Mahendran was very happy that he did well in the interview. He was waiting for letter of appointment from authorities. After a long crucial waiting --- when he forgot almost all about it, he got the letter. He was highly confident it was for his appointment only. He strongly believed there was no system of announcing about rejection of offer from any government department. In spite of knowing it, he was filled with suspense and with a great thumping heart, he opened the letter. On reading the very first few words, “We are pleased to inform you……” he simply jumped in joy holding the letter high under the roof. His parents and brother and grandfather rushed to the hall where he was still reeling in ecstasy. His father was the first one to snatch the letter from his hand. He read out. He smiled and congratulated Mahendran and gave the letter to his father. He too read for himself. He too smiled and wished the boy all good-luck in his new career. Mahendran’s younger brother could not hold himself. “What is it? Everyone is reading the letter and wishing Anna. But not disclosing why and what it is all about?”
“Your Anna got an appointment in Fire Services and they asked him join duties from 15th of this month. There will be a rigorous drilling and training waiting for him.” Suddenly, Mahendran stopped his dancing. He stood frozen. He picked up the letter and read fully. Yes, it was from Tamil Nadu Fire and Rescue Services. He was all along under the impression that he was joining police department. He was imagining himself to be an adventurous cop driving the criminals mad, solving and investigating hardcore treacherous plots, thrashing the petty pickpockets, chasing the culprits, risking and running after Naxalites and terrorists and so on. He stood buried in his own thoughts and he did not realize his mother touched his head and blessed him and his brother shook his hands and said ‘Bravo’.
The cheer and joy he felt a while ago got dampened by the reality of his getting an offer to be a firefighter and not a policeman which he wanted to be. Only now it dawned on him why the officer was asking him more on Mugaliwakkam building collapse and marina beach swimmers’ rescue. He answered them with great confidence, based on information he gathered from newspaper and from his general knowledge. Then also he believed those cases to be tasks accomplished by police department. He had a strong doubt “Are Police Department and Fire service different? Is it not falling under one category?” He wanted to confirm. He searched Google and later understood that Fire Service was earlier under State Police department only. Subsequently it became an autonomous body, fire-fighting department from 1967.
His cherished dream and thrill of joining the Police force got shattered. Now he had to be satisfied with he got. He confided to his grandfather about his disappointment. Earlier he was sharing his thoughts and ambitions to his grandfather only. The old man consoled him saying, “Even now nothing is lost. Just join duties. 15th is an auspicious day for reporting. Get going with the job. Both Police and Fire Service stand for the same goal Protection Of Life Investments & Civil Establishments. When you find an opening in Police calling for vacancies, you apply immediately, prepare well, prove yourself and get through. With your training and experience you gain in Fire Services you will stand a better chance to win the post. Consider this as a stepping stone and not an end of your career. Don’t be reluctant. Cheer up and go ahead.”
Mahendran though not fully convinced by his grandfather’s heart-warming speech, consoled himself and accepted his luck. He joined duties. After joining the Fire Service, he learnt that though the name suggests Fire Services, it was not just mere fire-fighting. They were the front fighters and rescue operators in cases of drowning, children falling into open borewells, landslides in mines and quarrying, calamity of any sorts. Disaster management. That made him feel a bit happier. “Oh! there is scope for chivalry, thrills and adventures.”
Gaja alias Gajendran, his close friend called on him. He was very happy that Mahaendran got a coveted government job with all perks and facilities. He immediately called some more friends and announced that Mahendran would be hosting a grand party. “Hey, do you know? Our Maha hit a jackpot. He is sharing his uncontrolled joy by inviting all of us to a grand party. Don’t miss it and don’t regret later.” Gaja kept telling things to them common this and many more and invited them on his behalf. Mahendran initially felt elated by the flattery and did not even realise that Gaja took the liberty of inviting the friends without even consulting him. Some more friends soon dropped at his residence and congratulated him for the coveted job. One of the friends cautioned him about the risks involved in the job. Others branded him as coward. Gaja said “Risk is there in every job. If you keep worrying, you can achieve nothing. If you ride a scooter, you run the risk of an accident. If you are a cashier, you run the risk of losing the cash. If you are a salesman, you run the risk of cheating by buyer or not honouring the payment. Here in all these cases, you do not have any protection. Whereas these firefighters, when asked to perform, go well prepared and well-guarded. They are well trained for taking up such risks. Hey you, Maha, we expect adventurous stories from you. First give us this party upon your joining the band wagon of heroes.”
Mahendran gleefully accepted their warm wishes and cheerful notes which soothed him in a way, of not landing in a police job. But he was not that happy to host a party for getting a mediocre job. His friends were not easy to tackle and would not let him off without it. Mahendran finally had to yield without much of interest. He simply said, “See, I am not a party animal nor interested in such gala events. But I understand your sentiments for me. And respect them. I have a training programme for 15 days from tomorrow. Let me clear that official programme and then we decide where and when we meet for the party.”
His training programmed for a fortnight was filled with academic courses, rigorous drilling and rescue operations under fake and imaginary situations. It was an in-house programme. Each day was designed in such a way that the candidate gets an exposure of all sorts. Apart from curriculum, there were many video shows on how major rescue operations were performed by various fighters from Tamil Nadu, other Indian states and even in foreign countries. One day there was a film show also. It was a Nayantara starrer film on a child falling accidentally into an open borewell and how she playing the role of the collector of the district, was devotedly attending to the rescue of the baby girl. In fact, it was not anything about how the firemen fighting to save the child. Nor they came to the spot. As per story they could not reach the area due to various other problems. The film was showcasing the grit and devotion of the heroine and her undeterred efforts in saving the child. The purpose of showing the film to the cadets was to make them understand the situation, capture her feelings and understand her spirit in saving the child. The instructor asked everyone to follow her and take an oath that they would dedicate themselves in saving others. He emphasized on the motto of their Organisation “We Serve To Save.”
“That is what it is and that is what it stands for.”
The instructor also told them about Fire Service Week 2021 -- celebrated on 14 April to 20 April 21, in memory of 66 Firemen who laid down their lives in a terrible explosion on 14 April 1944 in Mumbai. He also mentioned about organising a cycle rally for creating awareness.
Mahendran was in a way getting tuned for the job he joined now. Still his aspirations were on getting into police force. He remembered his grandfather’s advice “Take this opportunity as a stepping stone.” He also remembered his father who often advised him. “Give your best – whatever you may be assigned with, whether it is a silly job of washing your clothes or cleaning the room.” Such advices… It was no doubt a matter of irritation at the time of utterance. Mere pieces of sermons. But they did have an impact on his mind much later in life. Those words of wisdom ran as an under-current in his inner mind. He understood the values of those words now.
His in-house training was a tremendous success. He learnt quite a lot. He was just an amateur in swimming, sprinting, athlete, trekking etc. But now after the training he felt he should get well trained in his amateur hobbies. Such skill development would certainly go a long way in building his career successfully. Back home, he shared his experiences to his father and grandfather and his intention of developing his amateur skills. They both heartily welcomed his moves. His mother who was sceptical about his job which carried a pack of uncalled for risks, was somewhat softened by his narration of training and upgrading his equipment in mitigating the risks. She reminded Mahendran that Gaja telephoned and enquired about his availability.
Mahendran spoke to Gaja and asked him to fix the party and advise him of venue date and time. Gaja was thorough in those activities. He did the job. He told Mahendran, “I have arranged at Plaza Hotel. Swimming Poolside Venue, starting at 7.00 pm for the ten of us. Right tomorrow. I told everyone… No excuse from anyone. All of us are eagerly waiting. Remember Plaza Swimming Pool. Tell my name to the receptionist. Rest of it, the manager there will take care. Be there before we step in.”
Gaja wanted Mahendran to come in Firefighter’s uniform. But Mahendran declined. “We are gathering for fun and merry making. It is not any formal official meeting for me that I need to follow decorum and dress code.” Mahendran was his usual self in a well-dressed suit. He took his younger brother also. This boy too felt very happy as though he was honoured with some great award. For him this was a first experience of partying. Mahendran knew. The very idea of taking him was to hide his shy and sluggishness in any social gathering.
Slowly, one by one other friends joined them. Soon they were in their moods for the jolly good evening. Mahendran told his friends about some anecdotes from his training, bad food, funny and silly behaviour of one of his colleagues, terrible time at the drilling hour, etc. Younger brother took the opportunity and offered to sing a song, which was welcomed by all. While he was singing with mike in his hand, he swayed and swirled, he did not notice that he had come to the edge of the pool. While others were about to caution him, there… with that thud sound he fell into the swimming pool. It was very unfortunate that he did not swimming. The sudden shock of falling into water, his fear and nervousness overpowered him. He did not even attempt to cry for help. He simply gulped water. Others too jumped into the water. Some of them who jumped into the pool, were already inebriated. Drunken and on top of it, did not know to swim. By then panicky and chaos took the stage. Others assembled in other halls of the hotel rushed and gathered around the pool.
Mahendran lost no minute. This was not time for pausing or partying. His own brother shivering in the water. He jumped into the pool and dragged one by one to the shore. The hotel manager was quite upset. He was afraid the image of his hotel would be tarnished and the reputation of a star hotel would be tossed. In his agony, he started shouting. Luckily all drowned in the pool were dragged and lifted. Thank God! There was no casualty. His training came so handy now. Mahendran was already a good swimmer. But he did not know how to rescue a drowning person. He remembered his tutorials. He pressed the tummy of drowned boy and tried to remove the excess water. It should come out as a fountain. He asked one of his friends to attend on his brother, so that he could turn to others. He knew that those alcoholic people should never enter water. But they jumped thinking they would be the saviour. What an irony! Even a bath tub could be a death trap and could be enough for them to plunge into coma. Some years ago, the popular star Shridevi died in this manner. Immediate attention for such people and every minute was very crucial before they fell into coma. He advised his other sober friends to rush them to hospitals. He asked the manager to keep the onlookers away from the poolside as they were blocking the air for the suffocating pool patients.
His instant reaction in such a panicky situation made everyone wonder. They asked each other, “Who is this guy? Handling the situation and acting in a very precise and professional manner? Must be a great shot. A gallant and brave soldier.” People lost not time in taking video shots. Some women were waiting for Mahendran to rest awhile so that they could take selfie. A lady took out a 2000/- rupee note for his autograph. Unaware of his instant popularity, Mahendran was worried about the party that went awry and ugly. In a matter of minutes, a memorable day meant for merriment turned very sour. Of course, it was a memorable day but in a bad and wrong sense.
The manager came to him and told him that people assembled in the hall want to greet him congratulate him and talk to him. Mahendran gently refused. His own brother was the first victim of the tragedy. He was quite worried about the boy. The boy also was sent to the hospital along with others. So far there was no news from anyone about anybody. The manager did not know how to convince. For him the other customers were more important and pleasing them was also equally important. Mahendran and his crew were only a few in number and were not regular visitors. The manager brought a few ladies and made them request Mahendran to address a few words. Manager on his part assured that Mahendran would be allowed to go as soon a short informal chat with the crowd was over. He also pleaded that it was part of augmenting his hotel business, extending hospitality and honouring the brave. All in one.
Mahendran got a phone call from his friend from hospital … “All is well here and all are okay. Gaja felt sorry that the party went berserk. He pleaded guilty. He is telling me to tell you to tell the manager that the hotel bill will be settled tomorrow. Don’t bother now about it.”
Mahendran heaved a sigh of relief. He said loudly “By God’s grace, all are fine”. By then the ladies gheraoed him for selfie and autograph. He gladly obliged them.
A reluctant party goer rising to instant stardom was not a routine affair. The manager urged him to share this momentous experience to the audience waiting in the hall. Mahendran could not deny such repeated requests. In the hall he stood before them and said nothing about him. He spoke only about his organisation and its magnificent motto “Serve To Save.” In a sharp response from the audience, he was hailed as a ‘True warrior’. Someone said, “We are not well aware of your department. Your wing is an important part of our society. Very similar to Military, Police, Commandos. Why don’t you to organise some awareness programmes or camps? “
Mahendran took the opportunity and said, “Yes. Give me some time. I will tell my friends to carry out a cycle rally with slogans, placards, banners.”
The selfie ladies replied instantly “Please take us as volunteers.”
Mahendran was amazed at the turn of events in the last few months. He unknowingly applied for a post in police department, but got into Fire Service. He reluctantly joined. But then slowly started liking it. His friends insisted on a party for celebration. He reluctantly agreed. It went out of control and became a tragedy. He had to use all his skills and ensure safety of all. He shot to instant popularity.
He decided and told his friends “Forget the party. Let us make cycle rally a grand event. “ They simply nodded.
He thanked his instructor for the idea. No more reluctance for handling anything.