I was in our living room in Bombay on September 11, 2001, having arrived 4 days earlier from the UK after two weeks of traipsing around Wales and Snowdonia and parts of Northern France and Belgium with my cousin in her cabriolet with the top down (the cabriolet not the cousin), for it was mostly sunny that year both in England and France. Little did I know as I went through European checkpoints that my identity would soon change from suspected Illegal Alien to suspected Terrorist. I’m not sure which I prefer; of course I’d rather it was neither, but at least the former elicits some pity whereas the latter evokes torrents of rage! I was on a sabbatical in India, one of those cherished breaks academics relish because it gives us a chance to do some research in a remote corner of the world on a remote topic only other academics would appreciate; in this instance I was there to make a documentary film on Indian theatre to bring back to my students and colleagues so they could see what theatre-making was like on the other side of the world. I nurtured this thought that someone would care and I also had a vague notion it would help in my attempts to get promoted to full professor, an effete title that really means very little (even with the salary increase) in actual terms; it certainly doesn’t make you a better teacher (nothing does if you aren’t already by the time you’ve spent a few years doing the thing) and the only advantage I can gather is that it bestows on you a kind of hollow gravitas during a gathering of other professors, although no-one knows whether or not you are unless you find a way to slip it into the conversation. But I was in India to help promote some understanding of foreign cultures, reasoning that it might help students and colleagues extend the boundaries of their acquaintance with theatre beyond Midwestern borders, which could be a good thing. I had no idea when I started that the whole idea of globalism would suddenly be redefined in the most violent and shocking way.
My mother’s living room isn’t small, but it isn’t big by American standards, large enough to accommodate a sofa set, some side tables, a wooden easy chair with sliding extensions to rest outstretched legs (in which my father used to recline and in which I always feel like an imposter because it’s daddy’s chair and he filled it so grandly), and a piano with cracked yellowing ivories rarely in perfect tune because the old tuner who would turn up every few years (without advance notice because neither he nor we had a telephone) had died one year and we didn’t know until someone mentioned it to my mother; and a TV set which we were watching cursorily as we chatted, my mother and I, about my brief sojourn in the UK as we munched on savories I had bought at Fortnum and Mason’s one afternoon in London when I left the store and ran into Timothy Dalton in a side street as he was waiting to cross and said to him I liked his performance as Rochester in Jane Eyre, at which he looked quizzically at me in a way that told me he wasn’t used to anyone referencing anything other than James Bond when talking to him; but I had liked his Rochester (and didn’t care too much for his Bond, which was much too saturnine and actually quite apropos for any Bronte), although I wonder if part of my admiration had to do with the fact that I was surprised 007 was able to stretch his acting muscles beyond car chases and plane jumping.
Life felt so normal that week before the world changed. Mummy and I shooting the breeze about the rest of the family and all the places I had visited, particularly those landmarks from our English poetry primers—Banbury, with its statue of the Lady on her white horse in the city square and the immortal verse printed for all to read. I could barely contain my delight when I happened upon the river Dee (The Miller of the Dee was a poem I had once performed when the world was young), and the poignant Beddgelert in Gwynedd, Wales, the grave of a faithful dog mistakenly slain by his master Llywelyn who thought the blood on its muzzle belonged to the baby but was in fact from a wolf that Gelert the hound had killed to protect the infant heir! Then there was the Memorial Arch in Ypres, Belgium with lists of the Gorkha Brigade, those brave Indians who died all over Europe in the service of their colonial masters! I’m glad I shared all these memories with my mother in those first few days because it seemed like everybody in every city around the globe had more or less the same conversation for the next months as the term Nine-Eleven crashed into the international lexicon, even though the usage everywhere would have been Eleven-Nine! That particular evening, my brother Derek, who had just left to hang out with his friends, called (we had a phone in the house now, after ten years on the waiting list) and said, “Hey, switch to CNN; America is being attacked!” And between CNN and the BBC we watched it unfold, hardly realizing what a profound effect it would have not only on internationalism but also on our own identities. Once I had reassured myself that my family back in the States was safe I tried to sift through interminable news analyses that told me nothing (they never do, these so-called media experts as they hammer away at the same points endlessly). Then came those first images of Bush stuttering his way through hastily summoned press conferences, as new names like Al Qaeda and Bin Laden announced their presence like unwanted visitors here to stay.
Continuing on my travels I was struck by the depth of feelings I encountered, not just about the bombings but about the perception of America among different people. Although many of them had experienced several similar incidents in their own cities (what we may have failed to realize is that terrorist attacks were old hat to so many, having occurred with regularity in most places around the world) they still found time and emotions to empathize with the hapless victims who died, even as they looked askance at US foreign policies which, many reasoned, had led to the incidents. But the overflowing fount of concern and compassion for the reverberating effects on a nation and the world drowned the callous voices blaming the politics. For several weeks Everyman was an American. I was a newly-minted US citizen thrown into the cauldron of a post-nine-eleven world, thousands of miles away from my family and new home, yet in the midst of my family and old home, confronting questions of identity and place, moving uneasily in the liminal spaces where nationalities cross, forced to defend and attack the statements thrown up by conversations around strange and familiar coffee tables, street corners, and bars. I remember fervently hoping this would be a time of rapprochement and peace-offerings, a time of healing and new terms of international relations—there just seemed to be so much goodwill even amidst the rubble of terrorism.