Tapas said, “I remember the recent incident of fire at Gariahat very vividly!”
“It has left an indelible mark in my memory” he had continued.
I was listening to him intensely and this is how his story unfolded.
“It was a fateful night of 19th of January, 2019, when Ramesh Tiwari was astounded by the amount of noise the budgerigars were making that night. He looked at his watch and he saw it was quarter to one. Usually at night, the budgerigars become quiet and sleep. He tossed and turned in his bed and then couldn’t sleep and so he went and opened the door of his room which was in the third floor of the old building. The moment he stepped out, the smell of rancid smoke almost choked him. Alarmed, as he was, he rushed downstairs. It didn’t take him long to realize that the garment store was burning with flames evolving and dancing slowly with the wind. He opened the main gate and rushed out to save himself. He joined the chorus of people shouting “fire” and then in a jiffy people were gathering to help other member staff who may have been trapped inside the building.
The garment shop, which was located centrally near Gariahat, was a major commercial hub of Kolkata. Yet, the fire safety measures had gone for a toss. The darkness of the night was getting overshadowed by the grey evolving smoke and the chirping of the budgerigars trapped inside the building. Within seconds the fire erupted more vigourously and the shops nearby were also ablaze.”
Tapas had paused.
Tapas continued, “Suddenly a man ran inside the burning building crying, ‘I have to save them!’ Some familiar faces realized that the man who went inside was a peanut seller who used to sell peanuts in the encroached footpath. Someone said, ‘Is he is psycho, the guy who just ran in?’ Another man just commented, 'The old foolish bastard will die!' Someone threw some water in a bucket from a nearby tap, but the store was up in flames. By then our fire engine had arrived duly and from our team then I and Riazul Shaikh went inside the burning building.”
“We had been duely informed by the over enthusiastic crowd that there was a lunatic who had ran in to save someone. I had spotted the burning transformers and told Riazul to attend to it, while I ran up. I searched the first floor, realizing that it would catch fire in no time. Then I ran towards the second floor and then again finding it desolately empty, again ran upstairs to see the corridor where the cage of the budgerigars were kept. I found the man dressed in a lungi and vest trying to break the lock of the cage with his bare hands. I told the guy, to move aside and then with the heavy axe broke down the lock of the cage. It was possibly the first flight to freedom for some of the budgerigars and they flew away”, continued Tapas.
“Then the two of us rushed downstairs. By the time we had reached the ground floor the first and second floor was up in flames. The man whom many thought was a lunatic was offered a glass of water and the two of us sat side by side to see the other firemen trying to douse the fire. By the time the two had regained some of their lost breath. I had asked the man, “What’s your name mate?”
“Why did you try to save the birds? Were you not afraid to lose your life? Most people here think you are crazy!
The old toothless Bihari man smiled and replied, 'I am a peanut seller who sells peanuts in the pavement there! People who come to shop here tend to feed the budgerigans with the peanuts. I have lived my entire life selling peanuts and it is because of those birds that I am able to make my ends meet. For twenty one years I have lived here, fending for myself, had it not been for those birds I would have lost everything. I may be a peanut seller but I am not ungrateful, Sahib! They gave me everything I needed and more than I wanted, how could I forget them in their hour of need?'"
Tears were welling out of his eyes by then.
"I thought to myself, 'What empathy this old man possesses?'” continued Tapas.
I thought, 'If this is not an example of Humanity then what is?'
“Suddenly I saw a one of the budgerigars that had escaped the fire walking on the wet road, and pointing at the Budgerigar, I had said, 'Look!' The moment Rakesh saw the bird he whistled. It didn’t take the bird long before it flew and sat on Rakesh’s shoulder. I wished I had brought my smart phone to get a photograph of the two. But by then one after the other 19 firetenders had been pressed to contain the flames. My senior called me to douse the flames. I left the old Bihari gentleman and went to do my duty.” Then Tapas paused a bit.
“By the time, the fire was doused I didn’t find the peanut seller who had just vanished into the cover of darkness of the fiery night. Although, next morning some of the news papers reported that three budgerigars had choked to death even though someone had opened their cage, yet no mention of the heroism of the peanut seller was reported anywhere. Everyone in the fire department lauded me for my efforts of bringing out the lunatic peanut seller. I had strangely kept quiet and pensive, thinking 'Am I the real Hero?' This thought is leaving me with sleepless nights you know my friend!” said Tapas.
I had consoled him saying, “But why are you apologetic? You did your duty?”
I was reading the newspapers next day when I thought, “Who would like to think of a poor old Bihari peanut seller to have so much courage to risk his own life and save lives of birds. They must be thinking, 'What a bloody lunatic he was!' People like to think a hero only comes in with macho chiseled physiques, but they come in all shapes and sizes. Even a pot bellied old Bihari peanut seller should have been termed as a real hero. The world around us prefers young dynamic macho men like Tapas. Strange is it not!”