05 March, 2021

A Fire-Breathing Winter Monster

House blazes are fire-and-brimstone moments in the hills—a burning issue that repeats every year but poor reportage leaves the victims out in the cold

A midnight fire consumes the four-storey, 20-room home of nine brothers and their families this December at Gujandali village in Shimla’s apple belt
Photographs by Pradeep Kumar
A Fire-Breathing Winter Monster

The whiteness of night frees itself from poetic exaggeration as the winter moon licks the snowy Shivaliks, swamping the undisturbed landscape with crystalline bleach and creating a stage that no studio mood-lighting can capture. A freeze frame; it’s the kind of yarn that travel brochures spin. In a village under that wispy moonlit glow, no mortal worry disturbs the sleep of a hardworking family inside their wooden cottage built with timber harvested from native trees, the close-fit mortise and tenon hewn with hand tools exhibit woodworking skills passed down generations. The cob caulking keeps off the howling wind’s nightly trespass, the wood stove keeps everyone snug and toasty in their woolly blankets. But something goes wrong—the tin heat barrier behind the fireplace buckles and the exposed logs catch fire.

Miles down in the valley, the telephone at the fire office makes a racket, a firefighter answers and looks out the window—a tiny sparkle, like fireflies phosphorescing on the hillside across. Ting, ting, ting ting…the fire-truck makes...

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