In the plains, where I have spent most of my life till now, winter comes lightly, with nimble feet. At the beginning of December, the nights are getting colder and the mornings pleasantly chilly. Our breath is still not misting, and the clear air holds promises.
This is the time when I think of my sister because it is her wedding anniversary soon. We who were joined at the hip, or almost till the time she married and moved to a different city. Soon, it was time for the rest of the family to move too; so for the first time in our lives my sister and I were experiencing different places. She was very involved in her new phase of life, so I wrote her long letters. But, somehow, the experience that was Bhopal for me stayed buried in my heart. It was an experience of opposites and I am still overwhelmed with conflicting emotions when I find myself thinking of my beloved Bhopal.
It was and I am sure still is a place of lyrical beauty. I landed there just a couple of months shy of my sister’s first wedding anniversary and the twelfth anniversary of the Bhopal gas tragedy.
In 1984, which was a momentous year for my country, the fag end of the year brought upon the serene, placid town, an industrial disaster of unimaginable horror. In 1984, my family and my community were still licking the wounds of Operation Blue Star, which desecrated the holiest of Sikh shrines. A few months later, the Prime Minister of the country, Mrs. Indira Gandhi was assassinated. All hell broke loose and the Sikh community was persecuted, being held directly responsible for the death of the Prime Minister.
1984 was also when the astronaut Rakesh Sharma became the first Indian to travel in space. Asked by Mrs. Gandhi about how India looked from the orbit, he famously replied, ‘Sare jahan se achha’, alluding to the urdu poem written by Iqbal and meaning ‘the best in the entire world’. At the time, the best nation was yet to see an assassination, an unprecedented bloodbath and one of the world’s worst industrial disaster.
At five minutes past midnight on the intervening night of December 2 and 3, deadly methyl isocyanate gas started leaking from a storage tank in the Union Carbide pesticide plant situated in the densely populated industrial area of the city Bhopal. The cold weather and the density of the gas ensured that the gas cloud stayed close to the ground, thereby causing maximum damage to the people who inhaled it, while asleep. Within minutes, however, the victims started coughing violently, gasping for breath. There was widespread panic and a near stampede as people tried to run away from the deadly fog.
The number of killed ran into thousands and those disabled were estimated to be half a million. The local hospitals were under prepared to handle casualties and injuries at such a large scale. Within days, the scene around the site was horrific. Thousands of animals died. Trees became barren.
Today is the 30th anniversary of the tragedy. A report published earlier this year estimated that more than 120,000 survivors still struggle with serious medical conditions. Around the site, the soil and groundwater are polluted even now. The rehabilitation of victims is a challenge that has not been met.
The Bhopal Memorial proclaims that the suffering and the struggle of the victims of the gas tragedy continues.
At the same time, in my mind, Bhopal would always remain a beautiful city. Twelve years after the tragedy struck, we chose to live in New Bhopal, much removed from the industrial disaster site. It was tree-lined, broad avenued, clean and very green. The content silence was broken occasionally by passing trains. Newly metalled roads curved gracefully around hillocks; tall and dense trees hid magnificent buildings. Chhotta Talaab and Barra Talaab (Lower lake and Upper lake) appeared magical when venturing out to the city. In the busting markets, portly burqa clad Muslim women jostled with the average market goer for better bargains. Delicate beaded purses of different hues were hawked for the tourists.
A visit to Bharat Bhawan left me breathless by the richness of the tribal art. ‘Vibrant’ was how I described it in my mind. I still look for small, repeated patterns in the handicrafts of other areas as a throwback to my love for the tribal art. The legendary ‘Chambal’ dacoits and tales of their exploits struck terror into many hearts. The countryside was unspoilt and the gentle, rolling hills a joy to behold. Often, I would go out to the nearby temple to watch the sunset. Sunset by lake side just outside the Museum of Mankind was another beautiful memory. But, here my consciousness of the industrial disaster merged with the redness of the sunset for the Museum detailed the tragedy graphically.
In my memories of those times, the beauty of the city stands out. I also find my thoughts turning to the suffering of the gas tragedy victims and their struggle even though 30 years have gone by. I find myself poring over news from Bhopal but I , like million others cherish the beauty, acknowledge the ugly but do nothing to reach out with a helping hand.