A few meters away, past Pier Head crowned by the city's ”Three Graces“—The Port of Liverpool Building, the Royal Liver Building and the Cunard Building--I strode to The Strand towards Albion House whose red and white stripped façade made of alternating layers of Portland stone and brick earned it the nickname ”Streaky Bacon Building“. As headquarters of the White Star Line company that owned the Titanic, the building became the center of attention on that fateful morning in April 1911 when news of the catastrophe first reached the British mainland. Reluctant to leave the building for fear of being manhandled by throngs herded around its main doors, officials of the company read names of the ship's casualties and survivors from the building's third floor balcony. Again, I tried hard to imagine the extent of the anguish felt by loved ones as they waited for the dreaded axe to fall—and I failed miserably. None of us could possibly imagine the kind of mass hysteria that grips a community when caught in the vices of collective grief and loss.
Yet, hang on; some would argue that we can. As Phil Washburn's essay so successfully argues, a very straight parallel line might well be drawn between the maritime tragedy of a hundred years ago and the one so many of us witnessed exactly one decade to the day when the Twin Towers crumbled before our disbelieving eyes. Unlike the hysteria induced by uncertainly on the part of Titanic's next-of-kin, we New Yorkers, who had actually been eye-witnesses to the catastrophe, were stunned into silence in the aftermath of 9/11. As Brendan Hogan explains in his essay, whilst the Towers disintegrated into a cloud of white dust, we were witnesses to the perishing of fellow human beings in the same horrific way that small handfuls of survivors in lifeboats watched the perishing of their loved ones when the Titanic disappeared inexorably, inch by perilous inch, into an ocean ”calm as a millpond“, 1 according to child-survivor, Ruth Becker. No one was left untouched by this experience. Even the least philosophical among us tussled with fundamental questions: How does one deal with Life's uncertainty? Conversely, how must one approach Death's certainty?
Similar questions echoed in my mind, a few months after my travels in Liverpool, when I found myself in the cruel heart of a Belfast winter in Northern Ireland. It was much too frigid to stroll around the city's famed Titanic Quarter but I could not resist making my way in the direction of Samson and Goliath, as the massive gantry cranes that tower over the city in the shipbuilding section, are known. Although public access to the Harland and Wolff shipyards where three of the most ambitious ships conceived were constructed—the Olympic , the Titanic and (subsequently) the Britannic—it was possible, until early 2009, to apply for special permission to visit the actual slips in which the world's most tragic ship was built. A few months after my visit to the slips, however, access was prohibited as ambitious plans were floated for the creation of a Titanic Memorial Museum on the very hallowed ground upon which thousands of local Belfast artisans and workmen had labored to create the legendary vessel. A hundred years later, their descendants have taken pride in drawing up plans to see relatives, friends and neighbors remembered by posterity in a spanking new museum. Just in time for the 100th anniversary of her sinking, a building devoted exclusively to those wishing to drown in Titanic nostalgia is to be inaugurated. No doubt it will soon become Belfast's most enduring tourist attraction.
Although not a memorial, Belfast's Titanic Museum will join a long line of similar monuments that have been erected over the 20th century to commemorate an unforgettable event—as Joseph Portanova's essay delineates—from Halifax in Canada where scores of bodies had washed ashore to Grace Church on Broadway in NYU's own backyard where Edith Corse Evans who allegedly gave up her seat in one of the lifeboats to a needier sister—is remembered. Titanic monuments dot the length and breadth of New York City's Manhattan Island as they recall the wealthiest millionaires of the period--as outlined in Robert Squillace's essay on the massive affluence aboard the cruise liner--as well as the humblest crewmen who remained glued to their posts in a breathtaking devotion to duty even as the vessel gave up the struggle to remain afloat.
As a first-generation immigrant to the West myself, I am fascinated by the journeys of those who preceded me to the UK or the USA. Whilst I did not sail into Manhattan Harbor's Chelsea Piers (as the Titanic's passengers were expected to do), there are some glaring similarities between my entry into the United States and that of my steerage predecessors. Unlike millionaire female celebrities such as the newly-pregnant Mrs. John Jacob Astor or the Unsinkable Molly Brown, I did not come laden with fancy possessions in countless cumbersome steamer trunks. No, my belongings, like those of my steerage forebears, were measly—restricted to just two suitcases (carrying ‘woolies' much too light, as I discovered to my chagrin, for the North Atlantic's brutal winters) and $500 in my pocket (the sum total permitted in that era by The Reserve Bank of India's foreign exchange control laws). I did experience, first-hand, the anxiety of arrival when quizzed by stern border control immigration officers--not on Ellis Island as the Titanic's third class passengers would have—but at Kennedy Airport where, after a seventeen hour haul across wintry skies, I was much too bleary-eyed to respond intelligently to brusquely-intoned questions. But at least I wasn't immediately expected to go through a medical examination that would require me to strip down to my undergarments, expose my teeth, climb up and descend the central staircase of the main immigration concourse to ascertain the soundness of my health.
And at least I had not carted along my masala stone as so many Indian and Caribbean immigrants to Great Britain had done before me on ships that docked in Tilbury, Southampton and Dover. How those countless granite grinding stones making their way to Southall, Brixton, Greenwood or Acton around the periphery of Greater London in the 1940s did not sink those ships en route to the English ports is anyone's guess; but my immigrant female forebears in the UK had found a way to use them. Rice and curry was on their daily menu from the get-go livening palates blunted through generations by diets focused on generous lashings of ground chili peppers, garlic and tamarind. How, had it not been for the Kashmiri chilies the good patron had the foresight to haul along with him when he waved goodbye to the shore temples of Madras could Veeraswamy's claim to be London's oldest Indian restaurant? And how could Patak's pickles have found a place (like Coleman's mustard, their British counterpart) on a corner of our plates, were it not for the curry leaves smuggled under his turban when he hoisted his steamer trunk upon his head to set sail from Howrah?