Love & Life

The Night My House Caught Fire

A devastating fire that gutted the entire house taught Delhi's Versha Malhotra invaluable lessons in life and loss.

By Versha Malhotra

Life has not been easy. I lost my husband when I was just 21, and then my father who was my pillar of strength, and then my younger sister nine years ago, who left her body after many years of physical suffering. I have been my family’s sole breadwinner almost all of my adult life, running a successful business in Delhi. But when I look back now – at the age of 58 – I feel there was a purpose for everything.

After my sister’s death, I had just my mother left with me, and she too was a heart patient. Doctors had advanced her life by a few years after a heart attack by planting a pacemaker. But she had asthma and her condition was always tenuous. We had to take extra care.

One night in May a few years ago, just after the clock struck 12, the curtain in my mom’s room caught fire from sparks from the AC transformer. She and I lived on the ground floor of our three-storey house in Vasant Vihar. My mother’s nurse Shakuntala woke me up and alerted me. I rushed to my mom’s room to see the curtains ablaze, but my septuagenarian mom was still on her bed, hardly four feet away. She was unable to move – at that time, her left arm was in a plaster as she had broken a bone in a fall.

IMG_2287With great difficultly I half-dragged her to the living room and went back to my mother’s room to see if the fire could be controlled. But the moment I opened the door, heavy smoke and heat engulfed the little lobby, nearly choking me. I ran to the living room with just one thought in my head: we had to get out of the building.

Shakuntala showed amazing presence of mind and strength. After giving me the keys to the verandah in the front of the house, she ran up holding my dog Tommy to wake my brother and his wife who lived on the first floor.

In the meantime, I brought my mother out from the living room to the verandah. I tried to open the lock on the verandah grill but I could not – the metal was burning hot. The flames were now reaching out of the doors. I took a step towards my mom, and suddenly, the window glass shattered as the AC compressor burst. Metal, glass and wood pieces missed me by inches. My mom began screaming in fear.

What followed is inexplicable. I have just a flash of memory of those few seconds. I called one of the night guards standing outside the boundary wall, put my arms around my mother’s abdomen and lifted her in the air effortlessly to put her across the four-foot high wall. I remember thinking, “Mom is so light.” I handed her to the two guards outside, cautioning them that she had a broken arm. And then, just as effortlessly, I jumped the wall as well.

My mom weighs 92 kg. I cannot explain how it all happened but the incident made me realise that if you are totally focused and believe in yourself, nothing is impossible.

All others in the building – along with little Tommy who had fainted – managed to escape totally unharmed, minutes before the glass panes started blasting. It was as though an unseen shield had formed for our protection and was saving us. I ran in bare feet to our neighbours’ homes, asking for an inhaler for my mother who was breathless with asthma, and within minutes I found one being placed in my hand.

We stood gazing at the burning house. My sister-in-law stood crying, but I remember being calm and told her, “Look, we are safe. It’s a miracle.” The fire brigade reached us only after 90 minutes. By then the whole ground floor was gutted, we could not see any doors or window panes; all the furniture and fittings had turned to ashes. After the fire brigades left around 4 am, we all went to my uncle’s place for the night.

Everything was gone. My mother was 74, and her whole life’s collection of personal goods and household items was destroyed. We did not even have one item of clothing left for the next morning. I told mom to never look back. All material things are replaceable; I could only feel complete gratitude that we were all alive, totally unharmed and protected.

IMG_2285I was also blessed to quickly find a new home on rent within the same neighbourhood. My mom and I shifted there, and we furnished the rented flat starting from the very basics. In the meantime, we gave our home to a builder for reconstruction.

My mother was always a very social, gregarious person, always surrounded by friends and relatives, always a giver of love. But after we shifted to the new rented apartment, she gradually became weaker. Exactly six months after the fire, she passed away peacefully arranging a game on the table, which I played with her every night. She just rested her head on the cushion and passed away in my arms as I tried to revive her.

Now I live alone.

But life is full. I am part of a Buddhist community that keeps me purposeful and on my toes. I have my business to handle, and I am trying to raise awareness about fire safety among my family and friends. These are some lessons you can learn from my experience:

  1. Always keep a fire extinguisher at home and in the car, and teach everyone at home how to use it.
  2. Don’t neglect old and fraying wires.
  3. Don’t keep electrical gadgets near flammable objects like curtains. Also, make sure any fabric-covered furniture is kept at a distance from electrical wall sockets.
  4. Find the number of the nearest fire station and keep it handy.
  5. The reason the fire engine took 90 minutes to reach our home was because of bad civic planning and avoidable obstacles. Like most residential localities, ours too keeps most gates closed at night. The fire engine could not locate which gate was open. Make sure the local fire station knows which gate to enter the locality at night.
  6. The cars on the road were parked so badly that the fire engine could not cross through, and had to go and ring the bells of the homes to get residents to move their cars. This wasted precious time in an emergency situation. Speak to your neighbours and ensure that they park their cars in such a way that leaves enough room for an emergency vehicle to pass through.
  7. Get fire insurance on your home and keep the documents elsewhere. I did have home insurance, but the signed documents were lost in the fire, and the insurance company did not accept my claim.
  8. We also lost valuable property papers, jewellery, bank locker keys, identity cards, passports and innumerable other documents that took me over two years to sort out. Always keep a backup elsewhere.
  9. Most of all, develop an attitude of gratitude and a healthy detachment for material possessions in life. We can’t take these things with us when we die. Invest instead in love and faith. Those are all that matter in the end.

First published in the August 2017 issue of eShe magazine

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