The Nagas

Hill Peoples of Northeast India

Project Introduction The Naga Database

book - 'Naga Path', by Ursula Graham Bower, published John Murray 1950

caption: Chapter seventeen. Fire, Fire!
caption: fighting the fire
medium: books
person: Graham Bower/ Ursula
text: " The house - the house ! " Namkia was shouting. I could hardly hear him through the bellow of the flames. " There isn't a chance - we've got to get the kit out ! "
text: We had to a certain extent put things together, but they were by no means packed. We raced into the house, where, as usual, the lamps had been lit and the table laid for dinner - an incongruously ordered and tidy scene; we flung books, clothes, papers, cameras and bedding higgledly-piggledly into baskets and boxes. Ramzimba, the caretaker's eldest son, dashed in after us, his face white. He snatched up each bale as we threw it across and rushed with it to a dump in the wet scrub behind. Chairs, tables and beds we hurled out anyhow, as they were, Ramzimba bolting out last with a bundle of spears, and Namkia and I went into the veranda.
text: The fire was in full fury. It was, in spite of the danger and the imminent risk that we should lose the camp, a marvellous sight. The whole space between rail and eaves, where normally one looked out at stars and a dark valley, framed a rushing, pouring, licking wall of rosy-copper. The roar was incredible. The flames must have been forty or fifty feet high. Sparks and burring leaves were spattering like hail on the veranda matting, and we stamped and stamped, Namkia regardless of his bare feet, till Ramzimba came back and began to beat them out with a piece of sacking. Then I ran out by the back door to see the lines.
text: Rows of black figures, beating and gasping, were on the roof-ridges. Others, like imps in hell, dashed about below, carrying goods to safety, hauling water, or flinging up new- damped sacks to the men above. Tongues of fire were licking over our heads as the wind caught the monstrous flames. I saw the men on the bungalow wince and duck when one bent down and snapped within ten feet of them. I looked to see the bungalow go in a matter of seconds. And over it all there (133) was a red snowstorm, a whirling shower of burning debris. It swept in tourbillons over our heads, in glowing dust-devils which broke and fell; and, where the air was stiller, it floated down like a cloud of crimson blossom, dim and soft.
text: Then, at that critical moment, the water ran out. I heard the men on the roofs begin to yell. They had been sprinkling the thatch, which otherwise would have caught, and now it was dry and the flames were leaning over. I fled at the nearest figures, grabbed them, pushed, shouting : " Water, water ! " Namkia was doing the same. They heard us, turned and sprinted. All in a moment, everything was redoubled - it was like a movie trick-shot, when everything goes twice as quick. And just then, the cook saved the house. A spark fell on the back porch, caught. A small flame stood up. The cook, who alone was tall and near enough to see it, gripped the edge of the main thatch, jumped, hung for a second, and beat at it with his hand. A smack or two - it was gone, and he tumbled down, gangling, long, unhappy, and wrought-up nearly to tears. I sent him off to sit on the baggage and watch.
text: The water came. And as it did, for no particular reason the fire-wall fell. It lost a third of its height, it veered off; the shower of crimson sparks almost ceased, and what remained was falling outward now, on the uncut jungle beyond the camp perimeter. The men on the ridges sagged. On the ground, the black, sweating, exhausted figures sat down where they were, with sacks and buckets beside them, and stared at the receding fire.
text: It must have found at that moment a clump of dry brush, a patch of elephant-grass. There was a violent crackle. The flames shot up. They towered, boiling, in licking dragon-tongues, in a whirling column of sparks. A small night wind had got up. It breathed across the hill. The flaming tower tilted, bent; and it and its pillar of sparks swept down on the old hen-house. We heard, above the roar, the shrieks of the forgotten geese. (134) I shouted for help and sped like a thing demented down the narrow passage at the foot of the garden. The sparks were hailing. I beat them out of my hair, was aware of the flames over me, and dived, in eddies of smoke, into the old shed. The two geese, flapping with terror, dashed under the broad bench. As I ducked after them, I dimly perceived that someone had followed me in. I grabbed the gander; the goose flew screaming out and was seized and removed by my unknown helper. The gander, apart from a startled flap, gave no trouble. I tucked him under my arm and fled, one hand over my head, and the sparks catching my shirt. Before me, in the long passage, I saw the cook. He was running as hard as he could in his tight 'lungi.' It was he who had followed me in and saved the goose. He had her clasped to his chest; and her large wings, flapping with agitation, waved on either side of him, as though he were an angel with a tractor air-screw. We threw the geese into the cook-house, where they were moderately safe; and all sat down on the turf to watch the hen-house go.
text: But it didn't. The flames, an instant before they took it, bowed aside. They fell, they flagged. In half an hour, only a dull glow down the slope of the hill showed where the last fire was burring out in the jungle.
text: And, no one could tell us why, the camp still stood.