The Insurance

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 IMG_0001 (2)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.

Learning to swim!

My mother was very particular that both her children should learn swimming. We didn’t have any swimming pools in Mulky our town… the nearest one was in Mangalore, 30 kms away. Travelling to Mangalore just to learn swimming was definitely out of our reach. As Plato, the Philosopher said, Necessity is the mother of invention, so like most other children in our town, I too learnt to swim in a pond!!

Right behind our house were 40 acres of sprawling paddy fields and had 3 huge wells or ponds, I along with my brother and cousins learnt to swim in these big wells.

Of the 3 we the pond we used most often was close to 20 to 25 feet deep at the deeper side, and 4-6 feet deep on the shallow side, and atleast 40-45 feet in diameter, only experienced swimmers ventured to the deeper side. “Gundida guvel” the “deep well” was what all of us stayed clear of.

Swimming in a well is a thrilling experience; one has to experience it to know what I mean. We had to walk through the paddy fields on the narrow path and a slight slip would mean getting into slush. The fear of the cobras which inhabited the fields made it even more thrilling. On one side of the pond was the “Naga Bana” which was the grove considered to be the resting place of the Snake God, which our family worshiped. This groove had many thorny flowering plants and added to the beauty of the place. Any kind of defacing of the grove was considered a sacrilege, so the area around this pond was kept clean.

Our substitute for the tube used in city swimming pools was the “Pottu Tarai”, 2 hollow coconuts tied to each other, and tied around your waist, which helped keep us afloat. The other option to tie a rope around the waist and someone would hold it standing on the side of the well. This rope was our life line; it is either held tight or left loose to let the learner a little more freedom, depending on the swimmers capabilities.

A beginner is expected to hold on the sides of the pond and just kick the feet…then after one or two days we were expected to move our arms too. An uncle or an older cousin will hold on to the coconuts and ensured that I didn’t sink and walk with me around the pond. I was a short kid and even 4 feet depth was scary, as my feet didn’t touch the ground. After the first couple of days, I had managed to learn to swim with the rope around the waist.

There were many terms and conditions, if it rained heavily; we were not allowed to go swimming. We had to do all the chores that uncle asked for through the week. We also had to wait at least an hour after having food or breakfast and we could stay for a maximum of 2 hours in the water. After the swimming, when we reached home shivering a hot water bath and great snacks awaited us.

One Saturday afternoon 5 or 6 of us cousins in the age group of 10 to 14 years, got together and went to the pond. I was the youngest among them and was the only one who needed help, by now I had graduated to swimming with the rope. That particular day, uncle was in no mood and after my 3rd round, he wanted to go home.  I didn’t pay heed to his orders; after some cribbing, he agreed to allow me to swim a little longer. At one point I realized that my brother was swimming very close to me and was looking unusually concerned, for some reason I turned and looked at uncle and realized that he wasn’t holding the rope. When the realization hit me that I was swimming independently, I panicked and sank. After spluttering and drinking some water, I was pulled to the side of the pond. By then I had consumed enough water and my pride and confidence had taken a severe beating. After that day, it took a lot of will power to go back for swimming…

That day my uncle too learnt a lesson…. that he had to be really alert with young kids in water… and I learnt that security was only an illusion;

All these memories came rushing back during our recent holiday to Thailand. I felt the same kind of panic when I got into the water near Phi Phi islands.

Here are two photographs of the place:

Phi Phi islands
Phi Phi islands

DSC03864

Phi Phi Islands are situated 40 km south-east of Phuket, we were taken there on a big boat and were given an hours’ time to get into the water at the Maya Bay. There was a great rush as everyone wanted to get into the emerald green waters.  Once I got into the water I realized that it was at least 10-12 feet deep, boy! was I happy I had a life jacket on!

Worth a visit if you are ever in Thailand.

Child

For some reason this song refused to be forgotten, even after almost 30 years! I faintly remembered the lyrics, did not recall the name of the singer, but the lines just refused to go out of my mind

 ‘Child, you don’t know
you’ll never know how far they’d go
to give you all their love can give

to see you through and God it’s true
they’d die for you, if they must, to see you live’

 Today by sheer chance I stumbled upon it. Child by Freddie Aguilar: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yLGC7MmEIyo and I played it a couple of times feeling nostalgic. I realized today that the original was http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-n-2lPzH7Do&feature=fvwrel and Freddie was a Pilipino folk singer.

It was in Mulky, my home town, a quaint little town on the coast of Karnataka, India. The year must be 1983-84. My room was on the first floor of my parental house, overlooking vast expanses of fields – paddy fields. I used to spend a lot of time listening to Lobo, Paul Anka etc., while I was supposed to be studyingJ. Gone are the golden days…

In many ways I can say my parents were the kind explained in the song. I know for a fact, I’m not the kind of mom, my mother was. I don’t remember a single day, I had to come back home from school or college to unlock the door. I was fortunate to grow up in a time when my mom was always home and there was hot food waiting on the kitchen table for me (and my brother).

My kids on the other hand had to return from school to an empty house, situation (most) children of working mothers undergo. They had to depend on bakery snacks and heat the milk themselves. My elder son got used to taking care(!) of his younger brother from an early age of 7 years. While my nieces and nephews grew up with home cooked, wholesome food, my kids depended on neighboring restaurants…  

Well, listen to the song and let me know what emotions it evokes in you!