We were all jubilant for it was the day of Deepavali. My brothers and I woke up very early had oil bath and soon settled to burn the crackers bought for the occasion. We exhausted everything by 9 though we could hear the deafening sounds of atom bombs here and there. Usually it would rain heavily on the days of Deepavali; at least a few intermittent showers would drive us in and out. But strangely on this day it did not rain at all; not even a whiff of cloud could be seen anywhere across the sky and the day was unusually hot for the season; perhaps the monsoon was late. And so, as our supply had vanished, we stood a bit awkwardly turning around whenever the sound of crackers was heard from the neighboring houses. Seeing our sullen faces our father gave us some cash and we gleefully ran away to buy for our second round. And while we were on our way the mishap happened. It was a new settlement and there were colonies beyond colonies and in one, not far from ours, it happened. The house was at the rear end of the plot, and in the front were cattle shed with five cows tethered, inside.
A big stalk of hay was stocked on the top of the house. One of the young chaps of the house, perhaps out of a spirit of innocent adventure, placed a bunch of crackers on a bamboo pole of the shed and lit it before we could shout a note of caution. What was to be fun turned out to be an unexpected devastation? No sooner did the fellow light the cracker than it had burned. The cattle shed caught fire within minutes and the entire shed was ablaze. There arose a sudden commotion in the house and nobody knew what to do. The cows started wailing. We could sense their anguish and at once my brothers and I, who stood there stupefied, suddenly made a dash towards the cattle shed and untethered the cows. By now a few passersby and the neighbors gathered but all stood completely paralysed by the gathering conflagration, for, next to the cattle shed, the hay stack caught fire.
With the sun beating mercilessly, the fire was on the rise and the heat became intense. The paint on the walls near the burning hay began to parch and crackle up. As it fell on the window panes drop by drop glass cracked throwing the splinters far and wide. All this happened in a very short time, not even a minute did it take; but by now the people who had gathered around gained back their wits and now they were throwing buckets of water on the rocking flames. But it was too much to be subdued so suddenly. Anyway the fight was on and more and more people joined. They formed a human chain and buckets – nobody knew where they had all come from – full of water passed from hand to hand as if on a moving chain, to extinguish the fire.
A few good Samaritans, unmindful of heat and scorching pain moved into the house and helped the imamates to bring the valuables out.
In the midst of this chaos, a couple of sparrows who had built their nest in the safe seclusion of a corner loft, caught in the suffocating smoke and burning heat, took to wings and came out; but the next instant went inside and began to circle round their nest wailing bitterly. There were perhaps then- young ones unable to fly out, or perhaps already done to death. I thought of saving them, but at once saw the futility of my attempt. I felt the only sane recourse would be to drive the sparrows away. But the dumb creatures did not understand my gesticulations and they flew back to their nest only to fall down senseless. My brother picked them up brought them out into the open and sprinkled a few handful of water on them, but it was all in vain; they could not be roused from their deep sleep. So strong was the bond of love even in these dumb brainless creatures!
Meanwhile the fight was going on. The men never slackened in their zeal and the women never in giving a helping hand. And the fire, though brought under control, was still raging. But that was not all; the cows freed, ran amuck and the people began to run helter skelter; mothers, who had gathered round, to witness the conflagration, grabbed their children and ran for safety. There was a hue and cry everywhere. But again a few young heroes suddenly appeared from nowhere and roped the cows and pulled them away.
When a house is on fire, you must try not only to put it out but also protect yourself from the sweltering heat. Your blind velour will not help you. But people who are not accustomed to meeting such a situation ignore the don’ts and carry out only the ‘dos’. They forget that in their spirit of enthusiasm, they should first of all drench themselves completely before they enter into a burning house. They will soon become breathless and collapse. They need immediate attention; they should be removed to a cool spot and rendered first aid. We thought our work was here; this too was important, as important as putting down the fire. We removed a couple of such fallen heroes, loosened their clothes, splashed water on their bodies, gave them water to drink and nursed them back to consciousness.
At last the fire brigade arrived. At first they seemed, with all their expertise, no better than the lay men. As they were getting ready, the door caught fire and crackled up. Pieces of wood came toppling down. The furniture inside the houses too caught fire. The fire brigade personnel erected poles and ladders; and one of them, climbing up to the top most rung, out of sheer will power pushed down the burning material. With their jets turned loose, the fire fighters were proving successful. But the cows that was tied to a distant tree untied themselves and came running towards the burning house, mooing violently.
With the arrival of the fire brigade, many people had departed and there was nobody to subdue the cows. But, we had little experience in handling cattle. When we looked at the cows running wild, we did not know whether it was fear or fury that drove them mad. The thought moved us almost to tears and we decided to subdue them, come what may. We first chased a cow, escaping their goads surrounded it, caught its rope, dragged it to the next door and offered a bucketful of water; we repeated the tactic and subdued all the four cows; as we patted them a shiver ran across their silken skins. As we turned to the burning house, with a sign of relief, the fire brigade too seemed to have emerged out successfully.
Now it was past 2 o’clock. The fire personnel gathered their equipment and departed. It was like a ruined city; with pools of water, ash and dust combining into a thin paste; half burnt poles, charred walls, broken windows, chairs, electrical gadgets and furniture lying in heaps with layers of dust, looking like second hand wares, smoke laden clothes and weeping inmates – the devastation was much more than what the eye could meet.
Luckily there was none seriously wounded. A couple of people with a few burns were taken to the hospital and treated as our patients. As the last few left the scene of fire’s fury, we too started. Then, only then, we remembered that we had been on our way to buy crackers. Now that we became wiser, no more did we want to buy any crackers. Festivals are like get-together parties where there could be pleasure and fun; there is absolutely no need to seek it in a wild and foolish way. You can play pranks on others; they should provoke laughter but not tears. So is fun; one can have it in kilos and tons not when it causes misery and suffering – even unwittingly. Again the object of festivals is not limited to merry making alone; it is also the time to remember our maker and offer him grateful thanks for all the bounties he has blessed us with. With such thoughts as these, we returned home exhausted sad and hungry.