THE SMOKE ALARM
Since it was my fourth or fifth visit to the US, I considered myself a pro there. When I reached my cousin's home in Hicksville, Long Island on a Monday morning, she was busy preparing to leave for office. As usual she showed me her heavily stocked refrigerator to help ourselves throughout the day. "No problem, " I said oozing with confidence. "Don't worry, we'll be comfortable," I repeated and she left assured that her frequent-visitor cousin will be fine.
My husband and myself first had a leisurely cup of Darjeeling tea, prepared with all its regalia, quite unlike the 'dip-dip' chai that is usually served in most homes. Now for some breakfast. I took out a packet of frozen bagels from the freezer. This would be fine. I heated up a couple of them in the microwave oven and they tasted delicious. The heart longed for a few more, and I requested my husband to heat some more of them. He stood in front of the microwave oven trying hard to operate it. Used to the manually operated model back home, he was a bit confused with the digital dial on its board.
"See how you do it," I instructed him. "It's really very simple. First press TIME COOK, then the button five. If you press it once, its five seconds, twice its fifty-five seconds and if you press it once again, it'll be five minutes and fifty five seconds." I instantly started a long lecture about his reluctance in handling gadgets and in the typical husband-wife fashion, we stood there arguing for and against such mechanisms. I was as usual annoyed with him because he seemed a really slow learner. He thought I was abusing my teacher's profession and had no patience to teach first time learners.
Our quarrel suddenly came to a halt when a burnt smell started emanating from the oven. The bagels inside were over-cooked already and when I opened the oven door, smoke was billowing from the four black substances, charred beyond recognition. Within a minute or two, there was a phone call. It was from the fire department of Hicksville County. They wanted to know the cause of the smoke. I told them that I was Mrs. Chowdhuri's cousin from India who had just landed this morning and the smoke alarm at their office was a false one. I had burnt some bagels, that's all.
"OK," said the voice on the other end of the line, "then give me your password." Now what was that? Earlier, when they lived in a high-rise apartment in Queens, I had seen my sister adopt an ingenious method every time she fried delicious luchis and begun bhaja for me. She would stand up on a chair and dismantle the smoke alarm. This she said prevented the people of the whole building trudging down the fire escape stairs every time the alarm bell started ringing. But I didn't see her use any password in the process.
Disconnecting the phone, I stood wondering what to do. Should I call her at her office and disturb her? Within a couple of minutes, before I could decide on my next course of action, a fire engine arrived in front of the house. Two masked firemen dressed like voyagers on a space mission, with cylinders fixed on their back and huge axes in their hands came knocking at the door. They were ready to break in if required. I apologized profusely and told them that it was really just overheating a couple of bagels and showed them the four black substances lying in the sink. With disbelief they trudged inside the house. One ran upstairs and the other down the basement stairs. When they really could not find any source of fire, they left.
Very soon, another man arrived. He was the neighbour just across the street. He opened the main door with a duplicate key and was surprised to see the two of us inside. "Who are you?" he asked.
"Oh, Mrs. Chowdhuri's cousins. We just arrived from Calcutta this morning," I replied.
"The fire department called me a few minutes ago. I was not at home then. Why didn't you disclose the password to them?" he grunted.
"Well, I don't know it. I'll call Lovely and find it out" I answered meekly.
"There you are. Why did you say you didn't know the password? Of course it is 'Lovely.' I understand your situation. You must have been just a little scared, weren't you?" I nodded. Before I could gather my wits to tell him that 'Lovely' was my sister's pet name, and only people back in Kolkata called her by that name, the sympathetic and friendly neighbour of my cousin had already left. Needless to add that we had neither breakfast nor lunch that day till Lovely came back home in the evening.
Somdatta Mandal is Professor and Head, Department of English and Other Modern European Languages, Visva-Bharati.