Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Losing everything

A month and a half ago, a minor fire broke out at my workplace. It was caused by a short circuit in my boss’s cabin. Fortunately, it occurred in the night when no one was around, and even more fortunately, it was spotted by security personnel who quickly contained it even before the fire brigade arrived. But the cabin was completely destroyed. One half was a black, charred mass of paper and wood; the other half was covered with soot and embers. The soft board, once a colourful collage of photographs and Post It’s, was scorched to bits, exposing the wooden frame behind it. The telephone was a mangled, fused heap. There even was a black spot on the 25-foot high ceiling.

My boss was in a mild shock that day. She lamented about losing her papers, photographs and other paraphernalia which she’d accumulated over the last 18 years. As I brushed away the embers from my desk, a sudden fear gripped me. What if the fire had spread to my cubicle which was adjacent to her cabin? My thoughts immediately went to the printouts of all my work neatly stacked in the drawers. I’d harangued the art director for almost a year to collect all those printouts. What if the fire…? I quickly made plans to transport all my work home.

It took a moment for the absurdity of that plan to sink in. If tragedy chose you, there was no escape. I was as vulnerable at home as at any place on earth. The reality and inevitability of loss never hit me harder. I did a quick mental inventory of all the things that were dearest to me. My heart lurched when I thought of my precious books. Anything, but them, I decided.

This half-forgotten incident and the accompanying thoughts came back to me as I watched the tsunami coverage on TV. There was that phrase repeated over and over again… ‘People who have lost everything...’ Amid all the heart-rending scenes of loss, there was one that disturbed me immensely. A Muslim man was offering prayers alone in a corner of a dargah. The reporter mentioned that ‘he’d lost everything’. Everything included three children and all seven grandchildren. He spoke in a sad yet calm voice while the translations appeared on screen. ‘The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. It is the cycle of life.’

Perhaps he was numb with shock, but his calm acceptance disturbed me more than all the grief stricken images I had seen. My mental inventory of a month-and-a-half ago never featured people. It was just too terrifying to do that. I cannot imagine what coping mechanisms he, and others who’ve lost ‘everything’, will use. I cannot imagine what the days ahead will be like when the numbness wears off. I can only pray, and help in a very small way.

P.S. Amazing efforts at Tsunami Help. A never-before reaction to a never-before calamity! Do visit and help.

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