At 10 am on Thursday, seven-year-old Shubhangi Shukla was busy planning her Diwali evening. “We can go to the mall,” she told her mother Pragya Shukla, a home maker. And who do you think will take you to the mall, her mother asked. The girl stared at the television screen for a while, before declaring, “I know papa will be very busy but the rest of us can at least go to a nearby restaurant.”

Her father, Rajesh Kumar Shukla, is the station house officer at the Connaught Place fire station in Central Delhi, one of the busiest in the Capital.

After giving it some more thought, Shubhangi Shukla changed her mind. “I can watch cartoons for the entire afternoon and then wait for papa to come back,” she decided.

As Pragya Shukla cradled her other daughter, seven-month-old Shivangi, in her arms, she said with a smile, “That is how the family of a firefighter gets to celebrate Diwali.”

In Delhi, emergency calls peak on Diwali and the day after, keeping the city’s 1,300-odd firefighters on their toes. They attend to one call every five to six minutes on average. By comparison, on most other days, they receive one call every 17 minutes.

“For us, Diwali is no less than a surgical strike,” Rajesh Kumar Shukla had said when had met him in his office last year.

In 2015, the Delhi Fire Services fielded a record 290 calls on Diwali. The following year, 243 calls had been received till midnight. However, 107 calls came in between midnight and 7 am (which technically counts as the day after Diwali) – a record in itself. The city’s fire officials said they believed the figures for Delhi are the highest for any city in India.

Diwali away from family

The high volume of calls puts immense pressure not just on firefighters but also on call operators, said Rajindra Atwal, assistant divisional officer in the Delhi Fire Services.

As Atwal tied up his shoe laces for a hard day at work on Thursday, his wife Renu Atwal made preparations for the evening’s Lakshmi Puja at their home in the fire department staff quarters near Barakhamba Road, close to the Connaught Place fire station.

Rajindra Atwal said he always tries to be home in time for the puja but rarely makes it. Instead, he ends up working till the next morning.

“We do not remember celebrating Diwali together as a family,” his wife said. She said she usually has the puja scheduled before 6 pm as “that is considered the beginning of the peak hours of fire calls in the city on Diwali night”.

Preparations for Lakshmi Puja at the Atwal home.

For the Atwals’ 12-year-old son Daksh, Diwali is all about crackers. He has saved three rockets from last year’s stock but could not buy any this year because of the ban on cracker sales in Delhi imposed by the Supreme Court. While the ban has disappointed many, firefighters in the Capital and their families hope it will mean an easier day on the job.

“The ban on sale of firecrackers is expected to bring some relief to firefighters this year,” said 40-year-old Preeti Narwal, whose husband Rajender Narwal is a fireman at the Connaught Place fire station. He works a 24-hour shift on Diwali and left home early to attend to a fire call.

The Narwals and their three children, aged seven, 12 and 16, had plans to make a rangoli at home. But after Rajender Narwal left for work, the rest of the family headed to a relative’s home in Paharganj in Central Delhi.

Rajesh Kumar Shukla with his family on Diwali. The station house officer took a short break from work to be with his wife and two daughters.

Cracker ban effect

In the fire station’s control room on Thursday morning, firemen debated the probability that they would receive fewer fire calls because of the cracker sale ban. But GC Mishra, the city’s fire chief, was not convinced. “I do not think it will make much of a difference,” he said. “As far as fire incidents on Diwali go, an annual average of less than 10% of them are caused by firecrackers. On the other hand, negligence in placing diyas [lamps] inside houses and shops causes more fire incidents.”

In 2015, the Delhi Fire Services attributed 30% of fire incidents in the city on Diwali to firecrackers.

S Tomar, divisional officer in the Delhi Fire Services, pointed out that firefighters faced other problems that went beyond a flood of calls on Diwali. “This year we have already witnessed the deaths of five firemen in the line of duty,” he said. “We should be more concerned about the various hazards this job involves and the kind of training it needs, rather than putting too much emphasis on the number of calls received during Diwali.”

According to Delhi Fire Services records, the five deaths so far in 2017 are the highest for a single year since 2002, when eight firemen died in a single incident – a blaze at a timber godown in West Dellhi’s Kirti Nagar.

Advance celebrations

But Tomar, too, said he had not spent Diwali with his family in a long time and this year waswould be no different. “We visited our parents for a week before Diwali,” he said. “The family get-together was equivalent to Diwali for us and this is how it has been for the 22 years since I got married.”

As the afternoon approached, station house officer Rajesh Kumar Shukla entered his office at the Connaught Place fire station, prepared for a potentially hectic day ahead. Another officer took stock of the situation in the control room. “No fire call between 6 am and 12 pm,” the operator responded.

Unlike the rest of Delhi, which turns into a city of lights on Diwali, the homes of the firefighters visited on Wednesday evening and Thursday morning bore hardly any decorations. “The most we can do is conduct a small puja, decorate the balconies with some fancy lights and pray that no major fire incident happens,” said Renu Atwal as she attended to a guest, offering him an assortment of dry fruit.

All photographs courtesy Abhishek Dey.