It was December 21st, in the year 2003. I remember it clear as day.
It was a Sunday, so my sister and I had Bharatanatyam dance class and Hindi school in the morning. We woke up early and my mom drove us to the temple, leaving my dad to work on renovations in the attic.
After classes, my mom picked us up and drove us home. Shivering, we went inside and got ready to run some errands before the annual birthday/Christmas party for my maternal grandmother, or Nani in Hindi. On the way inside, there was a strange hint of charcoal in the air. I told my mom it smelled like campfires. Confused, she approached my dad.
“It smells funny in here,” she noted.
From the attic, my dad shouted, “What?!”
“Smells funny!” she repeated.
“I’m working in the attic!” he called. “Probably just the smell from sawing.”
After a while, the smell seemed to fade away, and we couldn’t nail where it was coming from. We figured it was from outside.
My sister and I joined my mom in visiting the dollar store, looking for the perfect card for my Nani. Sitting in the car, I was really excited to see my cousins. It was always a funny time, these family Christmas parties. The younger cousins got to play, and the older cousins usually just talked. Bo-ring! We would go say hello, but then disappear into one of the many rooms and play on our own. Sometimes we even played hide and seek. I couldn’t wait!
Soon it began to get dark, as it would with winter fast approaching, and it was time to go to my Nani’s house. My mom and dad got the food for the potluck all ready, my sister and I got our books and toys together, and off we went.
After making the rounds, saying hello to every single aunt, uncle, cousin, those people we didn’t even know, and our Nani, we snuck some food off the appetizer table (from delicious spicy mattar, to good old fashioned potato chips, to crunchy murku, to my aunt’s amazing creamy spinach dip) and then we settled into a game of hide and seek. I ran for my favourite spot beneath the sinks in the bathroom — I could just barely fit. It was just low enough off the ground that people missed it when searching but just high enough that if I laid down and slid slowly underneath, I could stay hidden.
After my sister finally found me, it was time for dinner. Upon entering the kitchen, the spicy curries filled my nose and made my mouth water. One thing is for sure — Indian family gatherings are amazing for the food! My Nani makes amazing pilau, a dish of lamb and rice with herbs and spices, and my mom makes her signature lamb curry — with onions, potatoes, and cilantro, her lamb curry is known within all of my family as the best around. She’s the best cook of the family, and every family gathering everyone looks forward to her lamb. Both my Nani and my mom make delicious food, and once dinner is over, desserts like rasmalai and jalebi are next!
Stuffed, everyone returned to the living room. My Nani made some chai to help digest the food and settle our tummies. I took a sip of my mom’s to be polite, but the spices all mixed up in it made me want to spit it out. I asked for hot chocolate instead.
Always after dinner, Santa makes his arrival. Santa was always brown-skinned, so my sister and I knew he wasn’t real… Santa is white, not brown, after all. We sat chatting, wondering when Santa would arrive.
“HO HO HO!” boomed Santa. He was white! My sister and I were confused until we saw that one person was missing. Our older cousin was dating a new guy, who happened to be white… and Santa looked like just like him. Not wanting to make a scene, I didn’t say anything. All the children received their presents, and everything was happy. I received a new book. I have always been an avid reader.
Afterward, I told my mom I knew he wasn’t the real Santa. My mom asked, “You know he’s probably just one of Santa’s helpers, right?” I nodded, but I didn’t think so. Then she told my cousin’s date right in front of me: “She didn’t believe you, but she knows you’re one of Santa’s helpers — right, honey?”
She gave me a look.
I smiled and nodded, furious at my mother.
After a while, my dad came and gave my sister and I a hug. “I have to go now, but I’ll come pick you up soon, okay?”
“Where are you going, daddy?”
“I just have to meet a friend from work tonight. I’ll see you soon.”
My sister and I continued playing until yawns contagiously began to spread. When we asked our mom when it would be time to go home, she told us she wasn’t sure — she couldn’t reach my dad.
After about half an hour of waiting, my sister and I went to talk to my mom again. We saw her talking quietly with our aunt, her sister — and her voice was shaking. She sounded angry, but weirdly enough, her eyes looked scared.
“Mom, are we going soon?”
“Yes, honey…” Apparently our aunt was going to drive us home.
Finally in the car, we headed home. We were happy to share a ride with our aunt because she was taking her daughter, our favourite cousin, home too. We laughed and talked and sang Christmas carols the whole way. We were just starting to nod off when we turned onto our street.
The street was lit with flashing blue and red lights. Fire trucks lined the street, book-ended by a police car at each end.
My mom wondered aloud what was going on, and my aunt drove slowly. All of us looked eagerly out the window, trying to see what was going on.
As my aunt slowed, all of us saw it at the same time: the fire hose.
Going into OUR house.
My mom squealed, “What?!” She jumped out of the car and ran.
I’d never seen her run like that in my life.
That’s when my sister and I knew that something was definitely wrong.
Sitting in the car, we frantically searched from the window for our father. With relief, we saw his dark figure walking towards our mom.
Then we remembered our grandparents. They lived in our basement!
Our voices shook with excitement and fear. As we looked through the car’s window for our grandparents, we worried about losing important possessions like our books and family photos, until our aunt pointed out that we still didn’t know if our grandparents were safe.
Then we weren’t excited anymore.
We were just scared.
After some time searching frantically from inside the vehicle, I yelped.
“There they are!”
My grandpa blended in with the darkness with his black leather jacket.
We all let out a sigh of relief.
After what felt like hours, my mom returned to tell us what was going on. There was a fire in the attic, and we wouldn’t be able to go home tonight.
“What happened?” we asked the obvious question.
My mom had no answer.
Eventually, my sister and I were allowed out of the vehicle to go and give my dad a hug. Apparently, when he’d come to meet his friend at home, he’d found the police and fire trucks as well.
“What are we going to do?” I asked.
“It’s time to go to sleep now, my darling,” he said.
We got into our family vehicle and my dad followed my aunt to her house, where we stayed the night.
We stayed with my aunt for two weeks. Eventually, we moved into a townhouse where we stayed for over a year while the house was fixed.
For several months, any time we smelled smoke we all panicked.
We are still not entirely certain how that fire started. We think it was likely caused by whatever work my dad had been doing in the attic, because after some investigation, a grease build-up was found by the hood fan in the kitchen. But even the investigators weren’t really sure.
We did lose a lot of our possessions, and the entire main floor of the house was wrecked, mostly from water damage and fallen ashes from the attic. My mom couldn’t let go of the smoky-smelling family and baby photos, so now we have two big bins of them — still reeking of fire.
But one thing is true — despite everything, that was one of the best Christmases I ever had. We spent it at my aunt’s, and she really did her best to make sure my sister, my cousin and I all weren’t saddened by what happened. I remember coming down from my cousin’s room — the three of us had to share her double bed — to find what looked like hundred of presents under the Christmas tree.
It’s from that house fire that I learned what’s most important — friends and family. Despite everything we lost, we always had each other.