by V Pattabhi Ram
IT’S 2012, the year of the London Olympics.
I lead an unusual life. My wife, Tara, is a cardiac surgeon; I work as a firefighter in the fire station. It’s an odd combination, but we manage it! We never argue about our earnings; they get pooled, and we spend. My 4-year-old son has reached up to my hip. He can operate the TV remote and iPhone with ease. The brat wants me to wear a mustache, but my work doesn’t allow it.
It was 9 p.m., Saturday. We were at Ahmadabadi — an upmarket, well-populated, Gujarati restaurant – for dinner. A balding man and a lady walked up to Tara. “Doctor, can we have selfies with you?” She nodded. And then, in front of everyone, in an unusually loud voice, the little one asked, “Dad, why don’t people take a snap with you?” I smiled. Idiot!
Precisely at that time, my telephone blinked multiple times. I stared at the number, surprise mixed with urgency. A fireman’s job is no joke; he is on call 24/7. I spoke a few seconds, jumped out of my chair, and left. Tara guessed it. My son wore an incredulous look, and the ‘selfie’ couple thought they had angered me. My wife assured them it was nothing like that. I took two steps at a time down the staircase, got into my Porsche, and rushed to the site. Madam would finish dinner and settle the check, swiping her card.
I did not study to become a firefighter. Hardly anybody does that, though there’s a bachelor’s program in fire science. A school-leaving certificate will do for getting a job. I fancied myself as an economist, but destiny took me to play with fire. I tell you, it isn’t a cushy life. Each time our team leaves for an assignment, there is no guarantee we would return. Even in the Army, the soldier wages war only once in a blue moon. Here, every other day, you fight the enemy, the engulfing fire.
Uneaten dinners, smoky uniforms, and noisy sirens; no lady would want this daily. But Tara and I agreed that just as I would not ask about her hospital and patients, she shall not ask about fire victims or survivors. But when my nephews and nieces dropped in over the weekend, I would regale them with stories of my date with fire. Junior would join, shrieking in joy, believing dad was a superman. The following day, he would brag endlessly at school. His teacher thought he was making it up till she dropped home once to confirm that her ward’s dad was actually a firefighter! I guess she pitied my wife for marrying me!
That Saturday night, somebody called 102. A fire had broken on the 16th Floor of the 25-storied Falcon Apartment Complex. I have been into fighting fire for 15 years now and can choose the shifts I work. I was in a leadership role, though all of us do the same job; fight the fire. It was also my off day. I could have told, “No.” But in my profession, no one says “no” to a call of duty. My Team had called because they needed a senior, and I respected their opinion.
The traffic department created a green corridor. I hit the accelerator and, in 7 minutes, cleared the 20-km stretch. On a typical night, it would have taken an hour.
As I entered Falcon, I was stunned to see the maddening intensity of the fire. Everything was on flame: walls, windows, and doors. We didn’t ask how it happened. It’s none of our business. All that we picked was the 16th Floor had 12 apartments. The Falcon was a single tall structure, with an extended wing on either side, one a Club House, and the other a Restaurant. My initial reaction was, there isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that anything inside will survive.
We immediately evacuated the crowd that had assembled.
The Front Desk did some quick math. The computer showed the 12 houses had 56 occupants. With remarkable presence of mind, Sairah, the lady operating the Desk, texted people on the 16th Floor not to return home, saying fire engines were on the way. Twenty-four of them responded with a ‘thank you’ note and asked how quickly the fire would be extinguished. So, there were 32 caught inside. It was good that a few had left their homes for the weekend. Sairah culled out the apartment numbers, gender breakup, and demographics. We now knew how many trapped inside were young, middle-aged, or senior.
Next, Sairah sent a message to occupants of the other 24 floors, asking them to not come out because they would block the way of those escaping. We assured them the fire would not spread, whatever the intensity. A few volunteers called up the 12 apartments to tell them help was on hand. It all happened within 60 seconds of my arrival.
The fire sprinklers were activated in some houses, and it helped curb the inferno significantly.
Mahima, Muscles, Mayur, and I were the firefighters.
None of it is their real name. Mahima hails from Mahim in Mumbai. ‘Muscles’ weighs 110 kg. Mayur has a long-standing girlfriend called Maya, whom none of us have seen.
Mayur had just completed a 24-hour shift. We usually take off the next 48 hours. But this was an emergency, and in emergencies, Mayur doesn’t sleep. Us apart, support staffers were connecting hoses, operating pumps, and using tools to break through the debris at Falcon.
As we got ready to move in, I told the Team what I always tell them. “We are not God. We cannot save everyone. Let’s save as many as we can.”
We split the 12 apartments between us three. I would be the floater who would chip and help. In an apartment I cracked open, a 70-year-old sat with a neighbor’s 18-year-old kid. He was in a wheelchair, unable to walk. There was no way I could carry both of them. The veteran picked the question he saw in my eye. “I have lived my life. She is still to begin.” My eyes welled. I knew if I didn’t help him, he was gone. But I had to make a choice, and I did. I carried the girl on my shoulders.
“What about uncle?” she asked.
All kinds of people were inside: a corporate CEO, a security officer, a star athlete, and a medical doctor. I covered the CEO’s nostrils with a damp towel. “This will prevent smoke from entering your lungs. Now run for dear life. Don’t take the elevator. Don’t rush into a room. Take the staircase and run as fast as you can. And, no delegation.” He smiled at the wry humor and ran. I helped the medical doctor out. You see, you have to make judgment calls as to who is to be saved first.
We kept safety nets, lest someone jumps from the balcony. An investment banker did that, missed the net, was rushed to the hospital, and miraculously survived. Somewhere a gas line burst to add to the chaos. The houses had large rooms, nattily designed with minimal wall divisions, making our job more difficult. Trapped inside was the athlete who was training to run the 2016 Olympics. I made a spot decision, broke into his apartment, and threw him from the balcony to the waiting safety net. India needed him. Four years later, he won a silver medal.
Just at that time, my friend called. I usually switch off the mobile during evacuation. I took the call. Our friendship goes back to our college days. “My son is inside that Tower; House Number 1616. Do your best.”
I could hear his wife scream, “Is this how you ask? It’s like asking, ‘Can you lend me a pen’? Order him to go to 1616.”
I found the 16-year old son. He was in 1616, skimpily dressed along with the lady of the house, the one he called Aunty. I asked him to take the stairs and escorted the 40-year old, 80-kg woman.
By now, the fire was raging dangerously. For no reason, I was reminded of the movie Burning Train that I had watched a few years ago. The memory passed in a flash.
Somewhere, I could hear a wall collapse. The protective gear I was wearing was becoming hot and heavy. “Leave out Apartment 1618; it’s beyond salvage,” shouted Mahima. We learned to respect intuitions. There’s never time to countercheck.
A 45-year old techie’s dress was about to catch fire, and he wanted his mobile to be picked from the bedroom. Mayur told him to drop to the floor and rollover. “Once you crawl out of the room, close the door behind you. It prevents the fire from spreading.”
On the public address system, Muscles screamed, “Rip off the curtains.” We knew in a fire they might not be able to hear it, but why take a chance.
Down below, the support staff was busy directing the flow of a hose that carries 2,000 gallons of water per minute. ‘Muscles’ was breaking down doors locked from the inside. Mayur did a CPR on a near-dying victim. She was rushed in an ambulance to the hospital, where doctors gave Mayur a vote of thanks. Yes, we make mistakes, but taking split-second decisions that go right, make you feel you are God’s messenger.
We had been through all the apartments and saved all the inmates. Mahima had managed to spectacularly rescue the 70-year-old I had left behind. Suddenly I remembered Apartment 1618. Against the screams of my colleagues, I tore into it. There, standing helpless was the lady I wanted to meet for the last 30 years. My schoolteacher; she had left when I was 10. I recognized her in the fleeting second she went up in smoke.
That moment, 11:11 p.m., 12th December 2012, something inside me snapped. The following day, the newspapers called me a war hero, and our photographs were published all over the front pages. We had saved 31 out of 32 people. Nobody bothered about the teacher. She had been alone; her husband and her son lived in Canada.
A week later, I resigned. My boss was aghast. “Another five years, and you can draw a pension.”
“No, Sir.” I want to move on.
When I told Tara, she understood. Like pilots, we have to be endlessly on the alert. That inferno and the teacher now occupied my mind space.
Thirty days later, we were out of the headlines.
Eight years on, it’s 2020. The Tokyo Olympics has been postponed by a year. My son, now 12 years, and I are walking towards a pharmacy. The world is fighting an invisible Virus, and the roads are deserted. A 30-something lady, clad in jeans and a smart top, sprints up to me.
“Sir, Sir. You remember me?” she asks with bated breath.
“You will not remember me. You must have seen so many people. You are a firefighter, right?” She chokes.
“No madam, I am a senior economist at the World Bank.”
The disappointment was visible. “No, it cannot be. You were the lead firefighter at Falcon, that fateful night in 2012. Don’t tell me I am wrong.”
I was tempted to say, “You are wrong.” But I didn’t.
She hugs me like a bear. I am embarrassed.
Her eyes are wet. “Sir, You carried me on your shoulders. I can never, never forget. I always wanted to meet you, but people said you had left without a forwarding address.
Turning around, she tells her man, “Purno, meet God.”
And turning to me, “If I have ever seen God, that was the day.”
Three days later, Tara, I, and the brat are at her place for tea. On the wall in her living room is a large photograph of four people with the names inscribed: Mahima, Muscles, Mayur, and God.
Tara and I turn away to hide our tears. Brat said, “Aunty, let’s all take a selfie with dad.”
This piece was written as part of Rashmi Bansal’s Short Story Writing Workshop