Elvis wasn’t his real name, of course, but it’s what everyone called him. Raju ‘Elvis’ Thanwar, the film-mad son of Mullu Thanwar. He was 18 years old and worked as a daily wage labourer at the straw board mill near the Bhopal bus stand. Raju spoke no English, but he knew the words to all Elvis’s songs.
On the night of the disaster, Raju was at the home of his elder sister Sunita. Her husband Mulchand was away from home. Around midnight Sunita’s young son Rakesh and daughter Puja woke crying. Sunita opened her eyes into a darkness full of invisible fire. It was agony to breathe. ‘We were retching,’ she says. ‘Froth came out of our mouths, our lungs were burning. Raju and I took the kids and began running with the crowd. Each step was murder. The gas was destroying us. We got to Pir Gate, that’s all I remember.’
Light came to city streets full of scenes from an apocalypse. Bodies lay in heaps, limbs twisted and faces contorted in agony. In some places, the streets were so strewn with dead bodies that it was impossible to walk without stepping on them. The sun came up on choking, blinded people making their way to the hospitals. The gas had unstrung their nervous systems as they fled, and they had urine and faeces running down their legs. Some, desperate to relieve the agony in their eyes, were washing them in sewage water from the open drains.
Sunita woke up two days later in a hospital, calling for her children. Rakesh was dead. His small body had already been buried. Puja died next day. Raju had not reached the hospital, nor ever came home. His family took the picture you see here and walked the streets asking, ‘Have you seen this boy, the one they call Elvis?’
But there were thousands of dead lying in streets and houses with no one to identify them. The bodies were taken by municipal trucks to burial- and burning-grounds. One of the drivers of those trucks told us: ‘We picked up the bodies with our own hands. Every time we lifted one up it gave out gas. The bodies had all turned blue, and had froth oozing from their mouths. We could fit 120 bodies into one truck and we filled and emptied each truck five times a day. There were eight trucks on duty. This carried on with exactly the same intensity for three to four days, each day at midnight the military took over.’
The army dumped bodies in the jungles to be eaten by animals or and rivers, where they formed log-jams against the arches of bridges.
Pictures of the unidentified dead were published on posters, hundreds to a page. On such a poster his family finally recognised Raju. On his forehead was taped a scrap of paper marked ‘570’.
You can read the complete Bhopal Marathon publication online here