It was around 9 PM, a warm day in September 1976. I was a 12 year old and my brother 16, we were just getting ready to go to bed and that’s when we heard loud, distressed shrieks ‘fire, fire’ from the portion of our house which was rented out.
My brother and I were in the hall and unthinkingly we ran towards the shrieks and were stunned by the sight that was unfolding before our eyes.
Ebrahim who was a heavy weight (fat) was standing outside his room transfixed; his eyes bulging, almost popping out of the sockets, staring ahead at the entrance of the kitchen from where Orange – Red hot flames were shooting out. There was a strange wailing sound coming from his mouth, which sounded more like a prayer. His roommate, the bearded, skinny Yusuf, who was standing next to him immobilized was shrieking, ‘fire, fire’ like a broken record, unable to stop.
The house that caught fire was my beautiful parental home in Mulky, the sleepy little town of coastal Karnataka. Our house was over a 100 years old, it had solid carved wooden pillars and a wooden ceiling. The staircases in it were also made of wood. The house was in the shape of the English letter T (upper case). While we lived in the base of the T, the horizontal portion was rented out to a couple of Indian origin South African Hindu & Muslim students.
Most households in Mulky those days went to sleep by 8.30 or 9 in the night; the dimly lit, deserted streets gave an eerie look to our town.
That year the holy month of Ramzan had come in September. Now Sudhakar the Malayali cook of the boys was always dressed in a colorful lungi and half sleeved shirts, with a permanently ruffled mop of curly hair. This particular year, he had a tough time as he had to cook for the Hindus during the day and for the Muslims in the evening and early mornings. He was sleepless and dazed most of the time.
He was leisurely regretting his hasty act of chasing his assistant, just a few days earlier in a fit of anger. That particular day, he was in the final stages of dinner preparation for the Hindu boys and was in a hurry to go to sleep. After he lit the Kerosene oil stove to make the last item – Rice, he stepped out to have a shower. Unthinkingly or carelessly he must have flicked the match stick into the dustbin. As he had just that day finished his monthly grocery shopping, the dustbin was full of waste paper, some of which was used to wipe the spilt kerosene oil. Next to the dustbin was the 20 liter plastic can of kerosene oil.
In just 5 minutes the dustbin caught fire, due to the heat the can melted, 20 liters of oil – highly combustible, spread on the floor adding to the fire.
Adjacent to the kitchen was our cow shed, my mother was struggling to shift the panicking cows to a safer place. Her worry was the highly burnable, dry hay stacked in the attic of the shed and she wanted to save the cows.
My dad and a Raghurama, the goldsmith – our neighbor were running to the only house in the vicinity that had a phone, to call the fire brigade from Mangalore – 30 kilometers away! All my dad kept saying was ’Raghurama dada malpuniya’, ‘Raghurama, what shall we do?’ And Raghurama, gave him courage (which he did not feel) saying ‘Shenere Dever ulleru’ which meant ‘don’t worry sir, God is with us’. The fire brigade will reach quickly in the night…
Ignoring Yusuf & Ebrahim, my brother and I rushed (as only children would do) into the blazing kitchen and my brother tried to pick the plastic bucket which originally contained water. As he held the partially melted bucket, he cursed loudly and dropped it.
By then the power went off, as there was a short circuit somewhere, so we could not use the pump to draw water. And the only light was that of the blazing fire. The acrid smell of Kerosene permeated the whole place. Someone trying to pull water from the well, using the rope and pulley dropped the rope into the well. By now the fire was already touching the roof, the tiled roof could have made things even more difficult as the tiles start flying when it catches fire. I had it easy, someone literally pushed me out on to the street to keep me safe in the company of another student who was a nervous wreck! But my brother had a couple of burns, singed hair and eye brows.
Our community saved us that day from losing everything we had. Had it been 30 minutes later, we would have had difficulty in waking up our neighbors. Nearly 50 of them cut their banana plants, coconut fronds and put out the fire by beating it. Not sure how long it took, but it looked like forever to douse the fire.
We had to ensure that the wooden ceiling didn’t have any burning embers left, so we removed the hot tiles and let the light September drizzle into the burnt out kitchen. By the time all this was over, it was well past midnight. My sad but grateful mom served all of us tea and light snacks and heaved a sigh of relief…
Fire Insurance was unheard of in those days, I remember many Diwali’s when, someone or the other used to come to my dad and request help to raise funds to rebuild their home. It is the goodwill earned from this selfless act that saved us. Our relationship with our community was the only insurance we had.