Twenty three years is a long time. For some people, it is the sum total of years they were single. For others, it is length of their entire career. For me, twenty three years is life after Bhopal.
The year, of course, was 1984. In later years, I would read George Orwell. 1984 would then acquire different meanings for me. But those were just fictional meanings. The reality was, 1984 was always just Bhopal.
I still remember the cold winter morning, foggy like any other. We lived in the suburbs of Bhopal, less than ten miles from the old city, where the Union Carbide factory was. Ten miles is not much of a distance. But on that night, it was enough to spare us.
As usual, my mother woke up at dawn to water the plants in the garden. She thought the hedges and the bougainvillea strangely smelt of Sevin (the insecticide that Union Carbide made), but dismissed the thought. Then the radio news announced that there had been a gas leak in Bhopal. No casualties were mentioned. We listened, but it was just another piece of impersonal news. We felt sorry for whoever was affected, wondered where it was, and went about our day. An hour later, my Dad left for work as usual.
It was some more time before my Dad called up home to tell us something was very wrong. He had looked up from his work and out of his window, which overlooked the state highway. He saw thousands of people fleeing, running as fast as they could, running with whatever they could carry with them.
Meanwhile, my brother came back from school, muttering something about the school being closed and some gas leak somewhere. And then, news started trickling in. There had been a major gas leak. We thought back to the Sevin smell, and wondered if we were, even then, breathing in poisoned gas. More than nine hours after the gas leak, we still had no idea what was happening. There wasn’t really a lot of news about which areas were affected, what people should do for first aid, or any organized evacuation process. It was just a lot of whole scale panic, and everyone looking out for themselves. On that day, and over the next few days, we received nearly all our information from neighbors and friends, not from newspapers, the radio or television. We relied on rumors and hearsay to piece together what was happening around us.
Slowly, news started trickling in. We heard about the cowardly Chief Minister who had driven away from the city in the middle of the night to escape the gas, not returning until days later. We heard heroic tales of station masters who remained in the station until every last train was diverted, and then suffocated to death. We heard about the best and worst sides of human nature.
Friends warned us not to venture anywhere near the old city. Old Bhopal was a ghost town. We heard how searchers found corpse after corpse in every house in the area. Women, children, the old, people who had perished in their sleep, people who had perished because they could not run fast enough. We heard of roads littered with bloated buffaloes, dogs and cats.
We heard these stories and the more we learnt, the more we realized how very lucky we were to have survived.
As I mentioned, we were less than ten miles from the Union Carbide factory. It’s true, many of us had never seen the streets of Old Bhopal. Our quiet suburb in New Bhopal could just as soon have been worlds away. But tree-lined avenues and hedges cannot stop silent, killer gases. Yet somehow, the gas did not reach us that night, or else we would have been another number added to the uncountable dead. Who knows, even now, exactly how many died that night, and how many more died over the years in illnesses caused by the gas leak.
We heard later that fog over the Upper Lake had turned the fumes away from our suburb. Whatever the reason, in one of those quirks of life that no one understands, we survived.
School did not open for a long time. When I finally went back to school, I remember watching my Math teacher cough. Qadir, I think he was called. He was young, probably not even thirty. He would teach for a few minutes, and then collapse into a chair, coughing uncontrollably, until even our frank young eyes could take no more and we would bury our heads in our notebooks. We watched him and we knew. He lived in the old city, the part affected by the gas. Every single day in school, I watched my Math teacher with sorrow, pity, anger and helplessness. That year, I did not do very well in Math. Probably because even when Qadir was teaching, I was not really listening.
One day, they told us Qadir was too ill to teach. Tuberculosis, I think they said. This is your temporary teacher, they told us, until Qadir gets better and returns. We stood silently to greet the new teacher, but we really stood to mourn Qadir. We knew, even then, that Qadir would never come back.
Every year, on December 3rd, there would be protests and demonstrations. A few stones would crash through the window of our school bus, and we would all huddle together. I always wondered what they hoped to achieve by hurting other Bhopalis, who had also gone through the same pain. Is it like how a burn victim tries to peel off his scalded skin, even if it would hurt him more?
I also remember the stories about the thousands of claims filed for compensation. I remember how many people died before they received any money. How others battled long years and still received pittances. The resentment felt by some at the outrageous claims filed by others. Again I would wonder, why, even when we battle injustice, we still cannot help fighting each other.
The effects of the gas remain, perhaps on everyone who lived in Bhopal. I remember reading about how Bhopalis will continue to be affected for generations to come, as the gas may have caused mutations in their DNA, and who knows what effects will turn up decades hence. Which doctor will realize that the sudden cancer in a 50 year old living in Mumbai or Delhi actually had its origin in Bhopal, all those years ago?
The lessons of Bhopal are just not about Union Carbide’s mistakes. They are about inefficient governments, they are about how the poor are marginalized everywhere. They are about individual stories of heroism, and sorrow and suffering.
I left Bhopal a few years after the gas leak. But every year, on December 3rd, I remember Bhopal. I remember these things and think sadly about the difference a little luck can make, the difference a whiff of gas can make.
I remember Bhopal, and then, I try to forget.