(I am watching a far-off lightning storm right now, my monitor the only bug-attracting light source on the veranda.)
In the early afternoon on Wednesday we got word that a small fire had started in a roadside ditch along the farm fence on the main road. I was detaching a mountain of cashew nuts from their syrupy fruits when all of a sudden there was much shouting in Tamil and the whole staff began moving faster than I’d ever seen them go. Baburam hurriedly drove the tractor to the pump and began filling the massive water tanks in the tractor’s trailer. When the tanks were full, the tractor chugged slowly onto the open road, the workers and I walking ahead under the midday heat, swinging metal buckets in our hands. At first I didn’t see any sign of fire, no smoke, but until I went further down the road and saw a palm engulfed in leaping flames, with stumps and brush smoldering around it. “Va, va!” The workers called to the tractor. We started filling up buckets and throwing them on the flames and piles of smoking ash, with a satisfying splash and hiss sound. It was exciting to be fighting a fire. I was relieved that the fire was manageable, and with the cool splash of the buckets on my ash-smeared toes, I began to enjoy the way the splash of the water lit the furious hiss of the blistering earth.
When the workers were satisfied with the job we headed back, but I could still see small streams of smoke escaping out of the ashes. “Wait, look…what about that there?” I asked, but the workers waved me off, already walking down the road towards water and shade. On the gravel road back to the farmhouse, one amma plucked a pink champa flower off of its leafless tree and clipped it into my hair. It was surreal, witnessing the carnal danger of fire, the frenzy of coordinated action which I had thought impossible in the sleepy universe of Matrikunj. Yet we had conquered it, a small group protecting the land.
Later that night, sans workers, Baburam, Prashant (the cow caretaker) and I returned with the tractor and water tanks to douse the embers once more. I was worried we wouldn’t be able to see where they were, but as we chugged closer I saw the deep orange glow of the stumps and chunks of jeweled embers, pulsing like heartbeats in the ruined topsoil. Once we had killed every last spark (“Arey, look there! …Wait, I think that’s a firefly…”) we loaded into the tractor, but the engine wouldn’t start. After 5 minutes of fruitlessly coaxing the ignition, the only thing left to do was get out and push. (It’s a good thing me and my crowbar have been working out.) Once we were able to get the tractor moving veerrrry slowly, the ignition caught and we clambered on for the joy ride back to the farmhouse, the night’s jasmine-scented breeze on our faces. Wayward tree branches scraping my arms and neck, I reached out and grasped the rough, beautiful texture of the day.