That cold December night of 1984 will be etched in my memory forever.
I was fast asleep under a warm quilt in Bhopal when the phone rang. My friend Raajkumar Keswani, a journalist living in the old quarters of the town, sounded agitated, a little incoherent and was gasping for breath and coughing. He said there was a commotion in the street, people were running around and something had happened. “I am having a problem breathing,” he said.
I came out of my house and was greeted by a bizarre sight. It was almost 1 at night but the normally deserted road was jampacked with people. They were walking silently, visibly tired, some of them carrying children in their arms, others supporting older people. Many lay on the footpath. Quite a few were very ill and vomiting. Several were trying to stop vehicles, already overloaded with people. “What happened?” I asked a person.
“The gas tank in Union Carbide has burst,” was the reply.
I looked at him incredulously. I was no stranger to Union Carbide and the deadly gases they produced. Raajkumar had been writing for a long time about the threat that Bhopal faced from toxic chemicals of the multinational’s pesticide plant.
By this time my eyes had started smarting. Something was wrong with the air! I called Raajkumar, advising him to leave his house, piled on my scooter with my wife and two children and fled.
As dawn approached, all roads led to the hospitals. Ordinary citizens set up tents to distribute food and medicines. By dusk the action had moved to cremation grounds and graveyards working fulltime.
Thousands fled the city that day — the exodus continued for more than a fortnight —and Bhopal soon looked like a ghost city. Only those who had to stay — doctors, journalists, policemen, government employees and telegraphers — remained in the city.
I returned early to start my work as a reporter with the Indian Express at that time. As we went around the ravaged town, the full magnitude of the tragedy sank in — bodies of families being pulled out of shanties, carcasses of animals lying in the open, hospitals packed with victims, hundreds of bodies kept outside the morgue and the streets deserted.
On the evening of December 3, 2004, as I sat on my typewriter to write the story of the world’s worst industrial disaster, tears started welling up in my eyes. That evening, and for many evenings after that, tears would keep rolling down my cheeks even as I hammered at the keyboard to meet the deadline of the newspaper.
(The writer is Resident Editor of Hindustan Times, Bhopal)