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