


‘9/11! I know it. Very good! Good! I hate this place. I hate America!’ Miss Claire’s head was not moving anymore. She kept one hand on the desk and after a deep breath asked me: ‘Tap-ass, what did you say?’  I repeated what I had said more calmly and returned to my chair, pulling my desk close to my stomach for protection.


Half the class was looking at me; the other half was looking at Miss Claire. After more than a few minutes Miss Claire moved her head again and said – ‘Come Tap-ass, let’s go for a walk outside.’


I got up and followed her. We walked through a long corridor lined by golden trees. Then we entered a room from where she called my parents. Finally we all sat in the Principal’s room under a huge photograph that was marked, Mr Nelson A Rockefeller. Miss Claire repeated everything as if her brain was a computer. She even got the pauses right. Every time she said, ‘Tap-ass’ my mother corrected her and said – ‘Tapas – it is a Sanskrit word. It means spiritual suffering’.  Miss Claire then had to begin the sentence all over again. My mother’s insistence was irritating the whole room. The Principal, my father and Miss Claire were anxious to come to the point.


‘So do you really think 9/11 was good, little fellow?’ The Principal, who was a thin, young, bespectacled man came towards my side of the desk as he worded the question slowly. My parents sat with me on my left. Miss Claire was on my right. Miss Claire got up and made place for the thin Principal. He sat with one hip delicately balanced on the edge of the table. He pretended he did not notice Miss Claire’s moving or the empty chair. He adjusted his weight on the edge as he asked again, ‘What do you know about 9/11, little man?’ I sat quiet. I was in no mood to get into it again. I just wanted to go home. He asked the question six times. I sat quiet all six times, counting the triangles in the brown carpet on the floor, or staring at Mr Nelson A Rockefeller on the wall.


He turned around and sat across the huge mahogany table again. Soon, my father got in a discussion with him and they forgot I was sitting there. I realised my father was trying to avoid a fight. My mother was crying as if I had been given a death sentence. I wondered if I would be returning to India or not. My mother‘s crying meant I was. My father was clearly confusing the Principal about it.


I was told later that the school had asked me to leave. Lawyer uncle was angry with my father, ‘Just a psychiatrist they were saying, you Indians think it means pagal ho gaya ladka. Now wait for a year before you get a school.’  Nobody mentioned 9/11 at the dining table or in the bedroom or around the porch anymore.


I slept most of the time. One weekend we went to see the Brooklyn bridge. All of us crossed the bridge together. As I walked uncle told me: ‘This connects Manhattan to Brooklyn over the East River.’ We ate ice creams as we stepped over various shadows – people, ropes, side railings, cameras and the arches. I saw a dog that looked like Tipsy, exactly like Tipsy.


That is the only day I left the house after the school incident. Just the next day my father pulled my chair towards him at the dining table and gave me the ticket. He told me it is an open ticket. He said, ‘It’s fine Tapu, you can come back after Christmas.’ I could not sleep the whole week in excitement.


I landed in Delhi on 26th November. Nowadays it has come to be known as 26/11. People were standing around television screens in small groups that evening at the airport. An India-Pakistan cricket match was on. But what I remember most is the warmth of the November sun on my face, the salty smell of my grandmother’s cotton sari, a bit damp from cooking the whole day for me.



Anubha Yadav is a writer, academic and film-maker based in New Delhi. She teaches media studies at Delhi University. Her work has appeared in Cha-The Asian Literary Journal, Out of Print, International Screenwriting Journal, Indian Literature Journal, and Epic India. At present she is talking with publishers about her collection of short stories based on the individual and urban life. Some of her work can also be read on her blog.