The tram has to slow down, as it makes this turn on to Wellesley Street, on its way to Wellington Square. Two boys with their school bags jumped onto the footboard of the second class compartment. Ramsaran the conductor saw them and frowned. He knew them. He knew they would not want to pay the one anna fare, like on other days! But today he did not care! He had bigger problems today!
It was the
first day of the fare increase by two paisa per ticket! He was having a hard time collecting the new fare from his seated passengers, they were grumbling! Some were outright hostile blaming him for the increase; they accused him, of being a dalal of the company!
They did not care to know, that he, Ramsaran had very little to do with this…..the Burra- sahibs to sat in their offices in Chowringhee, made these decisions….they did not consult with second class conductors, like Ramsaran, when they made their decisions!
It was not even nine in the morning, the sun was out in full force, it would be a very hot day.
Nathan, the boy with a swallow complexion and a long nose, was excitedly telling his friend Shamsir about how this would be their last summer in Calcutta…..In August, the whole family would be moving to this place called Israel… a new country, set up for the Jewish people! His father was already there…Nathan said that his father had moved to a flat from which they could see the sea, it was blue! Nathan also said that he was happy that he would not be living on CK lane anymore……….
CK lane was what Nathan called Choku Khansamah Lane (Choku Cook’s Lane), he hated the name, it was so embarrassing to tell your friends that you lived on a road, named after a cook!
But, Shamsir, was proud of the name, Choku Khansamah, was his great- grand father and had been a cook for the bara-lat sahib, his father still worked as a bearer for the Governor at Raj Bhavan. How many people had roads named after their great-grand fathers!
Shamsir, kept quiet, he became sad, he would lose one more of his friends!
In the last two years, many of his friends from the neighborhood had left, Ismail and Sabbir, both went to Pakistan with their families. He knew as a Muslim, he could go to Pakistan……he would ask his grandfather, when he went home after school today, why couldn’t they go to Pakistan, a new place, like Nathan, Ismail, Sabbir!
The tram clanged along, they were two stops away from the Wellington Square crossing, Shamsir could now see the crossing way in the distance.
He could see a large crowd of people walking towards their tram, it looked like they were waving their arms in the air, shouting slogans, he could not hear them, yet!
Oh no! Another procession, now they would be late for school!
The procession was being followed keeping distance by six mounted police spread across the road, followed by a large group of policemen in their lal-pagris and white uniforms.
As the crowd got closer, he could hear them, they were shouting, tram" vara barano cholbe na" (You cannot increase the tram fare), "goriber rakta chosa bando karo" (stop sucking the blood of the poor).
As they got near the front of the tram, several of people, jumped into the tram drivers cab and pulled him down and started to beat him, shouting, "sala! companir dalal!" (Expletive, you lackey of the company!)
Many of the first class passengers were now streaming out of their compartment and running towards the back………….
Shamsir, knew he should do the same, he tugged on Nathan’s hand, but it seemed Nathan could not move, his eyes were open wide with fright and his legs had turned to lead!
Next, Shamsir smelled something, it smelled like burning oil and smoke moving towards their compartment, somebody had set fire to the front of the tram!
Within moments, he heard the loud gallop of horses and over the din, the loud voices of the mounted police," sala Communist log, tram jhala raha hai"," sala log ko maro!" (Expletive,they are burning the tram, expletive, beat them up!)
Shamsir, knew now they had to run, he now dragged Nathan off the footboard, shouting, Nathan run, run………..as they started running back, Shamsir saw that two of mounted policemen were galloping towards them, waving their sticks and beating people up, who fell on their faces on the road……….as they got nearer, he could hear the horses grunting, from the corner of his eye he saw one of the mounted police had raised his stick and about to hit Nathan on his head, to save Nathan, Shamsir tripped him and Nathan fell on the road face first, Shamsir jumped on him and covered Nathan’s body with his own, he heard the policeman cry, "bastard" and next he felt a blow on the back of his neck, then, everything turned black in front of his eyes!
Shamsir, faintly heard his name being called, he was afraid to open his eyes……slowly as he opened his eyes, he saw Nathan’s face very close to his, calling his name. Shamsir face was wet, his mouth felt salty……..as his eyes got back into focus, he saw Nathan was not wearing his shirt….he in a hoarse voice, asked Nathan, what had happened to him!
Nathan told him, that Shamsir had saved him by pushing him, but he had been hit by the police baton, he had passed out and when he could turn him, Nathan saw, he was bleeding from the nose…..to stop the bleeding, he had taken off his shirt and held it tightly to his nose, trying to stop the bleeding! He kept on saying, Shamsir you saved my life today, over and over again!
Shamsir, saw he was lying on the road, he tried to get up, Nathan helped him to get on his feet, he felt wobbly, like the world was turning very fast, Nathan grasped him and both of them started to walk back slowly……towards home.
July 2001. It had been a decent year so far. The New York stock market was slowly starting to recover after the 1987 meltdown. The brokers were again getting fat from their commissions and bonuses. The economy of the city was definitely getting better, people were spending more money in restaurants, the days of thousand dollars for a bottle of wine had returned!
It was after six in the evening on a Wednesday night, it would inevitably be full tonight, as on Wednesday nights they did not have the cover charge for the bar.
Shamsir as the maitre d’ walked up briskly to the front entrance of the restaurant.
Just before positioning himself with the hostess in front, so he could greet some of the special guests himself, he took one last look at himself at the big hall mirror….his hair peppered with gray was combed back and in place, he straightened his black bow tie and his name tag. He was ready! How he looked, was important to him, after all, he was the maitre d’ of the most important restaurant in New York City, The Windows on the World, on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center, it was a long way from Choku Khansamah Lane in Calcutta!
As guests started to show up, Shamsir greeted many of the regulars, some have known him from the early days, when he joined the staff here as a waiter, when it first opened in 1976.
Around 6.15 PM, a group of six men walked through the front door, Shamsir’s experienced eye told him, that they were not regular New York types and that they were Jewish, several also wore yarmulke’s, the little round cap Jewish men wore on their back of their head.
Shamsir, moved forward to greet them and enquire about their reservation. A man, who looked to be the oldest in the group, stepped forward and told him, that they had a 6.30 reservation under his name, Nathan Goldstein!
Shamsir saw that the man was looking at him intently. He realized he was reading his name tag.
Now, he asked him, if he had ever lived in Calcutta! He said yes, he had grown up in Calcutta, but had left, oh! Around thirty years ago!
The man asked if he had lived on CK Lane, now Shamsir knew who this was, it was his old friend from Choku Khansamah Lane, and nobody else would call it, CK Lane!
They embraced! Both of them started talking asking about each other, like they would catch up for the last fifty years in the next five minutes.
As Shamsir, led the group to the table and seated them, he found out that his old friend now lived in New York and headed an Israeli business group. What Nathan could not tell him, that he was head of the Mossad (The Israeli secret service) in North America!
Shamsir, told him, that he had left Calcutta thirty years ago, worked as a waiter on a ship, lived and worked in England and then came to America in 1972.
Nathan wanted his old friend to tell him more, about Calcutta, about their old friends there, about CK Lane………….. Shamsir, said he would be happy to do that, but had to do it some other day , but now, he had to get back to his job………
They exchanged their cell phone numbers and agreed to call each other and get together soon!
September 11, 2001 was a nice crisp fall day in New York. It was 8.35 in the morning.
Shamsir, got off the train at his usual stop at City Hall, he got out on the street and was walking quickly towards the World Trade Center.
He generally did not come to work this early, but today, the Risk Waters Group was holding their annual Technology Congress in the restaurant, there would be around hundred guests for breakfast and lunch…..he wanted the customers to be happy with the lunch, they were going to serve them today, Shamsir was going through the lunch menu in his head, as he stood at the pedestrian crossing at Broadway and Murray Street.
Suddenly his cell phone rang in his pocket. He took it out of his raincoat pocket and put it to his ear……
It was Nathan calling, Shamsir started to apologize saying that he was sorry that he had not called Nathan yet!
Nathan cut him off, and very brusquely asked him where he was now, Shamsir told him that he was on his way to work and walking towards the World Trade Center, he would be there, in less than five minutes.
Nathan told him, that he should absolutely not go to work today, and turn around and go back home immediately, Shamsir, started to protest, but Nathan hung up!
The light changed, he could cross now, Shamsir crossed and started walking up Murray Street towards the World Trade Center, Nathan’s sudden call to him, did not make any sense to him!
Suddenly he heard a clap of thunder, he looked up startled, thinking how could there be thunder on a clear morning like this, the sky the still clear blue, now he had reached the corner of Church and Murray, he looked up…..he gasped and could not believe what he saw….a big plane had hit the North tower and the upper part of the tower was on fire…… he started to run towards the towers………….
The rest of that day was still a blur to Shamsir, he did not remember, what he did, how he got home…………..a few days later, Shamsir called the phone number Nathan had given him, several times, it always said that the number did not exist or was disconnected!
This story is dedicated to the memory of 79 individuals of all nationalities, who perished in the Windows on the World restaurant on September 11, 2001. This is a work of fiction. Any similarity to real life characters is purely coincidental.
Tapan Bhattacharya has several years of experience in US based IT industries in senior management position. He is also a Board member of a Minneapolis, USA based non-profit organization called APCC (Asia Pacific Cultural Center).