I woke up half an hour ago with not a coherent thought except to enjoy a stress-free Monday at home after heavenaloneknows how long. Fifteen minutes back I walked into the kitchen to make my breakfast. I put the saucepan to boil and busied myself taking out tea leaves, honey and biscuits. My grandmother had come into the kitchen to talk to me so I turned when on the wall behind her I suddenly saw a blazing light where the dull grey shadows of the window behind me should have been. I turned back to find the gas range had caught fire. Not just the gas-ring under the saucepan but the knob below it too.
I always thought I was calm in a crisis but the only thought I had was,
This can’t be happening. That knob isn’t made of flammable material, how can it be burning? This cannot be happening.
My grandmother with more presence of mind, but less mobility had already recovered and was directing,
Switch it off!
But how? I wondered. I couldn’t reach into the flames to turn the burner off. I had a vague memory of a fire extinguisher in our house but no clue where it was kept. And then random impressions of the fire-safety brochures that used to lie around the house. When I died, would anyone remember that I was the grand-daughter of the Chief of Fire Services, New Delhi? Would anyone even know that when he was specially requested to extend his tenure for six months to organise a conference of fire protection teams around the world, he designed an invitation inscribed with the following words from the Vedas,
Be thee kind to us,
Be our friend and our guide
And keep us safe
This was topped by the picture of a baby with a wide, sunny smile. That child was his only grandchild – me.
Such were the thoughts that ran through my head as I stood and watched the kitchen cooking range catch fire. People who describe others as ‘frozen in shock’ don’t know what they’re talking about. I was perfectly mobile, my mind was racing with irrelevant thoughts.
I briefly considered grabbing the stick that we used to hang up clothes, to prod the knob shut but realized just in time that it was wood. I did manage to turn the fan on at full speed and holler my grandmother into going back to the hall. The kitchen tongs, made of metal would have been useful but they were hanging just next to the cooking range.
Finally I just ran next door to find my neighbor’s father. Neither he nor his wife were home, the only two ‘adults’ on the floor but his daughter followed me back into the house, asking what the matter was. I had come running back to stand and stare at the fire. Suddenly a man was standing next to me, asking,
All I could say was
Aag laga hai. Kitchen mein aag laga hai.
(Fire. There’s a fire in the kitchen.)
He strode in and turned the gas cylinder shut. Then, as the knob was still burning, he just blew it out. Then he turned at me, smiled and said,
Leakage tha. Valve kharab hua tha. Saare building mein fael jaata tha.
(It was a leakage. The valve is faulty. It would have spread to the entire building)
It turns out that he was the gas service man, visiting next door and was walking out at that exact moment that I knocked on my neighbor’s door.
That in sum, is the story of this morning. My mother wasn’t home and neither was dad.
I don’t know what I should think or feel. I opened up the kitchen windows and asked my grandmother to stay in the hall, watching TV as she had been. And I lay down on my bed in my own room. It is too big a coincidence for me to digest, that a gas serviceman was next door at just the exact time there was a fire in my own house. What does it all mean? Was it divine intervention? And if it was, why was there a fire in the first place for me to be saved from?
If it is one of those ‘feel grateful for what you have’ kind of lessons I’m meant to have from life, it isn’t working. I am not feeling grateful or happy or anything at all. All I feel is a cold, hard knot of something that feels like anger. I don’t know what I have to be angry about or who.
I guess I’m writing this down so that I can take it out and examine it later. Nothing makes sense.