It was a usual lazy evening, listening to the Indian political debate in the News Hour, while scanning through the new project documents with a scratching head. The white carpet of Chicago winter had swallowed our horizon, giving a pleasantly itching feeling. It was Siva’s (the body builder and muscleman of our room) brisk steps and screaming that made me conscious of the stinky smell and the eye-watering smoke around me. In fact, it was a shocking realization that not only I was unaware of what happened around me with all my five senses open and apparently working, but also the hard work of a small pizza and micro oven for 12 minutes could make our room a chimney of cashew nut factory. We were literally lost and dumbfounded for sometimes.
By the time I learnt that he had placed a pizza in micro oven for 15 minutes with a watering tongue for the usual late lunch (at 5’o clock in the evening) and at the 12th minute itself the kitchen and hall were totally smoked from the oven, as if the Kochi corporation smokes for mosquitos, the situation was unbearable. Luckily or unluckily, the smoke detectors neither in the hallway nor in the rooms uttered a word or even cared to acknowledge the presence of such a suffocating smoke. And we call them smoke detectors! Nevertheless, I would not blame them for such an irresponsibility, mainly because it was not something new to them. They are used to it, more precisely fed up with it. And that was when I got reminded of the burned banana which I had seethed for hours in the same morning and found next to the micro oven, as the proof of my cookery expertise.
The dark had fallen early, sending the sun to India where my family and friends must have animated for a new day without knowing the agonizing feeling I was going through. The very reflexive action I could do was opening the hallway casement window to let the smell and smoke flow out, without caring the chilly cold that made me nearly freeze to death. Please note that this was the week of the lowest known temperature in Chicago with a warning of record 60 degrees below zero. Had Sujith (my other roommate) been back from office, he would have given the mathematics of Fahrenheit and Celsius, which I never understood and hopefully never will. And for the first time in my life, I understood the phrase ‘between the devil and the deep blue sea’; I was between the stinky smoke and the freezing wind chill. Not only we were freezing, but the hallway was stuffed with the putrid smoke as well.
We were running here and there, probably to warm ourselves or ponder for a solution. It might be to cover up the anxiety as well. While floating over the smoke and chill, we were exchanging many an idea, but nothing got registered into our minds or was convincing. Finally, my logic and school physics came for rescue. I had the biggest discovery of my life that made the rest of the day horrible. I found the air flow in our hallway at stagnation, in lieu of casement window being open, attributable to which we were freezing. A logical conclusion was keeping the opposite door open to the corridor and I didn’t even think to do so. Eventually, the smoke decided to hesitantly quit the arena. There must have been a feeling of relief or victory in my face, when I leaned back to my office cushion chair and started concentrating on the debate moderated by Arnab Goswami.
It was an ear-tearing alarm that made me hop from the chair. We flew into the corridor to find the source of the panic sound. Barrington Lakes apartments has a peculiar, stereotyped and enclosed corridor that has all the doors of the two-rowed rooms opening into in a three-storied building. There was a strange sight that no one in the apartment would have ever watched before. The windy chill had stuffed all the smoke into the enclosed corridor, giving a heavenly experience where we look at many a thing but see nothing; we smell a lot but feel nothing. Finally, I managed to fix my eyes and ears into a big red bell that reminded me of my old golden college days when I used to await for similar ring either sitting on the bench inside the classroom or standing outside of it. I had been here in this apartment for more than three years and that was the moment when I noticed the existence of that big red bell.
Through the heavenly fog in the corridor, I saw many human forms floating around. No sooner I heard the human beings in the fog screaming as well. I grubbed my eyes to find the fact of the vision and was astonished to know that the residents of the building were screaming and evacuating; some with jackets and others didn’t even care for the killing cold outside. The big red bell in the corridor was ringing louder and louder.
We smelt a rat. Something was going terribly wrong. We ran into kitchen. Siva put the burned plate and pizza (in fact a charcoal of pizza) into the garbage box. I wondered his presence of mind for a moment. Somehow I knew somebody would come from leasing office and they would arrange for not only smoke remover but for a garbage collector to clean our kitchen. Spontaneously I started cleaning the kitchen and for my wonder I did it with seconds. I scanned the kitchen and the hall. Nothing was in place. Chappals were scattered. Amazon boxes were spread across. The floor was littered. Tables were topped with untidy objects. The people in the TV were still debating about international cases. I remembered that the debate was all about Devayani’s strip-off search case. I could concentrate on nothing, as the bell went on ringing louder and louder.
Manu and Hari (colleagues staying next door) came running. I realized another naked truth that everybody could recognize the source of the smoke. We were gone, I thought. I couldn’t but laugh when Hari explained how the dancing old lady was running out and commenting that they never knew…, when asked of the reason. Again I went to the corridor to see if people were still evacuating. All of the sudden, an idea ringed a bell. I ran to the door of the corridor and kept it open. Then I realized that people from top floors had also started stepping down. I tried to explain to most of them, telling it was just a kitchen smoke, though few were not convinced. The bell was ringing and ringing. I peeped in and through it. There was nothing to cease it. I just flashed about the smoke detector in our hallway and the famous dialogue by Soman (Malayalam actor in the movie Hitler), “Had she just cried loudly…”. Then came Akhil (another colleague staying next door) and narrated the story of how people were evacuating and I shouldn’t have discouraged people from their right of being safe.
I stood in the corridor with blank mind but heavy heart. The fog started fading. Standing on the rear end of the corridor, I saw somebody approaching from the front door through the fading smoke. The closer the figure came, the more trembled I became. Bluish black shirt and pants. A yellow emblem in the shoulder and white symbol on the chest. A black cap with white badge. Blacker belt with visible holster and gun. It was the same figure that always came to my mind whenever I drove over-speeded or didn’t pause in the stop signals. Yes, it was a policeman. He was stern in his target. He just entered our room. With trembling legs, I followed. I still wonder how I did manage to make him understand that nothing is serious, with my broken English. No fire… Just a smoke from oven… He was not to simply buy my words. He searched in and out of kitchen with right hand on the gun holster. He was verifying again and again whether it was from the small oven. I was not at all dare to reveal the truth of pizza. The final number I could put forth was that the smoke was created by the burned banana that laid next to the micro oven. It looked far better to show the burned banana than the charcoal of pizza. And for the first time, I felt proud of my cookery fault. Even though I was not sure, I did convince him. Eventually, he was calm and whispering over the walkie-talkie, convincing somebody on the other end. Ultimately, when the gentleman asked us to be safe and stopped the ear-tearing alarm in the corridor, I sank into the chair and sighed with relief.
All of the sudden, two people emerged from the dark on the left side casement window, pushing it wide open, with axes and gas cylinders in hands. For a moment, it was breath stopping. They were two fire engine equipped personnel with greenish costume. They also jumped into kitchen with some fire detector and scanned completely. I was still in the shock of seeing two aliens. They also made an exit after a thorough checkup and conviction. And it was when Randheer, Sujith and Jibin (colleagues and roommate) returned from the office, I and Siva realized the whole building had been surrounded by policemen and fire engine personnel. While all of us were cracking the jokes on the mannerism of people evacuating and the fine that would be levied for this, in mind I was saluting the gentlemen who flew into the spot within five minutes. When I started hearing the debate again, I again sunk into a deep indignity about the proud India we speak of. What would have happened in the same situation there? It may be because of the over population and lack of respect for lives. Or due to the inefficiency of the equipment and personnel. Or even owing to people like me…
At some point of our discussion, we started talking about the fine to be levied for this whole trauma we (probably I) created. We made all the people evacuate. We made policemen and fire engine personnel fly all the way. Though I had also joined the party, guessing a fine of $500, in fact I was expecting nil charge in mind. Finally, Randheer came with an idea that we could call and confirm with Suresh (Randheer’s manager) of the charge. We did. It was a fuel to the flame. He confirmed that we would be charged from $350 onwards, based on the distance the policemen and fire engine personnel traveled. For a moment, I realized the need of police and fire stations next to our house. At night, the whole incident was reeling in the realm of my mind like an eventful dream. The entire night, something was pecking my heart with its heavy beak. It was not the lost feeling of the hefty fine or the dreadful memory of the unexpected evening. I think it was the harmless lie I made to a gentleman where the charcoal of pizza turned into the burned banana fry!