A Moment of Madness
It was Arvind's birthday. In the afternoon there would be a cake and a party, but it would be like other birthdays, and Arvind was eleven. So in the morning, he collected his friends, Jimmy and Paudeni, and they set off to the forest that lay on the hillside in a huge half-moon behind the village.
When they reached the first few trees they stopped, listening to the sounds of the birds and searching for the rare striped butterflies that Arvind's uncle had told them about. They cried out to test the echo and then became savages, rushing carelessly into the forest and battering the undergrowth with sticks.
Eventually they reached a clearing. Jimmy said he was hungry and they started to devour the birthday food they had brought. Arvind pulled out a packet from his bag. "Look," he said, "I've brought some chicken. We'll make a fire and cook it." He pulled out some matches. "Get some sticks, Jimmy. Make a big pile. Everything's dry; it'll burn like crazy."
Paudeni looked worried. "My Mum says never ever start a fire in a forest, specially this year because it hasn't rained and because of the winds. She says you don't know what fire can do until you've experienced it. She says people who know always dig a big circle round a fire because it can't burn through the soil. She says – "
"Rubbish, there's no danger," interrupted Arvind, with the authority of a boy on his eleventh birthday. "I know what I'm doing." Jimmy returned carrying a great armful of sticks and made a castle out of them. Arvind struck a match and the fire was alive.
His satisfaction was short-lived. The dry wood exploded into a sheet of threatening flame and, from nowhere, a breeze began to blow. The children watched, horrified, as the fire spread like scuttling mice into the surrounding undergrowth. They never realised that everything was tinder dry. They had never seen how quickly a fire could start to devour all the twigs and the dead leaves that had lain undisturbed on the forest floor.
"Quick! Stop it!" screamed Paudeni. But how could they? The fire spread in too many directions at once. If they managed to stop one of its tentacles, two more would have spread beyond their reach. The boys rushed back and forth, stamping pointlessly on the flames and then, after a short while, just looked on in a sort of awful fascination.
"Look!" shouted Jimmy. The fire had reached the trees at the sides of the clearing and was shooting upwards, devouring ancient, dead ivy and dry bark. In no time the sounds of the forest were drowned by frightening explosions. Birds and animals rushed for safety as their homes and feeding areas were engulfed in flame. The speed and magnitude of such destruction were beyond the boys' imagination.
They ran for their lives, trying to find a way out of the terrible, burning forest.
It was the only story in the newspaper the next day. There were interviews with the villagers, recounting their fears as the fire had threatened their homes before the wind miraculously changed. The forest lay in ruins, a minor ecological disaster, threatening the village with floods and landslides when the rains eventually returned. And poor Arvind lay in a hospital bed, his face scarred for life by the sudden sheet of flame that had risen up without warning to challenge his last steps to safety.
Who was to blame? The newspaper blamed the schools for not teaching the children a fire code or giving them stories about the dangers of fires. The schools privately blamed the parents for not hiding matches and for not keeping control of their children. Parents blamed the newspapers and television for not continuing to publicise the state of the forests in conditions of drought and wind.
The story of Arvind's birthday is a sad reminder that fire is a dangerous force to be reckoned with and that its effects are potentially terrible. Fire is...