‘AAG! Memsahib, Aag lagi hai! Aag, aag, aag!’ My peace was shattered. I was sitting on the balcony of the lodge with my afternoon cake and chai and the first Sunday Times I had seen in months, two weeks out of date but, never the less, it was a treat. It was a rare day with no guests, the camp was set up for the evening’s arrivals and most of the staff were enjoying their off time, playing cricket behind the lodge. As I alternately gazed into the distance in a day dream, and flicked through the travel supplement, I could hear the sounds of the ball being hit and the boys cheering as runs were made.
Bahardur came racing towards me, looking like more of a mad man than usual, shopping scattering wildly as he abandoned it to wave his arms as he continued to shout. ‘AAG, AAG, AAG LAGI HAI!’ I stood up to see if I could see what all the fuss was about. At that point, Raj and the other boys came sprinting around the lodge alerted by Bahardur’s shouts and looking more than a little worried.
‘Kaha?’ They asked, ‘Where?’ Bahardur pointed back up towards the camp entrance. A frantic conversation ensued. I understood the word ‘bhijli’ but in true Indian style this could mean, light, lightening or electricity, but the rest of it was lost on me. However, for once Bahardur had no patience with my lack of Hindi and having alerted the troops, he set off back towards the entrance with the team in hot pursuit. I looked quizzically at Raj to find out what the issue was with a horrible feeling that ‘aag’ was going to be another Hindi word that I was learning under duress rather than out of interest.
‘What is it Raj?’ I asked as I raced after them.
‘Fire.’ he replied.
‘Fire? Where?’ Jeepers, this was not in the job description.
‘Up by the gate, really close to the electric cables and phone lines, you stay here, we’ll deal with this.’
I ignored his instructions and hurried along with them, thankful for all the walking and cycling I had been doing. The camp was now my responsibility and I couldn’t sit back and leave this to the team, but how on earth did one deal with a fire in the jungle? My mind was racing, I estimated that the nearest fire engine was probably at least 5 hours away, we had the dam but how big was the fire? Would 10 of us running up and down with buckets of water be enough? Plus if it got near the electrics, well, this lethal combination was something that wouldn’t even occur to the staff so I couldn’t add to the danger of the situation. ‘What the hell? Raj, how do we put a fire out in the middle of nowhere with no fire equipment?’ He just shrugged at me as we ran along.
‘Has this happened before?’ I asked.
‘Not in my four years,’ he panted in reply as we reached the scene.
It seemed like the whole top end of the field, leading down from the road, was on fire. This was April, it hadn’t rained in months, temperatures were daily in excess of 36C, the land was parched and the grasses were bone dry. The fire was spreading quickly. The wooden telegraph pole with the cables was in the middle of the field, we had to stop it before it reached that.
I know we only had electricity for four hours a day but we relied heavily on it during that time and to be totally without the phone was not something I relished the thought of. We had to stop it before it reached the telegraph pole, if we didn’t manage that, the camp would be next.
En masse, we ground to a halt, temporarily stunned, looking at the orange flames tearing towards us over the arid land, hissing and crackling as it advanced. Time seemed to stand still as we all just stood and looked at each other. I felt completely helpless, not knowing what on earth to do. Then Antaram and Uttam, had the same idea at the same time. ‘Dali’ they shouted,’ branches’, and they ran to the nearest trees, ripped some of the low lying branches off and started beating at the flames. It seemed like the best option open to us and we all followed suit.
‘What are you doing?’ Raj screamed at me, trying to pull the branch out of my hand which I had just wrestled from the tree ‘Get back to the lodge, we can handle this, it isn’t safe for you.’
I stood my ground, ‘It isn’t safe for anyone and I am not going to sit back drinking chai and reading the bloody paper while you all battle a fire! Now let go and let me help, the more hands we have the better.’
He paused for a second, we both had our hands on my branch and then he relented, there was value in my argument and the two of us standing around arguing wasn’t going to help put the fire out. Clutching our branches we raced back towards where the rest of the team were already batting at the flames in an attempt to put it out, or at least, keep it back. It seemed futile and I looked apprehensively towards the telegraph pole, the fire was encroaching and quickly.
I looked around through the smoke for Raj. ‘Raj, get a couple of the boys to go and get some buckets of water, we need to dampen the ground and grass around the telegraph pole, if the fire gets up that we have had it.’ He followed my gaze and nodded in agreement. Just at that point, two of the girls, Bhaisakin and Sudhir came running, and Raj barked the order at them. They nodded and ran off toward the dam. Raj nodded approvingly at me and then immediately disapproving again as I screamed as a snake, around 5 ft long, disturbed by the fire, slithered rather too close to my foot for comfort in its escape.
‘You should know by now that rat snakes aren’t dangerous, you did know it was a rat snake?’
I declined a direct answer ‘It startled me and I am wearing flip flops’
‘You should be more worried about burning your feet than a non-poisonous snake, what the hell are you doing battling a fire in flip flops anyway!’
‘Oh, sorry, yes, I should have wasted five minutes putting on the fire protective clothing I thought to bring to India with me before attempting to save the camp.’ He ignored my sarcasm and continued with a battle he had more chance of winning.
Sparks were flying and landing on our clothes, the heat was starting to get unbearable, and I pondered briefly whether I would be better in bare feet or flip flops, would they melt onto my feet?
‘Christ, I thought living in 36C was bad.’ I shouted at Raj, as we pounded the flames. ‘Is this what they call a baptism of fire?’
Once again, he ignored me. How was I finding humour in the middle of this situation? Surely it can’t be normal to thrive on dangerous situations and be cracking jokes in the middle of them? I was fuelled as always by the drama.
I paused briefly from beating to look up and see how the rest of the team were faring and if there was any sign that we were winning. There they all were, frantically thrashing at the flames, not one of them seemed to have any doubt in their conviction to put the fire out, personal safety had gone out of the window. Once the leaves had been burned off one branch, they would run back to get a fresh one and re-commence with renewed vigour. Taking inspiration from their dedication, I continued in my quest. My feet were burning. I wasn’t sure if all the dead skin which had accumulated was a good thing! Soon I saw the girls reappearing carrying two buckets of water each. I ran over to show them where to pour the water in a semi-circle around the fire side of the telegraph pole, taking advantage and putting each flip flop clad foot in one of the buckets before they did so. The relief was immense. The girls grinned at me, before running off for four more buckets.
I ran back to the fire. Looking out over the field, I couldn’t fault what the boys were doing, it was the best option under the circumstances but we didn’t look to be winning. I was starting to panic.
I ran towards Raj, he was smeared in soot and sweating, ‘Raj, what else can we do? We don’t seem to be gaining control?’ Raj followed my gaze. The girls were on their way back with the buckets so my immediate stress about the electrics was temporarily eased but at this rate the fire could spread into the camp and take the tents out.
‘Just carry on,’ yelled Raj, ‘it’s all we can do, and pray for a miracle!’
Five minutes passed which seemed more like fifty and I was starting to tire and choke on the smoke. Then out of the corner of my eye I saw two jeeps pulling into the gates. Not the guests arriving early? This was all we needed, how to make a first impression! No it couldn’t be, guests didn’t arrive by jeep. I turned my back to the fire to have a better look at who was emerging from the vehicles when a gust of wind caught the flames thrusting them towards me.
‘Look out!’ Screamed Raj. Too late, the backs of my trousers had caught fire. I tried to beat at them with my hands but the fire was too hot, jumping up and down wasn’t helping and it was no good Raj trying to beat at them with his already flaming branch. I started to run away from the flames with the idea to sit down in the dampened soil around the telegraph pole. I could feel the material burning through onto my calves and pushed myself to run faster. I could see the alarm on the girls’ faces and they turned and ran back to the dam to get more water.
I was filled with terror, my calves were burning and all thoughts of saving the camp had left my head when suddenly I felt something hit me with full force, throwing me to the ground. I struggled to get to my feet but no matter how much I tried I couldn’t move.