City City Bang Bang, Columns

Huddling around fires

Bonfires are never sad. They crackle, blaze, shimmer, simper and flare. They snap, chortle, wheeze, hum and haw. They are inexorable magnets that draw us to them and to other people. We huddle around a fire, we bask in its heat as we do in the warmth of fellow baskers. Bonfires create circles where there is no beginning and no end, no one who gets more or less; everyone is happy to get their share and everyone is happy not to be alone. We sing around bonfires, we drink, we tell stories to each other and we laugh.

The bonfire is a universal invitation card. In winter nights, especially in the North, you cannot walk ten yards without coming across some bonfire or another, often fashioned out of cardboard boxes and other residues of modernity with a motley group of people huddled around it. These fires are motels of warmth where you check in while on the way to somewhere else. All are invited and no one is specially so- you come and go as you please. Around the fire, you take the warmth that comes your way and add your little bit to the group that’s already there. No one needs to ask for permission to gather around a fire.

To that extent, all we are around a fire is a warm human body. We become our temperature; for we belong to the group purely on the strength of our being alive. The fire tells us that the winter however seductive to a tropical country like ours, is in fact our natural enemy. We are ready to drop our civilisational accoutrement and revert to being a genus of a particular species very quickly.

Fire produces human bonding in strange ways. An unlit cigarette allows any stranger to seek fire from you. There is no taboo on sharing a matchstick between two people nor any in lighting a cigarette from another. Fire is seen as a natural right; strangers light up in mute masculine camaraderie, cupping hands together as the matchstick struggles in the wind. Fire produces a presumptive ownership that cuts across class divides. To that extent all fires are socialists; although their version trades the carping resentment of their political cousins for the warm benevolence of humanity.

The home too is nothing but an extension of the hearth. Fire gives us food which sustains life. We huddle together on the kitchen floor or the dining table, breaking chapattis together. The feeling of home is linked inextricably with the kitchen. When we shift into a new house, it becomes home only when the kitchen starts operating. Traditionally, meals meant the serving of chapattis hot from the tava straight into the plates. We like our food to crackle with the heat of the fire on which it was made. Cold food to us is like eating something with rigor mortis; it is like eating something dead.

Chapatis are always garam-garam, as pakodas are garma-garam. This is not confined to Hindi for in Gujarati too, chapattis are ‘ooni-ooni’. There is something plural about warmth with nothing singular seeming appropriate when there is a fire burning.

The fire is perhaps a metaphor for the blood that courses down our veins producing heat and life. It kindles in mere flesh a spark of vitality as it stirs the bones into action. We rise from the dead every time we banish the clammy cold that has seeped into our bodies. We warm to things, things heat up, they start to go on the boil, they warm the cockles of our heart. The sun in the winters is a proof of divinity. It makes us bloom as it fills our bodies with the radiance of life. To laze in the sun, to shell peanuts and eat chikkis, to slurp tea noisily and lie outstretched on a charpai. Now that’s life.