I read about this hunger strike by author Indra Sinha in this week’s Guardian – the first time, for a while, that I’ve thought about Bhopal.
Like many Americans I first heard the name of the city in Madhyra Pradesh in 1984, when news hit the wires that a Union Carbide plant there was causing terrible casualties. Twelve years later, I built a visit to the city into my weird three-week Indian trip, one which forfeited tourist highlights like Goa and the Taj Mahal for offbeat destinations like Faizabad (site of many famed Hindu-Muslim riots) and Bhopal. I arrived there, in 1996, on the morning of my thirty-fourth birthday; by the end, I was ready to write: “I have been to hell and it is called Bhopal.”
Part of the reason I said that was the same as the reason for Singh’s hunger strike – the children I saw drinking groundwater poisoned by the plant. The Guardian piece also notes that 25,000 of them are now suffering from “a second health epidemic, resulting from severe contamination at the now abandoned site.
Below are some of my notes from that visit, taken before those 25,000 grew up — when India was preparing for its current boom with computer schools on every hardscrabble corner. Back then, I was the Blanche du Bois of India: I learned what I needed to learn because of the kindness and passionate commitment of strangers. In this case I have to thank the Internet, and a string of strangers that led to a name, a contact, that led me to the edge of the plant. Even if they led me to the conclusion: I have been to hell and it is called Bhopal.
My first clues to this hell were on that birthday morning; at 6 a.m. I was far too tired to over-negotiate with taxi drivers, and I fell for the classic Indian ruse when the driver told me the hotel I wanted was “closed! I take you somewhere better.” If I’d been awake I would have insisted he take me there anyway, which would likely have saved me about half of what I ended up spending: but when the sunrise already has your skin blistered and your heart is just a touch maudlin from birthdays you know when to cut your losses. In any event, the hotel was dark and underpopulated, despite the alliance of the cabdriver. Certainly, I was still the only Westerner (as I had been, actually, since I left Varanasi) and the only woman traveling alone.
By this time I’d learned to expect Indian men to look at me like a tramp; I’d learned to ignore stares, propositions, even men following me down the street. I’d rationalized it after the only time I ever watched Baywatch, in a hotel in Faizabad: “they think they’ve seen me without my clothes on!” I’d even shouted, from a cycle-rickshaw from Allahabad, when I knew the driver had minimal English and couldn’t hear me for the traffic, “You f**ing pricks, you don’t have a right to do that!” But this was the first time I ever felt one of them make a grab for me, as if to see if I were real. Young men would pull on my clothes, laugh when I pulled away.
I wasn’t going to let them stop me from doing what I had come here for: I hailed an auto-rickshaw and said “TT Nagar,” Bhopal’s business district.
I expected something of a younger city than the places I had just been, Calcutta and the Ganges towns: Bhopal, the industrial heart of Madyha Pradesh state, prides itself on being far more 20th-century than they. What I found in TT Nagar was industrialization gone haywire and just a bit berserk, in its white cellblock glory.
The central streets were LA-style thoroughfares, fences of yellow tubing down the center — belching cars masses of people on either side, medium-tall bank buildings, billboards about as large as I’d seen in Asia. One billboard said ABORTION and in slightly smaller letters advertised other gynecological services, including sex selection (the female birthrate in India is considerably lower than the male, the mixed blessing of ultrasound). Sex selection seemed already successful, as very few women were visible, even fewer than in Calcutta.
Every few yards, it seemed, another computer school to be advertised: as I walked I watched the progression, as I was no doubt meant to, of people and signs old and new, intermingled, interwoven. A woman in a dark blue sari and stolid expression crossed the street with a baby on her hip, right in front of the sign that says LEARN DTP ONE MILE; an old man clad in only a lunghi (a swath of cloth tied aroung the waist to make a sort of skirt) with streaks of paint between his forehead passed before the next sign, LEARN WINDOWS ONE MILE. The effect not even subliminal, if you want to catch up you’d better do this.
How could anyone do any of it in this heat? I knew it had been 38 degrees (around 100F) when I left my hotel, and it was noon now. In April India’s sun begins to burn through your clothes; it sneers at sunscreen. Mosquitos laugh at whatever ointment you’ve slathered on and bite merrily, sometimes leaving bloodstains behind. The heat lubricates your joints but only at the expense of most of your good sense.
Perhaps that was why I got up the nerve to ask the woman in the bank, where I was cashing a traveler’s check, how I might be able to reach this fellow T.R. Chouhan — and expected her to be able to help.
What she did was simple and effective: she wrote down his address in Hindi for me, and told me to show it to the auto-rickshaw driver. Auto-rickshaws are these three-wheeled vehicles, kind of like tuk-tuks in Bangkok but far sturdier; Bhopal has far too many cars to be safe for cycle-rickshaws. I already missed the mad traffic mix of northern India, with cows bicycles cycle-rickshaws motorcycles mopeds very few cars. This was 20th-century insanity, all right.
The driver nodded at the address and took off like a shot, challenging my motion sickness; he had little enough English that he didn’t ask me what I was doing in Bhopal, wearing my samir kalweez and Rockports. He sped me toward the neighborhood whose name I knew from the Internet referral, Durga Chouk, past Bhopal’s famous man-made lakes: big silver discs set calmly in the space between new and old Bhopal, ringed by trees.
Durga Chouk was then more like Calcutta, some consistency now with the India I knew: homes cut into narrow alleyways, low houses of brick, mud shops selling life’s necessities (including three bottles of mineral water for my thirsty self). There was even a long skinny cow led by an even skinnier man down the alleyway: what did he use it for?
As the driver slowed, stopping several times to ask directions, they craned to see me, did the curious men in tunics and loose pants, adolescent boys smoking cigarettes shouting “Hallo!”, women looking out the windows of clay and brick tiny houses. Finally we were there, and the door was answered by a sincere, frail thirteen-year-old boy with huge glasses. “Yes?”
“Kim sent me.” I used the name of the woman who’d stayed with them, when she was working on her dissertation years before: at which point I was welcomed by his mother, sisters, and ultimately hugely by T.R. Chouhan, who had been a middle manager at the Union Carbide plant before it blew.
For those too young to remember, or those of us who want mostly to forget:
Bhopal is a capital city, with nearly one million inhabitants. For such a city to be ringed with potentially toxic industries is madness, yet it happens and not only in India.
Until December 3, 1984, Union Carbide (maker of pesticides, batteries and car parts, other products of industrial civilization/decay) had a thriving plant just north of Hamidia Road, not far from here, from other chowks, the hotels, the lakes. On that day, just after midnight, a tank ruptured containing methyl isocyanate (MIC), a chemical used for making pesticides, get the word “cyanate” cousin of cyanide.
A cloud of poison gas was released, dispersing right over the urban area; 3000 people died immediately, others beginning a slow decline as the gas poisoned their lungs, their blood cells, their eyesight and ability to swallow. Scleroses scars remained in the cells of people whose only crime was to live near where so many worked.
Including T.R. Chouhan,a man with large sad eyes and a mustache that seemed to droop further when he talked about the disaster. By the time Chouhan actually arrived home, his wife and children had celebrated my birthday with me, with cups of orange soda and big smiles. He got me back to my hotel, where we sat in the deserted restaurant and talked about the bad old days. He saw, as I did, a direct connection between the T.T. Nagar towers and the disaster that had scarred his life.
“It’s revenge from nature,” said this engineer who had warned repeatedly that the gas was building up to dangerous levels, long before the plant finally blew. “What the West has done with this colonialism.” He pointed out that Bhopal had grown from 40,000 in 1955 to its current 400,000 and growing; that with migrations to the cities “our villages are empty, just old people.” Chouhan, who had been active in the 1990 People’s Tribunal on Bhopal, was now disheartened at the paltry 25,000 rupees (a little over $750) per person awarded those made ill by the gas, and the lack of full accounting of what had happened nearly 15 years before.
“You want to see the plant?” he asked me. “I take you – you are okay with a motorbike?”
I nodded, laughing inwardly at a still-evolving fact: I seem to ride motorcycles only in Asia. (My bike-virginity had been broken a month earlier, in a wild, exhilarating 2 a.m. ride through Bangkok; later, in Vietnam and Cambodia, it was the only way I traveled if I could help it.)
The next morning, Chouhan came to my hotel with his motorcycle; I gasped as we moved forward through the blistering heat, the the noise of the auto-rickshaws and the thundering traffic that blinked to us from all sides, over a bridge overpass into an even more congested part of the city.
“Where are we?” I shouted into his ear, very self-conscious about touching him as I leaned forward.
“Old City,” he shouted back and of course that was it, as the old mosque I’d seen in the distance reared over us, a via dolorosa on the way to the toxic plant, facades equally Jerusalem and Calcutta. But no, these were far emptier, as much as anywhere in urban India can be called empty. Old Bhopal was a shell, a ghost town of sacred spaces.
We were released onto something resembling a highway just as the sun pierced the smog, cleared the way for full-dress morning heat. From miles away the plant was pale, ominous, swathed in barbed wire.
As we got closer we were entering a slum, not as Americans understand the word but a series of tiny shacks with corrugated aluminum roofs, children with rags around their bottoms and diseased old men with tin cups, Calcutta ghosts wrapped around the edges of the plant. The slum clung its way up a gentle hill, at the top of which was the vent that had released the cyanotic gases. Chouhan stopped at the foot of the hill, where we were greeted by a statue in white cement, depicting a mother in a heavy cloak. [Image via Greenpeace 2004).
I got off the motorcycle to greet her. She wore either a sari or a shawl, impossible to tell in the rough white stone, her mouth wide open her arms outstretched a small child clinging to her skirt. The inscription at the bottom read:
WE WANT TO LIVE
The sculptor was Hiroshima survivor Ruth Waterman, its date five years after the accident: her we want to live challenged my suicide novel, could this be a place where to mention suicide is blasphemy? it’s all very well to say that but Hiroshima and Bhopal did happen and maybe that teaches us something about suicide. I got back on Chouhan’s motorcycle.
My teeth loosened and my muscles jumped as we finally left the road and began to climb, the motorcycle jolted by the pitted un-paved earth and maneuvering very slowly between the cramped rows of shanty huts. I watched a group of kids play in a large mud-puddle, one of them stopping to drink from it. “Is that water poisoned?” I asked an intentionally stupid question of my host, shouting it at his ear over the sounds of the motorcycle and the people.
He just nodded and kept going. A telltale puffiness in the tips of my fingers told me I was pushing my limits by staying outside in this heat, but I felt no choice—the children were still drinking the water, the women looking at me with incomprehension, what was I doing here? I wanted to ask them the same question and did, of Chouhan, when we finally stopped.
“Why are they here?” I gestured to the vicinity of the plant, which right up to the barbed wire was crammed with the detritus of human habitation—huts, clothes, pits for toilets. “Don’t they know it’s dangerous?”
Chouhan shrugged. “Is empty space.”
“Why doesn’t the government try to keep them out of here?”
The first flash of anger, finally, as he helped me off the motorcycle and we walked closer to the barbed wire. “Why don’t government find out exactly what is in that water. We call this plant Dead Body.”
It lives and breathes its poisons still, I wanted to answer, but my tongue was loose in my mouth. I just kept staring at the tall tower and the barbed wire, Auschwitz echo in the Indian sunshine, the sweat gleaming from my face and shoulders, I wanted to pass out I wanted to write to all my friends, _I have been to hell and it is called Bhopal.
Chouhan and his family themselves had to flee the gas, back then. The son with the adorable huge glasses, who recited his social studies exam to me quite proudly, was an infant at the time. “We picked him up and ran, got into a friend’s car and away.” None of them had immediate health effects — but Chouhan’s rage is fed by the lack of monitoring, to assess the long-term impact.
Over the next few days, courtesy of Chouhan’s motorcycle, I saw the rest of New Bhopal — LA-style highways to match T.T. Nagar’s thoroughfares, slicing through wide expanses of greenery, former farmland now colonized every few miles by chemical companies, Carbide’s heedless younger cousins. Chouhan told me none of these companies have installed the safety features recommended by his commission. “We have learned nothing,” he said, “nothing.”
New Bhopal sprawls and sprawls and sprawls, with huge cinder-block apartment buildings competing with industrial parks and more suburban housing developments, the Silicon Valley feel nearly complete — except for the relentless, irresistible, thriving chowk, stalls of corrugated iron and cloth, selling everything from toilet paper to prescription drugs. I was heartened to see this particular form of Indian commerce slap this near-suburbia, even with Chouhan’s grumble, “everything is imported. Where are the cottage industries?”
We were travelling these highways enroute to more traditional tourist destinations, the ancient city of Bhojpur, a series of cave paintings in Bhimbetka. It was in the latter that I finally saw other Westerners, including the only woman traveller I’d seen since Varanasi. We shrugged at each other and smiled.
“How long are you here?”I asked and she shrugged again; like many Westerners in India, she was there as long as her money lasted.
“I’m a bit disappointed,” she said, gesturing to the caves. “The book made these sound quite grand.”
My turn to shrug; as much as I was glad to see the caves, and be reminded of a time before Bhopal, they were not after all why I had come here.
She was from New Zealand, and rode on the bike with me and Chouhan awhile. I was struck by how little she asked, how little she seemed to care to know who he was. Perhaps she had been in India longer than I, and could no longer feel safe with Indian men. (Though in fact even when they were grabbing at me, I never felt truly unsafe in India, truly felt I was about to be attacked: the boldest backed off pretty fast.) But I think she was more on the kind of Indian journey I had heard more about back home: from fabulous temple to cave to beach, contacts with locals extra. She hadn’t been to the city of Bhopal, and didn’t care to go.
Of course mid-size industrial hellholes like Bhopal are not the sort of places I visit in my own country; I’ve not been to Detroit, or even Fresno. But I’m not sorry I chose Bhopal over Rajasthan, and not only because of my novel. I learned something about the India the West helped create, something not evident from New Delhi’s monkey-shadowed skyscrapers or Bangalore’s cell phones. I saw up close and personal some of the collateral damage created by the global economy, the sort of thing you skim in the New York Times with a sigh and a heavy heart.
Most I am grateful to Chouhan and his wife — for the orange soda on my birthday, for the fabulous Rajput meals, for the escort to the lip of hell. And if I ever have the opportunity to meet Ruth Waterman, the hikabusha sculptor, I will thank her for the strongest voice of survival I repeated over and over in my novel, which is really about a journey away from suicide: NO HIROSHIMA. NO BHOPAL. I WANT TO LIVE.
When I went to Bhopal, I didn’t yet know I was a journalist. Now that I do, I wonder if someday I can look more closely at this, if it would be of use. (Likely not, with the surfeit of books like this one out there.) Next year will mark 25 years since the disaster. Will any of those children, now grown up, have seen justice?