My grandfather was a fireman. He fought fire. I never meet anybody who says things like that. My circles are full of people who either descended from generations of cultural privilege or who even one generation ago, were employed in blue-collar jobs. What is a firefighter?
My grandfather was in the uniformed services but somehow the Fire Services get neither the prestige of the Armed Forces nor the grudging respect/ fear of the Police. He retired as the Chief of the Department of Delhi Fire Services. That doesn’t sound impressive in a city whose primary identity is that every monster is larger than the last on account of being someone’s kid. His own parents were not Very Important People and they passed when he was young. He managed to be the first graduate in his small town and got a job so he could put his younger siblings through school. One brother went on to a Master’s degree in law and the other became a Professor at one of Tamil Nadu’s prestigious universities. My own grandfather did return to his studies at the age of 76 and got an additional degree in a subject of his choice. Just before he died. What was his life worth?
Thatha was a smalltown Tamilian with little exposure and no means, who made it across the country to New Delhi, with a young wife and three small kids in tow. As was the way in those days of limited travel, his home became the base for all relatives and distant neighbours and contacts arriving from the South and passing through Delhi. As he rose in the ranks, he opened up the quarters he had been allotted, to the local Tamilian community’s most artistic endeavours – music. The wife of one of my father’s classmates recognised my mother from these bhajanai evenings and later sent her this video that mentions my thatha’s involvement in that community (isn’t that how communities begin and sustain?).
Yes, thatha was a musical man. I remember an annual Delhi trip during school vacations. And the last day would be spent with him as he’d record my voice. My family would later tell me how this would carry him through the rest of the year. His cassette collection titled Ramya – <year> contained my baby sounds, stories & tales we’d talk about, nursery rhymes and in the later years, my latest progress in music from Hindi bhajans to my brief time in Carnatic music. I only just realised that my life in performance started on that moda in thatha’s room, speaking or singing into the trusty old cassette recorder.
I am finding my politics in my middle age. People around me call me brave for having opinions that challenge the very powerful forces of religion. I learnt only recently that my grandfather received the President’s Police & Fire Service medal from Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister for meritorious service during the Delhi communal riots.
I know that time is embedded in the people of the city as deeply as the wounds of the 1992 Bombay riots lie in mine. I still feel defined by that experience, even though I was a mere child with no power but very little danger. What must have gone through my thatha’s mind as he looked out at the city where he had made his home through regionalist hostilities and watched it burn? Who was this brave man who led people in a foreign land, through an angry time and helped restore it to peace?
Decades later in Mumbai, a colleague noticed a bird trapped in a kite string on the tree outside the window of our first-floor office. She called the Fire Department. They arrived with fire engine ladders and the bird was free within the hour.
Another time, I heard a fire engine pass the lane outside my building. It was past 10 PM and I worried so I went out to check (I will never understand how people are so oblivious to fire engine sirens – fire spreads and WILL touch you even if you’re inside your airconditioned cocoon). The engine was parked outside a lot whose buildings were being torn down. A family stood on the road, looking on with interest but not fear. I asked them what was up. They told me their cat had gone missing. They wondered if it might be stuck in the broken building whose staircases had fallen in, iron beams exposed. The woman had called for the fire department after her husband with all his machismo had walked in with their 7-year-old son. The firefighters returned and tried to keep people from wandering in. Smirking, one of the men told them, “Don’t be such cowards.” It made my blood boil. The cat, by the way, showed up across the road under a tree.
A dating app profile contained the question,
“What’s a random fact that you love?”
“That the fire department will come to save your life,
whether you’re a bird stuck in a tree or a cat caught on a roof.”
Many matches sneered at me, claiming that I didn’t know the realities of India and that this would never happen. Sigh. These are the people who complain about fire drills but also blame ‘the authorities’ for accidents they cause. I find it so hard to navigate this world of people who value life so little. How was thatha able to endanger himself and betray his faith to rescue such people every day?
Thatha was a religious man. Each day would begin with a bath and an hour-long prayer. I’m told that in the fire engine on his way to each site, he would pray. Not for his own safety. But for forgiveness from Agni and for wisdom and strength to face what he had to. Is that like another warrior on the battlefield, facing a moral crisis, that led to the religion’s greatest text? How did thatha reconcile the conflict of his faith with the demands of his duty? He fought fire, saved lives and probably saw hundreds of deaths in his lifetime. How did he make sense of the grand puzzle that is life and death?
I have a black-and-white photograph taken on National Fire Services Day. The Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi is pinning a medal on the handsome, uniformed man that is my grandfather and behind him stands my smiling grandmother carrying a baby who couldn’t be less interested in the proceedings – me.
This is from the time that thatha was asked to organise an international conference of Firefighters. The accompanying pamphlet contained a proud photograph of Connaught Place Fire Station with the Chief’s quarters above (my home for the first three weeks of my life). And on the back page was an invocation from the Vedas:
Be thee kind to us
Be our protector and friend
It was topped by the picture of a baby with a beaming smile and wayward hair. Me.
I wonder what my grandfather imagined when he looked at his first grandchild, the daughter of his only daughter.
The show Station 19 helped me shape stories about my grandfather. I only knew him as a child and a teenager. I had no time to relate to him adult to adult, to really get to see him beyond his relationship to me, to perceive him as a human being.
A firefighter isn’t a robot rescuer that shows up to haul you away from danger. This is a human being who makes the same kind of decisions that you or I do. To cross this road or walk on the same side? To eat this or that? To love or not? I know doctors also deal with life and death every day but not in as much personal danger. I know military personnel face great danger too but it comes in concentrated bursts and the demarcations of ally and enemy are clearer. But a firefighter does more than fight fire. They are committed to rescuing lives. All lives, human or otherwise, from a variety of natural causes. Who is the enemy here? How does one even hold the focus on life when it means surrendering concern for one’s own?
I think about people I’ve loved who have died. Some of them died young and unexpectedly, in accidents, and shocking illnesses. Some of them clung to living and went fighting into their deaths. Some went pleading, some went in despair. Some left behind debts, unresolved traumas and triggered chains of abuse, violence, pain & devastation. And some began dying while bearing witness to other people’s natural journeys. I can’t believe it has taken me this long to realise it but death is not destruction. It doesn’t have to be.
My grandfather died after a prolonged fight against cancer. When it was first detected, he ignored the crumbling faces of his family, faced the doctor and said,
“I am an old man. I have lived a good life. Give it to me straight. How long have I got?”
In the year after that, he endured the painful efforts of other people to keep him alive, even as he tolerated extreme pain and loss of pride. I was 19, chafing against authority and also patriarchy, not yet wise enough to make the distinction. He was just thatha, an adult who had cared for me but also exercised authority over me. And as I had been taught, I did my part in dealing with the familial crisis. Some of it was babysitting my bewildered 7-year-old cousin and making sure she wasn’t getting in the way. Some of it was ensuring the adults were taking their own food and medications. There were reports to be printed, mailed out, calls to be answered. And when there was a need for blood, I was just the right age to be eligible. That age was probably always going to be an awkward transition into adulthood but because of the time, it became an abrupt jump and hitting the ground running. I did not have time to make sense of it.
After yet another futile blood transfusion, he asked the family to gather around him. And he pointed to me and said,
“I want to say thank you to this child for giving me her blood. Life should not go backwards, I should have been giving her things but she has given me the blood of her body. I want to say thank you to her for this, in front of all of you.”
He did not have to do that. He knew he was dying and that we, his family had done everything we could to save him. I would not have imagined it of a patriarchal man of his generation. I also never thought of him as an eloquent man. And suddenly he was a person, not just my grandfather. A person who in his last moments, showed grace by according me dignity. In his diminished body, without a uniform, he became the most dignified man I had known, because of how he faced death.
I went to the cremation ground with the men (in 2000, only men traditionally walked into funeral places). I carried wood to place on his body, I helped light the pyre. Because I was there, I was witness to a ceremony I will probably never see again. The fire department of New Delhi gave my grandfather a farewell salute, an honour usually accorded to Fire Chiefs still in service, who fall in the line of duty. But 20 years after he retired, my grandfather did die of the one thing other than fire that kills firefighters – cancer. And the life he had lived in service to New Delhi Fire Service was honoured in death. Nobody could have predicted how he would go but my grandfather received the death he deserved – one of courage and dignity.
I wonder if he ever realised that the best things that he modelled for me in my childhood would stay and shine on. Chief of Delhi Fire Services Singarasundaram Mudaliar, my thatha, I’m proud to call myself your grandchild.
Update: 28 Aug 2023 – I was cooking lunch in the kitchen this morning. The pressure cooker was on, making daal while I rolled out rotis. Suddenly there was a loud BANG! The sound blew the roti I had laid on the tawa just seconds ago, clear across the room. By a stroke of luck, the cooker lid jammed so it couldn’t fly off. A few seconds earlier, my hands were right next to the cooker and would surely have been burnt in the steam that blew the roti across. But I didn’t so much as catch a splash.
This is the second time I’ve had a close shave with fire in this very kitchen. The last time was another stroke of luck of timing that a gas meter person (who knew how to manage these issues) happened to be visiting my neighbour at that very moment.
I’ve been reluctant to follow the faith-based footsteps of my thatha. But astrologers who read my birth chart when I was born said that I’d have a lot of struggles but also always a lot of last-minute protection and dramatic rescues. Thatha, is that you?