NEW DELHI — I remember so well the first time I visited New York. I was 13, and though I had been to America once before, New York had deliberately been kept from me. The name alone conjured an adult world of glamour and excitement, the mythic New York of the 1980s: Andy Warhol and Studio 54. “It’s not a place for children,” my mother said firmly.
And my God, was she right! Within moments of our arrival in Manhattan, the gay pride parade started. It was not then the tame, corporate affair it is now. It was a bacchanal. There were not one, but two parades, and we were swept up — myself, my mother and her friend, a longtime New Yorker — in the unofficial one heading down Fifth Avenue. It was a roistering river of humanity, half in leather, half nude. Unruly regiments, hair blue, pink and green, went past, covered in glitter, tattoos and fairy dust.
For a sheltered teenager from India, who had never so much as seen an exposed breast in real life, let alone a set of pierced genitals, it was all deeply shocking, and deeply exhilarating. It was 1994. The AIDS epidemic raged and gay rights were a distant dream; the parade was full of the spirit of revolution.
I did not know at the time that I would later return to the city for the very same freedoms that were being fought for in the street that day. What I do know is that the Delhi prude in me died that June afternoon. I watched my mother’s friend, a tall statuesque woman, stride casually into a restroom. When a big, burly man tried to point out that it was the men’s toilet, she said, “So? This is New York!”
It’s hard not to think of that time now. Most of the eight people killed in the terrorist attack in Lower Manhattan on Tuesday were foreigners visiting New York. One group, especially — five friends from Argentina celebrating the 30th anniversary of their high school graduation — had been planning their trip for years. They were part of a great unorganized commonwealth of people, out in the world, whose imagination New York has captured. It is heartbreaking to think that those for whom the dream of New York is most alluring should be the victims of so vivid a nightmare.
I now live for part of the year in New York. My husband is here, and the city is my adoptive home. We who are fortunate enough to complain of delayed trains, traffic and astronomical rent often forget the power of the city as a symbol in the world beyond. I lived for years, on the outside, hankering after New York. I had spent one magical year here after college, living as a lodger in the Bowery loft of the feminist writer Kate Millet. I was here for the great blackout of 2003, when people poured joyously into the streets, and underwear parties broke out in bars.
In youth, it is easy to mistake New York as a sphere of license. But, as I got older, the city acquired a deeper meaning. I was here when my father, a politician in Pakistan, was the victim of a terrorist attack, killed in 2011 by his own bodyguard for defending a Christian woman accused of blasphemy. The next day, a cold January morning, I trudged past the small hillocks of begrimed ice that had formed on the curb, and bought a copy of this newspaper at a deli at Avenue A and Third Street. A picture of my father’s killer was on the front page.
I left New York a day later and did not return for years.
But, all the time that I was away, the city came more and more to seem like a sanctuary. The freedoms that had seemed superficial turned out to have a more profound meaning: New York was where I would return when a populist demagogue took power in India. New York was where I would marry, and live freely, with a tall white man from Tennessee. New York was where I would feel insulated when a populist demagogue took power in America.
The Austrian writer Stefan Zweig was in New York a hundred years ago, as his own world of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was on the eve of ruin. He saw “foaming cascades of light in Times Square” and marveled at the city’s “captivating nocturnal beauty.” One thing that struck Zweig, a Jew who would die by his own hand in 1942 as Nazi night fell over Europe, was this: “No one asked about my nationality, my religion, my origin,” he wrote in his memoir. “But there was work waiting for people to do it, and that was all that counted.”
This is the New York that endures, and this is the New York that was attacked on a bright blue Halloween afternoon.
Aatish Taseer (@aatishtaseer) is a contributing opinion writer and the author, most recently, of the novel “The Way Things Were.”
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