- Toward His Fire
I recognised him by the light from the fire. I walked up to him and tapped him on the shoulder. He looked at me but said nothing; instead he fixed his gaze on the conflagration. I, too, stood silently and watched. The heat from the flames was roasting us; I said, “Let’s get away from here.”
But he looked at me numbly and said, “Where do we go?” I didn’t have an answer; it seemed there was none.
Then he pointed to the smoke-filled room on the third floor, from which big chips of paint, ripped from the walls by the raging fire, came flying down. “You know,” he said, “I used to live in that room.”
A man draped in a dhoti sped up to us on a bicycle, a big pitcher of milk tied to the back. He dismounted and asked my friend, “Babu, how did the fire break out?” My friend stared at the man for a moment, then turned back to the burning, collapsing building. His silence seemed to answer the man’s question, or maybe the question was no longer necessary. He gawked at the gutted building for a while, then got on his bike and pedalled away.
A passing tonga driver suddenly reined his animal, pulled up to the curb, jumped out, and dashed into the building to join the rescuers.
“Were you able to save your things?” I asked.
“No. I wasn’t. I didn’t want to.”
“Why? Because things have a way of taking root inside houses. Once that happens, it’s difficult to uproot them—you feel you are trying to pull out a tree.” He fell silent for a while, then said, “Don’t you know I’ve been living here for a long, long time?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Still you ask that?” He looked at me as if he expected me to be completely overwhelmed.
He wasn’t wrong. He had lived in that room since his school days. He never lived in a dorm. He just stayed in the same room, where we had spent many sleepless nights together studying for exams. I had gradually come to regard him and his room as a single self. Time passed: he finished high school, got his bachelor’s degree, then his master’s. Then there was a long and weary period of unemployment. When he finally found a job (for whatever it was worth), he continued living in that room. It was here that we shaved our beards for the first time, using the razor blade I’d swiped from my father’s shaving kit. Now his hair had turned completely grey, and so had mine. [End Page 128]
The other tenants of the sprawling building were not newcomers either. With its many floors and apartments, the building housed every kind of person imaginable: natives, immigrants, white-collar workers, college professors, family men who’d hold out in their little rooms despite yearly additions to their families, bachelors who caroused during the day and came in late at night, pensioners—just about anybody. Some of the occupants owned small businesses in the city; others rented shops on the building’s street level, where they displayed their wares. These shops varied a great deal. Some were bright and shiny, and the merchandise was rearranged every now and then. Others comprised a canister, a box, and a burlap sack that was never moved, as if it had been there from the beginning of time and would remain for eternity—as if it were not merchandise, but something growing on the building and rooted there for good, defying any effort to dislodge it. Indeed, some of the old men clinging to that sprawling complex were hardly different from the mildew in it.
As I looked at him, then at myself, I could not help sensing the rushing flight of time. Youth is gone before you know it. But these hoary old men, who looked ancient even when we were in our prime, made me think that agedness reaches a point where it no longer decays...