The face of Bhopal that still haunts

There is a story that always haunts me about Bhopal.

And it has nothing to do with the Supreme Court decision and the twists and turns of a legal case.

It has everything to do with a face.

Every tragic world event has its iconic photograph — the burning monk in Vietnam, the lone dissenter in the path of the rolling tanks of Tiananmen Square. For that catastrophic gas leak in Bhopal, it was of a ghostly child.

bhopal gas tragedy

Sometimes I think the reason the Bhopal tragedy has hung on to the conscience of the world for as long as it has, is because of her.

Since then, there have been novels set against the backdrop of the gas leak. There have been films like Bhopal Express. But the story has drowned in its own numbers. Did 2250 people die immediately or was it 3,787? Since then has it been 15,000 deaths or 25,000? Should the case  be tried under Section 304(A) or Section 304? What would have been fair compensation, if anything can be called fair — $3.3 billion? $350 million? $470 million?  Company bosses boasted that the Union Carbide tragedy cost the company 43 cents a share.

But in the end, the numbers just dissolve in  the face of one picture — Raghu Rai’s photograph of the Burial of an Unknown Child. You must remember that photograph. Even now with the news of the Supreme Court judgment, that face appeared again all over the news media — ethereally white as if life itself had leached away from her, the eyes glassily opaque.

I was in school at that time and much into making scrapbooks of news events.  That year had been a big news year. Indira Gandhi had been assassinated. The coverage of that momentous event had filled up my scrapbook. I didn’t have room for the unknown child. Indira Gandhi, after all, was more important.

Yet now 27 years later, the legacy of that unknown child is still everywhere, reaching into the Supreme Court and the CBI. Her legacy runs through the contaminated groundwater of Bhopal, through activists I met in the United States who come every year to protest the annual shareholder meeting of Dow Chemical, the new owners of Union Carbide.

I remember meeting Rashida Bee and Champa Devi in San Francisco. Rashida Bee and Champa Devi were not people I would have likely met while I lived in India. They were poor labourers in a stationery factory, they spoke no English. In everyday life, we would have had little reason to cross paths. Our lives would be separate.

When I met them in San Francisco, we were still separated from each other because they were onstage receiving the Goldman Environmental Awards, the so-called Environmental Nobels. I was one of the many journalists seeking access to them. I still remember their fiery speeches in Hindi.

Rashida Bee spent days picking through the bodies in the city morgue trying to find missing family members. She had lost six family members to cancer. She still couldn’t sleep at night. Champa Devi’s grandchild was born with a congenital deformity. She suffered from panic disorders.

If the terrible gas leak in Bhopal had anything good come out it, it’s birthing unlikely heroes like these women. Some might think of them as modern-day Don Quixotes tilting at multinationals with their brooms. Or you could think of them as people who really understand the importance of political theatre, the way Gandhi did when he went to make salt from the sea. Either way, they keep the story of Bhopal alive.

When I see that photograph of that baby girl now, I am struck by the fact that 27 years have gone by. She would be a young woman today perhaps with her own daughter.

I still have my scrapbook. It’s pages are yellowing and crumbling. The little girl, on the other hand, is frozen in time, preserved in methyl isocyanate for eternity.

Sometimes I think the reason the Bhopal tragedy has hung on to the conscience of the world for as long as it has, is because of her. I never made room for her 27 years ago. But I cannot ever forget her.

Good night, sweet girl. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

Source: Sandip Roy, Firstpost.Ideas

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We believe Dow & DuPont must finally accept responsibility for Bhopal. Until then, The Bhopal Medical Appeal funds two award-winning clinics in the city. Both offer free, first-class care to victims of the gas disaster or the ongoing water contamination. The survivors have nowhere else left to turn – please help if you can.