Vantage point

Tuesday, March 11, 2003

This happened when I was eight years old. We had just moved to Pune and it was the first time that I was living in a house with a nice balcony. Add to the fact that we lived on the ground floor, so I could take all sort of liberties, like jumping out of it, play cricket in it, etc etc.

When I was a kid, the strangest things fascinated me. At eight, the list was topped by the act of lighting a match. I was obviously not allowed to do it. But whenever I saw anyone hold the matchbox in one hand, grasp the little matchstick in another, and create fire with one swift stroke, I thought it was nothing short of a miracle. The unique "khrrrrrrshhhhhh" sound it made sounded like music to my ears. I pleaded with my parents and my grandparents to teach me how to do it, but they refused saying I was too young.

One day, my mom and younger sister were out visiting our neighbours, and my dad was sleeping. I was watching TV, (I remember clearly - I was watching Superman) when there was a power cut. As I sat there twiddling my thumbs, my eyes fell on my dad's matchbox on the TV. I picked it up, and looked at it with awe. Suddenly I decided I wanted to make fire too. Everyone does it, how hard could it be? I am not too young, I thought. I am eight after all. In a decade or so they'll let me vote. And you mean to say I can't light a matchstick. Pooh pooh, I said.

So I picked up the matchbox, went to my favourite balcony (we had two), and slid the matchbox open. I took a stick out, and rubbed it along the side with the black dots. Nothing. I did it again. Nothing. What was wrong, I wondered, there is no sound, neither is there any fire. Then I remembered how everyone did it with a jerk of the hand. I held the matchstick between my eight years old thumb and index finger and with a sudden jerk struck it on the side of the matchbox. Voila, I had created fire. I was so happy as I held the burning match in my hand. Hahh, here I was, probably the youngest kid in the world to make fire (I wondered if I could feature in the Guinness book, since they used to screen the TV show those days). As the fire got closer to my fingers, I threw the matchstick out of the window, and it landed harmlessly on the rough ground. I took out another matchstick, and repeated the procedure. Yup, it wasn't a fluke. I was now a Certified Fire Creater, on my way to manhood. After about 10 matches or so, I got bored, and thought of pushing the bar up a bit. How about seeing how long I can hold the match, I thought.

So I lit a match, and held it close to me, peering at it, and making sure it wasn't touching my finger. As the match started burning, the flame got closer to my finger. I resolved to hold it as long as I could. But at the first touch of fire, I yelped "Ouch" and just threw the match away. Now since I had not been careful about where I threw, it did not leave the balciny, but flew towards the right side. here there were some wooden crates, which we had used to transport our stuff when we moved to Pune. Over these crates, were stacks of old newspapers (what we call raddi in India).

Yep, you guessed it right. The newspapers caught fire at once and within seconds, the conflagaration had grown to a menacing level. I panicked. An eight year old fears his father's "WHY DID YOU DO IT WHEN I TOLD YOU NOT TO??" wrath more than a big fire. Anyway, I thought I could bring the fire under control, get rid of the burnt newspapers, and no one would know about it. I ran to the sink, filled a mug with water, ran out and threw it over the burning papers. They just disdainfully hissed at me, and continuing curling up in the fire. It was getting positively dangerous now. Should I wake my father up? What should I do? I was in a fix.

"What is the smoke" I heard a voice. It was Raghav, a young man who lived above our house standing in his balcony.

"I accidentally set fire to some papers here," I answered in a panicky voice. He swiftly ran down the stairs, ran to our bathroom, filled up a bucket with water and doused the fire. Thankfully the crates hadn't caught fire yet, and the fire was extinguished at once. As the intense panic within me was subsiding, I saw the bedroom door opening. My father stepped out, not looking very happy. He smelt the smoke and asked me what was on fire.

Raghav explained to him that he was putting out a small fire, and nothing major had happened. I was grateful to Raghav for rushing to my help, but I was also petrified thinking about how angry my father would be.

This is how my first encounter with fire ended. I don't quite remember if my Dad spanked me or beat me up that day. But the whole incident is very clear in my mind. To this day whenever I light a match, it comes back to me. And I wonder at what a stupid 8 years old kid I was.

I could light a matchstick, but I didn't have enough brains to blow it out before I threw it.

I was saved from entering the Guinness Book as the world's youngest arsonist!