I remember hearing the TV news about the unbelievable horror of the Bhopal Disaster: it was December 3, 1984, and the world's worst industrial accident when a leak deadly Methyl Isocyanate gas killed approximately 3,800 people, while several thousands more were disabled. The horror of that night is captured by this description on the website of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal:
There was no warning, none of the plant's safety systems were working. In the city people were sleeping. They woke in darkness to the sound of screams with the gases burning their eyes, noses and mouths. They began retching and coughing up froth streaked with blood. Whole neighbourhoods fled in panic, some were trampled, others convulsed and fell dead. People lost control of their bowels and bladders as they ran. Within hours thousands of dead bodies lay in the streets.But issues drop from the news, the attention span is short. And how much, really can any of us really care about people we don't know and have never met, especially when the news is always moving on to the next disaster (floods, earthquakes, famine, wars) in which thousands die?
For me, as for most of the world, the incident slipped beneath the radar. I do remember vaguely reading an article in Time or Newsweek about corruption and the money not reaching the poorest of the victims, and feeling angry about it all over again. But that was really all. Until Indra Sinha's series of harrowing advertisements began to appear in the British press and some of the personal stories were told (left - click to fully enlarge).
Sinha (below), once voted one of the ten best British copywriters of all time*, gave up his career to concentrate on issues which were of much more importance to him after he was approached to help raise funds for a free clinic for the people of Bhopal.
It is a cause he has remained passionately devoted to ever since and Animal's People, set in Khaufpur (a thinly very disguised Bhopal) draws deeply on the stories of real people he was involved with. Animal himself is based on Sunil Kumar, a Bhopal survivor and Sinha's friend, to whom the novel is dedicated. Sunil died in 2006, aged 34.
Until I read the novel, I had not realised that the effects of the disaster were still being felt today, not only because of the initial injuries suffered by the population, but also because poisons (including agents causing cancer and birth defects) continue to leak from the plant and have and have leached into the water supply.
There is of course the official version of things put out by a multinational corporation (Union Carbide was taken over by Dow Chemical) and the politicians, and then there is the story of the victims themselves who lack a voice because they are poor and largely uneducated. (It's very interesting to read these two pages side by side the Union Carbide Statement and the page from Bhopal.con.)
I hope anyway that this post has made you curious enough to pick up the book, and also to explore the bhopal.net website to find out more about the background to the issue. I have still more, about the book itself, to write.
Of all the articles I read on Sinha, I enjoyed this interview with with Anil Thackery the best.
(*Thought you'd like to know: other copywriters who have made successful novelists include Fay Weldon, Joseph Heller, Peter Carey, Salman Rushdie.)