When I turned twelve, our family moved to a beautiful house in an achingly simple-yet-modern town, green to the edges of its being and trying to erase the memory of one of the worst industrial disasters in the world. I felt myself enter a new phase of life when I came to my new house. Like the place, I too was trying to carve out an identity for myself. I tried for many years. My town succeeded.
The town is Bhopal in India. In 1984, there was a leakage of deadly Methyl-Iso-Cyanate(MIC) gas at an industrial plant owned by Union Carbide. The factory was located in one of the most densely populated areas in the world. The leakage occurred on the intervening night of December 2 and 3. The magnitude of causalities and the subsequent damage was of horrendous proportions. Till date, the victims and their children continue their fight. To bring the accused to book. To claim compensation.
Before coming to Bhopal, I had spent a few years in a place that was considered prosperous and progressive. I found it full of pomposity, without any real beauty. The lanes were packed tight and the trees were being cut down for more developmental projects. People earned a lot. They loved their neighbours a little less.
But, moving to Bhopal felt fortunate. My family had already shifted into the new house. I was coming home from boarding school. As I got down from the train that cool autumn morning, I was greeted with the aroma of freshly baked cinnamon pastry. And, hot tea.
Delighted, I hugged my parents and my sister and was whisked off to our house in the suburbs. The morning air was delicious and so were the trees, the bushes and the shrubs dotting the roads. I saw low hedges and modest houses.
My first glimpse of our home was like a dream come true. Freshly whitewashed, with a pretty, semi-covered porch, colourful potted plants flanking the driveway, a small, lush garden. I spied a vegetable patch and fruit-laden trees in the backyard.
The porch, white and green, stayed my favourite place all through the three years we spent there. The rooms of the house retained a rustic charm, even though recently furnished and carpeted. The low furniture felt comfortable. The screened windows looked out to charming views.
When I ventured out to town, I visited the cultural centers and the museums and the lakes. Also, the beautiful gardens. What I did not see was the squalor, the poverty and the helplessness of victims of the gas tragedy(as it is still referred to) fighting for justice.
At home, I could listen to the birds in the trees, watch the chameleons scuttle across the grass and enjoy the occasional peacock, come to visit us. The koyal in the mango tree still haunts me after all these years. But what we do not contemplate does not disturb our sleep or our dreams. I was vaguely aware of how an entire community was trying to pick the pieces of their lives after a horrific tragedy. It was only later in life that I could see the juxtaposition of opposites in Bhopal as in my character.
Today, Bhopal is a clean, green, modern city with all amenities. The citizens enjoy a high quality of life. The accused in the gas tragedy have been convicted but the fight for the victims for a better life is far from over.