9/11 is a chapter of world history that continues to be written even 20 years after the Twin Towers of New York's World Trade Centre were blown up in a terror attack. I was 16, barely out of school, when the tragedy unfolded on my television screen in 2001. Now, I am 36, still struggling to understand the extent of harm that has been caused, not only in the United States and in Afghanistan, but all over the world, because the cycle of vioflence is yet to cease.
Do you wonder what happened to the people in Manhattan who survived the attack but saw the towers crumble before their own eyes? How do they feel each year on the anniversary of this event? What are the stories that they tell and retell about the day that changed everything? Have they been able to process the trauma, and move on? I read Kushal M Choksi's book On A Wing And A Prayer (2021) to find answers, and I was satisfied.
If you are looking for rage, blame and retribution, this book will give you nothing to hold on to. Published by Penguin, it is about the author's inner journey after he narrowly escaped death, and got the opportunity to steer his life in a new direction. He does not even name Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. He is focused entirely on his own transformation. If you are allergic to the self-help genre, this book could be cumbersome for you to go through.
Choksi describes himself as "a hyper-ambitious Indian immigrant" who was chasing the American dream by working as a trader with Goldman Sachs, the investment bank and financial services company. He landed the job shortly after graduating from Carnegie Mellon University, and happened to be at work on the day when commercial flights controlled by hijackers crashed into the Twin Towers, killing airline passengers and people in the buildings.
Read the book if you want to know exactly how he managed to get out of that "unruly mix of glass splinters, cement chips, shreds of insulation and paper scraps, coming down in a grey haze." The speed at which it all happened was too much to bear, so the sequence of events kept replaying in his mind for a long time. He also had trouble sleeping, and seemingly innocuous sounds were enough to jolt him and take him back to the site of the terror attack.
His professional career, woven around crunching numbers and making mental checklists, did not seem to make much sense after he had witnessed the fragility of his own life at such close quarters. He decided to go away from New York City for a while and spend time with Alak — his friend — who then lived in Raleigh, North Carolina. Since all aircrafts in the US were grounded, he had to make a road trip using an inter-state overnight bus service.
Choksi was "perhaps the only brown-skinned fellow" on the midnight bus. He recalled feeling "violated with the piercing looks of disdain and disapproval from fellow passengers" and "discriminated against in the country I had come to love and cherish so much — especially for what it stood for." He felt like screaming, "I may have the same skin colour as those guys, but besides that I have nothing to do with this." He decided it was better to keep his mouth shut.
The author does not dwell much on racism and capitalism but makes his point subtly. Before he reached his destination, his boss called to ask when he could report back to work. He was shocked that, in under 24 hours, the company had set up "a command centre and make-shift trading floor." He writes, "After all, the expected jump in volatility would present numerous opportunities for money to be made once the markets opened in a couple of days."
The book does a fine job of portraying his internal turmoil. The brush with death made him acutely aware of how impermanent everything was, so it was difficult to find any meaning or purpose in everyday activities. He wanted to give up his job, travel, and make a difference.
At the same time, he felt extremely helpless because he did not have any clear plan to fall back on. The things that had once made him feel safe and in control did not have that effect any longer. Choksi tried to get rid of his restlessness by driving fast cars, running marathons, cooking, and playing music, but nothing gave him joy or peace of mind until he did a guided meditation with Sri Sri Ravi Shankar at an Art of Living satsang in a New York hotel.
The author's ability to laugh at himself, even in his most desperate moments, is endearing. He wrote about the vanity that entered his spiritual practice, how judgmental he became, and how regularly he started commenting on "the energy of people" around him. He began to acquire harem parents, japa malas, healing crystals, and herbal supplements. These descriptions made me cringe with embarrassment; they reminded me of a phase in my life.
The second half of the book is almost entirely about Choksi's relationship with Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, whom he considers his guru. Initially, I assumed that this section may not hold my interest but the author proved me wrong. The author engages with existential questions that go beyond a specific tradition, practice, or teacher. His approach is inviting precisely because he does not set himself up as an expert. He shares his own curiosities and confusions.
Though the book is primarily set in the United States, it will also take you to Canada, Germany, Colombia, Sri Lanka, and India. You will enjoy it if you let yourself go on the ride, and see it as an account of how faith helped Choksi get his life in order after 9/11 and kept him grounded through his ups and downs as an entrepreneur. However, if you treat this book as a definitive map for your own search, it may keep you thirsty for clarity and fulfilment.
Chintan Girish Modi is a Mumbai-based writer