It was Five Past Midnight in Bhopal
Last week's horrendous devastation and loss of life in New York and Washington, in which well over 5,000 people were killed, has been called the worst act of terror the world has ever known and has provoked calls for a global crusade to punish the perpetrators and stop further such atrocities.
The following review of a book on the Bhopal tragedy notes that as a result of that disaster, "Between 16,000 and 30,000 people had died and 700,000 had been poisoned to various degrees."
Bhopal's tragedy, it has emerged, was entirely predictable in view of Union Carbide's drastic cost cutting on safety measures at their pesticide factory.
After 17 years, it is a tragedy that has been largely forgotten but which still continues with many people not even diagnosed or treated: "How do you come to terms with the tragedy when you cannot walk ten feet without being exhausted because your lungs have been destroyed. When you have malformed children, when you are blind...." An old blind man said... "...never mind these quarrels about treatment and compensation; if at least we had received an apology...".
But Union Carbide never did say they were sorry, refused to cooperate with enquiries into what had gone wrong, and protesters even had to threaten to burn themselves to death to stop an amusement park being built where the Union Carbide plant had stood.
"No one should be allowed to forget about what happened in Bhopal," say the authors. "It is our duty and the duty of generations to come to keep alive the memory of Bhopal, as an example of man's craziness, to always see what the arrogance of technology can do to destroy people"
And as Monsanto continue to try and break down the entry door to Indian agriculture with miracle claims for GMOs - the latest pest-killing technology, the irony is not lost on the authors.
FREEZING ACCOUNT OF A TRAGEDY
The Hindu September 17, 2001
"Freedom at Midnight", "The City of Joy" and now, "It was Five Past Midnight in Bhopal", Dominique Lapierre's books reveal not just his mastery over words but his unflinching love for India.
ELIZABETH ROY talks to the writer.
It is sixteen something years since the Bhopal gas tragedy. Time enough for the rest of India and certainly the rest of the world to turn the page on the horror of it all. Not quite. Dominique Lapierre and Javier Moro have come thundering through the descending comfort with their newest book, "It Was Five Minutes Past Midnight in Bhopal". Lapierre's voice is insistent and disturbingly passionate as he travels the country, "No one should be allowed to forget about what happened in Bhopal. It is our duty and the duty of generations to come to keep alive the memory of Bhopal, as an example of man's craziness, to always see what the arrogance of technology can do to destroy people". Lapierre with his publisher Shekhar Malhotra and his team was in Chennai lastweek to launch the book. When you have spent an hour with Lapierre, listening to his perception of Bhopal, learning what went into the book and, more importantly, what we can all get out of it, you feels humbled and painfully aware of what awaits our doing. The tragedy assumes holocaust dimensions. It Was Five Past Midnight in Bhopal begins ten years before the tragedy with the migration of a very poor family from Orissa. Their lives had been devastated by an invasion of their crops by pests. At the time Bhopal was getting industrialised. Young Padmini and her family begin a new dream. But the next tragedy strikes, this time the lethal gas used in the production of the pesticide, which was to destroy the pests. It ends with an epilogue, which recaps all that has happened since the tragedy. It is a compelling book, powerfully written and loaded with startling information.
Shekhar Malhotra comments,"This book is like The City of Joy, it shows Bhopal and what happened through the eyes of this family. He builds up the story of Padmini and her family talking about the culture of Bhopal. The response to the book has been amazing. Everyone who reads it is converted by the end of it, converted to the understanding of what happened, how it happened and why it should not happen (again)". Lapierre is violently emphatic about this not being fiction."This is a non- fiction story. All this is based on absolute facts (including Padmini and her family whom he got to know really well) but it may be read as a novel. That is the talent of the writer. If you present a boring account of an industrial tragedy, you will certainly turn off your readers. If you introduce all sorts of colours, so readers have the impression they are walking the streets of Bhopal, that's good." At a gathering in Bhopal, the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh said "Mr Lapierre is a reincarnated Indian now living in France". He is not too far from the truth. I asked him what it was between him and India. "I had the privilege of spending two years in India researching for Freedom at Midnight, researching about the giants of history like Mahatma Gandhi and others. That was a very touching experience in my life and this gave me a love story from India."
To show his solidarity in a way, which he felt would have met with Gandhiji's approval he went to Calcutta to give away a part of his royalties from his book Freedom at Midnight to a leper home. That started another story of love, The City of Joy, the royalties from which made possible in West Bengal homes for lepers, education for the underprivileged, clinics for the unwell, houses for the homeless, floating dispensaries to reach the remote islands in the Sunderbans. The book was a great success and there was more money for more action. That's when there came a request from Bhopal to help set up a gynaecological clinic for the survivors of the gas tragedy. The gas had attacked the reproductive systems of the women. There was a large incidence of cervical cancers and other pathologies, which have remained untreated even after 16 years. That was Lapierre's first visit to the beautiful city of Bhopal and the beginning of his new crusade. "As things evolved, one day I had a great rage in my heart against what had happened, the man-provoked tragedy that could have been avoided." He began to read. The books recounted the story of the accident. "None of them really explained how the situation evolved into a tragedy. I wanted to know what happened from the beginning. Union Carbide, prestigious and highly respected with a known culture for safety looked like a good thing for the India of a thousand and one nights. Their batteries in flashlights dispelled the darkness. Their pesticides fought for the farmers. Why did this plant, which they promised would be as innocent as a chocolate factory', why did this wonderful fairy tale turn into a disaster in just seven years?" Lapierre called his nephew Javier Moro (author of The Mountains of the Buddha, The Jaipur Foot and Senderos de Libertad) in Madrid. Would he like to come to Bhopal and together try to find out what really happened to trigger humanity's most significant industrial catastrophe ever? It took Moro three days to reach Bhopal. They worked together for the next three years. They found that the unofficial figures of people killed were closer to reality. Between 16,000 and 30,000 people had died and 700,000 had been poisoned to various degrees. There are 160,000 people still awaiting treatment in the city. They have not received their share of the compensation either. The task was to identify and locate the different participants in the great story. Union Carbide, of course, refused to cooperate. They traced the chairman of Union Carbide, Warren Anderson to his retirement home in Vero Beach, Florida only to find the shutters down.
"Following complaints filed against him by the victim's organisations and an Interpol warrant for his arrest, he disappeared from his home address!" Arjun Singh, who had been Chief Minister at the time of the tragedy, was too busy to meet them. So they started out like two detectives. Their search took them to different parts of the world. A lucky lead took them to an ex-safety engineer who had left the plant sometime before the accident in protest. He opened for them a couple of cabinets full of documents, reports and archives and said that he had been waiting for fifteen years for someone to consult the documents and to tell the real story. It was a mine of information, which they studied for two weeks. It led them to others who wanted the story to be told. The Union Carbide plant was too large to be financially viable and had begun to lose money. They began to cut costs, even on safety measures.
They replaced their staff with cheaper and less competent hands. In a final act to save on electricity bills they even stopped the refrigeration of the tanks holding methyl isocyanate, which had to be kept at zero degrees centigrade to prevent it from heating up. On the December 2, 1984 at five minutes past midnight the gas escaped and dissolved into the atmosphere. The other aspect of the research dealt with those who were ultimately going to be the victims. "We had to tell the story of all those people. Who they were, why they had come." That was the easy part. "I spent two years in Calcutta doing The City of Joy so these are not foreign people for me. I understand their culture. I understand their fears, their hopes and their worries." They spent time with the people who had settled in the crowded bustees south of the Union Carbide plant. They were the first to be hit on that fateful night when the wind blew from the north to the south. "We shared their lives.
We slept in their hovels, shared their food, their polluted water."They learned that after 17 years, the tragedy continues. They have still not been diagnosed or treated. "How do you come to terms with the tragedy when you cannot walk ten feet without being exhausted because your lungs have been destroyed. When you have malformed children, when you are blind...." An old blind man said to Lapierre,"...never mind these quarrels about treatment and compensation; if at least we had received an apology...".
"Never did Union Carbide say they were sorry. Some years after the tragedy they gave $ 470 million to the Indian Government and off they went. What happened to the $ 470 million is another story. The story generates anger in your heart and then you ask yourself how you can channel this emotion to the benefit of the victims. You change anger into a positive emotion by writing a good story, by having millions of people read it, by generating royalties and by channelling those royalties to the institutions working for the victims, by reaching drinking water to the bustees."
Lapierre's work includes trying to support and help the silent victims to find a voice. Like the women of Bhopal who walked for two months with babes in their arms to Delhi to stand before Parliament and demand their rights and like the women who threatened self-immolation to stop an amusement park being built where the Union Carbide plant was. They did not want to forget!
Ironically the book ends with a now grown up Padmini accepting from a Monsantorepresentative a bag of genetically modified Soya beans.She has been convinced that it is going to change their lives forever!!
It Was Five Past Midnight in Bhopal has been more than the writing of a book. In it Lapierre and Moro bear witness to a great crime against humanity. It serves "as a warning to all the crazy engineers who throughout our planet are ever prepared to plant new Bhopals". It is fitting that the book is published by Full Circle of New Delhi, discerning publishers with a commitment to inspirational books, who have found themselves getting involved in Lapierre's projects. It is fitting that Madhya Pradesh has a Governor who could respond to Lapierre's "if you are so moved by my book, then invite to your tea party two of the heroes of my story". The Governor that evening shook hands with and warmly greeted Ganga Ram, cured of leprosy and a gas survivor, and his wife Dalima, who had met each other in the hospital after the tragedy. "That day" says Lapierre, "I felt I had won one of the most significant victories of my life." And this is the India, where everything is possible. India, where without arrogance, but with love you can always obtain absolutely everything. So may this book now become one of India's favourite readings