1815 IST, September 11, 2001. 6:30 to 7 p.m. was break time.
I had been preparing for the Test of English as a Foreign Language and the Graduate Record Examination for three weeks now.
The exams were later next month and the pressure to do well intense.
If I failed to get a good score, my parents would have me married, squashing my dreams of pursuing journalism professionally.
Music was my only saviour right then. But not having a music system at home made me turn to the television.
An image caught my attention: clouds of smoke billowing from two deceptively familiar towers from the popular TV serial Friends.
Was it? No! Oh my God! No!
I switched to CNN. The World Trade Centre was no more.
Terrorists had attacked America. The invincible, powerful, glorious land of opportunities had woken to a black Tuesday.
It was sheer panic on every news channel. And it seeped into me.
Thousands of miles from Ground Zero, I could feel the tension, the tears, the agony, the shock.
Sirens blowing -- that was the only sound.
Statistics began pouring in a while later and one could see the Indian broadcast media focusing on the number of desis trapped in the debris. Names and numbers from agencies that employed Indians in the twin towers were being splashed across. Several discussion panels were being hurriedly arranged.
The talks were centred not so much on what had happened, but its aftermath.
Everyone was awake. I remember not having dinner that night. The sombreness of the event had touched everybody.
For me, it was a state of anxiousness.
Here I was, up all nights practicing American English, quantitative reasoning and verbal analogies, and there America was burning. A hundred possibilities raced through my mind.
Perhaps, I could just continue freelancing for magazines. Or do a course in India somewhere. Maybe I could just listen to my parents for once, and get "settled"…
To take my mind off the chaos being broadcast, I went online. Although we didn't have Facebook or Twitter then, every single news website had only one headline: America Under Attack.
Online, the emphasis was on "I am safe Amma and Appa" messages. The STAR news message board was inundated with frantic one-liners from the kin of those studying or settled in the U.S.
Rediff.com had put up a special chat room to facilitate such messages. MSNBC was broadcasting live coverage of events in downtown Manhattan, especially for its Indian audiences.
I distinctly remember CNN's website being down that night. They had put up the bare minimum they could on their homepage. That was their way of coping with the whopping traffic the site was receiving.
The Net only added to my panic. What was I to do? Would my parents agree on sending me to the US after this? Would the American embassy shut down? Would I even get a visa? Would there be terror strikes in India now? Would I be killed just like all those people who rammed into the towers?
Questions -- so many of them! Answers – none.
It was only after I got an email from someone in Vadodra, Gujarat that I began thinking what the tragedy meant for others. The e-mail requested me to forward the message to as many people in the U.S. I knew, and bid them to do the same, in an effort to reach a relative in New York who was not answering his phone or responding to emails. This was a human connection. It was not so much about the politics or the economics of the world in frenzy – it was about people.
I felt rather small that moment. Thousands of people had lost someone close to them in a tragedy the modern world had never witnessed before. The barbarism was unparalleled – and here I was thinking how it would affect my plans.
This selfishness was extended to the way the local media was working, too. Although the news was 'America's nightmare' the stories were about 'India's concerns'.
For America this was all so new. For Indians facing terrorism for a long time, it was just one of those really bad days. Not that the media did not sympathize. Not that the common man did not care. But we had our own issues.
What implications would this attack have on Indo-American relations? Would there be increased cross-border firing? How would Pakistan react? Would America drop bombs on Afghanistan now? Would there be a Third World War? These were just some of the questions popping up.
A national daily ran a report next morning. It said reserve battalions in Jammu and Kashmir have been deployed and the borders with Pakistan and Bangladesh and those in peninsular India were on high alert following the attack on the U.S. The headline of the piece was "Terror strikes India."
The implications of the terrorist attack on the world's greatest superpower were far reaching -- more than the masterminds behind this attack, could ever think of.
I've witnessed eight anniversaries in the U.S. since and the memories are still as vivid, the pain still as fresh.
Only now, we're turning against each other with more hatred and greater passion.
This country is seeing more intolerance, more skepticism, and more unrest. We're letting the terrorists finally achieve what they set out to do on September 11, 2001. We're helping move their agenda forward by letting that terror live inside us.
Our first instinct then, as it is now, was to look out for our own. To preserve what we held dear to our hearts. To do what served our self-interest best.
But not at the price of democracy. And never by putting humanity on the line.
Sitting halfway across the world, it was those images, those stories of men, women, children and families that struck a chord in everyone's hearts ... I didn't know anyone personally but I found myself crying at the unnecessary tragedy that had introduced itself into these people's lives.
And today, sitting in the country where it all happened, I find myself shaking my head at the unnecessary debates about a mosque being built on Ground Zero. My mind doesn't even know how to react to plans of burning the Quran.
I hear the constant chatter about how fearful we are, or should be. I read the tweets, the headlines, the barrage of messages that tell us to never forget 9/11.
We won't. We can't.
What happened this day nine years ago will be etched forever in the hearts and minds of everyone who witnessed it, no matter what part of the world they were in.
But it was the past. And we have the power to choose the future.
How will we honor the memories of the lives that were lost on 9/11/2001? By "avenging" the death of almost 3,000 Americans (remember they were not just "white" Christians, but also Jews, Sikhs, Italians, Indians)? Or, by recognizing that we are a nation of immigrants and in our diversity lies our strength?
I still see reports from India every day of countless soldiers in Kashmir falling prey to a political battle between two neighboring countries. As diplomats engage in a war of words, young men from small cities kill and are killed by nameless strangers.
Nameless strangers -- that's what they are to me, to each other, to you.
Nameless, faceless strangers -- those 3,000 people who died on 9/11 ... that's what they are to most of you.
It's senseless why those people died. It's asinine that so many people around the world continue to be killed in terror attacks every day. But it's even more senseless to fuel that fire with our own ignorance and fears.
9/11 brought a lot of people together -- let's remember the outpouring of love and support America received as a nation. Let's not forget how it united this country, irrespective of religion, race, or class.
Let's focus on the good.
Let today be an anniversary that celebrates courage and humanity.
Let it be a day of remembrance and renewal.
Let it be a day of healing, of understanding, of tolerance.
Let 9/11 stand for something that's strong and beautiful.
Let it be about the people, not the politics, the powerplay, or the world religions.