Guest post by AKHIL KATYAL
Fire alarms at my postgraduate student house in London are always a ready excuse to hang out. Every time the highly annoying siren sounds off, I see students acknowledge it with a very odd mix of frustration and amusement. We clamber down the stairs making the familiar shrugs and smiles to each other, making it clear that we all really hate this. But something very peculiar happens after the first half-a-minute of the ritual rant against the housing management. People break out into conversations about what they were doing, or more usually, what they were just about to do if the alarm had not gone off. Some bring their mugs of coffee down with them and do the sip and chatter. Those in the bath-robes look awkwardly about as if they can’t find the right address. The front yard begins to look like a party, and like any other party I’ve been to in London in the last two years, it breaks into some very loud, talkative groups and some folks standing by themselves in the corners.
The alarms, 99% of the times, mean nothing serious. Someone has just smoked in their kitchens, someone has made pan-fried noodles and the smoke alarm has caught the whiff, things like these generally. So the siren by itself is a non-event, a formality. Except that it becomes something else all together. What is formally a situation of potential crisis becomes a pretext for running into others, for a bit of casual nattering. So much so that when the alarm ceases, some people look half resigned to end the banter. Some continue the conversations, some hurriedly get back to their rooms, and others seem half-reluctant.