In the first room that I enter, a barely perceptible smell of smoke still lingers. You can sense it, briefly, when you walk in from the breezy terrace. A few seconds later, it’s gone. The walls are a deep shade of brown, but for a few jagged lines of white that stretch downwards from the ceiling. It is dark in the room and the new tubelight on its new casing, in stark contrast with the sooted wall that it is nailed to, is off. But it is unnecessary: there is enough light filtering in through the wire-gauze; enough to move around with running into anything. In any case, there not much left here to read. The wall to wall carpeting is intact, and clean.
I hesitate before I turn right to look at the other room. A blackened air-conditioner rests next to the wall on the far side, but I immediately turn to the shards of transluscent black glass beside it, under the window. It irritates me that they haven’t been removed, but I do not ask why. I look up to see the pane that this glass fell off, and through the part that the shards on the floor would fit perfectly into, I look up at the partly cloudy skies. The walls are charred, and at places, sharp-edged pieces of paint are missing, revealing a layer of white paint on the cement, and occasionally a coarse layer of scraped cement. Other parts of the papdi, as the topmost layer of paint is called in Hindi, are cracking and their borders are outlined in grey. The room stinks of burnt wood; I was last here ten days ago, on new year’s day, heaping bucketfulls of water into the smouldering remains of my bookshelf. 55 year old shelves are…were made of stubborn wood, and while almost everything else had collapsed into ash when I opened the door to the second room, a three foot tall black and grey pile still smouldered. Stubbornly.
The rooms had been closed all night. I had unlatched the door to the first room, the part near the door-frame blackened with the soot of the smoke trying to escape, and walked in without thinking, before being slapped in the face by a wave of heat and smoke. Everything looked blurred and disfigured, and blackened – the sides of the plastic wall clock that had been kept on the metal filing cabinet were drooping; the three layered plastic file-holder had collapsed to a single layer; the fax machine had shrivelled and wrinkled, with its insides now showing. Nothing else in the first room was damaged, except that the walls were now black, and it was hot in there.
I opened the other room from the outside, and saw a layer of ash on the floor. Where’s the desk? I wondered. The chairs? My DVD player? Speaker system? I looked at the remains of the once six-foot bookshelf and thought this was all a bad dream. For a few moments, I just stared; stared, before parts of ash blew off to reveal a brilliant orange, burning interior. The PC’s were on the part-metal table, and they looked surreal: drooping and yellowed. Everything that was plastic had melted, and soot had filled the room. And yet, there was no blazing fire to be seen, even though the rooms were both hot. As someone, using a shovel, carried the ashen remnants of my books out into the terrace, a fresh, unburnt page flipped open and took fire.
“Flashpoint,” said my cousin, later that evening. “It’s very interesting.” When there isn’t enough oxygen in a room, and something catches a spark, it all smoulders slowly to conserve the oxygen. The temperature rises, the wood heats up and the plastic melts. Then, at a particular temperature, everything bursts into flames simultaneously and burns until the oxygen runs out, and then smoulders. “Wow,” he said kindly, “this must have actually happened.”
Every now and then, especially when I look at the much smaller book-shelf in my room, or chance upon something remotely literary, I lapse into reminiscing about the books that have been lost. In particular, my copy of LOTR (Bookworld, Pune); Tristram Shandy (Book Bank, Pune); my Somerset Maugham collection, most of which were picked up when HDHD and I visited Fort, and two from Deccan Bridge in Pune- compilations of stories and their adaptations into plays by Maugham; the Jack Kerouacs – Maggie Cassidy and On the Road; Without Feathers by Woody Allen; The complete works of Oscar Wilde; my grandfathers P.G. Wodehouses…ah well, there were too many of them…over two seventy of them, and too many of them were special. My collection is now down to a meager seventy three books that I had brought down to my room (Why not more? I ask myself again), and five that are with friends: three with Harneet and two with Abhinit in Pune. But bouts of reminiscing are fleeting and we must move on.
“If you believe in Indian fatalism,” said my Uncle while the wet ash was being shoveled out that fateful morning,”the rest of the year will be better.” An aunt called in to say that some blasted planet must have moved on after this.
I resolve to make it better by shopping for books with a vengeance (finances permitting, of course). On the 22nd and 29th of Jan, if you’re in Delhi, you’re invited to join me for a walk down Darya Ganj. I must warn you, though: I have a quick eye for good books; what might work in your favour is that I might be a little confused about whether I still have a particular book or not.
Tip: when you have a bonfire, and have been sitting around it on mattresses, leave the mattresses out in the open for the night. That way, if it’s picked up a spark, only the mattress will burn.