Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Outta gas!

Except for the great fall at age O - the one and only event that relatives far and wide sparklingly remember and blame every trip in my step to - I have to admit my life has been quite plain and uneventful. When I meet someone new (new as in the first time and not age 0 of the great fall) the conversation only livens up when the topic of my birthplace/hometown comes up. The focus, mind you, is still not me but Bhopal, the gas tragedy town, where I also happened to be born and raised.

So where were you when the gas began to leak? Saucer eyes pin me. Did you have problem breathing? They hold their breath to simulate the effect. Did you fall down and faint? Their faces glow with anticipation now. Did you run out of town at midnight trampling over the dead? The expression takes on a semblance of morbidity. Did you at least know anyone who died? Some friend, relative or acquaintance? Their desperation is pulsating through appropriately solemn. Anyone who was in any way disabled? Contorting their faces here to give my memory a clue, a boost. No one. None at all. The light goes from their faces. How miserable to have missed being part of such an internationally famous tragedy.

I don’t want to dash their hopes completely by telling them upfront that I was peacefully asleep under my 7 kg cotton razai that cold December night. The morning after, I dressed for school and stood waiting at the bus stop. As it happens when school buses are late, our expectations for a holiday were rising. Perhaps the school building had collapsed, of course not hurting anyone; perhaps emergency had been clamped on the country, or maybe some forgotten staff had died – old peon, former teacher.

Instead someone came to tell us that gas had leaked. So what? We asked. How does a cooking gas cylinder leak affect the coming of the school bus, the closure of school? Gas till then was LPG not MIC. No, some poisonous gas that was killing people. Right now as we stood talking on the road, it was spreading in the city, quickly getting to us. They opened up their eyes and raised their claws to help us imagine it coming as a five-fanged dragon spewing hot poisonous gas over us. My God! we scampered home. But that is where the action ended. Any other ‘excitement’ pertaining to that event is only the change in routine, the school holiday and the hourly rumors.

People made themselves happy catching glimpses of the ruddy Prime Minister and other national leaders come hurriedly to see the men dying in hospitals, to visit the ‘affected’ areas with masks on their noses, to have pictures clicked and pasted on morning newspapers, to say how sadness has engulfed their hearts.

The ‘biggest’ industrial disaster. Right in my town and all I get involved in is gossip about a classmate, that too in another section, who has just relocated from the US and whose father worked there – in Union Carbide. The 'Big' official. So he might be jailed? Stoned by the angry mob if he ventured out? Big-eyed, we discussed secretly. He would definitely lose his job. Where will he work and how will he support his family? Sad we became. Poor girl. I never met her gaze again.

We donated old clothes, woolens, food and money. But went no where near hospitals or the affected areas where people were breathing out the deadly gas they had breathed in then; where every living thing was showing signs of dying. The underground water was getting laced with poison, the fruits and vegetables were growing stunted, distorted and sooty, the animals were behaving abnormally.

Soon the government was doling out free rations to all. All included not just those who were ill, had lost family, were unable to work, were coughing out the gas, or watering it out from their eyes and noses, but those who lived hundreds and thousands of kilometers away and were peacefully asleep that night. They stood in arduous queues to get their names registered. The ones with the wasting bodies could not. People became fat from eating free food, not working. Men gambled on the streets all day and drank all night to come home to beat their wives. There was no need to work. People got their relatives living in far off places – Champawat, Munger, Kurukkuchalai, Pimpri, Naukh and Jorhat – to fill in the ‘gas claim’. They were visiting, it said. How very unfortunate that they were in the gas tragedy town that very day! Then on, they had to come to Bhopal regularly to collect their compensation. Poor things! They came on free railway tickets and to lessen their burden they brought family along and holidayed in the beautiful lake city, just so thankful they were to be alive.

Prices of stuff rose. People were growing rich. The Luna rider could buy a Bajaj Vespa and a Bajaj owner a car. Maruti 800s lined up New Market evenings. Real estate became Real Estate. Flats sprang up where nallas were. Bhopal swelled and overflowed. To the other side from Union Carbide factory. New Bhopal. The town spilled over and ran into the countryside, the neighboring villages and nearby towns. People bought land in the outskirts to start residential schools, restaurants, dairy farms.

Every ailment, every malady was attributed to The Gas. Anyone who coughed over food gone into the windpipe was gas affected. Onion tears were due to the gas. A nervous stomachache before exam was surely gas - MIC. Bhopalis of the typical Bhopali-accent who had never said ‘sorry’ in English were spouting words like 'methyl isocyanate', 'MIC', 'Warren Anderson', 'compensation' fluently. For years to come, just this bit ' the full form of MIC is---' came in handy in my general knowledge tests.

Nov 27, 2007: On December 3, 1984 Bhopal woke up to the worst industrial disaster which had overnight killed thousands of people and affected the health and future of several generations. My heart goes out to all those who suffered death of dear ones and those who continue to bear the ill-effects of that day, 23 years later.

June 22, 2010: And suddenly there's a brouhaha again. What happened? The rip van winkles woke up to find that there's a bhopal and an anderson that can keep them in the news still? and loads to milk besides?

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