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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The weeks that were and the world that was

The last few weeks have seen us cross the anniversary of the defining moment of the decade, the fall of the twin towers. Five years ago I was in a cycle rickshaw on my way to a bar, when my sister called me with the news. I immediately ran up to the bar and grabbing a fistful of salted peanuts and a cold beer, settled down to watch the second plane hit the towers. It seemed so unreal but not unexpected. What used to be surprising to us was that how did america escape for so long. We had seen the rage of the terrorists. The people who were drunk on easy money, easy guns, easy narcotics and easy glory. We knew they burnt and destroyed and killed so many of us indians. We also knew that they considered us small fry and what they really hated was the other culture. The culture of the west, with its blue jeans, its rock music, its movies where everyone had sex all the time, its free environment which worked without the hand of god. It was tough for them to invoke religous beliefs and the religious way, when on the other side of the world, america seemed to be having one endless party without any need to include god in the debate.

Soon we will not even remember that world that passed away on 9/11. For a few years there was hope for everyone. Extremists, terrorists, rightists, leftists, militarists, fundamentalists, industrialists, economists all had been rendered trivial. The world had realised that we didnt need a bunch of fancy jargon, we just needed to connect and work together and everything could work just fine. We didnt need a president who was bold and courageous and a shrewd military tactician, we just needed someone sensible who would put in 8 hours in the office and do his job.

In 98 I had moved to Lucknow, the capital of one of the provinces that Vishal Bharadwaj calls "states of abject lawlessness". I had a degree from india's best college, a 98 percentile test score in americas favourite graduate test and fairly well-off parents who were only to willing to see their son go to harvard or something. Yet, inspite of all these options, I went to Lucknow and lived there for two years. Those were the years of the dot com boom. 1998 -2000. I understood what was happening, albeit only as far as a guy just out of college could understand it. So I went to Lucknow and lived among the bhaisabs and the bhaiyas, the good citizens of lucknow for two years. All I did was make sure I checked my email everyday. That was my only rule. At first i would get one message a week. Still I checked it. I wrote to friends, sent emails to magazines, surfed the web, chatted online, made a website, preached the power of the coming webolution to anyone who would listen.

Those were good times and I would experience first hand the power of the new digital revolution. Sitting in Lucknow I stayed close to my friends in the US. I even made some new friends all over the world online, some of whom are still close to me today. I wrote articles for a magazine based out of bombay and was invited down there to spend some time at their office. I researched on the internet and was able to do cutting edge graphic design and 3D work which still amazes me, I met girls in chatrooms and went to other cities on weekends to meet them and date them, I consulted for IT companies in Lucknow and helped traditional manufacturers get new techniques from the internet, I helped people make their webpages and I helped businesses computerize their operations. Oh, and I build buildings too. And I drank a lot and roamed far and afield on my trusty kawasaki. I made friends in the inner city, in the muslim areas and spent many happy evenings drinking tea and discussing life. It was so much fun.

That world that I knew didnt last long. In 2001, the planes crashed into the towers. The towers fell. The elections in Florida earlier had given a lot of us a sinking feeling in our stomachs. We knew the leadership of the free world was in the hands of the USA, and when something wierd like the florida elections/the bush-gore chaos happened, we felt uneasy. The freedoms we took for granted no longer seemed secure. If democracy and transparency and decency and legality could be in doubt in the USA, then what hope for the rest of the world. That had made us uneasy, but we hoped the momentum of the clinton years would carry on and be difficult to turn back. It was not to be. There were a series of crashes. The nasdaq crashed, the dot com boom crashed and suddenly it seemed the 80's were back.

An Indian airliner was hijacked and flown to Kandahar, Afghanistan. The government in Afghanistan was a friend of the government in Pakistan. The government in Pakistan was a friend of the government in the USA. Our plane was standing in Afghanistan and we were watching it on television. We believed that the community of nations would not let us down. The United Nations would condemn the acts of the Afghan Government, the Taliban. The US would lean on Pakistan and Taliban, and our plane would be set free. It was only when the hijackers took a knife and stabbed Rupen Katiyal in the chest several times, that we understood that we were on our own and this was serious.

Masood Azhar, Omar Sheikh and Mushtaq Ahmed Zarga were taken out of indian jails and sent to Afghanistan along with oodles of cash. We got our people and our plane back, except for Rupen, who I think was on his honeymoon when the hijack happened. We felt uneasy because it foretold something. It foretold that the world was not the free and fair place that we thought. The world allowed places like Afghanistan to exist, where the government was in cahoots with hijackers and terrorists. They were madmen and they were friends of pakistan who was a friend of america. That was wierd. We knew they were madmen for sure when they broke down 2000 year old statues of Buddha which had existed peacefully and werent really doing anything to threaten them.

This wasnt the world I knew in Lucknow. It had changed.

Omar Sheikh
whom we had to release, went on to plan and carry out the killing of Daniel Pearl, a young wall street journal reporter and then released the video of how they cut his throat for the world to see. This raised him so high in the estimation of the taliban leadership that he became a right hand man to Osama Bin Laden. This London School of Economics trained, urbane british muslim, became the financial mastermind for the Al Qaeda. Legend has it that he betted on airline stocks by shorting them before 9-11 and made more than enough money on this single transaction on Dubai stock exchange to finance the entire operation. He has been cited as the key financier of Mohammed Atta.

This man, whom we had in our jails and were forced to let go. This man who pioneered the art of making video films of murders. This man who financed the key hijacker in 9-11. This man is in a jail in Pakistan, still awaiting his sentence to be carried out, still waiting for his appeals to be heard and still meeting and talking to would be terrorists. The world has changed a lot since he was an arm wrestling champion and master debater at the London School of Economics. He is still around to influence events and so are his leaders in the taliban and al-qaeda. It is a strange world. It would seem that in 5 years something would have been done. America would have meted out justice, but no, theres something else happening. Theres a war in Iraq to take care of first. The world really has changed.

What really has changed?
The Internet still chugs along, witness this blog.
The world gets closer and closer together, witness the global supply chain and outsourcing.

but no, there are some things that have changed.

Chevron is back as the largest corporation. The new economy pretenders have been pushed back and the old barons are back in the saddle.

The pope makes speeches where he shows a serious lack of concern for the feelings of other religions.

Israel feels free to destroy a neighbour from the air. It bombs bridges, roads, power stations. Its like trying to starve someone to death to cure them. The world watches.

Iraq is what it is. Too many dead bodies. Too many atrocities. Too many feuds. Too many guns.

India loses its voice. It now meekly echoes whatever the US tells it.

Strong leaders, Religious leaders, Military leaders are now much in demand. Moderates all over the world who were just doing a quiet job of governing are being pushed aside by the need of the hour. The need of the hour seems to be very confrontationist. The one world - one mission - one voice - one internet - one idea days seem so long ago.

5 years ago the towers fell. Now on my first visit to America, I see the changes and the ones that will come. The voices on TV are shrill, the Flag waving is grimfaced, the hole in the ground in ground zero is still a hole in the ground. Somewhere someone is not doing a regular 8 hour a day job of running things. There is less hope. There is less freedom. There are more checks. There are more warnings. We have now started to look over our shoulder more and less at the stars above.

the world is truly changing...welcome to the brave new world.

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