Yes, I’m both father and mother. Do I have a choice?” Narasimha Kumar Sattaluri says it with an air of resignation — and suppressed pain. His wife Deepika was one of the 42 Indian victims of 9/11 at the World Trade Center in New York. Most of those who perished were IT hands. Deepika, 33, was a chartered accountant, working for Wipro’s client, Marsh & McLennan, on the 92nd floor.
Just two months earlier, the small family — Deepika, Narasimha and their seven-year-old son Amish — had made the long journey from Hyderabad. Narasimha did not think twice before chucking his job as the finance head at Raasi Ceramics in order to live the family’s American dream.
Just two days before 9/11, they had shifted from a hotel to an apartment in the Indian hub – Edison, New Jersey — when tragedy intervened all too suddenly. Most of the bags had not even been unpacked, but Deepika was gone.
Five years later, the father and the son are still reconciling to a life without Deepika. The living room is chock-a-block with collages of Deepika and Amish. Narasimha remembers his wife as a smart accountant, a witty person.
How are they coping without her? “Pretty bad,” he says. “Nothing has changed. It’s all the same. The struggle continues.”
His sole preoccupation since 9/11 has been Amish — leading him through the school system. For that, he opted to move farther to Plainsboro, off Princeton, one of the top school districts in New Jersey.
But the boy who could unscramble long jumbled words in no time five years ago is not his former brilliant self, feels the concerned father. He says Amish, now 12 and into the seventh grade, is having a tough time with everything. “He has been going to a psychiatrist every week for the last five years.”
Going back to India may be an option, but he has not given it a serious thought as Amish “wants to grow up here”. After five years in the US and an earlier two in Britain, the boy is quite at home with life outside India.
On Monday, Narasimha and Amish will join tens of hundreds of other bereaved families at Ground Zero.
‘Our 10th anniversary was just a week off’
This Indian had the world’s highest perch for years. Jupiter Yambem, a proud Manipuri, was the banquet manager at ‘Windows on the World’, the famed restaurant on the 106th-107th floors of what was the World Trade Center.
His American wife, Nancy, chokes as she recounts their 20-year association. “We first met in 1981 at the State University of New York and got married in 1991. A week after 9/11, we would have celebrated our 10th anniversary.”
The 41-year-old Yambem would not have been at his workplace so early on that fateful day had it not been for a corporate banquet that started with breakfast. “And that was when those two planes flew into the World Trade Center and 9/11 happened,” says Nancy.
Weeks before 9/11, he had changed his work schedule, opting to work early mornings so that he could be more with their son Santi in the evenings.
“Santi is 10 and remembers his father quite a bit — the things they did together, the special events, the places they went to. Santi has a good memory, which is a blessing. I always want him to remember his father,” says Nancy, who has given up her full-time job to take care of her son.
“Part of our life is being involved with organisations and families from 9/11. My son has been to summer camps with other kids who have lost their parents from 9/11. It has been a good experience for him,” she says.
Yambem may have married a woman from Syracuse, but he had strong roots in Manipur. He founded the Northern America Manipuri Association, of which Nancy is the vice-president now. For this, he retained his Indian citizenship even after spending 20 years in the US and the family would visit Manipur every alternate year.
Nancy and Santi visited Imphal in 2004, for the first time without Jupiter. Santi had brought along the first of his milk teeth to throw over his ancestral home. “It’s a Manipuri custom to throw it over the roof,” said Laba, Jupiter’s elder brother. “It is believed to be auspicious.”
It became only the second occasion that Jupiter’s father, Y Tombi Singh, 86, broke down and cried. The first was in 2001, when Jupiter was identified as the first NRI victim of 9/11. “It was touching to see the little boy who grew up in an American environment adhere to Manipuri custom,” said Laba. “It was perhaps too much for father.”
The Yambems will host a memorial lunch in Imphal for friends and kin, according to Manipuri custom, as they have done every year after 9/11. There will also be a lunch at 20 Alder Way, Wappinger Falls in New York, where Nancy and Shanti will remember their “Pa-Pa”, “Chow-ba” and “Neung-shi-ba”, conscious of the void that can never be filled up.
(With inputs from Rahul Karmakar in Imphal)