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Mainstream, VOL L, No 22, May 19, 2012

A Meaningful Novel in the Backdrop of Bhopal Gas Tragedy

Tuesday 22 May 2012



Impeachment by Anjali Deshpande; Hachette India; 2012; pages 369; Rs 350.

The Gas Tragedy that shook Bhopal very rudely on the terrible day in December in 1984 keeps harking back from time to time mainly because of the enormous scale of the tragedy and the immense indifference and callousness with which it has been handled both by the government and the legal system. It is a matter of great distress for all thinking Indians, the way the Union Carbide was allowed to escape all responsibilities by paying almost a pittance in terms of compensation to the victims of perhaps the greatest industrial disaster in recent memory. Even more than two decades after the disaster the effect still remains, the suffering of innocent victims still continues.

The fight for justice still persists because of the grit and determination of a small group of activists who are tirelessly fighting to get justice for the affected. The story of Impeachment is the story of some such people—journalists, activists, lawyers. They are basically crusading against the settlement announced by the Supreme Court on February 14, 1989. The Court settled on 470 million dollars as full and final payment. This is just a little more than the amount the UCC was insured for—350 million dollars and absolute pittance in view of the dimension of the disaster.

Anjali Deshpande, well-known freelance journalist associated for years with the India Press Agency, also known to have participated in the theatre movement and a short story writer, in her very first venture has written a highly readable fiction with the Gas Tragedy at Bhopal as the background. The story develops around the protagonist Avidha, a journalist, and revolves around her friends—journalists, activists, lawyers. The story line involves the legal system, the government, Union Carbide and the liberal middle class. It is a story of enthusiasm, idealism and ultimate disillusionment and complacency which usually creeps in over time as everyone gets sucked into his or her personal life. Avidha feels that her commitment to the cause gradually thins down as she gets sucked into an over-powering love sickness.

As the back cover of the book published by Hatchet India says , ‘the dwindling band of her activist-friends—journalists, lawyers and NGO members—with whom she has been fighting the Supreme Court verdict nullifying Union Carbide’s responsibility towards the gas-leak survivors, have their own problems and different thresholds for compromise.’

THE story is about the complex power dynamics amongst various players where the real victims gradually get sidelined. Anjali’s writing style is very crisp and can retain the interest of the reader till the very end though I found a little overdose of sex and lust. I particularly liked the episode of sweeping the Supreme Court. (Chapter 8) Secretly carrying the jharus (broom) inside and then sweeping the veranda outside the Court makes very interesting reading.

“Down with the Bhopal Settlement. It stinks; Down with the justices, they stink. Adalat me gandegi, nahi sahenge, nahi sahenge.” Chapter 9 is perhaps the core chapter which shows how pettiness in the medical profession can push so many people, literally, in the lap of death! Anjali tells us the story of the doctor who was interviewed by Avidha and the revelation he made. The Head of the Forensic Department who handled the dead bodies initially said from the colour of the blood that they died of cyanide poisoning and prescribed the antidote—sodium thiosulphate. Unfortunately for the victims, he was dubbed ‘The Doctor of the Dead’ and totally dismissed by the Head of the Medicine Department. It was even said that malnutrition was primarily responsible for their death, gas intake may have hastened their demise! Avidha watched with stunned silence how the antidote suggested was never used with the pretext of protecting people from side-effects of sodium thiosulphate to which the forensic scientist replied ‘with bitter sarcasm—push them into the trap of one sure after-effect—death’.

Anjali handles all kinds of complex relation-ships quite deftly—the Mukta-Vineeta lesbianism, Avidha’s helpless attraction to married Prashant, Suguna-Hally mutual attraction etc. but the real characters remain the gas survivors, their fight for justice, their readiness to face enormous discomfort of being huddled in Delhi to take part in marches to Parliament, the Supreme Court and Union Carbide office in Delhi. Sometimes the insensitivity of the press and ruthlessness of the Delhi Police come out very sharply. The manner in which the assistant of a documentary film-maker asks one gas survivor, Sumitra, how she felt when she was running away from the leaking gas is quite hilarious. Sumitra replies: ‘Buy a packet of chilly powder and rub it in your eyes, you would know how it felt!’ It reminds of the naïve questions asked by TV commentators very often!

On the whole the book is a worth read and a good effort by a first-time author to handle a complex problem in a meaningful manner. It could have reached a wider audience if it had been priced less than Rs 350.

The reviewer is a retired teacher of Economics, University of Delhi.

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