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Shobhan Bantwal

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Terror in the Mail Box
By Shobhan Bantwal
Sunday, January 07, 2007

Rated "G" by the Author.

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Blood-chilling hate mail starts to arrive in Jaya's mailbox after the Nine-Eleven World Trade Center attack...


By Shobhan Bantwal

(Originally published in the newspaper U.S. 1, Princeton, New Jersey, USA)


It’s been three months since the letters began to arrive, two days after the World Trade Center towers crumbled like a child’s sandcastles—forty-eight hours after the world watched the drama unfold in utter horror. And prayed and wept and cursed and hollered. They taint my mailbox, mocking at its friendly, colorful bird motif. They disturb the joy and tranquility of our suburban Princeton home.


By the glow of the desk lamp, I scan today’s correspondence, as if it were no more than the pages of an absorbing but not very exciting book. The first letter, the one that left me speechless, begins like this: You disgusting brown pigs…get out of our country. If you don’t, you’ll be cut in pieces and fed to the sharks… There is a lot more venom spewed across the page, all of it written in the same vein—bitter rage, abhorrence, loathing—searing, blood-curdling hate.


Another missive reads: Eye for an eye…You pay for the sins of your people…There are plenty of other letters, but they’re mostly gibberish, badly written sentiments of lunatics. These two tell me their authors are educated, perhaps middle-class folks. Could they be my neighbors? My coworkers? The thought is unsettling.


I’ve come to realize how ugly hatred is, how corroding, like acid eating through fabric, leaving gaping holes, and letting in ghastly images. The fact is I’m just as livid and filled with revulsion at what’s been done to my fellow Americans in the nine-eleven disaster. I can understand every one of the sentiments in those letters, but what I can’t comprehend is why pick on us? Crying, I say to the police, “But we’re Indians; we have nothing to do with this. We love this country. This is our home, too.”


The police officers offer me a poker-faced explanation. “Most people don’t know the differences between nationalities, ma’am.”


“And that’s supposed to comfort me?” I retort, the hot anger rising in my blood. “Do something to stop this!”


The officers’ eyes silently tell me they feel the same way the others do. Indians, Pakistanis, Arabs, Malays—what’s the difference? We’re all damned foreigners in this beautiful country. We’re the enemy. The anonymous mail continues to pour in. Then there are the phone calls and e-mails, too. Some of them are frightening enough to disturb even the intrepid police, enough to prompt them to put a tracer on our telephone.


I’m amazed at my husband, Krishna’s ability to stand tall and face the fire. He has shown incredible bravery in the face of what could reduce a veteran soldier to retreat.  Krishna’s faith in the goodness of the American people is unshakable. “This is only temporary. It’s no more than anger and frustration working its way out of people’s systems,” he assures me.


So I try to carry on as if nothing unusual has touched our lives. But pretending is one thing—reality is another. We’re forced to look over our shoulder now, lie awake at nights, install an expensive home alarm system, check the car each day before we turn on the ignition, and pray as if each hour is our last. Thank God, our two daughters are grown and live on their own, away from the East Coast. At least Krishna and I don’t have to watch over small, helpless children.


Carefully, I clip the letters together by date. The stack goes into my folder labeled “Hate Mail 2001.” All nice and neat: Jaya Vellore’s Journal. Even under these tense and trying circumstances, the need to stay organized is strong within me. In fact, in recent months, I’ve become obsessive about remaining methodical. It’s my way of coping with stark fear and preserving some control over my life.


Just then Krishna strides into the room, glances at the open folder and arches a questioning eyebrow at me. “Jaya, why do you insist on keeping that garbage, honey?” He’s dressed in his blue and gray striped pajamas.


I shrug and shut the drawer. “Perhaps to remind myself that life isn’t always rosy.”


Coming around the desk, Krishna stands behind my chair. He puts his large hands on my shoulders—firm hands that massage and soothe and relax, reminding me of the solace they always provide. “Let it go, Jaya. These are angry people with a deep need to blame someone for their pain. They’ll forget about it soon.”


“They might forget, but I won’t.” I take a deep breath, lean back into Krishna’s massaging fingers, and glance up at him. “I want to remember what it was like in 2001. My children, and some day my grandchildren, should know about this, too.”


“Why would you want our grandchildren to see something so dark and repulsive?”


“Because it’s a part of our history as Indian-Americans. They should know that we’ve struggled and faced adversity, even death threats.”


“It’s not important.”


“Yes, it is. Look at how the Jewish people keep the Holocaust alive by making their children aware of it. Every Jewish child knows about the Holocaust.”


“Why emphasize the negative when there are so many good things?” asks Krishna with an impatient scowl. His kneading fingers turn still.


“I want them to learn that life is frail and one can’t take it for granted.”


“So you’re not satisfied with driving yourself crazy? You want your future grandchildren to go nuts over this, too?”  Krishna shakes his head and reclaims his hands. “It’s nearly eleven o’clock. I’m going to bed. You coming or what?” he says over his shoulder as he walks out of the room.


I can tell he’s upset, vexed about what he considers my needless paranoia. How can I make him understand my feelings of unease and anxiety, my enduring obsession with lurking danger?


“I’ll be there in a minute, dear,” I reply. Then I watch his broad shoulders and his thick pajama-clad legs disappear around the corner. I can understand his frustration to a degree. He knows he can’t convince me to face life’s tribulations like he does—“change what you can and let the rest go.” I envy his laid-back attitude and wish I could be half as relaxed as he seems. I realize I need his yin to complement my yang—his chuckles to offset my frowns—his buoyancy to temper my pessimism. He’s a good man, the love of my life.


I wonder how one can go from being a well-liked person to someone people detest. Quite a metamorphosis. Literally overnight, too. What’s happened to my friendly neighbors and colleagues? From the way they’ve vanished, it seems as if I’ve contracted a dreaded disease. Suddenly I’m “Typhoid Mary.”


It’s actually our disease. Krishna has it worse than I do, because he’s a man, a dark-skinned man.


Before retiring to the bedroom, I check all the doors and windows. I pull all the curtains and blinds shut. Once again, I make sure the little red light on the security system is lit up, assuring me it’s on the alert. But I still feel vulnerable. Eyes are watching me everywhere I go. Sharp ears are picking up everything I say.


I’ve come to dislike my brown skin, my dark eyes and my petite body. They all scream ASIAN—enough to earn me those distrustful looks and the hostile snorts. And the letters.


In the bedroom, I find Krishna already deep in sleep. In the shadowy dimness of the nightlight, I find my way to the bed and slide quietly under the heavy down comforter, trying not to disturb my slumbering husband.


After an hour, I’m still awake, listening for unusual sounds outside the house and imagining the most ghastly possibilities. Realizing I need help for my burgeoning headache, I tiptoe over to the bathroom once again, looking for the pain pills. Then I realize the bottle has been emptied and tossed out a week ago, and no replacement has been purchased yet.


I head downstairs toward the family room and Krishna’s briefcase, where I know he always keeps a small container of aspirin for office emergencies. As I pluck the plastic bottle from underneath the tightly packed documents in the case, a loose sheet of paper comes with it. It grabs my attention because it has a picture on it. I hold it up to the light to get a closer look.


My blood freezes. The breath goes out of my lungs.


Smack in the middle of the page is a photograph of Krishna, cut out from a larger photo, most likely an office group picture. He’s wearing a suit and tie. He’s smiling, looking happy and carefree. But I have eyes only for the other thing on the page, the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen—a picture of a gun pasted next to Krishna’s face, pointed directly at his temple. Just above it is the word ‘BANG’ printed in neat letters.


A death threat!


This time it’s graphic, bold and direct. When did this come in? Is one of Krishna’s coworkers threatening to kill him? Is his elegant and professional downtown Princeton office filled with hate mongers? Why hasn’t my husband told me about it? How can he sleep like a baby with this sitting in his briefcase?


My immediate instinct is to scream. I want to shake my husband awake and demand to know why he’s hidden this note from me. Stupid man! Doesn’t he know he’s in mortal danger? Deep down, I know why he hasn’t told me. He’s protecting me, his hysterical wife, from further trauma.


What do I do now? Dear God, I feel more helpless and feeble than a ball of tumbleweed caught in a gale.


I swallow some aspirin and wait a few moments for my heartbeat to slacken its pace. What’s the point in losing my mind over it, I ask myself? It won’t accomplish a thing. Krishna will only tell me to go back to sleep and let tomorrow take care of itself. The police will give me another condescending look, the one reserved for neurotic women, and assure me they’ll look into the matter. My daughters will remind me to make an appointment with a psychiatrist. I wonder if I’m an idiot to worry so much over what is probably the fate of many more families like ours. What do they do? I wonder.


Back in bed, I listen to Krishna’s snoring for several minutes. As his chest rises and falls, my temper begins to swell. Silly man…careless…senseless man…


After long moments of simmering, I can’t stand it any longer. I clamp a hand around Krishna’s arm and shake him. He stirs and murmurs something incoherent, then goes back to sleep.


“Wake up, Krishna,” I shout in his ear.


Startled, his eyes fly open. His body shudders as he comes fully awake and frowns at me.


“Dammit, Krishna! Why didn’t you tell me?”




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