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Ashay On Bhopal

Ashay suffered from the injuries inflicted on him by the poison gas leak from the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal on December 3, 1984. Those injuries were physical---his lungs were irreversibly damaged. But that was only one part of his life-system that was clinically tested after his arrival in Mumbai shortly after the event. The damage caused to thousands of others in Bhopal that night has been on record since.

The psychological impact of the unending night of December 3, 1984 haunted Ashay till he actually died in the early hours of November 29, 2003.

I am his father and a writer. I also paint and make films. Ashay wondered all his life since the event why I did not write on the Bhopal catastrophe, or why it did not occur to me to make a film, exhibit a series of paintings, compile or research a book on the subject.

Ashay was plunged into pessimism since. Though he tried to fight back, his fight only deepened his despair. He was a victim of human callousness hiding behind the gigantic corporate ‘personalities’ of Union Carbide, the State of Madhya Pradesh, the Union of India, the United States, the prevailing judiciary systems, a section of the media ---and nameless or unnameable other beyond count.

He seemed to me to think that Bhopal had made him some sort of an untouchable, a pariah, a clinical case nobody would want to handle, a terminally sick person cut off forever from the rest of mankind like many others whose horror he could understand because it connected with his own.

Sometimes I urged him to write himself and hoped that this would heal him of his sense of illness even though it would not cure him of that illness itself. I confess now that in a way I tried to distance myself from him, imagining that he would then realize that we were all on our own and on the edge all the time. And if I---his own father---distanced from him, who could come closer from nowhere?

We lived together. We shared a home. Where I live now is a compact 2 bedroom flat. We gave Ashay and his ex-wife Rohini the master bedroom, took the second bedroom for ourselves, and gave our grandson Yohul a corner for himself until he needed our room as he grew up rapidly. Then we moved out into a den made from converting a balcony into a study by day and bedroom at night.

After Ashay and Rohini were separated 1999, Ashay alone occupied the master bedroom that became his studio, his library, and his music room. There he shut himself in for hours, days, weeks, months…He did emerge from his room a few times every day. He went to the kitchen and cooked or supervised the cooking. Bird watching and cooking recipes that he modified, re-invented, improvised, or innovated were the two activities that raised him slowly out of his initial numbness and despair. And he took control of the kitchen whenever we had guests. He was a Master Chef of his own making and people of diverse culinary preferences were amazed by his dishes. As for Ashay, the way he could connect with other people was feeding them something into which he poured his own heart and his creative skill.

Food is man’s perennial anxiety, ambition, and achievement; hunger his primordial motivation and fatal temptation. Food is a fundamental precondition of survival. Being a survivor of the world’s first man-made chemical disaster, he translated his hope into food so that others would share and appreciate it. As for his other occupation, bird watching, it wasn’t with the hunter’s eye or predatory finger on the trigger that he saw birds. He saw them with curiosity and compassionate interest as another fragile but splendid form of life, to be captured as an image of freedom, nest building, nurturing and raising other things under their wing; and taking off.

But the Quatl-ki-Raat --- the Night of Massacre---did not fade away from Ashay’s mind. It came back every night. In deep sleep, it continued to choke him, pluck out his lungs, confuse his brain, and cause panic that made him scream, groan, or sit up with a start.

On December 2, Adil Jussawala called me in excitement verging on incredulity. He said he was looking for some papers and opening old boxes and bags when out fell an article Ashay wrote recalling that night. I think that article was written for Science Age, a magazine then published by the Bennet, Coleman Group. The coincidence that this should happen just one day before the 20th Anniversary of Bhopal sent a shiver, I suppose, through Adil’s spine. He has sent it to me and though I would have liked to publish it when ‘planetchitre’ was published on the web, it’s now that his story is unfolding, in his own words:

For the last 20 years I thought Ashay would overcome the feeling that he was a victim. I failed to understand that he was a victim. I am now beginning to understand that a victim cannot feel otherwise, unless his or her memory of victimization is somehow excised, removed, erased.

Or is the right word martyr?

(by Dilip Chitre, copyright 2004 DILIP CHITRE)

BHOPAL: December 3, 1984
Ashay Chitre
For some it was a dream
Some never woke up
some like me
will always stay awake
and weep
for those who forget
my yesterday
was tomorrow.

It was dark. The sound of moaning, crying, coughing faded in…There was traffic, unusual for the city to be up this early…

I got up, switched on the light and approached the window. The sound grew, it sounded like a child crying softly, only it was amplified. I parted the curtain, and felt a blast, something invisible entered my room. My eyes started smarting, watering. I wanted air…As I turned around to face a blurred image of my wife---I knew the sound outside was our own---her eyes were streaming and she was breathless.

[Something’s in the air…I thought a chemical bomb had gone off. Someone, somewhere had seen it before, Hiroshima…Suddenly it was real.]

She grabbed a bed sheet and a pair of sunglasses, I told her it would probably a long walk; we hustled up the family in the servants’ quarters, and rushed out.

The air outside was heavy, we fought for air, fluid streamed out of our eyes and nose and energy was sucked out of us. There was chaos outside; people were emerging from all directions. A few hundred metres later my wife (six months pregnant) had a coughing fit and collapsed, I fought to keep my eyes open and said,” Think of the baby, don’t give up…”, she somehow managed to get her onto her feet. People fled past us, coughing and gasping for air, some tried to cling onto to speeding, overflowing vehicles---bicycles,rickshaws,cars,trucks,even handcarts…Some were vomiting, some just collapsed and we had to walk over them---not knowing whether they were dead or alive.

From the dark by-lane we entered the sodium light chowk ---there were hundreds of people all over the scene, like an old photograph---in it we saw our own past…

Families had piled their few belongings and many children on handcarts, some sat huddled together, giving up by saying, “…if we die, let us die together.” While others left the young and the very old behind, like memories forgotten. As death filled our expanding chests we all became one, who didn’t know what we were running away from, or where.

Feeling safer with people around me I asked my wife to wait for me in the chowk---I didn’t want to risk the stampede. Then I ran, walked, stumbled to the nearest telephone. The pain in my eyes was getting sharper and I was afraid that my eyes may close forever. The image of my wife and unborn child was all I had to keep going. Reaching the telephone I dialled, my eyes shut and I felt as though I was being sucked into a whirlpool of darkness. I fell thrice while dialling but somehow got through to a friend in New Bhopal (which is situated on a height). I went back and got my wife and we stood close to the trees where we found some relief. We had walked for about a kilometre, it had seemed miles and ages…

It was 5 a.m. when my friends picked us up, the police were arriving and telling people to go back home, it was all over they said, our eyes still smarting, I asked what was over, and even today don’t get a reply.

At 10 a.m. I returned home to lock up (we had left our house open). I had been told that the air was safe; the gas had no side-effects. I thought they were telling us what they knew---the scientists, doctors I believed. I had stopped believing bureaucrats. But they probably told us what they did not know---it was worse.

A quick check up by a tired gynaecologist revealed that our baby was alive---at least he kicks she said. Two days later, I had pain in my legs, joints, numbness---I lost sensation below my waist, I had photophobia. Doctor friends put me on corticosteroids and advised me to leave Bhopal as soon as possible. On the 8th of December, I managed to fly to Bombay with my wife almost carrying me.

I hope my memories won’t come back to life only to die again as statistics, not people.

---Dried faces
in the garden
never saw as many leaves
on the trees.

P.S. Monday March 11, 1985, PUNE, INDIA---the 99th DAY

At 10:21 a.m. my wife delivered a baby boy after surgery. A few hours later as she began to regain consciousness, she asked me, “Does he have fingers? Eyes…?” “Yes…” I answered and suddenly felt light.

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