| Umesh Sharma (right), the first to notice flames billowing from 171A, MG Road on December 21. Picture by Pabitra Das
Ramdeo Gupta, 171A MG Road. The man is no more, the address is a skeletal shadow of what it used to be, and life for survivors of the Ludhiana Hosiery Building blaze just refuses to limp back to normal.
Five days after the night of December 21, the senior-most member of the Gupta household passed away, leaving behind a family battling devastation, and now death. “His health deteriorated suddenly after the fire and we had to shift him to Marwari Relief Society hospital. He just refused to believe that our building had been completely gutted and till his last breath he kept on requesting us to take him back home,” recounts daughter-in-law Nitu.
The last rites of Ramdeo Gupta were performed after collecting money from neighbours and the shradh couldn’t be performed the way the family wanted. “We don’t have any money and we are staying like refugees in a dharamshala. We have already been asked to vacate this place. We don’t know where to go,” sobs Nitu.
Nearly a month has passed, but little has changed at Ludhiana Hosiery Building. All three storeys retain a ghostly look from the outside. Occasionally, smoke spirals out of the devastation inside. The victims continue to huddle around, clinging to the last shreds of hope to resurrect their lives and their livelihood.
Umesh Sharma, the first to notice the flames, had become an overnight hero for having raised the alarm and prevented casualties. But heroism is hardly on his mind as he spends sleepless nights in oblivion, along with his mother, wife and a younger brother in a nine-by-nine room in Babulal Agarwal Dharamshala, next to the burnt-down building.
“I used to work in a shop in the building and had a flat in the residential section. The fire has taken both the shop and my home. We are living on alms offered by some voluntary organisations. But we don’t know how long they will continue doing it,” says Sharma.
And it’s not just the Sharmas and the Guptas. The future of 20 other families, in a dharamshala without water and electricity, is shrouded with uncertainty. The situation is no different for the 40 other families, who are putting up with relatives.
“How long can one stay there'” asks Devendra Kumar Singhania, who is sharing the floor with eight others in a 10-by-10 flat on Madan Mitra Lane. “Aur neend bhi nahin aati (And sleep doesn’t come to us anymore),” adds the man who used to run a PCO in the now-abandoned building.
For both residents and traders of Ludhiana Hosiery Building, the troubles of living are inextricably linked to those of livelihood. In a unanimous move, the traders have turned down the proposal of “temporarily” shifting their shops to New Market on Lindsay Street.
“We are wholesalers and we can’t expect our customers to follow us to New Market,” says Mohanlal Agarwal, president of the tenants association of the 103-year-old building that used to be the ‘capital’ of woollen trade in eastern India. Agarwal and Co. want some shops on the ground floor of ‘their’ building to be resurrected and opened up for business.
“The payment deadline in the woollen market is the first week of January. Major defaults will trigger a fresh round of problems in other businesses as well,” says a local trader requesting anonymity. “It could take six months for business to return to normal,” fears Ram Gopal Kapoor, owner of Thakur Mahal, one of the oldest eateries on Cotton Street. Daily footfall in his shop behind Ludhiana Building has plummeted from over 600 to around a hundred.
But for some, like local cable operator Pappu, it’s back to business already. Pappu has resumed services after tying up with an operator in Burtolla and shifted to Gurdwara Chhota Sikh Sangat on Cotton Street after losing his home and his cable control room.
“Working extra hard to make up for what has been lost is the spirit in Burrabazar and I hope others will follow the same path,” sums up Ram Gopal Kapoor.