One lazy Monday afternoon, while the winds were teasing the floating dry leafs and students were grieving inside the Ukhrul Higher Secondary School trying to crack the HSLC exam, Wino Bazaar erupted in flames.
Precisely, 6 years ago, on the 9th of March at 12:20 pm in 2009, Ukhrul town saw one of its worst blazes- exploding gas cylinders, black smokes that covered the sun and a panic-stricken street. It was almost as if Vulcan, the fire god, had unleashed its fury mercilessly as the fire engulfed the shops and houses within minutes of its flaming. The view from the neighboring villages would’ve resembled that of a war-zone in Ukhrul!
The fire was so intense that it destroyed 45 shops and 73 other structures including residential buildings (and government quarters), gutted them down to ashes and soot while the air was thick with pain and irreplaceable loss. Adding on to the woes was the lone fire tender that showed up 25 minutes later, trying in vain to contain the flames spreading like a wildfire. Oh! the despair!
The houses burnt for a good 5 hours, only to be put out at around 5 pm after the intervention of the Assam Riffles. I wonder, if, in this 5 hours of the tragedy, some victims lost their lifetime of sanity?
Ranging from grocery shops to hardware, from the latest fashion apparel shops to hotels, this was one of the most commercial hub in Ukhrul. It was as if the fire knew exactly where to strike and claimed properties worth crores, leaving six injured and hundreds homeless.
Even to this day, I cannot imagine the hopelessness and frustration felt by the people whose houses gave into the fire. I cannot imagine the despair that clung their hearts as they scrambled for a bucket of water in a feeble attempt to put it out; the pangs of agony that shot through their body as they watched a lifetime of their memories go up in flames.
Often times I remember this day, grief stricken and horrified at how hard it must have been for the affected fire victims to put their lives back together. I tried to imagine myself in their place and tried to find the strength that held them together, and it was always beyond my comprehension.
Last I heard, since 2010, the 9th of March was commemorated as the Black Day in Wino tang, to remember their immeasurable loss and the colossal support that brought them out of this bad fortune.
Having lived in Ukhrul for 17 years, this mishap was one of the worst news you could possibly want to hear when you are a hundred miles away from home. I was just out of my dragging drama class when I got calls from home about my town burning.
In the midst of the chaos and shouts, all I heard was “IWUI BOOKSTORE wui dukan line meina chuitahairei” (The shop area of IWUI BOOKSTORE is burned down). I couldn’t believe my ears because this little bookshop had been the one bookshop I grew up with! I bought my first copy of Sydney Sheldon’s “The Sky is Falling” from it, and also my first ‘Merriam Webster’s Dictionary‘!
As selfish as a human could get, the next thing I thought about was how the plans I made with my girlfriends to watch a newly released Tangkhul movie at RR AMA SHOM (RR Productions) wasn’t going to happen! (At that time it was the only cinema hall screening Tangkhul movies). But more than that, this commercial hub was where I (and the whole town) bought school uniforms especially from VARIETY STORE, books, and all the cute gift items!
So while the affected families were trying to make sense of the reality, I was there brooding the loss I thought was immense to me. Only much later, after more phone calls did the ache for their loss set in. I honestly did mourn in my heart not because I was related to any, but because I couldn’t begin to assimilate their loss.
How could anyone wake up to a makeshift camp, the flakes of burnt debris still in the air, your burnt house still in sight and not lose your mind over it? Can you imagine having no clothes to wear because everything you owned and loved is either soaked in muddy ash water or is half burnt? Do you curse the fire for searing your home to the ground or thank your luck for leaving you untouched?
I wonder how long it took them to come to terms with it.
If there was one thing I could tell from the courage they came out with, it was that God surely must have given them the strength to overcome the wreck and to have come this far.