Spending our time untethering the mind, getting the fidgets out, exploring the in-between ideas, and learning kintsugi.

An assignment in Bhopal

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“ At first we thought somebody was burning chillies. In ten minutes the air was full of smoke. There was so much smoke you couldn’t see the ground through it. I grabbed my three children and ran with my husband. I had to leave my blind mother-in-law behind. In half an hour my 2-year-old daughter’s skin was like boiling water had scalded it. She developed sores on her eyes, later a hole in the heart and died after seven months. My two grandsons were born disabled”

Everyone’s story was a minor deviation from this one. What was different was the number of family members dead or disabled. It was 25 years ago that one of the world’s worst industrial disasters killed more than 5000 people. 25 years later kids are still being born with deformities. The poison may no longer be in the air, but it is in the water, in the soil, in people’s bodies.

We were there to shoot a feature on the 25th year anniversary of the tragedy. The Union Carbide plant is a landmark in the city and many road signs at traffic junctions point you to it. But in the proud Indian tradition of pointless bureaucracy if you wish to visit the “Gas Plant” premises, you must arrange for a pass from a government office. Our contact in Bhopal had already done that for us so it saved us a day of running around trying to figure out where and how.

Our permit allowed us two hours and stated that a supervisor must at all times accompany us. The plant itself was being prepared for visitors, pathways were being marked with white chalk powder and swept clean. Within 10 minutes of starting to shoot the story our supervisor wandered away. A few minutes later I ran into him guiding a French film crew on camera. A wave and a short introduction with the cameraman and we went our own ways, trying to keep out of each others’ frames and keeping the audio down in consideration for the other crew. We were the only people there.

The plant premises are almost like the ruins of an old palace or a temple, rising out of a forest that seems to be grudgingly taking over. It was a beautiful early winter day and the factory, ironically, looked breathtaking in its dilapidation. Giant forlorn tanks rusting away, the Sun glinting from behind networks of rods and meshes, the place is strewn with tragic portent.

On our way out, our Supervisor who had abandoned us, came across to say goodbye and to inform us he won’t be needing a ride till the gate. Past the entry checkpoint, we were supposed to wait for a contact person right at the end of the driveway. It was very quiet. The driveway is flanked on either side by lawns that seemed to be infrequently tended.

As we waited we ran into another correspondent, from an international finance magazine, walking in. UC felt like FCC (the Foreign Correspondents’ Club). He did not have a permit so we offered him ours, warning him that a picture of a woman and stipulated timings may not make it any easier.

We watched as he walked away into the distance, towards the other end of the driveway. At the checkpoint, he avoided the guard and hoping to intimidate the guard with his confident swagger, he walked straight in. Didn’t work. We then saw him hand the permit to him and promptly snatch it back before the poor man could even read the name, leave alone look at the picture. That seemed to work. Later, at the Hotel he told us he almost got stopped on his way out and this time he managed to steamroll his driver into driving out without stopping.

We were staying at Hotel Jehanuma, probably the nicest hotel to stay in Bhopal. An old mansion converted into a hotel. The breakfast buffet is ordinary, lunch is better, even though every dish is bathed in red light. The food just ‘looks’ unappetizing. The waiters hardly ever say no to anything. This kind of spontaneous and not-by-the-book service is rarely seen in hotels and restaurants.

The Hotel also has a coffee shop, which serves real coffee instead of the instant Nescafe on the menu. Their barbecue restaurant in the central courtyard is good. Avoid taking rooms close to the central courtyard, they play muzak till 10.30pm and it really is uncomfortably close to the restaurant tables.

In the evening, the coffee shop was teeming with journalists of every variety and colour, furiously typing away or lugging heavy equipment. Dominique Lapierre, author of City of Joy and Five Past Midnight in Bhopal, was due to arrive at the Hotel the same night with a posse of European press reporters for a press conference the next day. He is quite a celebrity with the locals, his charity provides funding to a few NGOs working for the victims’ rights in Bhopal. At breakfast the next day, Dominique could be heard talking loudly in the corridors.

There are a few faces of the Bhopal tragedy who appear in almost every film you see on the tragedy. We visited a few of them too. Most notable was Mr Sarangi who has been fighting their cause for justice and clean water for 25years now. His trust runs a hospital specially for victims related to the contamination.

The other notable figure we met was the token govt rep, Minister for Rehabilitation, Mr Baburao-something. Don’t care to remember the name. He steadfastly refused to believe that there is any lingering contamination of water or soil anymore, ‘esp. after 25 years of monsoon that must have washed all the poison away by now’. He showed us report after report funded by the government that proved it, called every independent agency irresponsible and interested in creating ‘troubbuls’ (trouble) for the government. When asked why the structure still stands, he said ‘but this is our heritage’ to which I had a violent physical reaction and the camera went flying from my hands and we had to interrupt the interview for a few seconds. He went on to say that they want to build a museum on the premises ‘like Nagasaki, like Ground Zero, I’ve bin, it’s very nice!’ Mr Baburao was salivating at the prospect of making some more money from the ‘heritage’, what a local journalist referred to as ‘Gas Tourism’.  ‘The museum budget is Rs.106crore .

As our jaws dropped to the floor in sheer horror and shock, he shut us up with barfi shaped and colored like an orange and cackled like an 80year old madman. Then like the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing, invited us to stay with him next time at his ‘bungalow’.  Like little red riding hoods, our innocence shattered and the eponymous veil tattered, we drove back to Jehanuma in silence. Well, almost silence, except for the bEEEEEEp.

Written by Ankur

June 2, 2013 at 8:44 pm

Posted in India

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