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Surviving 9/11 made this Indian man face a glaring truth

Kushal M. Choksi had a dream job on Wall Street and a perfect future to look forward to. Until everything went up in smoke on 11 September 2001

World Trade Center on 9/11 shortly after the first tower had collapsed.
World Trade Center on 9/11 shortly after the first tower had collapsed. (Creative Commons/Wikipedia)

It had been exactly one week. Normalcy was trying to force its way back in. My commute had changed. The station I would usually disembark at was now covered in ashes and rubble. The burning smell still engulfed the air. That day on the ferry, speeding towards lower Manhattan, I sat with my eyes closed. The chilly water of the Hudson was splashing indiscriminately on the hull of the boat. On a normal day, my mind would be planning ahead and running through an infinitely long checklist. But that day, I wasn’t interested. Like trying to lift a paralyzed limb, I just couldn’t force myself to be normal. I couldn’t care less. My mind was wandering aimlessly. My body was still. And yet, I was already exhausted.

Was this Smashana Vairagya? A Sanskrit term, which loosely translates to the surreal dispassion that sets in when one encounters death at close quarters. A state in which one questions everything and wonders about the sheer meaninglessness of it all. Whatever it was, I could neither bear it, nor get completely rid of it.

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As my enthusiasm for life was slowly fading away, my thoughts continued to oscillate back and forth in a desperate search for resonance. Then one night, while tossing and turning in bed, it suddenly hit me. Up until this point, I had been living inside a warm and comfortable cocoon, which had now been ripped to shreds. Whatever I was chasing or holding on to until this point suddenly held little significance in my mind. Everything I had thought about myself and the expectations I had from life had turned to ashes. What was the purpose of all that I had strived so hard for? The dream home, the perfect car, the ideal soulmate . . . all that could have vanished like smoke in thin air, leaving no trace. Was this world a massive charade, or an illusion? Did I want to ultimately forget that this ever happened, and return to doing more of the same? Suddenly, all my aspirations and well-laid future plans appeared inconsequential, shallow and meaningless.

In a way, nothing had really changed. I was still in the same job, same relationship, had the same bank account, drove the same car, had the same healthy body. Yet at some level, my world had changed in the most unanticipated way.

When everything is going hunky-dory and suddenly life hits you with a club in the head, the shooting pain brings up some deep questions. What is the real purpose of life? Am I really doing what I’m meant to do? And the answer is almost always inconclusive.

Suddenly life appeared too short to ignore my inner voice—it seemed quite a waste to not follow what the heart really wanted. But what did my heart really want?

On A Wing And Prayer, By Kushal M. Choksi, Penguin Random House India, 320 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>399
On A Wing And Prayer, By Kushal M. Choksi, Penguin Random House India, 320 pages, 399

However romantic that notion of following my inner voice appeared to be, where rubber met the road, it felt very scary. I wanted to listen to my inner voice, but what was that voice saying? It was too muffled, there was so much static in there. I could barely make out what it was asking me to do. Life was staring at me without winking, like a mean beast who had not yet decided what to do with me.

And then the journey began. Based on what I had seen others do, my conditioned mind desperately wanted to quit the rat race, give up the nine-to-five drudgery, travel the world, be like the monk who sold his Ferrari, do something that would create a dent in the universe, and all that jazz. There was a barrage of thoughts, and each thought was more compelling than the previous one. Each had its own pros and cons.

This was the first time in my life I felt so suffocated inside. I was no longer in control of my thoughts, my emotions, or of anything for that matter. I should have been happier to be alive and kicking. However, the feeling that everything I had been chasing so far was utterly meaningless created the sensation of fighting a losing battle in a claustrophobic boxing ring. It reminded me of my first swimming lesson, when the heartless coach had thrown me into the deep end of the pool, and I was left gulping down copious amounts of chlorinated water.

I felt complete at some level, and yet I had tremendous inner turmoil. There was mild enthusiasm for the journey ahead, but behind that lurked a hesitation to start anything new, for fear that the curtains would be drawn in the middle of the act.

My mind kept replaying the sequence of events, much like a radio tune you pick up on your way to work. Only this time, it wasn’t pleasant. A putrid burning stench and a veil of smoke enveloped downtown Manhattan for months, just as my mind remained foggy and pessimistic. Nightmares became frequent.

At one level, I was grateful for the new lease of life, yet at another level, it felt like having the wrong currency in a foreign country. I didn’t know what to do with it.

And that’s when I realized that life didn’t owe me anything.

Excerpted from On A Wing and a Prayer: Spirituality for the Reluctant, the Curious and the Seeker by Kushal M. Choksi with permission of Penguin Random House India. Choksi is a former Wall Street trader, serial entrepreneur, and chocolatier.

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