As the fire alarm started screeching my ex-colleague and her daughter who were visiting us in Waterloo, Southern Ontario, scrambled down the steps, but my wife refused to budge.
“It’s a false alarm,” she said with certainty, as I quickly gathered up my smartphone, passport, laptop, DSLR camera, the expensive tele-photo lens that I barely used, wallet with my debit and reward cards and Indian driver licence, my Overseas Citizen of India card and shoved them all in a bag.
“Did you see my glasses?” I asked hysterically, and my wife calmly pointed to my eyes.
“Let’s go,” I said. The first fire tender had already arrived and from our sixth-floor window I could see the fire fighters jump out and run into our building.
“I am not walking down all those floors,” said my wife. “Remember when we first landed in Mississauga (in the early 90s) and the fire alarm would go off and we climbed down 15 floors, and it was a false alarm, every time.”
“I don’t think they are doing this after all these years to spite you. If you get burnt to cinders I will not get any insurance money. They will suspect you planned to gyp the insurers and that is why did you not escape,” I shouted as I ran out of the front door.
(I recalled when we first landed, we had leased an apartment in a building that housed new immigrants. Every time a Chinese family stir-fried noodles or an Indian couple roasted spices and herbs, the fire alarm would go off.
One day I fried poppadum and heated the pan a bit too much and black smoke rose off the pan and started floating towards the fire alarm. “Quick, hand me the newspaper (at that time people read newspapers),” I said, pulling up a chair to swipe the smoke away from the alarm).
As I ran down the steps, an Arab, presumably a Syrian refugee, ran out of his flat, whipped his head left and right, and then back again quickly, and said, “Leh?”
“‘Haar’ (hot),” I shouted in my inadequate Arabic as I ran. The man pulled out a phone and quickly texted someone, maybe his wife. “Wise man,” I said to myself. “Never speak to your spouse in such circumstances.” Unlike in parts of Paris where Syrian refugees beg, or in America, where the government recently snatched children from immigrant families, Canada offers a decent life and does not put refugee families in camps.
(Unfortunately, a certain section of Canadians resent the Syrian refugees, who get handsome grants and warm coats and nice housing, and oppose their liberal government policies, believing that their tax money is going to the wrong people, not understanding under what horrifying circumstances the refugees had fled their war-torn country).
Outside, I realised I was the only person carrying a huge heavy bag and a camera on my shoulder like a photographer on a special assignment.
Just as my wife predicted, it was a false alarm and soon the fire chief came out and announced an all-clear.
The fire department response to the alarm was rapid fast and luckily not many die in raging conflagrations in Canada as people are smart enough not to toss a burning cigarette on the balcony or down the garbage chute.
Building a high rise with timber may seem like a bad idea, but Canada already has the world’s highest tower made of wood, at 53 metres, in Vancouver. Wood is light weight, resilient to earthquakes and the thick pieces of wood are surprisingly fire-resistant and environment friendly.
When I told my wife and former colleague, they both went around the flat tapping the walls, asking, “Is this wood?” They would rather live in a concrete jungle.
Mahmood Saberi is a storyteller and blogger based in Bengaluru, India. Twitter: @mahmood_saberi