Opinion

The Great Debate

Jupiter and Joseph

By L. Somi Roy
September 6, 2011

The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming book After the Fall: New Yorkers Remember September 2001 and the Years That Followed. Edited by Mary Marshall Clark, Peter Bearman, Catherine Ellis, and Stephen Drury Smith, “After the Fall” is an unprecedented cross-section of New Yorkers telling the story of how their lives changed due to Trade Center events and their aftermath, selected from interviews for the Columbia University Center for Oral History 9/11 Oral History Project.

Interview of L. Somi Roy by Gerry Albarelli

I was born in Imphal, which is the capital of Manipur. People often ask me, “Where do you come from?” And I say Manipur. And I wait for the silence that follows. Usually there is a silence. There’s very little knowledge about this area, even in India. It’s on the border of Burma. It’s a very small, discrete culture. People are of mixed Tibetan and Burmese ancestry, and throwing in a bit of—depending on how far you want to go back—the Mon and the Khmers and the Thais and so on. So that’s where I grew up. 

So do you want to talk about September 11, is it okay?

Things never really quite die; you never quite lose people in your lives. I remember on 9/11 I was living in a loft downtown in the South Street Seaport area and, of course, that was totally cordoned off. There was no power and there was this dust everywhere. For some reason I came back home almost every night, like a homing pigeon. I was [getting around] on my bicycle. I’d always hated cargo pants but I really found the advantage of cargo pants that summer. In the weeks after 9/11, I had the cell phone in one pocket and water in the other, and my charger, and flashlight, and my PalmPilot. I was totally connected. And there I was on my bicycle, going up and down the East River Park because that was the only route where you didn’t have to go through a lot of police [road] blocks. But I used to come home every night and there was no power.

When you don’t have power you wake up early. You become more diurnal; you wake up with the sun; you sleep with the sun. So I woke up very, very early one time. I remember my batteries were kind of running low on my cell phone and I was thinking of Jupiter. I missed him a great deal because he was the only person in New York, virtually in America, that I could speak my own language to. Every time I thought of a cheesy bilingual joke, who else could I call, you know? I’d call him and say, “How about this one?” And he would laugh quite appropriately and encouragingly. So I missed that.

And so I didn’t know who to call. So just on an impulse, I took out my phone book, I looked [Petros] up in the phone book and there he was on Eighty-first Street, so I dialed the number and he picked up. And I said, “Petros?”

And he said, “Somi?”

I hadn’t spoken to him in more than ten years, much less seen him. And immediately he said, “Is it Jupiter?”

And I said, “Yes, I’m sorry he didn’t make it.” And then I started crying. It was the only time I actually cried during that week. I was kind of too busy and too stunned about this whole thing. Jupiter was the guy who told me to stay on in America [when I had come for a visit]. He had said, “Oh God, it’s easy, come on we’ll just get you a college admission. Come to New Paltz and study your photography there. You don’t have to go back [to Manipur].” And since I didn’t have a job to go back to I said—I was young and I liked New York—I said, “Sure.” So he was very close to me. He was a very important part of my life in those years. And after he got married we moved apart a little bit, but he saw me every few weeks because he used to work at the World Trade Center and I was on South Street. He used to come by after work [at Windows on the World] with fancy dishes, I don’t know, something “Lorraine” or something “Crouton”—whatever they were preparing in the kitchen, you know.

I’d like to ask you to take me through the day of September 11, but before you do that, tell me a little more about Jupiter.

Jupiter was a couple of years younger than me. His father and my father had been friends since grade school. And his grandfather and my grandfather were the first generation of Western-trained physicians. His mother and my mother were also friends when they were kids. So we were family friends, his family and our family. We grew up together.

Jupiter had been in America about six months before I arrived, so he was showing me the ropes, trying to get me odd jobs, that kind of thing. And he was working as a waiter in a restaurant. And he was very good-looking. The girls were totally nuts about him. He looked up to me as an older brother. I was working at the Asia Society at the time and my program was getting quite popular in the city. I was in the public eye, and in the papers and in the press, and so he was very proud of me, I think, on some level. And there were only six Manipuris, I think, or maybe four, in New York. Four in the city, one in Poughkeepsie, and one up in Beacon— Jupiter. So there weren’t a whole lot of people; we don’t have a community here. So he was my community; he was my family because we all have to create our families here.

So I wake up September 11 and I go to work at nine. I’m always a little tardy. So around nine o’clock I said, “Let me check e-mail.” And I had NPR on and I heard, “Oh, this plane has been flown into the World Trade Center.” I said “Wow.” So I turned on the TV in my bedroom and I was looking at it from my work space—I have a little office area, and the sound was down and I was watching. I was thinking, “What’s going on over here?” And the doorbell rang. My assistant Brian was there. And people were running all over the place. I look downstairs and South Street is full of people running, some without shoes and with briefcases. We parked in my living room with the television, just watching it.

So the first thing I did on 9/11 was to just send an e-mail out to my entire address list. I said, “I’m okay.” The lights didn’t go off, the phones didn’t go off, not until four or five in the afternoon, so I sent off an e-mail to people. And then I started getting phone calls. People I hadn’t spoken to in years. This kid Scott that I had known and hadn’t spoken to in years, he was the first one who called and said, “Are you guys okay?” I had no idea it was so big, even then.

Then I got a call from India, from this friend of mine who was a photographer, Pablo. He called me saying that Jupiter’s brother, Laba, wanted to know whether Jupiter was okay. I said, “Oh, my God, Jupiter!” And I said, “He does work there [at the World Trade Center]. And he does go into work early.” He used to sometimes go in at six in the morning to do breakfast. So I called [his wife] Nancy but I couldn’t get ahold of her.

So finally my friend Sanjib called me. He said, “Yeah, [Jupiter] went to work this morning.” I finally got ahold of Nancy. She was in the middle of this whole thing, with all her other fellow instructors at the Rockland Psychiatric Center that she worked in. They were gathering around just saying, “Everything’s okay, calm down, surely something is going to turn up. So all that time I was on the phone, calling everyone who knew Jupiter. And so I really didn’t watch TV very much or anything. My mental picture of 9/11 is really my computer and the telephone—I barely watched the TV.

Brian said, “Look at those people, walking home to Brooklyn.” It was like the scene from The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston leading people across the Sinai Desert. There was a stream of people walking across the Brooklyn Bridge. Endless. It was a stream without a break. And downstairs was another stream of people all covered in dust, all with briefcases half open, women with no shoes. They had to shut off the FDR Drive, so that was eerily empty. The sound was different, because usually we have this constant roar in the background of traffic.

Tell me about your next conversation with Nancy.

Nancy was very businesslike. That was her way of coping. She’s a very together person. So we formed a team of people to look for Jupiter. And I went to my boyfriend, Tom, to his apartment on the Upper West Side. He had an old album of photographs and there was a picture of Jupiter and me clowning together. And so I took that, and I scanned it and I made a poster, with my cell phone number saying, “Jupiter Yambem. Last Seen in Tower One.” We had to distribute those posters around town. I mean, there’s this horde of people putting posters up. New Yorkers were amazing; everyone helped me. And I knew that deep down, rationally speaking, I knew that it was useless. You’re going to recognize him with this lousy picture, a xeroxed picture? But it was just something to do, I guess.

We [gathered] DNA samples. We took his comb, his toothbrush, to turn it in [to the authorities]. So there was my friend Rajeshwar—this Manipuri guy who had just come to New York—Jeff, Nandan, myself, Tom, and Sanjib. We had faxes and faxes and faxes, lists of places where bodies were being taken. We just kind of fanned out.

And then on the fifth day, on Saturday, we got news that they’d found him. He was one of the first people to be found. Amazing! They found part of him, at any rate. And so a guy came to Nancy and said they’d found his body. And then, of course, the whole second week was completely different after that. His family kept calling me. My friend Laba, his older brother, kept calling me. My cell phone bill was $2,000, you know? Because I was getting calls from India. No one else seemed to be able to get calls except me. They seemed to be calling me only.

Jupiter’s the youngest of five brothers, and so brother number three calls and said he’s coming to the funeral, for the cremation. And I’m saying, “Don’t come. There’s nothing you can do, really.” And then the funeral home wouldn’t keep [Jupiter] any longer. They said, “This body’s in really bad shape. It’s against the law. We have to cremate him now. I’m sorry, we can’t wait any longer.”

And we said, “Please wait until Laba gets here. His brother’s on his way, getting his visa right now, he’s buying his ticket right now, let him come. Just wait until he gets here.”

“No, no, we have to do it.”

I think it was on the twenty-sixth of September. I forget the date. We had to have it that day. And so the morning of the cremation it’s a beautiful day. September 11 was a beautiful day too. You must have heard from other people how lovely that day was. I remember Angamba, the third brother, the morning of the cremation. He’s on the cell phone with me and he said, “I’m on the way.” He was driving from JFK into Beacon where they had the cremation. I said, “You know we got to start.” So he didn’t quite make it to the cremation. Manipur is Hindu, so they wanted to have a Hindu ceremony there. They wanted the lighting of the fires to be synchronized. So I was holding up my cell phone. Laba’s on the cell phone with me from Manipur. I was holding up my cell phone, and then the Catholic priest was saying, “A time to live and a time to die,” or whatever he was reading. So I was holding it up to this reading, “The Lord Is My Shepherd, I Shall Not Want,” reading the Psalms, and on the other side the Hindu ceremony was starting. So it was done by cell phone.

The box Jupiter’s body was in was so small. The box was about the size of the top of that table, which is not more than three and a half feet long. For a guy who was five feet-seven inches. It really bothered me. So we were really emotional.

And then, this is another interesting story. I’m calling up one of Jupiter’s friends. His name was Cherian. I said, “Cherian, I have bad news for you. Jupiter died.”

And he said, “I have bad news for you too. My brother Joseph died.” I said, “What happened?”

He told me that Joseph, who lived up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, had flown in that morning to be at a breakfast that Jupiter had organized at Windows on the World. Three people came in from his office. They came in two cabs. One cab got stuck in traffic and they survived. But Joseph, he made it to the business breakfast. So Cherian says to me, “How come they found him?” Because they also found Joseph. How many people were found from the 150 at the breakfast? Like seven or eight bodies are found? And Jupiter was one of them and Joseph was the other?

So Cherian says, “Do you think they talked about us? Do you think Jupiter might have gone up to him and said, ‘Are you from India? I’m from India too. Your name, Mathai, sounds familiar. Do you know Cherian?’ So was the last conversation about you and me?”

I said, “I don’t know, Cherian. Who knows?”

This excerpt originally appeared in After the Fall: New Yorkers Remember September 2001 and the Years that Followed. Copyright C 2011 by The Trustees of Columbia in the City of New York. Published by The New Press, Inc. Reprinted here with permission.

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