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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

‘New York was his playground’: Manipur family recalls member who died in 9/11 attack

A self-made man, he had worked his way up to his position at the famed restaurant, frequented by the rich and powerful.

Written by Esha Roy | New Delhi |
Updated: September 11, 2021 12:22:12 pm
Jupiter Yambem with his wife and parents after his wedding

It was a busy morning for Jupiter Yambem at New York’s Windows Of The World restaurant. The Manipur-born banquet manager was in charge of a breakfast meeting of a tech conference. A self-made man, he had worked his way up to his position at the famed restaurant, frequented by the rich and powerful.

Thousands of kilometres away, Yambem’s brother Laba Yambem watched the television in shock as two planes crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. Yambem was on the 107th floor of the North Tower at that time.

“I called Jupiter. The phone kept ringing. They found his body four days later,” says Laba Yambem.

Every year, the Yambem family marks the anniversary of the 9/11 attack with traditional Manipuri rituals and an elaborate feast. With the pandemic raging through the state, this year’s event will be low key, with a few relatives gathering at their family home in Imphal city to remember their fallen son.

The youngest of five brothers, Jupiter Yambem, like many in Manipur, left the state to study in Delhi after graduating and studied German in JNU. In 1981, he was selected as counsellor for an outdoor camp in Vermont, US, for children with impaired vision. Yambem never returned.

In the US, he worked at a restaurant and did odd jobs. He also managed to put himself through college and went to the State University of New York, studying Economics. After graduating, he returned to his old restaurant as its manager.

“He was my best friend. When I would visit him in New York, he would take me to all the hip new places. New York was his playground. He would take me to Windows on the World and we would watch the aeroplanes pass by beneath us,” Laba Yambem recalls fondly. “With five brothers, there were always differences of opinions. It was Jupiter’s role to play peacemaker and bring the brothers together.”

In 1991, Yambem married an American woman, Nancy McCardle. They had a traditional Manipuri wedding, attended by the Yambem family.

Over time, he also became close friends with the American folk singer and activist Pete Seeger. It is a connection that lasts to this day, despite their deaths. An annual festival dedicated to the singer — ‘Where have all the flowers gone’ – is organised by musicians in Manipur.

At the time of his death, Jupiter was earning a six-figure salary and owned a riverside home with his wife and five-year-old son Santi. Despite achieving the American dream, Yambem remained a proud Indian and Manipuri, and never gave up his Indian passport.

He was cremated in New York. The family later brought back his ashes and immersed them at Loktak lake in Manipur.

Nancy would visit the family with her son Santi, every two years when Santi was little. Now all grown up and having graduated school, Santi visits on his own. Yambem says that like his father, Santi is proud of his Manipuri heritage. “The last time he visited was three years ago for a whole month. He wanted to trace his father’s footsteps,” says Yambem. During his visit, Santi learned to play the Pung — a Manipuri drum — and trained under a teacher in the state. He ended his trip by giving a performance at the Dance Academy in Imphal.

Several years ago, Laba Yambem set up the Jupiter Yambem Center in the heart of Imphal city, Paona Bazaar. The centre has since become a magnet for gatherings and discussions on different social issues. “It was a way for the family to keep the memory of Jupiter alive. I am now planning to convert it into a small 30-seat theatre with multi-media facilities, where videos and films can be played, and discussions can continue,” says Laba Yambem, adding that keeping Manipuri culture alive was close to Jupiter’s heart. “That’s also why he set up the American non-resident Manipuri Association, the first organisation of the Manipuri diaspora abroad. Since then, many other such associations have come up, for instance in Europe.”

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