‘Get up, it’s time for dinner. And stop playing with the candles. You know that fire is dangerous,’ Amma shook me as she called out to me and broke my reverie.
As I got up to join my family for dinner, I looked at the flame and smiled a secret smile, fire wasn’t dangerous, it was my friend. I had a strange fascination for fire which I could not explain. I once talked to Amma about how pretty I found the flames and she scolded me. I never spoke about it again.
Abba was telling Amma about how his employer had asked him to drive to the edge of the town to see a vacant property. Amma interrupted Abba while he was talking and said he should have saved up in his younger days, but instead he had spent on his useless friends. Abba retorted that Amma’s father should have given better dowry instead. It was a regular argument, it happened too often for me to be bothered about it. I turned instead to my younger sister, Suraiyya, who was named after a bird because of her beautiful voice. She wanted to tell a story about her day at school but couldn’t get a word through to my parents. I loved my sister more than anything in the world. I fought with my parents when they scolded her, I gave up my share so she could enjoy more of the sweet dish, I protected her from other bullying children, I ensured that not a teardrop left her eyes if I could prevent it. I listened as she told me with animated eyes how a puppy had entered her classroom today and the teacher had allowed her to pet him. I laughed at her cheerful expressions and Abba and Amma joined me too, the argument soon forgotten.
Abba worked as a driver but ever since both of us sisters joined school, Amma had to start working too, for Abba’s wages were not enough pay our school fees. We lived in a shack adjacent to the house of Abba’s employer. We had one separate bedroom and the rest of it was an open space where the kitchen, sitting area and everything else merged. We had a small television, it had belonged to Abba’s employer who replaced it with a much larger one. Loose wires hung from the ceiling, intertwining with each other. All I knew that one of them was for the cable, which we stole. We didn’t have much valuable stuff, except for a trunk that held everything from our expensive clothes to Amma’s meager jewelry. Our house wasn’t exactly comfortable but it was snug and cozy and I wished for nothing more.
Until the day when everything fell apart.
It was a summer afternoon. The sun was beating down on us like it had a vengeance. Abba and Amma both were out for work. Amma was working in the house next door. I was bored and had nothing to do, for our cable had been cut off. After I ensured that Suraiyya was fast asleep, I snuck out. I went over to my friend’s place, two houses down in the street. She let me in quietly and we both watched cartoons, laughing our heads off over Tom and Jerry’s antics.
It all happened so suddenly that the details are now blurred. My friend’s mother came rushing into the room, screaming that there was a fire nearby. My heart skipped a beat and there was a deafening thudding in my ears as I followed her out. My friend and I ran out to witness an earth-shattering spectacle. Our small shack was on fire.
I ran towards the flames that were leaping into the sky, licking at the walls of our shack. I screamed as I ran and found myself being held tightly by a pair of hands. A few neighbors were throwing buckets of water on the fire which was roaring into the afternoon sun. The mango tree that shaded our shack caught fire; and I watched, enthralled, paralyzed as it ate inch by inch of our shack in seconds. There was a deafening boom and we were thrown back. There were cries of someone calling for the fire brigade. There were so many cries. There were so many people crowding my house. People from all over the colony had come to witness this disaster. But no one, no one stepped forward to help my sister. They kept telling me it was too late. I tried to claw my way through the throng but my tiny body was held back strongly by unknown pairs of hands.
Amongst the deafening roar of the fire and the indifferent cries of the people surrounding me, all I could hear was the beautiful voice of my sister, screaming at the top of her voice. I tried to rush in again, but found another pair of hands stopping me. They were saying that I could do nothing to save her. I realized I was screaming, flailing, biting and crying; trying as hard as I could to go into the fire and hold my sister… to save her, if not, then to burn with her. But they wouldn’t let me. They wouldn’t.
The fire died down after the fire brigade came and extinguished it. I found my mother, shell-shocked as she lightly tread on the remnants of what used to be a house. The smell of my sister’s charred skin and seared flesh is still fresh in my memories. When they brought out her burnt body, it was beyond recognition. We could only make out her tiny hands raised up for help, her beautiful mouth petrified in a horrified scream. Her lovey skin was burnt black, like charcoal. She was dead, my little sister.
People were talking, but all I could hear were her screams. The people who had come to look at our tragedy were still there. They were talking about how irresponsible the parents were. They were outraged about how the parents had left such a small child unattended. They fire brigade told us the reason of the fire was a short circuit. There was the press, taking photos of the burned victim, of the family, of the neighbors. The police were there too, discussing how to avoid making this a big case.
After that day, all happiness left our home. My parents blamed me for leaving Suraiyya unattended. I blamed myself too. If only I had not left the house to watch a few stupid cartoons. If only. I tortured myself all my life with if onlys. But I could not go back to that fateful afternoon and change what happened. I could only keep my family from falling apart because of the guilt, by taking the blame on myself. Every night of my life since then, the screams of my sister have haunted me.
The flames that had once enchanted me in the innocence of my childhood, hold no fascination for me now. It has been forty years to what happened. I still prefer the dark over the company of a fickle flame.
Image Source : flickr.com