That night’s sleep came sweet. My cold feet touching hers I snuggled close to my mother. We drifted off to sleep but were woken by a loud knocking on our front door. My father walked over to the big brown door and unlocked it to find my cousin standing outside in his night-suit wearing Ray-ban sunglasses, which he pulled off to speak to my father, who asked him, “Kya Hua?”
My cousin replied, “Gas Nikal Gayee hai, log mar rahee hai, Union Carbide se zehereeli gas nikel rahee hai.” “Accha!”, my father reacted. Dad being an Air Force man was combat-ready and immediately got into action. He shut the doors and window, and turned on the aircon – in December! – and covered me under the cotton wool-filled blanket, the one with gold branded stitched onto its surface. We all went back to sleep, oblivious to the facts of what was really happening out in the zone of a war nobody had declared.
An eerie silence of death swirled around the city as my father drove me to school, not knowing the magnitude of the disaster and not sensing that the catastrophic events of that day would change the course of my life’s experience forever.
I was ten years old. As time went on I forgot about the disaster, until 1993 when a BBC documentary came with familiar faces and we were very excited as one of our family members had recorded a tape in London and bought it back for us especially. I was excited to see family friends in the documentary and paused it many times, rewinding to giggle at hearing a woman speaking in theeth Bhopali, something so rarely heard on film. Then I heard the woman explain why she was so angry about what had happened, how no one cared as the poor of Bhopal were displaced into unsegregated camps, with no privacy, and given meals as you would an animal, in packets, how the then government thought this will go down well with the poor, and what then struck me was that the Government forgets that poor people have dignity and courage. How could the government not understand the trauma that had engulfed people for no fault of theirs?
I was much older when, for a few years, I became involved in working alongside the Gas Survivors of Bhopal. What began as simple translation work for a book became immersive and overwhelming. One by one I learned of the individual, relentless, perversely unnecessary ways in which the survivors suffered the enduring consequences of that one night and I could not get my head around why it was that everyone with a duty of care seemed to have forgotten them.
I remember Rassu Bhai, an oil seller who spent money he could not afford on painful, dangerous treatments from quacks in the desperate hope of being able to breathe a little better. Then there was Sohanlal, a peanut seller who wore chic, threadbare shirts, his days filled with trying to make a few rupees to buy medicines to get minor relief from the pains brought by the gas. There are so many stories from the Gas that it would take 500 volumes of 1001 nights just to tell them.
When I’d mention my encounters to my privileged kin some were dismissive. “Gas, gas, gas, it’s always the gas. The gas tragedy is over, why are you bringing it up now?” I can never forget Nawser Parikh, a family acquaintance who worked for Union Carbide, who told my mother that “These poor people would have died anyway”.
I could not bear it that no one wanted to hear the stories I was trying to share. I was told instead that the Survivors were pretending, exaggerating, and blaming everything on the gas because they only wanted money. I had experienced the opposite. The people I knew would spend their last money they owned to help a neighbour in trouble, or just to make a guest feel welcome and special.
I kept working with others to help unveil the truth. The grave injustices that the people of Bhopal still faced as a direct result of a multinational corporation being built in the heart of their city, one welcomed with open arms as it promised profits and jobs. As losses grew, as safety deteriorated, its parents began to distance themselves, to push it away for fear of infection, much like we did to each other for those months when the pandemic first hit us.
Every anniversary I have watched over the years reporters gather for their annual reports. Before they begin to speak about Bhopal, some big wigs even ask for red carpets and to be garlanded at railway stations, I have worked with filmmakers who offered the Gas Survivors Rs 50 to run for their cameras, to get the big scene for their documentary. People come and go, they take their slice of Bhopali cake and carve a name for themselves, grab some acclaim and move on to their next project.
But then there are the activists that have stayed, and fought, and lost and fought again, battle-weary but undaunted, standing with the Bhopal Gas Tragedy survivors in their longest struggle, determined to make a difference because of a promise they made in their hearts so many years ago to help them get justice, compensation, and some clean water.