A Vision of Fire
It was an unseasonably warm October morning, better suited for a stroll than a stride, but Ganak Pawar and his daughter maintained their usual quick pace up the east side of Manhattan. The permanent representative of India to the United Nations, veteran of thirty years as a foreign-service officer, wore a practiced expression of tolerance. Sixteen-year-old Maanik seemed especially energized by the blanket of sunlight that spilled across York Avenue.
“Papa, your presentation last night was amazing!” Maanik said. “I couldn’t get to sleep for hours, my brain was alive with so many ideas.”
“That is gratifying,” her father replied.
“It’s time for people to think differently about Kashmir and you made that point with the General Assembly,” she said. “I’m glad CNN covered it, it was totally inspiring.”
“I am glad you feel so. I am not being universally thanked for it.”
“Papa, you got in their faces. That took courage!”
Ganak smiled. “I ‘got in their faces,’ did I?”
“You know what I mean,” his daughter said, grinning. “Anyway, don’t be so modest, especially now. Now is the time for a determined follow-up.”
Ganak wasn’t sure if it was courage or desperation that had compelled him to show the video of a Kashmiri mother immolating herself over her dead son. Tensions occurred in Kashmir every few years but this time it felt different. Thirty-two people had died in two days, and Pakistan and India were once again rattling their nuclear sabers. Perhaps that familiar, tired bragging had driven Ganak to suggest they make Kashmir a UN protectorate. If the UN temporarily governed the region, as it had in Kosovo for nine years, that could buy time for the populace to choose whether to join one country or the other, or to opt for independence . . .
“I want to be part of that follow-up,” Maanik said, bouncing in her stride with excitement. “You should hear my ideas.”
He smiled as he regarded her. She looked so mature in her brown faux leather jacket over a dark blue dress. Her leggings were orange and gold, one leg striped horizontally, the other swirling in a feather pattern. She had sewn the disparate halves together herself and matched them with an orange and gold scarf. He noticed with surprise that she had begun to pluck her eyebrows, and though her black hair had always been strong and thick, the way she arranged it over her shoulder was a recent development.
She is so unlike her mother, he thought. When the Pawar family had moved from New Delhi to Manhattan two years ago and Maanik started at Eleanor Roosevelt High School, the girl immediately began to change. Where her mother, Hansa, was reflective, Maanik did her thinking aloud. Where Hansa planned, Maanik improvised. Hansa embraced tradition but Maanik liked to Rollerblade on the sly with the son of the Canadian ambassador. The Pawars’ American bodyguard, Daniel—who was walking a few paces behind them—was charged with clandestinely keeping an eye on the young lady when she was not at home.
Ganak couldn’t decide whether he was concerned at her shrug
ging off the old ways or if he was proud that she lived her own life. Hansa did not like it but Ganak was not sure, and his diplomatic skills were sometimes tested at home in ways that could rival the current crisis in Kashmir.
Thinking of India and Pakistan pulled down the edges of his smile. These days, walking Maanik to school was one of his only refuges.
“Maanik, I want to hear your ideas but I must caution you, sometimes it is wise to pause after a push.”
“How can that be wise?” she asked. “If something is moving, why not keep it in motion?”
“I read the reports from home before we left this morning. India and Pakistan are both infuriated even while the rest of the world applauds the idea of a protectorate.”
“That’s my point,” Maanik said, undaunted. “Now you need to convince India and Pakistan.”
“Ah. It is that simple?”
“Maybe not so simple, but my ideas can help with that. I’ve been thinking up op-eds for you, press releases, but especially”—she turned and walked backward, facing him and glowing—“what if you let me interview you on video, talking about the situation? Networks would eat that up, parents would watch it with their children, it would be casual and nonthreatening but with our hearts in it, you know? We could get people used to your proposal through conversation instead of arguments. If we get it just right, maybe it could go viral.”
Ganak was impressed. Maanik had prepared a presentation of her own. This revelation about his daughter was one of the reasons that, even in the middle of a crisis, he insisted on maintaining their half-hour, no-cell-phones walk to school.
“Those are very creative ideas, Maanik.”
“Okay! So the next step is, I take a break from school and get an internship with you at United Nations headquarters. Actually, school will probably count that as a class—”
Ganak interrupted. “Interns at the headquarters must be in graduate school. High school students are out of the question.”
“But, Bapu”—she softened him with the Hindi word for “Daddy”—“I have the intelligence and the desire and right now my help is crucial.”
“I appreciate your interest, but every member of the staff is well-credentialed, not just well-intentioned.”
“An exception can be made—”
“Exceptions are the exceptions,” he said.
Maanik frowned. “I don’t even understand that.”
“It means no. I’m sorry, Maanik.”
She turned and walked forward again, visibly frustrated. “So I am supposed to just waste my days thinking up ideas and never making any of them happen?”
“You are a very exceptional young lady—”
“And I am telling you, I am wasting time at school.”
“You are learning about other lives, other times.”
“While I ignore the fact that our homeland could erupt into war? I am trapped in irrelevance, Bapu. I want to help.”
“Your books are not irrelevant.”
“Really? And what if one crazy officer in one of the armies actually prepares to launch a warhead this time? What would you do, talk to him about a novel you read? Or a poem?”
“Maanik, my life, you are about to lose this argument.” He smiled.
“Oh?” She stopped on the corner of Seventy-Sixth Street, shifted her weight onto one hip, and raised her eyebrows at him. “How?”
He grinned. “You are young and impatient. I have been where you have been, but you have not been where I have been.”
Maanik turned suddenly to the six-foot-two blond man with the crooked nose who stood behind them. “Daniel, do you think that’s a good argument?”
“I am neutral in this, ma’am,” said the bodyguard with a smile. Behind the reflective sunglasses his eyes were on the pedestrians who
moved around them, peripherally watching the cars drive too quickly on the avenue. He looked along the street as they got a walk sign, and they crossed York into a narrow block full of red brick and green leaves just starting to turn.
“Maanik,” Ganak admonished, “allow him to do his job.” His voice softened quickly. It always did with his daughter. “As for you, your job is to learn patience and to get an education and experience, from which grow wisdom.”
“Patience,” she said impatiently.
“Do you know that is my primary job? To guide patiently, compassionately. To nudge people along, not to wrench them to my goal, my will. I work toward a Kashmir protectorate, but slowly. Do you see this as less courageous than shaking your fist or raising your voice? I tell you, it is more!”
The young woman suddenly looked like the little girl who was still so green in her father’s memory. They walked in silence. He impulsively took her hand in his. She squeezed it tightly.
They reached the stretch of sidewalk before the school doors. It was full of students and a few teachers sending texts or hurrying through conversations before the activities of the first period began at seven forty-five. Today was Human Rights Club, which alternated with Model UN. But Maanik was not rushing to find her friends. Her father saw that she was thinking hard and he almost regretted the conversation.
As he looked around, it appeared as if everyone outside the school was subdued. After he had shown the video of the mother’s suicide to the General Assembly, it had gone viral. He regretted that, especially considering that some of these teenagers had probably watched it, and many more of them must have heard about it. But the world needed a push so that the endless tensions in Kashmir could finally be laid to rest. The Security Council had to pressure India and Pakistan or they would only pressure each other until yes, one day, perhaps a mad general would put an end to the tensions in a much worse way.
The ambassador was aware that he had made the situation even more serious. So, after pushing his daughter from a place where she felt she might have some influence, Ganak could not blame her for falling into solemnity.
“Do not dwell on this,” he said, kissing her forehead. “Trust your father.”
“I do,” she said. “It’s the others I do not trust.”
He smiled. “And that is the problem, is it not? Someone must be the first to lay down his saber and believe that the other wants the same thing.”
He waved and turned toward First Avenue. He and Daniel would walk the half hour downtown to the United Nations building, Ganak using the time to mentally rehearse his strategies and make phone calls. Without Maanik by his side he tuned into the city, heard the airplanes and helicopters overhead, the trucks making deliveries, the cars whipping across bumpy streets. He heard the sound of a loud motorcycle but dismissed it without thought.
Daniel did not dismiss the sound at all. The exhaust was so loud that the bike had to have straight pipes, uncommon on the sedate, aging Upper East Side of Manhattan. Daniel stared as the motorcycle turned onto Seventy-Sixth Street—black with red trim, slim rider also in black. It passed a street crew at the corner and roared past a man who was holding a SLOW sign on a pole. That was wrong too: the worker was walking away from the intersection where he should have been managing traffic flow. His strides were long and his gaze leveled on Ambassador Pawar. Shielded by the sign, his free hand disappeared under his yellow-and-red vest—
Outside the high school, no one reacted to the first gunshot. It was just a loud noise under the louder motorcycle. But Ganak turned and froze. That was what the assassins were counting on: paralysis to make him an easy target. That reaction was exactly what Daniel had been trained to overcome.
An instant before the worker had fired, Daniel was already in mo
tion. The bodyguard bear-hugged the ambassador and dropped him hard to the concrete, at the same time turning with his own nine-millimeter drawn. He leaned on his stiff left arm, half-shielding the ambassador, while he aimed toward the street with his right.
With the second and third shots, pedestrians ran shouting for doorways or ducked behind cars. The parked vehicles and trees made it difficult for the gunman to find his target. To the east, the students, the teachers, everyone outside the school started screaming. Half the crowd dropped to the sidewalk, others huddled against the wall; the few still standing were grabbed and pulled to their knees, to their chests, their faces to the sidewalk. Maanik stood still, shaking in fear. The AP English teacher, Ms. Allen, grabbed the girl by the collar and forced her head down.
Maanik struggled against the woman’s protective arms and tried to lift her head. She could not scream. She could not even open her mouth. There had not been a fourth gunshot. Did that mean the first three had succeeded? She thought of Daniel, wondered if he was all right, if any of those shots had been his. She felt the cold concrete against her right cheek, a dry leaf crumpled beneath it as she craned to see down the block.
There were sirens in the distance. Ms. Allen hesitated, then pushed herself off her knees. Someone had to check on Maanik’s father and it couldn’t be Maanik.
“Stay here,” she ordered the student.
Mary Allen motioned for another student to stay with Maanik and ran in a crouch toward First Avenue and the bodies on the sidewalk. She did not see any blood, though she glimpsed a figure in a worker’s yellow-and-red vest jump onto the back of a motorcycle. She felt her ears blasted by the roar of the bike as it tore east. She picked out the lumped figures of Maanik’s father and the bodyguard. One body stirred, sat up, blond hair catching the sunlight. He turned to the body he was half-covering. The man’s head lifted. He placed a hand on the sidewalk, struggled to push himself up, collapsed. Ms. Allen ran to his
side, added her hands as support, and shouted over her shoulder, “Maanik, he’s okay! They’re both all right!”
Though that wasn’t entirely true: now she noticed the blood on the pavement. She looked all over the ambassador’s body before she saw blood gushing from the bodyguard’s sleeve and knew that it was he who had been struck. She called for someone to get the school nurse.
• • •
Fifteen minutes later, having just gotten off the phone with his wife, Ganak Pawar gently lifted his daughter’s head from his shoulder and helped her sit upright on the couch in the principal’s office. He pulled a fleck of dry, broken leaf from her cheek. They were alone, both unharmed. Daniel had been rushed to the hospital, losing blood fast, his right arm useless, but the EMTs had assured them he would be okay.
Maanik had not cried, even as the adrenaline drained out of her. Her deep, ragged breaths calmed into something approaching normal. She was still shaking, but her father could not ignore the knock on the door. The principal looked in.
“Mr. Ambassador, your car is here.”
“Yes, thank you,” he said. “I will be right there.”
Maanik grabbed his hand, held it tight.
“Maanik, I must.”
“I don’t want you to.”
“I know. But I will be all right, I swear to you. Two in one day, it does not happen.”
She nodded, unconvinced.
“As soon as you feel up to it, have the principal call Mama and she will pick you up and take you home. You will have a very quiet day.”
Maanik looked away from him and was silent. Her grip tightened; she dug her nails into his hand.
“It is hopeless. Everything is hopeless. The UN, your speech, everything.”
“It is not. You must not lose faith.”
“I could have lost you. Who can have faith?”
“But you didn’t lose me; I am here. And when I appear at the United Nations after an assassination attempt, that makes my voice stronger—”
“I’m not going home.” She let go of his hand.
“It’s all right—”
“You have to do your job, so I will do mine.”
He took a deep breath, gazed at his daughter. This argument was hers. He kissed her forehead, lingering longer than before, and pressed her hands in his as he stood.
“Then I will see you for dinner, and I will call you during the day. I will make sure the principal allows you to keep your phone on. Maanik Pawar, you make me very proud.”
“You too, Papa Ambassador.” Her smile was weak but it was there.
He gave her one more peck on the top of her head, then left with a strong, purposeful stride. Maanik rose and immediately sat down again, her legs still wobbly. But she attended her second-period class, AP United States History.
The nurse asked the principal to text Maanik’s teachers, telling them to keep an eye on her.
Amid the subtle stares from kids she did not know well and thumbs up from those she did, Maanik sat in her seat, opened her notebook, and copied words from the board. Her pen ran dry and she scribbled in circles until the blue ink flowed, then she kept scribbling circles until she caught herself with a jerk. It was as if she had fallen asleep and suddenly there were circles on the page. She forced herself to pay attention.
Maanik listened, moved on with several classmates to Geometry, and midway through the lesson began drawing circles until the paper was full of them. Then she put down her pen and scratched
under the sleeve of her dress. She didn’t feel itchy. She just needed to scratch.
“Papa . . . ,” she whispered, the utterance more breath than word.
No one around her heard.
“Papa?” she said, louder this time.
The girl to her right looked over. “Maanik?”
The teacher glanced at her.
Maanik looked at the student beside her and saw a suddenly unfamiliar face. The girl’s flesh was pale, almost translucent, like ice on a pavement. Her eyes had a reddish cast, like a ruby in her mother’s jewel box. Her lips were a pale blue and very pronounced.
Maanik spoke, her voice wheezing from her chest. “Papa . . . help me!”
The teacher quickly made her way down the aisle. Maanik began breathing rapidly, digging her pen over and over into the desk with one hand and raking the back of her wrist with the other until rivulets of blood rose up.
The teacher gently restrained her hands and sent another student for the nurse.
Maanik suddenly threw her arms up, sending the teacher back against a desk, and thrashed in her seat before relaxing for the briefest moment. Then she screamed so loudly that the teacher pulled her close in a desperate, helpless effort to quiet her.
Maanik went limp just as the nurse arrived.