A fire broke out at a slum in front of Muchipara police station at about 7.30 P.M. on 15 March, 1909. I came to know about it from the column 100 Years Ago in The Statesman.
“ … Mr P.N. Mukherji, of the Muchipara thana, drove to Lalbazar and gave information to the Fire Brigade, leaving orders in the mean time that Sub-Inspector A.N. Mukherjee was to proceed to the scene with the hand pumps of the thana. This injunction was carried out and all the available men of the thana played the hose upon the flames, thus controlling the progress of the fire …. The prompt action of the Muchipara thana officers saved the situation …. Mr P.N. Mukherjee brought up the fire brigade with one engine at 8 P.M., and the new arrivals succeeded in gaining complete control over the conflagration. There was a panic in the bustees, and the poor people took out their belongings and stacked them in the road, which soon became knee-deep in water. By 9 P.M., the fire was totally extinguished.”
The use of the Bangla word “bustee” was rather curious. Wasn’t “slum” in the English lexicon one hundred years ago? My Oxford dictionary clarified that the word was born in early 19th century and originally, it was a slang word meaning “room”. Maybe, even in early 20th century, the word didn’t mean “an overcrowded urban street or district inhabited by very poor people” (from where an odd millionaire might emerge).
And as I read the story, I compared the present with what used to be. Compared to my childhood days, there are more water taps and toilets in the city slums; one doesn’t see people defecating on the road. But the squalor remains. If anything, the slums are much more overcrowded today: they are bursting at the seams.
And how do our police compare with the great M/s Mukherjis, P.N. and A.N.? Ah! That takes me back to a bleak morning in 2008.
Darkness had just begun to lighten. It was raining heavily when a loud noise woke me up. Some people were trying the break open the shutter of a tailoring shop just across the road. The shop was one in a row of tiny stores with asbestos roofs. Smoke was swirling out of the shuttered outfit. The owner of the shop lives elsewhere; people couldn’t get in. A few young men were trying to break open the rolling shutter with iron rods and stones, braving the heavy downpour. And around fifty onlookers were standing around, soaked to the bones, but generously suggesting more efficient ways of doing the job.
I dialled 101, the Fire Brigade control room. No one answered and I was cut off after some time. I tried again, same result. Then I dialled 100, the police control room. No response. I repeated the sequence twice, without success. Curious, I tried 102, just to improve my general knowledge. The ambulance service, if any, fared no better than the police and the fire brigade. But not everything was lost, at least our telephones were working!
The anxiety of the people on the street was turning into panic. There were several contiguous shanties and stores, including a carpentry workshop. It would be a disaster if the fire spread. People were shouting; many ran out of their homes.
I dialled the directory assistance of Calcutta Telephones, hoping to find out the telephone number of the nearest fire station. “If you want to speak in English, press 1, if you want to talk to your mother-in-law, press 2, … if you want to speak to our customer care executive, press 5.” I pressed five. I was greeted with: “Sorry, all our customer care executives are busy. Please be on the line.” All of them busy at 5 AM? OK, the poor blokes should be given time to wake up. I hung on. My call was timed out. Repeated the process. Same result.
By then, some intrepid young men had climbed atop the shop and started breaking down the flimsy asbestos roof. A big hole on the roof allowed the torrential rain to douse the fire within minutes.
Kolkatans needn’t despair: There are still people who risk injury to save someone else’s property. And if the civic systems fail them, they can count on the saviour above!
18 March 2009