Shiv Kumar Agarwal doesn’t know how he will marry off his daughter next year. The fire that engulfed 171A, M. G. Road, early on Saturday, has turned his life’s savings into ashes. “We have lost everything,” murmured the middle-aged LIC agent, staring at the charred remains of an almirah that held, till Friday night, all that was precious to him. It now lies in an abandoned room of what used to be the first floor of Jenana Bari (residential part) of Ludhiana Hosiery Building.
The loss has rendered Shiv Kumar almost speechless and unusually calm, but his 14-year-old son is fuming. “We must get the landlord once,” the boy kept repeating, while kicking on the door of a room belonging to D. K. Agarwal. The door is shut, the “makaan malik” is missing.
‘Helplessness’ — expressed in rage or reticence — unites the 60-odd families — from textile merchants to vegetable vendors — who survived the blaze but lost all else. “No one cares to listen to us… I have lost my house, my job,” cried Jagdish Sharma, an employee of a garment shop in the Mardana (commercial) front of Ludhiana Building.
Some 72 hours have passed since the Burrabazar blaze. The past has been reduced to rubble, the future remains shrouded in uncertainty. For a few woollen-garment traders, a bit of that lifted on Monday afternoon, with local MLA Satyanarayan Bajaj promising them the use of “30-40 vacant shops” in the nearby Satyanarayan Park AC Market “for the next four months”.
But what of those who couldn’t even locate their flats' Sunita Khandelwal, in a crumpled Kota sari and designer gold jewellery (her sole material possessions), was in tears. The hope of tracing a few things had brought her back to what remained of the third floor, where she lived with 14 others.
“Some of us have found shelter at our relatives’ places or in nearby dharamshalas. But what next'” demands Ramgopal Khaitan, member of the one-day-old 171A M. G. Road Tenants’ Association of the 103-year-old building. They are all camping there, as if to cling on to the remains of that December day.
“We will allow only the unsafe part of the building to be demolished,” declare some tenants, huddled outside the Babulal Agarwal dharamshala on M.G. Road.
That is what some representatives conveyed to mayor Subrata Mukherjee when they met him on Monday evening. Mukherjee said it would all depend on the report on the structural stability of the building, to be compiled by civic engineers who will visit the spot on Tuesday.
They will find the entire barricaded stretch, from the Chitpore Road–M.G. Road crossing to the Burrabazar thana, crowded with former residents, as on Monday. “We want our homes back,” said Shiv Kumar Khaitan, a textile broker, while daughter Shilpa rummaged through the rubble to try and locate something she could recognise.
For the 20-odd families living in 2, 3 and 4, Babulal Lane, singed by the Ludhiana Building blaze, the situation is worse. Along with their one-room flats, their small shops — their only source of sustenance — have been gutted. “We are sleeping on the pavements and at nights, it’s cold. We don’t have food or any place to go. No one is bothered about us,” cried Gita Dutta, who ran a tailoring shop in the narrow lane off Cotton Street.
On M.G. Road, meanwhile, five fire-tenders were on duty through Monday to snuff out the smouldering embers. The day also found fire brigade officials submitting a detailed report on the Burrabazar blaze to the fire services ministry.
Forensic experts did manage to enter Ludhiana Building, but failed to collect samples. “It is still very hot inside… I will visit the site on Tuesday,” said state forensic science laboratory director N.K. Nag.