Friday, August 8, 2014

Saving Lives

There was a fire, last night, in our building.

The first we knew about anything was a bunch of fire trucks, ambulances, and excited people congregating around the parking spots. There had been a power outage earlier in the evening, surprisingly, and when the power was turned back on, we decided dinner had been delayed enough, and sat down at the table. That’s when we began to notice a much higher level of noise and activity in the usually placid corridors. Almost immediately, the power went out again!

Then, the running around began, and my neighbour appeared, frantic, at my door. “Can you see the fire trucks down there?” she wanted to know. “Do you think they’ve come to our building? Looks like our building!” trying to calm her down, I accompanied her on a window to window, balcony to balcony, apartment to apartment see-what-you-can-see expedition. Yes, it turned out; the problem was, most definitely, ours. Calls of “fire!” and panicked “oh my god, what are we going to do!” could soon be heard adding to the already considerable din of wailing sirens and general hubbub.

Soon we had security and some occupants going from door to door asking people to please go down to the downstairs common area, out of the building. They came to my door too. Instead of running blindly, as I saw so many doing, i asked what the hoopla was about. Turns out it was a minor conflagration, caused by a power surge as the outage ended a little while before, and limited to the small room that housed the electric meters. So why did I have to give up on my dinner and rush downstairs? Surely two fire trucks were more than capable of handling a fire that could be put out by one large domestic grade extinguisher? All the panic around me was setting my teeth on edge.

Thinking about it rationally though, I decided that we should saunter down to take a look after all, merely for the fun of it. So, down we went. The tiny little fire having been efficiently and swiftly dealt with, the atmosphere in the common areas was more festive than anything. Someone walking in at that point, and unaware of the previous events, would probably think some kind of a meet-and-greet and chinwag with your neighbours event was going on. Lots of laughter, lots of chatter, it was like a party! People we met only occasionally in the elevators, or passed with a nod in the corridors were sharing anecdotes and tea from a nearby stall. Kids were running around, playing, thrilled at the unexpected delaying of bedtime and the unusual gathering of the all the little monsters from the block. Passersby on the street stopped to watch, amazed by this hilarity in the middle of the night in an otherwise normally quiet building.

When I finally trudged my way upstairs, as hypoglycaemia began to attack, headed for my long neglected meal, the block party was still in full swing. In bed later that night, or very early the next morning really, I got to thinking. True, this was a damp squib hardly worth blogging about, true the drama lasted much longer than the actual fire, true having a police station and the fire station practically next door was a huge advantage (it was the cops who actually noticed the flames and called the fire-fighters! The security guy, as usual, was oblivious), but what about when things are more serious?

Suppose it was a bigger fire, or the fire station was further away, or the cops less alert; suppose things HAD gotten out of hand. Are we... am I ... prepared to deal with such an eventuality? Assuming I have a few minutes to gather a couple of important things, grab my loved ones, and limb down a huge number of stairs before the whole thing goes up in flames. What does one grab? It is all very well, and perfectly right, to say as long as lives are saved, the rest is not important. I agree I would rather have my man and child safe and unhurt than anything else on the planet. But what if it came to that?

We escape with our lives, and the clothes we are standing up in (which, given that we were lounging about at home, are likely to be extremely tattered and disreputable). Then what? Sure, the money in the bank is safe, but all the paperwork proving that it belongs to me, and all methods of accessing it (check books, ATM cards) just went up in flames. All my clothes (which include a few superlative sarees i have collected over the last 20 years, Ouch!) are gone – but one can buy more clothes if one can access the money. Furniture, knick-knacks, random clutter collected from living, is dispensable and easily replaceable. More traumatic to lose would be my hundreds of books, gut wrenchingly painful thought, but that too can be replaced with a little money and time.

The problem would be losing a bunch of other irreplaceable or difficult to replace stuff. For instance my computers, and their backups, which contain all my work, my writing- professional and personal, digital versions of my sketches and paintings, my photographs (which include pictures of my loved ones, and my baby – from her birth onwards- which is an added loss), my ebooks (about 1000 of them), the gallows for my next book, important documents and accounts of my firm, and so much more. Most of it is irreplaceable, some of it truly very difficult to replace.

Then there are the papers. Passports, birth certificates and degrees, insurance policies, work related documents, tax and investment related paperwork, bank documents and documents related to safety deposit box, in short, every single paper that proves who I am and what I have. My entire life, and all my assets. I realised not only that I, and anyone else, can lose all of this in one fell swoop, but I have no idea what it would mean in the long run. I have no idea whether any of this can be replaced, or how to go about replacing it. I have no idea what happens with the stuff that can’t be replaced.

SCARY! Without a wake up call like a close shave, how many of us bother to think about these things? Oblivious as we are in our daily grind, when do we even realise that something like this is worth thinking about? My “take-away” from this incident is simple. I am going to find out about how to replace each of these papers, and what and how long that takes. I am also creating multiple back-ups of backups – external hard disks, photocopies – and stashing them with others, with parents, trusted friends. This should at least make sure that even if I have to walk out of my home forever, at a moment’s notice, the important stuff is already safe.