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When Love Stands Bravely Against Unbearable Grief

POINTS WEST

October 24, 2001|STEVE LOPEZ

The visits began two days after her husband was killed aboard American Flight 11 when it crashed into the World Trade Center.

Prasanna Kalahasthi, a 25-year-old dental school student at USC, would stop by the campus office of Nadadur S. Kumar, a stranger who would become a friend. She would sit in the same chair every time, the one by the big picture window, and speak dreamily of a love that had come to her like a sweet surprise.

Kumar, like Prasanna, was from southern India. He, like Prasanna, had an arranged marriage.

"She was deeply in love," says Kumar, associate director of the Office of International Services. In the weeks that followed her referral to his office, Kumar would come to admire this beautiful, wounded young woman. She was small in stature but filled with strength, and with a grace known only in love and in grief.

Such plans they had had, Prasanna and her husband, Pendyala Vamsikrishna, a 30-year-old technician for a Silicon Valley company.

They wanted to get Prasanna through the demanding two-year graduate program she had begun only a few months earlier, and establish her career somewhere in the United States. He would go with her wherever that might be. Then they were going to start a family.

Vamsikrishna traveled frequently in his job--far too much for his liking. They had missed each other so much, Prasanna had gone to visit him in Boston a week before he was killed.

"I should be spending more time with you," he told her as he had many times, according to Kumar.

Kumar says Vamsikrishna was to leave Boston on Sept. 10, but hadn't finished his job, and rescheduled for the following day on American Airlines Flight 11.

"He boarded the plane and left her a message," says Kumar. He told her he would be home by lunch, and would surprise her with a meal he was going to prepare.

Prasanna would wake to his message, and to the televised image of Flight 11 crashing into the tower.

That can't be him, she thought. It looks like a small plane, not a jet.

That can't be him. They had such plans.

"Her father flew to Los Angeles and said, 'I'm going to take you home,' " says Kumar.

But Prasanna told him L.A. was her home now. A brother was moving into the apartment she and her husband had shared near the USC campus, and she also had a new, extended family that included Kumar and her classmates.

"She said the best way for her to remember her husband was to stay in the program and complete it," says Kumar, who remembers her saying these words:

"His memory is only going to strengthen my resolve."

In their regular chats, Kumar reminded Prasanna that therapists were available to help her. But he knew she wouldn't go for it.

"In India, from a cultural point of view, going for that kind of counseling is treated like a stigma, like admitting that something is wrong," says Kumar, 48.

The customary way to deal with such a tragedy is to lean on family, and particularly elders. So Kumar took Prasanna home with him the very first day they met and introduced her to his wife and mother-in-law.

In dozens of almost-daily telephone calls and visits, Prasanna seemed to be progressing, says Kumar. As a Hindu, she believed in an afterlife, and she believed she would be reunited with her husband one day.

Just once did she mention the terrorists who had killed her husband and more than 5,000 others on Sept. 11. "She said whatever differences people have, this is no way to resolve them," says Kumar.

Only in retrospect was her call of last Thursday somewhat unusual. She called Kumar about 3:30 p.m. to chat about nothing in particular, which was something of a departure. She called friends and relatives that day, too.

But no one had any idea what was to come.

Her brother, the one who had moved in with her, was out of town. A receipt suggests Prasanna had gone to the Home Depot in Tustin a few days earlier and bought some nylon rope.

On Friday afternoon, Kumar got an urgent call from USC colleagues. Los Angeles police were at Prasanna's apartment and he was asked to go there immediately.

At the door, an officer asked him if he thought he could handle the task of identifying the body of the young woman inside.

"Yes, of course," he said, holding onto a slim hope.

She had said more than once that her husband would have wanted her to finish school. This couldn't be Prasanna, the woman whose strength had been an inspiration.

What he saw in the apartment, he instantly knew, would be with him always.

Prasanna had strung the rope over the Nautilus equipment her husband worked out on. Without warning or explanation, she had taken her life, too much grief to carry through a world gone cold.

As Kumar left the apartment, he was asked by police to sign a form, but he couldn't.

"My hands were trembling."

He did not sleep that night, haunted by the image. Asked if he's OK now, he says: "I don't know."

It's as if the Prasanna he knew was the ghost of a woman who died on Sept. 11, crushed by grief.

Kumar's wife tells him he is absent even when he's in the room. He finds mesmerizing beauty in the subtlest gesture of his 7-year-old daughter. He marvels at the complexities of the mind and the mysteries of the heart.

"I keep wondering if I missed something," says Kumar, his face full of shadows. "Maybe I should have dropped everything when she called on Thursday."

He missed nothing. Prasanna revealed only what she chose to, then followed after her husband, taking a love without limit to a world without end.

Steve Lopez can be reached at steve.lopez@latimes.com.

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