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A silent fire that didn’t spread: From the spot

We’ll never know what woke us up, but a ball of fire looming overhead barely 50 feet away gets people moving rather quickly, reports Nandita Sengupta.
Hindustan Times | By Nandita Sengupta, New Delhi
UPDATED ON OCT 20, 2007 03:09 AM IST

We’ll never know what woke us up, but a ball of fire looming overhead barely 50 feet away gets people moving rather quickly. My house is right opposite the puja pandal. The first thing that crossed my mind was how quiet the fire was. I knew the fire was near the idols, and that it had started there.

We’ll never know how it started, however, because no one really wants to The usual claims — a short-circuit, cylinder burst, a diya, a beedi — are bound to be made.

Later, people spoke of of a sputtering sound before the fire broke out. A guard inside the pandal raised the alarm, an act that probably saved the lives of the eight sleeping karamcharis who help out in puja work. They denied a cylinder burst could be the the cause; none of them were woken up by the fire. Surely Ashtami Puja work had begun? Not yet, they said. They’d have got up around 4 am, but there was no puja work to be done.

Forty minutes, between 3.50 and 4.30 am, is all it took for the entire place to be reduced to a carpet of soot. As we rushed out of the house, people were scampering this way and the other. The fire burned higher, yet seemed to contain itself to the the pandal. Lines of chairs were aflame; the smoke greatly reduced visibility and one couldn't see too far inside.

Residents were driving their cars away to safe distances. The fire was alive, but here no crackle, no sound, just the emptiness of criminal negligence.

There were only two statements that went around in never-ending circles. “This was waiting to happen”. And “Lucky escape for the residents. What if one of the cars parked so tightly had burnt? What if the overhanging zillions of electric fires had caught fire?”

A guard said, “Didi, mata ne poori aag apne upar le liya (The mother has taken the fire on herself).” He couldn’t be more right. Not a shred of the Durga idol remained. Even the Narayan and the Shivling were lost.

Fire tenders rolled within 10 minutes of the many calls that were made. Considering that the entrances are hijacked by ‘sponsored gates’, the firemen did their usual drill of where to park the tenders, unroll the pipes and then get into action. There was no fire extinguisher inside or anywhere on the scene. The guards on duty had no training, and didn’t know how to handle such an event.

The shock began to set in around 6 a.m. I have yet to see such beautifully programmed coordination between the police, the MCD and the organisers, the Navapalli Puja Samiti. The men were raking up the debris from the mandap area into huge utensils which were being loaded onto truck after truck. What was going on? The ‘ashes’ were being taken for immersion. See if you find the Shivling, a lady implored. This stuff was hot, this was the left-over of the fire. I asked the police standing in a huddle, “Shouldn’t the area be cordoned off? Won’t there be investigations, for what they’re worth?” “Kar rahen hain (we’re on the job),” was the laconic reply.

I helped carry some of the puja stuff to our temple. Puja vessels, cleaved apart. Two heavy trunks, the insides charred. Surely, these would help find out what had happened?

We had moved on, however. The next step was the ‘prayaschit puja’: Start the Durga Puja all over again.

By 11.30, the fire was a thing of the earlier night. Life had to go on. The puja was bigger than the fire. A new idol came in by 12.20 to cathartic war cries that were more chilling than euphoric. The grounds had been cleaned, truckloads of black debris, mangled metal, and chair frames trundled out. The residents were grim, but not guilty. The loss, the fear, the exhaustion didn’t count.

The ‘what ifs’ will remain unanswered. And ‘thank Durga ma it wasn’t anything worse’ will be the lasting refrain.

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