Nadadur S. Kumar had started in the direction of 36th and Catalina streets several times, but the memory always turned him around. This time he set out walking from the USC campus under a stubborn sun, turned onto Catalina from Jefferson, and stopped his journey once again.
“I don’t know if I can do this,” he said, as he weighed the price of continuing against the cost of turning back. Almost 11 months had passed since police called him to the apartment building just up the street.
Kumar emerged finally from his thoughts. He took a wobbly step and then another, and in moments, he was at the place he visits in his dreams.
“That one was hers,” he said, pointing to an upstairs apartment with the number 7 on it.
Prasanna Kalahasthi, a 25-year-old USC dental student from India, had lived there with her husband.
When he was killed on one of the jets that crashed into the World Trade Center, Kumar was the one who counseled Prasanna at the USC Office of International Relations.
He was also the one called to this apartment to identify the body after Prasanna hanged herself.
Grief, guilt, relief--all these feelings churned in Kumar as he held his gaze on her apartment, as if proving to himself that he could do it. Then he leaned against a wall and gathered his breathing.
“My legs are trembling,” he said as we started back. But he soon found a comfortable, more certain stride.
“I wanted to do this,” he said.
Not so that he could begin to forget, Kumar said, but so he could more comfortably remember.
“I wake up many nights with that image of her,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll get away from it. I don’t think it’s an option. But I want to remember. Look at all the good things that have happened in my life. In many ways, it began with this.”
Five weeks. That’s all the time he had known her. And yet Kumar, at 49, said he has been remade in the year that has followed.
He left USC several months ago to work as an immigration lawyer. He goes in late so he can drive his children to school. He leaves early for family events. He does free legal work for those who can’t pay.
“I’ve talked about this to no one, because I’m not a very public person,” he said as we walked back toward campus. “But it has changed me in very deep ways. I used to be very concerned about getting ahead, and my wife tells me I was an arrogant person. I don’t measure myself only on the basis of work now. I’m more humble. I reflect on the transitory nature of life.
“I now get up every morning and go to the room with an altar in our house, and my wife sits with me. We don’t say anything; we just meditate. Every moment that comes into our lives now is the gift of God, and my wife likes this in me.”
His cardiologist wife, his 17-and 15-year-old sons and an 8-year-old daughter are now at the center of his thoughts.
“My son got back his SATs--he scored 1,600. Well, it doesn’t get any better than this. I took him and I said, ‘Come on,’ and we meditated together. I treasure these moments. I went to see a dance performance by my daughter and was mesmerized. I never would have gone before. I was too busy, and now I take my children to school and we talk to each other.”
About what, I asked?
“Everything. I ask them what they think of their dad, and my daughter says, ‘You’re funny.’ They ask me how I’m doing, and this means more to me than anything. I used to be upset about getting stuck in a traffic jam because I was wasting time. Now I welcome it. It’s more time with my daughter.
“This is why I don’t want to let go. I clearly associate all of it, in my rational moments, with this life-changing event in my life. I thank Prasanna. I thank her in a spiritual sense.”
They had not known each other before Sept. 11. But soon she began calling him at home, visiting his wife and mother-in-law, and sitting in his office. She connected with Kumar in part because they’d both had arranged marriages in India, and she told him her deceased husband had been traveling too much and working too hard. He had promised to spend more time with her soon.
Kumar said she spoke beautifully in grief, her memories like fine etchings, and she described so lastingly her final meeting with her husband. He had taken her to a bus station and as her bus wheeled away, she had watched him on the street, slowly fading from view.
Kumar had no clue she planned to take her own life, nor did the brother who had come to live with her.
Many times, visited by guilt, Kumar wished he’d grabbed her and forcibly taken her to a therapist rather than merely suggest it. But she had said no, and he understood. In their culture, he said, you find strength in friends and family.
Prasanna left a recorded message to her family, and Kumar had listened to it in their company.
“She was unbelievably calm. She said, ‘All I want is for you people to understand and respect me for what I’m doing. It’s a lot, I know.... But I’m responding to this in the only way I can bring peace to myself.’ ”
Some of Kumar’s acquaintances have questioned Prasanna’s decision, but he takes issue with them.
As a Hindu, he said, she might well have believed she would be reunited with her husband in death.
She hung saris from the windows of her apartment before killing herself, and Kumar takes it as an affirmation of her identity and faith.
“People feel a need to pass judgment on it, but I don’t. Reflect on it; don’t make judgments. I used to see everything as right or wrong, with very little in-between. Now I see just in-between.
“I have grown. I’m more peaceful; I’m more spiritual. I feel less concerned about what people think of me. Someone out there might say, ‘Look at Kumar. This woman died, and he talks about how happy he has become.’
“But I didn’t plan it. Someone commits suicide; I go and identify the body. I didn’t ask for this, but I accept it.”
Kumar was more at peace than the man I’d met up with 90 minutes earlier. It was as if the day’s trek had delivered him through sorrow to a state of grace.
“We as Hindus openly believe in destiny,” he said. “I believe this was meant to be exactly the way it unfolded, and I embrace the way it has come into my life. I am sad and even in that sadness I am feeling happy.”
Steve Lopez writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at email@example.com.