It was the sixth continuous day of unbearable, sticky heat last summer, the third day of a heat wave of 100-degree plus temperature and humidity of 80 percent. I was reminded of the dog days in Bombay and Calcutta. The weatherman took sadistic pleasure in informing viewers about a humidity index in addition to a heat index, as if the real temperature of 104 degrees was not torture enough. The air conditioning in the house did not make the sticky heat bearable, and the body seemed to be melting. I longed for the cross ventilation provided by windows in India, and ceiling fans that kept the air circulating. Well, this is America. You can’t have the best of both worlds. Nowadays, I indulge a lot in soliloquizing.
I listened to the umpteenth monotonous CNN version of the news, mostly variations of one form of violence or another: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq, the resurgence of Taliban killing in Afghanistan, terror bombing in London, school shootings by younger and younger kids, the rising tide of Muslim anger over the European newspapers’ publication of insulting cartoons depicting their prophet Mohammed wearing a turban in the shape of a bomb. Freedom of the press has run amok in the West, and on and on, the cycle of violence and counterviolence continues.
Marshall McLuhan said that the media produced a multidimensional simultaneity and reduced the world to a global village. Technology can now bring the world to our living rooms day and night, thanks to cable TV. McLuhan also said that human beings are becoming discarnate. His observation seems prophetic with the advent of the cell phone and the Ipod. I can now believe in the tales of bodiless voices (asariri vaac) in the mythological tales I had heard from my grandmother. Modern lifestyles leave very little scope for communication with live bodies before us, be they family or friends. My dependence on television seemed to grow with my advancing age, and more than thirty years of living in the United States. Half the time, I am not even paying any attention to what is on television. It is just an accompaniment to go with the daily chores. I had finished one of the last rituals of the day: prayer and meditation. Even this attempt to get in touch with my inner being was futile. The mind was restless and closing my eyes did not shut out the world.
The boredom of this humdrum life was stifling. I sat at my computer and connected to the internet. It was about 8:15 p.m., the time when I am not tethered anymore to routine chores. The internet has indeed opened up a vast frontier to those like me who cannot just drop in as most of us do in India, and visit friends and relatives. We have to make an appointment to see even our children and grandchildren in this country. Thoreau traveled all over the world during the nineteenth century without stirring out of Concord. Walden Pond and the Ganga commingled in his imagination in the nineteenth century. In his famous essay “Walden” he writes: “Thus it appears that the sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras, Bombay, and Calcutta, drink at my well. In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavat Geeta … in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial … I lay down the book, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Brahmin, priest of Brahma and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges, reading the Vedas. … I meet his servant come to draw water for his master, and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.” Thoreau is here referring to the exporting of ice made from the frozen rivers and ponds of New England to India, in exchange for cotton and silk textiles that graced the wardrobes of wealthy New Englanders. A mundane activity like the commerce between New England and India during the nineteenth century becomes the symbol of a spiritual commerce for this Yankee philosopher. New England merchants found intellectual excitement in cultural centers like Calcutta and brought back with them books on Indian religions printed in Serampore, then undivided Bengal.
Thoreau was one of my favorites in my pre-retirement avatar as an English professor. Alas, after retirement, my TV addiction is making me less and less inclined to read books. Instantaneous realities are now available with channel surfing on TV and the click of a mouse on my computer. The internet provides access to a vast store of knowledge, useful and useless. Social historians say that we are in the midst of the knowledge revolution that has succeeded the industrial and technological revolutions. The computer enables a kind of external meditation, the opposite of introspection. Space and time are no longer barriers. The bombardment of trivia is from all quarters of the world.
Thank God, we have not yet evolved an intergalactic communication system. Email is the latest insidious form of infringement upon our privacy. Whether you like it or not, friends and sometimes strangers send you photographs, articles, and sundry information without your ever asking. To add insult to injury, some of them say “Have a nice day!” with a smiling face scrawled underneath. The email has become a trashcan for unwanted advertisements and unwanted information. You are surfing most of the time and barely concentrating on anything of consequence. I used to enjoy the bulky print edition ofThe New York Times once. But nowadays, I read the Times online. It gives news digests, which are the equivalent of fast food for the mind. Losing oneself in the internet enhances the isolation of modern day living, and fosters a kind of autism, a narcissism bred by technology.
I was shaken from this rambling reverie, a futile outpouring of my frustrations to myself, the night I have referred to above. There was a thunderstorm, and lightning streaked the sky. The strong wind shook the trees and there was a brief downpour of rain. Suddenly there was a loud noise, like an explosion. In my state of half stupor, I began to hallucinate. The 104-degree temperature was finally getting to me. I had always viewed eschatological myths about the end of the world with skepticism. But this sudden noise scared me. Was it the trump of doom? I had never heard such a loud noise before. In a strange way, even this deafening noise seemed preferable to the graveyard stillness of the house. It seemed so till I saw flashes of light as I looked through the window. One of the high-energy cables in the street had ruptured and caught fire. It started out as sparks but soon became a river of greenish-white light with billowing clouds of thick black smoke darkening the evening sky. The burning cable was hanging from a pole at the end of our driveway. It was dangerously close to the house. The lights in the house dimmed a bit but came back within ten minutes.
Instinctively, I called 911 and, in a panicky voice, asked that firefighters be sent immediately. The woman at the other end asked for my address and assured me in a calm voice that the firefighters were on their way. Within half an hour, the power went out, plunging the whole house in total darkness. I was not prepared for this kind of emergency. Like all my other good intentions, I kept postponing getting emergency supplies like a torch with an active battery, or at least candles. The faint streetlights helped me get out of the house.
The full impact of what had happened began to sink in only when I ran out to the street. The entire neighborhood was out there. In America, once you close your front door, the rest of the world ceases to exist. It felt good to be part of humanity even though after eleven years of staying in the neighborhood, I barely knew my neighbors. I remembered Bombay, which had receded in my memory with the passage of thirty-five years. It was that long since I had left the shores of India. We lived on a second floor apartment, and my neighbor would keep track of what I was doing in my apartment. She seemed to know the comings and goings of the people who visited me. Standing in her balcony, she would try her best to strike up a daily conversation with me, as I puttered around my kitchen. I would haughtily discourage her, pretending to be concentrating on cooking, barely concealing my contempt.
Somehow, getting a college degree breeds a kind of snobbery and superiority complex. One does not appreciate gestures of simple humanity. Suddenly, I yearned for that over-friendly, if nosey-parkerly voice. I had no idea that I had so many neighbors till they all assembled to see the burning inferno that was threatening to destroy not only our house, but the entire neighborhood. Even though I did not know any of them personally, it felt good to be a member of the human species.
By now, the burning cable looked like a pillar of fire.
Two fire trucks had arrived. About six or seven cops converged on the road and blocked off all the traffic. The sight of the firefighters and the cops gave me a sense of security. I made a promise never to grudge a generous contribution to the firefighters and the Policemen’s Benevolent Fund. The fire was raging furiously and showed no sign of letting up. The firemen could not go near the burning inferno because it was an electrical fire, and it had an eerie greenish-white glow. I was sick with anxiety. I asked the cops and the firefighters why something was not being done. Why were they not using the sprinkler to douse out the fire? They explained to me calmly that it was too dangerous to try to put out an electrical fire with water. They had to wait for the utility company to turn the transformer switch off. It was now past 11, more than two hours since the fire started, but there were no signs of abatement. The tree at the end of the driveway caught fire as did the evergreen bushes and the burning river seemed to be spreading towards the garage. One leap of a flame, and the wooden structure of the garage would burn down. My car was also parked in the garage. I had no way to get to my car and drive to safety. All conversation among the neighbors suddenly ceased, as everyone realized the gravity of the situation. The white heat of the fire was searing and blinded our eyes.
I was all alone at home. My daughter and her husband had gone to Philadelphia for a medical conference. Anyway, there was no point in scaring them. What could they do, I rationalized.
The fire seemed to have exhausted itself by about 3 a.m. when the embers were slowly turning from green-white to an ash-gray. I could not sleep even after the fire had been put out because it was already about 4 a.m.
I had never before witnessed the transition from night to dawn, the time when light begins to break (no wonder they call it daybreak), the time that rishis have called brahma muhurta, a time most conducive to spiritual contemplation. This hiatus between night and day made me pause and take stock of my own life. By the light of the faint dawn, I found my way back to the house.
By this time, the utility company had turned off the controlling switch of the transformer, and the firemen had completely extinguished the fire. My first instinct when I entered the house was to prostrate myself before whatever guardian angel had protected me and the house, and my neighbors that night. Grace does manifest itself in mysterious and unexpected ways. I remembered the time when my father was miraculously saved when he was struck by lightning in a thunderstorm in Nuwara Eliya, in the interior part of Sri Lanka. Some villagers saw him and took him into their hut. But he was taken in the prime of his life when he died in a plane crash years later in Dum Dum airport, in Calcutta. I remembered the images of the tsunami swallowing thousands of men, women, and children, and yet sparing a few who stood on treetops and rooftops for days, and the infant that survived the earthquake that hit Mexico some years ago, buried under the debris for nearly two weeks. That electrical fire could have burned down our house, and I would have been helpless except that something prevented this tragedy.
For some reason, the Buddha’s Fire Sermon, his discourse in Gaya after enlightenment, came to my mind. “All is aflame,” he said. “Aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Aflame … with birth, aging, and death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, and despairs.” In the same discourse, Buddha shows us a way out of this incineration by various forms of desire and ignorance: “Disenchanted, he becomes dispassionate. Through dispassion, he is fully released. With full release, there is knowledge. Fully released, he discerns that birth is depleted, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.”
Is this why I have been spared? To learn a lesson that life is precarious and to attain freedom through this realization? As I pondered over all this, I realized that the question “Why me?” is as unanswerable as “Why not me?” Don’t ask questions, I told myself. Take your gift where you can.
Lakshmi Mani’s articles, short stories and book reviews have been published in India Abroad, Little India, and India Currents.