Sunday, July 24, 2005

An Ideal Statement of Purpose (SOP)

Here I Come..

Can a masters degree in bio-nanotechnology at a reputed college in London University help you pursue a career at the UNICEF as a research scientist ? Does a masters in economics from the London School of Economics allow you to better tackle the problem of `solid waste management’ in urban India, a subject you say you are passionate about ?

As panelist for the prestigious and rather generous HSBC Scholarships last week, these were some of the issues we wrestled with in debating our final choice of candidates. Looking back, the tougher it got to sift between the candidates (these were indeed the brightest), the more merciless the process got. For, that is the way it must be, in any selection of the best. These scholarships, incidentally, are for for students who have typically secured admissions to Oxford, Cambridge & The London School of Economics.

While the direction of the final interview cannot be predicted, facing as you are a considerably diverse panel, ranging from journalists and writers to college principals and bankers, the structure and wording of your purpose (SOP) can be well thought through.

How you put it across in words to your interviewers is more critical. But as a starting point, what and how you state in written words is indeed the blueprint, for your success.

Idealism Or..Not ?

In my time, you pursued science instead of arts or commerce mostly because you wanted to become an engineer or a doctor. Not because it was a subject close to divinity, as a student stated in her SOP. Most panelists would skip or not notice this little reference to the divine. But, what if a well-known author, student of sociology and of course panelist was challenged by it and asked you how, because in his mind, science represented doubt and religion faith.

The answer was: “I believe the creator was a perfect mathematician. The mind of the creator and a scientist are similar.” Did it end there ? Unfortunately, no. The student in question delved deeper and deeper into weighty matters of science and religion and then, to our collective minds, began drifting away. Keep in mind that a scholarship for a masters in bio-nanotechnology, not philosophy or theosophy, lay at the end.

“My future plans include a PhD in bio-nanotechnology. In the long run, I would like to work with the UNICEF as a research scientist in this realm.” Several panelists saw an inconsistency. “What’s the connect between UNICEF and developing nanobots that destroy cancer cells, viruses and repair cellular damage ?,” I wondered aloud. A senior panelist thundered: “What if I were to put to you that the UNICEF is an overpaid bureaucracy ?”

“Is our attitude towards waste something to do with our caste system ?” That was the author once again, pursuing a line of thought that touched the sociological. Couldn’t blame him, it was not crystal clear why a LSE student would want to pursue a future in solid waste management. And that is the sort of clarity you would demand in a highly competitive race like this.

Rewind a little bit. The same student says the LSE Master’s Course would serve as a foundation for further doctoral studies and a career in research and policy making, even leading up, as he hinted during the interview, a stint in politics. So, where and how does solid waste management come in ? Well, no direct connect could be seen or explained. And that served to blemish an otherwise smooth interview.

What was this young lady’s objective ? Was it to use her Oxford degree in Women’s Studies to further her interest in fiction and thus embark on a larger, social activist, mission or were we talking to a young writer of fiction from Kolkata wanting to use an Oxford degree in Women’s Studies to the same end ?

“Oxford will provide the creative space to experiment with a multiplicity of narrative strategies and poly-angular perspectives,” went the SOP. “Will it, indeed ?” The author was back, this time referring to Vikram Seth, “A creative writer does not usually engage with society. Arundhati Roy was a writer and then turned into, arguably, a social activist.” “How can you do or claim to do both ?” he asked. Not an easy one to respond, comprehensively.

Can a Master’s at the School of Oriental & Africal Studies (SOAS) in England help you engage with developmental issues in your small, insurgency prone, home state ? Can an introduction to the Theory & Practice of Development assist you in your ideological objective of riding the shift in development activity from government-based to community-based work. Given my own ( Marxist) leanings as a college student, this sounded like a revolutionary in work-in-progress ! But on a serious note, this is indeed a big challenge for aspiring students, of marrying educational ambitions to idealistic fervour.

Definitive Ideals

Should you be idealistic in your SOPs or for that matter in the subsequent discussions and debates with an interview panel. It’s a tough one and will vary depending on background, choice of career, achievements so far and so on (the last paragraph in this piece will attempt to elaborate on this point). Broadly, the answer is yes, a healthy dose of idealism is welcome and shows you in good light. For a highly competitive scholarship where one parameter for selection is contribution to community and society, lack of idealism or an idealistic, larger goal could actually be a hurdle.

The important thing is to define idealism in your, personal context . In saying I pursued science because of its nexus with divinity or a masters degree in sociology at Oxford because it will also help me “develop a theory of `ethical fiction’, within a predominantly post-modernist framework” is frankly, opening oneself for attack. Was the reference to divinity or the pursuit of fiction necessary ? You may feel strongly about it, but the majority of this panel found it tangential.

Idealism should, in this writer’s view, be definitive, describable and in arm’s length. By all means have an idealistic goal but be prepared to defend it. If you cannot, then don’t put it down. Another candidate, wanting to pursue a MSc in neuroscience said she wished to set up a training institute back home for “discovering newer biotechnological frontiers.” On being asked how, she listed the known funding options that existed. Would she get any of the funds, who knows. Did she know how to reach her idealistic goal. Yes, reasonably.

Writing It !

Here is a suggestion. Write your SOP. Separate the course-driven targets from the general ones. The course driven targets would follow a logical pattern, BSc, MSc, PhD and perhaps further research and academia. Now the general target. Do you want to stay in academia or do a job somewhere ? For instance, the student who wanted to start an institute for neuroscience might end up becoming research scientist at Pfizer or Glaxo Smithkline. That’s okay, but the primary objective of an institute was defined clearly and appeared to have, at least in thought, a Plan A and B.

Research your general targets or goals thoroughly. Better still, as I have said in the past, brainstorm them with experts, people from the profession. Ask an expert in solid waste management whether your LSE degree will help in contributing to that field. Better still, what does solid waste management lack most in India, LSE economists or committed civic workers ? Or a author/novelist whether you can balance, successfully, your pursuit of Women’s Studies and the art of writing fiction.

A SOAS degree can, possibly, lead you to many finite, immediate goals, including academia - how about becoming a spy ! But throw in an ideological target of aiding or being part of a power-shift in your home-state (without the state’s assistance) and you’ve set alarm bells ringing ! So, maybe you ought to be discussing this with a professor at the institute you’ve been admitted to. Or alumni, who’ve possibly found the right application or recourse for their acquired knowledge and wisdom.

Idealism & The Real World

As a student, it is tempting to be ideologically driven. There is nothing wrong with it. But that temptation can lead to ruin when sitting with a roomful of people who have worked their way up in life, regardless of profession. The author on the panel was arguably the most ideological person in the room, even more than the journalists. But it was ideology tempered and balanced by decades of practice and commerce, since books too have to sell ! Unfortunately for you, he will look to a similar or close to similar understanding of the real world.

To conclude this part, don’t reign in your longer term objectives or ideologies. But in a scholarship application SOP, make sure they don’t figure unless you are absolutely sure they link up. If you believe so strongly in something, mention it in passing. Two candidates, both unsuccessful, said they would join politics. They didn’t mention this in their SOPs. The panel was actually happy to hear that, coming from such smart and young individuals. And the nation ought to benefit. Now, that’s the writer being idealistic !.

Yes, the inclusion of a career in politics in the SOP may have triggered a sterner line of questioning. Actually it did in one case; the answer to a question on which political party in a particular state the candidate would chose was backed by the explanation, “It’s the lesser evil !” All agreed with that one. So, politics is real and realistic. To reiterate, ensure you ‘ve discussed your ideological strains or thoughts with a practitioner of some sort and have arrived at a realistic finding. Then incorporate that into your SOP.

Influencers & Role Models

Remarkably, at least two students were amazingly clear about why they chose a certain course. Both quoted famous scientists, their work and in the case of one, her presence in the college the candidate had applied for. The same candidate pointed out how a certain professor was working on cutting-edge research on cognitive and behavioral models in this college as also how a former, renowned, professor had done discovery research on the structure of the DNA in the same institution.

The candidate who chose bio-nanotechnology said she was influenced by an
eminent scientist who spoke on the subject at a seminar in the Indian Institute of Science. Her take on the subject itself was impressive and despite sounding almost fantastic on one hand (nanobots repairing cells, decoding and repairing damaged DNA) seemed well grounded on theory – she got tripped by her UNICEF ambitions though !

This part worked for these and other candidates because the role models and influencers were real and present though the objectives and scientific targets were somewhat distant. Moral of the story: find a strong, convincing role model. Its possible you already have and are hence following your present course. But if you have not, a role model will often help bring clarity in your own, secondary objectives. More so if you have chosen a scientific discipline.

Community Work & Leadership Skills

Scholarships like this one demand a high degree of commitment to the community. Unfortunately, you cannot wing this one. Further, there is sought a connect between the kind of community work you do, the leadership qualities you display in doing that and the academic course you have chosen. Seems like a tough call but most candidates actually do well on this score.

A candidate from last year chose a degree in law at the LSE because he was struck by the sheer antipathy of the legal system to the Gujarat’s riot-victims. He experienced this as a NGO volunteer trying to collect petitions and found that many of the affected could have actually fought and perhaps got some justice if their approach been stronger, legally. He expressed a desire to return and work with the community specifically on legal issues. Hopefully, he will.

Another, architecture, student connected her work in rehabilitating 2,000 families in Andaman to her understanding of the role of urban design in creating livelihood and communities. She was also involved in an interesting study of the streets of Bombay in general and three in particular. The study, from what I could gather, involved streets like Colaba Causeway and looked at the `various layers of the street’, the shopkeepers, the hawkers and their street-corner monopolies and attempted to “understand both the symbiotic interplay between these and the combined dynamic which resulted in the the buzz on the street.”

Two students from Bangalore and Bombay had done specific work in and with slums. One said in his SOP that Slum Sludies had given him an insight into the ground realities of various social issues. Most candidates had worked on-ground. Typically, this influenced their world-view at the moment. As they move away from the heat and dust, their views might change. For the present, it was not a bad thing at all, to see academically brilliant youngsters with such a strong focus on their environment.

The lesson here is that you need to involve yourself with your longer term objectives, now. This can be done through NGOs, individually or through the institution you are studying. Almost all the candidates here had done commendable work in this regard.

Keep It Simple

Easy to preach, tough to practice. For one, recognize that the combined intellectual firepower of your interviewers can far exceed what you have ever been exposed to in your college and school days. One key reason for this is their diversity, unlikely to be aggregated in normal course. Second, remember to talk about things you are absolutely sure you can engage in a debate in. This is tough to implement in a free-flowing interview. Be on guard anyway.

If your SOP has opened doors you don’t want others to walk into, then make sure you don’t labour on, wading your way through a series of explanations. `White space’ is dangerous. Be careful of a panel that is listening rather than firing questions. Silence causes you to speak on. You make bigger mistakes, as I have seen happening. Even the brightest slip up here. Use silences to make quick points and then wait. After all, you are the interviewee.

Prepare For The UnExpected !

You may not expect an author and or an `intellectual’ to be sitting on a panel interviewing candidates for a scholarship but it helps to be be prepared for the unexpected. What if someone with an intimate knowledge of your idealistic objectives was on the panel ? Or what is someone from your chosen field came was present? Could you handle them ?

As a science student, you may not have paid much attention to the metaphyiscal, but made some seemingly casual and even careless statements in your SOP. In which case, watch out!

From The Heart

The candidate who won our hearts and one of the scholarship had most of the above, though not all of it. He scored high on simplicity of mind and clarity of purpose. His father was a farmer with an acre and half of land somewhere in the north. He had survived so far on scholarships, including one from the Indian Government. Despite his lack of resources, he secured an international scholarship to do his International Baccalaureate in England.

His SOP was simple. He spoke of the need to create effective policies to tackle the needs of rural India, especially small-scale farmers who suffer from consistent poverty, illiteracy and lack of resources. He was clear that every individual could contribute towards a nation’s development with a good education in economics and statistics, even quoting Amartya Sen’s treatise on droughts and poverty for good measure !

In the interview, he went on to say that farmers should be equipped to compete in a globally competitive world. He identified post harvest management as a problem area and advocated the need for farmers’ supermarkets. He lamented the fact that farmers lacked a strong information network and stressed the need for a strong processing industry. At a industry body seminar on agriculture, these statements might sound like platitudes and homilies but coming from this young boy, every word struck home.

Yes, there were doses of idealism but the understanding of them stemmed from his real world, where his father toiled as a farmer. The solutions were distant but not out of sight. The panel collectively felt here was someone who could convert some of that idealism into practice, following a good education. Incidentally, the boy, not yet 20, had applied for an undergraduate course.

The views recorded here form the writer’s impression of the interview proceedings and the candidates as he saw them. They may not necessarily concur with the other panelists who were senior and far more accomplished, to say the very least.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Bangalored, On The Road


(Pic Courtesy: Rediff)

Our car has not moved for roughly 30 minutes and there is no sign it will in the next 30. The young driver at the wheel seems quite frustrated himself and jabs the horn intermittently, as if the sound would cause vehicles ahead to miraculously make way. His frustration adds to your own. Its past 8 pm and I’m already running late for a dinner appointment in central Bangalore.

Earlier, on emerging from the airport terminal building, for a moment, the weather actually felt like a Bangalore your correspondent once knew. Once we turned off the airport driveway and hit the main road going into the city one was reminded, once again, that this is not the same city. No way.

We are stuck, jammed solid. A mess like this in Bombay, no stranger to traffic jams, would qualify as a big one. At the end of it, as you finally reached the point where the problem appeared to originate, you would expect to find an overturned car with glass strewn all over, a burning bus or cops with bullet proof jackets turning over bodies after an `encounter' killing.

You want to gaze out and connect in some way with the inmates of neighbouring cars and riders on motorcycles, to see if their expressions betray a similar sense of being trapped or nonchalance, if this is like any other day. The dark sun-film which tourist cars in this part of the world have a tendency to slap on, effectively prevents that.

Iron Skeletons

You want to switch off the engine and air-conditioner, roll down the windows and take in some fresh Bangalore air. And then you think again, of the emissions from the idling vehicles around you. The good thing about Bombay is that vehicular pollution is terrible, but you know precisely how much. You desist from using the cellphone any more, saving the battery for some catastrophic moment.

This is not the first time one has been stuck on this stretch and surely will not be the last. The problem ought to be at the Indiranagar signal a kilometer or so ahead, an intersection which needed a flyover perhaps a decade ago. In February 2003, the Bangalore Development Authority (BDA) thought as much and decided to build one.

It should have been completed in April 2004 but what stands there now, instead of a simple Rs 26 crore flyover, are a few concrete pillars and the iron skeletons of a few pillars. Its as if this part of the city suddenly saw a regime change causing the previous rulers to abandon and flee.

The Problem..& Solution

The story of the Indiranagar flyover is symptomatic of the problems and the solutions to Bangalore’s crumbling infrastructure. The problems are the same as any city, including Bombay. But the solutions, unlike Bombay, lie in its highly charged citizenry. If Bangalore is able to manage its infrastructure mess, it is the people who can take credit. Not many Indian cities or towns can claim that.

Why didn’t the flyover get completed on schedule ? Well, it’s a familiar tale. The BDA fought with the bridge contractor, the UP State Bridge Construction Company (UPSBCC), ostensibly for not honouring its time and project commitments. Then, unusually, the BDA terminated UPSBC’s contract. Not surprisingly, the contractor dragged the BDA to court.

Elsewhere, little would have happened. Not so in Bangalore. Recently, on June 7, some 250 students of the New Horizon English School staged a silent protest on the streets near Indiranagar. “We demand action,” said their simple banners. Their move did not shame any authorities into any action except, as subsequent events would show, make some conscientious High Court judge take note.

The Public Affairs Centre, headed by the mercurial Samuel Paul spearheaded this agitation. In true Bangalore-IT style, the call to arms was put up on the PAC website ( Apart from the 250 students, a fromer chief secretary, police commissioner, cricketer and an artist were involved. They also submitted a petition to the chief minister who in characteristic style must have promised `to look into it’. Blaming a court case for inaction is the easiest recourse for most, if not all, non-performing governments and politicians.

Didn’t Plan For A Jam

Co-incidentally, your correspondent got delayed by the protest as well, passing by on the way towards the Leela Palace Hotel for a Nasscom seminar that morning. While the first reaction was to curse the cause of the slowdown, watching the young and old people with black arm bands standing in silent protest, one felt consoled, even happy. At least one national news network was there, filming live.

Rajeeva Ratna Shah, member-secretary, Planning Commission, bound for the same venue, was caught too. On the way from the airport, he could have saved a good 20 minutes had he had alighted from his car and crossed the road to the Leela instead of going up to Indiranagar junction and U-turning it back. He did not and hundreds of India’s BPO czars, ranging from GE Capital and E-Serve to WNS and EXL, fidgeted till he arrived, more than half hour late for his keynote address at 9.30 am.

Nasscom chairman Kiran Karnik used the opportunity to make another case for better infrastructure in the city even as he apologized for Shah’s arrival. Shah himself talked of the Government’s support to Bangalore, but only in what seemed to be an afterthought after a rather long slide presentation where the key point was: a manpower shortage is around the corner for the ITES-BPO industry, 2.6 lakh less workers than the required 10 lakh workers by 2009; Nasscom subsequently refuted that.

If Shah had instead spoken off how the government could manage infrastructure, quickly, he would have had a far more grateful and attentive audience. The IT & ITES industry recognize the manpower shortage perhaps better than the government does and is working furiously to battle it; Nasscom and most large companies are working on training programmes, certification modules, talking to educational institutions and so on. But they can’t build flyovers, at least not yet.

The dapper Karnataka IT secretary Shankaralinge Gowda was late too, apparently he stopped to make peace with the protestors at Indiranagar junction. Gowda is not smug, quite unlike his present political bosses, and gives the impression of a man who is working to find a solution. Like all good bureaucrats, he’s armed with facts and figures and facing him in a debate is not a good idea unless you are too. But he too has been unable to get the flyover up.

Moving On..Slowly

There is some movement in the cars up ahead and my energetic driver whips the car to the left and squeezes it into a gap that just opened up. Another agonizing 15 minutes pass before we reach the end of Airport road and the beginning of MG road, now closer to Taj Westend, the destination for the evening. The traffic is no less fierce here but its moving.

Late last year, in a public debate, I asked Infosys CFO Mohandas Pai on whether the IT industry should invest in infrastructure since the government had obviously failed in doing so. The man lost his cool. “We (private sector) have generated employment and contribute so much to the city by way of revenue. It’s the government’s job to build the infrastructure. If we have to finance the infrastructure too, why do we need the government?.”

He may be right but being right is not the solution. The Indiranagar flyover is one of Bangalore’s many problems, the still, still-born International Airport at Devanahalli is yet another. As is the Mysore Expressway, all projects stuck for no apparent reason except that someone has not been kept happy.

In the same debate, both PAC's Samuel Paul and Nandi Infrastructure (the folks behind the Mysore Expressway) MD Ashok Kheny felt that the private sector should take charge. Kheny felt industry should wrest the task of development into its hands while PAC's Samuel felt the private sector needed to contribute more than just more income for cars for which there were no roads.

There is one example already. Right in Bangalore, the IT companies and the National Highway Authority have joined hands to build a Rs 450 crore flyover to Electronics City. Having realised complaining was a waste of time, the solution-oriented IT giants decided to put money down. Now to see whether and when this project sees the light of day.

The Court Steps In

For a poster city, things are not moving fast enough, note that every head of state visiting India includes Bangalore in his or her itinerary, even capital city Delhi seems an afterthought. Bangaloreans are proud and working hard to ensure things move but the Government seems particularly uncaring. Bangalore still can be rescued, unlike Bombay which is going the Calcutta way. Meanwhile, only the judiciary seems to offer some respite.

Two weeks after the citizen’s protest and the Nasscom forum, the Karnataka High Court rapped the BDA and held it responsible for the delay in completion in the Airport Road flyover. The Court also set aside the BDA order that had terminated the contract. Last week, perhaps the day that followed the Airport road jam, the BDA said work would resume and announced a new completion date: August 2006.

Lots of people and organisations are concerned and working for Bangalore. Here are some links: I particularly recommend the first two.

PS: The previous post expressed architectural dismay over the collapse of the twin towers and the fact that it was not reinstated in that form, like one would over any felled monument, it was not a comment on terrorism or the fighting of it !

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Freedom For The Twin Towers


An Image From The Past

The Future of Freedom
(An architectural rendering, Skidmore,Owings & Merrill LLP)

A new tower, replacing the felled, twin World Trade Centre towers will soon rise from downtown Manhattan. Freedom Tower will be 70 stories, 1,776 feet tall and will culminate in a spire which in turn will shoot a beam of light into the sky. The decision to freeze on the Tower marks the end of much debate on what and whether anything should substitute the WTC twin towers.

This writer, for one, has strongly felt that America should have rebuilt the two towers or created something that was close to the original. Symbolism apart, there is nothing on earth that can possibly replace the sheer majesty that the 110-storey towers represented, the raw power and might that New York radiated thanks to these monuments. Perhaps its the force of the first impression which makes one feel this way.

It was a biting cold, windy day. And pouring sheets of rain. For a first time visitor to New York, one couldn't have felt less welcome. The flight into John F Kennedy Airport, New York earlier in the evening was on time and my first encounter with US immigration was, well, uneventful. The heavyset officer with a balding pate and thick moustache barely looked up though as he rattled off the mandatory questions. “What brings you here sir ?”. “How long will you be staying ?,” was next. A resounding thunk followed and the passport was handed back.

Old & Musty

JFK airport felt and smelt old and musty. There was an almost dreary 70s feel to the place. Most of the airport officials I passed by looked like they had been at their posts for ever, the men sported paunches and appeared healthy, perhaps fit as well. The customs officers stood imposingly in groups of three and four alongside the exits, but appeared engrossed in themselves, perhaps the usual evening banter before adjourning to the pub nearby, if there was one. The time felt right, it was 8 pm.

JFK has been in the throes of renovation (The $9.4 billion JFK Redevelopment Programme) for what must be a decade now and this was clearly the middle of it all, given the work-in-progress detours as one walked towards the exit. A young doctor couple, my hosts for the evening were waiting and waved excitedly as I emerged into the arrival lounge. Of course, in all arrival lounges and halls in most airports of the world, only a handful of people seem to be waiting for anyone. Contrast that to the merry bedlam at our airports.

My luggage, a single cabin bag, was yanked from my hand, quick pleasantries were exchanged and we were through the main exit and out of the building. The next moment, we were being whipped by the rain. Coming from London, the cold and rain were bearable but the howling wind was not; a hastily donned wind cheater failed miserably in its designated purpose. We darted across a few covered parking lots and then headed out into an open one, getting drenched all the way.

Battle On The Expressway

The car was soon located and after some customary fumbling with keys we were in, me at the back and the couple in the front. The engine mercifully caught at first turn, the heater was switched to full blast and we began rolling out. My destination was the Port Authority bus terminal in mid-town Manhattan on 40th street where I would board a Greyhound for Buffalo to meet up with other friends. That was 10 hours from New York. If I reached the terminal.

The couple had moved to New York only recently from elsewhere in the US and their locating JFK airport in this weather, I was reminded somewhat jocularly, involved considerable struggle. I thanked them profusely for making it, once again - I felt genuinely grateful. Outside, the rain continued to beat down as the windshield wipers now began swinging in rapid arcs. The usual expressway signs were appearing and then falling behind. I knew Manhattan was 17 miles or so from JFK but little else.

A crucial intersection was coming up and the lady-friend began focussing on the maps with great intensity. “Should I turn or go straight ?” my friend on the wheel barked. “Hang on.” “Tell me quickly, we are reaching the exit ?”. “I can’t concentrate if you keep shouting,” was the retort. “Is this it ?” The answer never came because we seemed to have reached the exit in question and my friend swung right. A battle royale erupted on the front seats. I took to identifying the models of the cars flashing past on the other side of the road.

My silence obviously caused some embarrassment or that’s how long intra-couple highway routing fights usually lasted on American expressways because the argument soon died down. After a brief silence and some introspection, the couple announced we would take a slightly longer route but would still make it to the Port Authority bus terminal by 9.30 or so, in time for my Greyhound connection.

New York At Night

Looking back, it must have been the Brooklyn Bridge that we were approaching, on the Brooklyn-Queens expressway. Maybe we had missed the Williamsburg bridge, a shorter road to mid-town Manhattan and hence the skirmish upfront. Whatever the reason, we were now clearly approaching the bridge, standing still in all its charm and glory, since the time it was built in 1883.

“We are on the bridge,” announced my friend. I leaned forward to grab my first glimpse of the New York City skyline. We had clearly moved faster than I thought, the tall buildings of downtown Manhattan, so far seen in movies, night shots over the bridge and innumerable posters was suddenly in front of us. And rising majestically from the huge clump of massive towers were the even bigger twin World Trade Centre towers.

The blinding rain made clear sight difficult and I jerked from windshield to side window view back to windshield. There seemed nothing on earth that could be as perfectly still, straight and striking as the two towers, with their sheer, imposing size and perfect symmetry. For a moment, the two giant sentinels seemed to fill the entire night sky, with the office lights twinkling away like distant stars, all the way up.

If America represented might, size, the domination of man over nature, the architectural genius, the dreams and desires that could convert mere office blocks into massive twin, concrete creations that shot upwards into the sky, the towers seemed the convergence of it all. It was a symbol of America, a symbol modern immigrants must be endeared to. And then, almost as quickly as it had appeared, it was gone, like an astral projection that had been switched off. The next moment, we were gliding into a traffic jam, in Manhattan.

9/11, Before & After

In a later trip, while visiting the New York Stock Exchange in particular and the Wall Street area in general, I once again chanced upon the twin towers, this time in broad daylight. They appeared no less imposing than before and one was tempted to go to the top, though one look at the long, snaking line of tourists and I gave up. The next time I really had a good look at the towers was on TV, back in Bombay on a balmy evening, minutes after the first plane had crashed into one of the towers.

Two years later, I was back on Ground Zero, walking around, watching the ceremonies in progress, of the second anniversary of 9/11 being observed. Children of many who lost their lives, particularly brave men and women working for the Fire Department of New York and the Police were reciting messages and prayers. A lady police officer stood next to me. She was solemn but did not seem unduly affected. I asked if she was here when it happened. “No, I worked upstate earlier,” she said somewhat matter of factly.

I wanted to engage someone in a debate on what should replace the twin towers though this clearly seemed an inopportune moment. Groups of young men and women were distributing CDs of religious songs. A block away, outside St. Paul's Church, which remained unscathed and housed most of the rescue operations after the blast, a smartly dressed man in a suit was imploring everyone to join some church. And then around noon, the low-key ceremonies were over and everyone started dispersing.

New Yorkers and others did debate the matter of the replacement though, accompanied with regular bouts of architectural controversy. The people of New York, collectively or otherwise, have chosen the single Freedom Tower. The image of the twin towers on that cold night will remain seared in my memory. The new Tower will perhaps make up in spirit, what it lacks in grandeur.

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