The life and death of a mad Bhopali child

Sunil, for much of your short life, you believed that people were coming to murder you.

‘Nonsense,’ we, your friends, would try to reassure you. ‘The sky’s blue. We are all here. You have done no harm to a soul, why should anyone want to harm you?’

‘I guess I’m mad,’ you’d say, who could see nightmares in sunlight and hear voices bellowing in his head.

Mad? Maybe you were. If so it was hardly surprising.

When you are 13 years old, safely asleep in your house with your parents, three brothers and four sisters, you don’t expect to be woken by screams. You don’t expect your eyes to be burning and your lungs on fire, nor to discover that the screaming is coming from your mum, or that your dad’s yelling ‘Quick, everyone, we must get out! Union Carbide’s factory has exploded!’

Nothing in your life has prepared you for what you now experience. Your family bundles out into a darkness thickened by something that blinds and burns. All around you terrified people are choking, throwing up, moaning in agony. A woman lies convulsing where yesterday you played marbles. In the panic-stricken rush to escape you are wrenched from your parents and swept away to fall into blackness. You wake on a truck piled with corpses, bundling you off to a funeral pyre because the people who found you thought you were dead.

When you learn of the awful, terrifying, unbelievable thing that has happened, you return to Bhopal to look for your family. Alone and crying, you wander the streets. There are posters up everywhere showing the faces of bodies as yet unidentified. On each brow rests a numbered scrap of paper. This is how you learn that your mum and dad and five of your brothers and sisters are dead. What of the other two? You keep searching, and by a miracle find them, your baby brother of 18 months and your sister of nine, alive. You bring them to the only home you have, the house across the road from the Union Carbide factory.

So at 13, mad Sunil, you are the man of the family, the breadwinner. You find casual jobs as a day labourer and at night wash glasses at a tea stall. You keep your little family going and somehow manage to get yourself to school often enough to pass the 10th standard.

Mad, are you? For the sake of your little brother and sister you refuse to give up or be defeated. You are kind to others and your house becomes a refuge for kids whose parents beat them. You ask, ‘Is it better to have parents who beat you, or no parents at all?’

You learn all you can, dear crazy friend, about the disaster that took away your family, and you join with other survivors. You are young but you take the lead. When neither Union Carbide nor the authorities give medical help, it’s you who lays the symbolic foundation stone at the pole-and-thatch health centre the survivors themselves start, which will soon be ripped down by the police.

You march at every anniversary. Your voice is heard. Then, dear madman, you are sent to the USA to give evidence in the Indian government’s case against Union Carbide. You have never flown before and don’t care for the food. The government lawyers tell you to be brave and honest and just tell your story.

 But neither they nor the government consult you or the other survivors before they do a deal with Union Carbide that makes its share price leap for joy. You are incensed. Off you go on another world tour against injustice, another month of telling your tale to whoever will listen in Ireland, Holland and the UK, which you tour with Bianca Jagger. You’re mixing with famous people, but you, poor mad bugger, just want to be home in Bhopal. Instead you find yourself at the Union Carbide AGM in Houston. In the hotel lobby you are handing out copies of an environmental report when you’re arrested. Union Carbide, whose gases entered your house and killed your family, charges you with criminal trespass. You’re thrown in jail. It takes hundreds of phone calls to the mayor of Houston before you are released without charge. At last you can go home.

The voices in your head grow louder. They torment and taunt. By now you know your mind is playing tricks. You are anxious all the time about being killed, you don’t want to sleep. You fall into deep depressions and begin to talk of taking your life. We, your friends, try to joke you out of it, but privately we are worried.

You cannot find work, but when we open the free Sambhavna Clinic in Bhopal you instantly volunteer. You’re penniless, but refuse to be paid for your work. We soon learn that you have a phenomenal memory. Every day you scan the papers for Bhopal gas disaster stories and years later can recall the slightest details. You go to work in the clinic’s medicinal garden and for a time your voices abate. Such stories they tell of you, like how one day you pissed in a cobra’s hole calling, ‘Come out, ohé cobra maharaj!’ And when the enraged reptile erupted from its defiled home, head raised and hood spread, you sprinted 400 yards to the tamarind tree and never pissed in a snake’s hole again.

Ah, Sunil brother, the cool and beauty of the herb garden were not enough to keep the demons from you. Again you tried to take your life. You drank rat poison and after we’d had your stomach pumped, you rang the bastard who through his tears is writing this and said, ‘Hey guess what, it tasted sweet!’

Dear Sunil, we did our best to get help for you, but there was little help to be had. Although some 60,000 Bhopal survivors suffer from depression, anxiety, memory loss, panic attacks, insomnia and a host of other psychological afflictions, the government refuses to accept mental health problems as a consequence of the gas disaster. People with mental problems get no compensation or treatment, in fact they are ridiculed and dismissed. In all Bhopal’s hospitals, there is only one part-time psychiatric consultant.

Sunil, when you were still a child, you told a journalist that those responsible for the death and suffering in Bhopal should be hanged. Never have they even been brought to trial and in the end, the person who was hanged was you. We found you in your flat, dangling from the ceiling fan. You left a note saying that when you made the decision to end your life you were completely in your senses. You had bathed and dressed in clean clothes. You, who rarely wore t-shirts, had put one on especially for this final farewell. It said NO MORE BHOPALS.

Sunil, we take this as a message from you to the uncaring world. We think you wanted people to know how horror, illness and grief continue to ruin lives in this city, 22 years after the night of terror.

If you were still alive, we could tell you that on September 27, 2006 your friends all over the world planted trees in your memory. The trees are growing and flowering for you all over India, all over Asia, in Africa, in the UK, France, in the USA and many other places. We are planting two trees for you: one next to the people’s museum on the disaster “Yaad-e-Haadasaa” which you inaugurated in December 2005, and one in the Sambhavna herb garden where you volunteered, but not too near the cobra’s hole.

Also we could tell you that the Sambhavna Trust Clinic has opened a new mental health department with full-time counsellors and psychiatrists, so that others will never again have as little help as you had.

Sunil, you thought you were mad, but a world without justice is madder. At least you are now safe. We scattered your ashes in the flooded Narmada river, and for your funeral feast we followed your precise instructions: quarter bottle of Goa brand whisky, mutton curry from Dulare’s hotel near the bus stand, betel nut, tobacco and all. Were you there with us? If not, who was it that in the darkness chuckled, ‘I am no longer afraid of being killed – I am already dead and fearless.’

If you would like to contribute to the mental health clinic at Sambhavna, you can make a donation by visiting our donate page.

"As an example of a holistic, environmentally-sound, community-focused and patient-centred approach to healthcare, the Sambhavna Clinic is way ahead of anything I have ever visited or worked in, anywhere in the world."

Dr John Hurst, Senior Lecturer, Honorary Consultant, UCL Medical School / Royal Free Hampstead NHS, London