Hero and son.

As the thick black smoke bil­lowed through the com­plex, ev­ery­one but my mum ran for the door

Reader's Digest (India) - - Con­tents - BY SHAJI THOMAS VARUGH­ESE

When I travel around Sin­ga­pore on the MRT, our city’s train ser­vice, I some­times pass through the Red­hill neigh­bour­hood. Each time I do, I’m re­minded of an in­ci­dent that hap­pened in the area 31 years ago; one that still res­onates deep in my mind.

These days, Red­hill com­prises mostly res­i­den­tial sky­scrapers. But in my mind’s eye I can still pic­ture the hum­ble flat at block 64, Jalan Tiong, where I grew up. It was rather di­lap­i­dated com­pared to to­day’s posh sur­round­ings, but it has a lot of mem­o­ries at­tached to it.

Our spar­tan two-room unit was lo­cated on the sec­ond storey of a ten- storey block. The ground f loor housed a row of shops. I fondly re­mem­ber the bar­ber­shop, which was adorned with pho­to­graphs of Bol­ly­wood ac­tors. My three older broth­ers and I would visit the shop to have our hair styled like our favourite f ilm stars. When we got home my two younger sis­ters would tease us for want­ing to look like celebri­ties.

The event that stands out in my mem­ory hap­pened one morn­ing in Oc­to­ber 1982 when I was 13 years old. I was at home with my mother, get­ting ready for the af­ter­noon ses­sion of school—my sib­lings were ei­ther at school al­ready or at work.

I was do­ing my home­work when I heard raised voices. At first I thought noth­ing of it—cus­tomers in the mo­tor­cy­cle shop di­rectly be­low us of­ten be­came un­ruly and loud, but I soon re­al­ized this was dif­fer­ent.

“Quick! Re­move the mo­tor­cy­cles from the shop,” some­one yelled.

Then a thick burn­ing smell filled

the air. When I opened the front door of our flat to in­ves­ti­gate, a thick cloud of smoke, bil­low­ing up from the ground floor, greeted me. The mo­tor­cy­cle shop had caught fire.

My mum, who had been work­ing in the kitchen, hur­ried to the liv­ing room. We rushed out the door and along the cor­ri­dor through the smoke.

We were head­ing to­wards the stair­way at the far end of the cor­ri­dor when Mum stopped in her tracks. She turned around and headed back the way we came. I had no idea what she was do­ing, but I fol­lowed suit.

Mum had sud­denly re­mem­bered the frail Chi­nese lady in her 70s who lived next door to us, who we called Mak­cik, Malay for aun­tie. Mum be­gan bang­ing on Mak­cik’s door, but to no avail. As the smoke thick­ened around us, I could see many of our neigh­bours—some still in their py­ja­mas— run­ning for safety.

“She would have run for safety like ev­ery­one else!” I cried.

Mum re­fused to give up. “I know Mak­cik’s still in­side,” she said as she pounded the door. “Go down­stairs, Shaji. Go now!”

Frozen with fear, I stood rooted to the spot. By then, both of us were cough­ing and our eyes were sting­ing. Time seemed to stand still, though we were prob­a­bly there for only two or three min­utes.

Just as I was feel­ing nau­seous and be­gin­ning to suf­fo­cate, the door opened. Mak­cik stood there, to­tally per­plexed. Mum was right—she had been obliv­i­ous to what was hap­pen­ing. Grab­bing her hand, Mum led Mak­cik down­stairs and out­side to a safe spot where peo­ple had con­gre­gated to wit­ness the spec­ta­cle.

Within min­utes, the fire­men ar­rived and set about fight­ing the blaze, which had rav­aged the mo­tor­cy­cle shop and was spread­ing. Thick fumes were ris­ing up­wards and had blan­keted our apart­ments so ruth­lessly!

Com­pre­hend­ing the grav­ity of the

sit­u­a­tion, Mak­cik broke down. Hold­ing my mother’s hands tightly, and with tears flow­ing down her cheeks, she spoke to Mum. In the may­hem I could not hear what she said, but there was no mis­tak­ing her grat­i­tude. I learnt later that Mak­cik was sleep­ing when the fire broke out. I dread to think what would have hap­pened if Mum had not turned back for her.

Soon the fire­men put out the bil­low­ing flames. There were no hu­man ca­su­al­ties.

Al­though our cor­ri­dor was black­ened beyond recog­ni­tion, the fire was ex­tin­guished be­fore it could spread into our flat. Our home had been saved, though ev­ery­thing was cov­ered in soot and an aw­ful smell hung in the air. And, sadly, my pet love­birds were dead.

I felt ter­ri­ble for not sav­ing them in my haste. How­ever, the thought of Mum’s coura­geous act in sav­ing a hu­man life brought great so­lace.

Years later, our block was to be de­mol­ished to make way for a new devel­op­ment. All the res­i­dents had to be re­lo­cated. My fam­ily pur­chased our very own four-room flat in Tampines New Town. I still re­mem­ber our last day be­fore we moved. As we bade farewell to our won­der­ful neigh­bours, we promised to keep in touch af­ter we had set­tled into our new homes. But that was the last time we heard from most of them, in­clud­ing Mak­cik.

Years later, I asked Mum about this in­ci­dent. She said she was fa­mil­iar with Mak­cik’s daily rou­tine and was cer­tain she would still be sleep­ing that day. When I asked if she was scared, Mum replied: “When a loved one is in dan­ger, the thought of fear never crosses the mind.”

Dur­ing my school­days, when­ever I wrote an es­say about coura­geous deeds, I al­ways fo­cused on soldiers risk­ing their lives to save oth­ers. It never oc­curred to me to write about my mum who had, in her de­ter­mined way, saved our el­derly neigh­bour.

To­day I know bet­ter. Mari­amma Thomas, an unas­sum­ing lady, who’d moved to Sin­ga­pore from her na­tive Ker­ala in 1964, is some­one who would not be mis­taken for a su­per­hero. Yet she turned out to be my real hero.

My Story is a reg­u­lar fea­ture about mov­ing, chal­leng­ing or amus­ing per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences. We pay ₹ 6000 if your ar­ti­cle is pub­lished. If you’d like to con­trib­ute a true story, post it to the Ed­i­to­rial ad­dress or e- mail: edi­tor. in­dia@ rd.com

The au­thor with his mother, Mari­amma Thomas.

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