Shanu was twelve years old when she died. The cancer that consumed her eyeball had left her in perpetual agony. Tear tracks shone beneath the hideous monstrosity that was once her eye.
There is nothing more to be said about this. Stories of damaged children coming out of Bhopal tear at our hearts. We try to tell the world. What words can be found?
From Bhopal Sathyu writes, "I hope this reaches you in time for your appeal in the newspapers but in any case I do not think it will be much use as what you ask is impossible.
"I heard of a six-year old girl in Shiv Nagar with severe kidney damage. I went to find her and, after much hunting for the house in the dark, found the family. The child, Shivani, retains so much fluid in her body that her father told me sometimes he cannot lift her in his arms. He’s a daily wage worker at the cattle feed stall and for the past year has spent half his wages, 800 rupees a month (£10) with a private doctor who is doing no more than managing the condition. I told her to bring Shivani to Sambhavna and the same treatment would cost him nothing, but the poor guy is terrified that changing doctors will have a voodoo effect. He said that he is willing to spend his last coin if it will save his daughter’s life. I went away feeling frustrated and defeated.
"Yesterday I went to meet a little boy, Suraj, whose mother comes to our clinic. I’d only seen his photo, but from his face and his eyes I thought he’d be interesting to talk to. He’s all smiles. I decide that I’ll ask him what he thinks about all day long. How he keeps himself smiling.
"I have to find him first. Vikas had taken his photo, so together we head towards Gareeb Nagar [Poortown] which is close behind the Union Carbide factory. On the way we meet Narayan Singh who was with us on the long walk to Delhi (when 80 of us went on foot from Bhopal to meet the Prime Minister, who said he had no time to talk to us). Narayan hasn’t been well. Hasn’t been able to work for the last week. He has stomach pains and he’s been getting giddy.
"The eight-year old boy, Suraj, melts my heart, he laughs a lot but does not, cannot, speak. His lower limbs are mostly useless, upper limbs too, but he makes amazing use of them, dragging himself about, crawling, tumbling, using his limbs as if he has trained each one separately. This has caused sores on his knees, ankles and shins, and flies are clustering on them, but Suraj is unmindful and smiles on.
"Suraj’s house is small and low, not high enough for a person to stand up in. It’s a one-room mud shack with a small open space in front that is clean and neatly plastered with cowdung and clay. His mother Ramsiya Bai must have done it. She welcomes us and asks a neighbour for chairs for the two of us. We say we don’t need chairs, a mat is spread.
"Suraj gives us an ear-to-ear smile that is so warm, so full of innocence that it strikes me he is not okay in the head. Vikas talks to him as one would to a boy who is simple. Suraj looks at Vikas as if listening and turns on his full smile. Suraj’s mother spots a shit Suraj has done right next to where we are sitting and covers the spot with cowdung and clay wash. She says ‘What am I to do with this son of mine? Are there places where they take care of such children?’ I say there are. ‘Do they look after the children as well as their mothers?’ I say that I doubt it. She moves close to Suraj and hugs him. ‘Suraj is so naughty,’ she says, ‘he won’t sit in one place, he drags himself all round wanting to play with other children.’
"Suraj disentangles himself from his mother’s embrace, half-scrambles, half-rolls into the hut and begins howling for no obvious reason. His mum asks what can be done to help. I tell her that in the third week of December Suraj will be examined by a team of specialists that Madhu, Suroopa, Vinuta, Kavitha and others are bringing to Bhopal. At Sambhavna, I say, we have a herbal ointment that will clear up his sores.
"Suraj’s Dad joins us and I ask how long ago they moved to Gareeb Nagar. About 16 years ago. And where have they been getting their water? Mum says that for the first ten years they used the local hand pump, after which they got piped water from a nearby bore well. Alas, both were certainly contaminated with the birth-defect causing chemicals that to this day are leaking from Union Carbide’s factory a couple of hundred yards away.
"Suraj with a runny nose and tearful eyes is scrambling over the ledge beneath the house’s sole rickety door. He rolls over to us. His big smile is back. I inform his parents that the government has promised us that their community will get clean, safe piped water within the month. On the way back I am thinking that it’s years too late, and too late for Suraj. Our walk to Delhi and the hunger strike did finally force the government to act, but why didn’t we do it ten years earlier. Then when Suraj was conceived, his mother would have been drinking clean water. It’s useless to think thus.
"Two nights ago, I saw Sapna, Champa Didi’s grand-daughter. She was born with a cleft lip and no palate. She could never suckle, when she tried the milk ran out of her nose. She has had an operation to join her lip but needs two more to mend her palate. Sapna is very playful and excited. She starts talking about school and showing me her books, taking them out of her satchel. As she speaks I realise I can’t understand her nasal sounds and the way she pronounces sounds that require the palate. Khusboo her cousin seems to understand perfectly and volunteers to translate. I wonder if this will annoy Sapna but it doesn’t.
"Sufiya is five. She has a cleft palate and hare lip. She likes playing aapaa aapaa where kids pretend to be adults and act out adult situations – guests coming to her imaginary home, knocking on her imaginary door, sitting in her imaginary rooms eating chapattis made of leaves, brickdust for rice and so on. ‘Do you know what poison is?’ I ask her. ‘Water,’ comes the reply. ‘You mean there is poison in the water?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Where did it come from?’ ‘I do not know.’ She brightens up and says, ‘I can draw dogs, cats and monkeys, but I like horses best.’
"Tazmin is three, she has only four words, of which one is ‘mummy’. I speak to her mum, Zarina, who says, ‘The other children tease her saying kutee, kutee [cut face - she has a hare lip] and she cries, hides her face and cries.’ For a moment, Zarina looks tearful. Then she sighs and says, ‘She was born this way. It’s God’s will.’ I ask if God willed Union Carbide to abandon its factory full of poisons and is it now His will that Carbide’s new owner Dow Chemical refuses to clean it? She says, ‘I do not know.’
"Yashwani is seven. She says she’s how she is because ‘somebody put poison tablets in the water.’ ‘What poisons?’ ‘Poisons are things that kill you,’ she tells me solemnly.
"I have sent pictures, but I don’t know how this sketchy information will help. Just tell people the heart’s truth about this place, where you can see kids like this in every alley, every community.
"If people support Sambhavna and Chingari (the two free clinics funded by the Bhopal Medical Appeal), there is much we can do. We can give operations to the kids with cleft palates and repair their mouths. No one then will call them tota [parrot], or kattee.
"Last night an old woman whispered to me, ‘Take care of yourself, we are living in hell.’ In the shadows and angles of these alleys, hovels with sacking and planks for walls, where during the rains were flooded and chest deep in sewage water, and another thick layer of poisons has seeped out from the cursed factory. I do not know what to say to you. No matter how much money comes, or how hard our doctors work, we will never be able to do enough. Sorry I could not be more helpful."