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The Ghosts of Bhopal - Part One

Part One: Wedding Season

Nadir Khan
The night was black as batwings and the winds were growing colder as Nadir Khan clocked out of his job at the Union Carbide factory, strode past the security guard station, then through the front gate and headed for home.

Sunday, Dec. 2, 1984. The date carried no significance when Khan commenced his shift at 3 p.m. It was a Sunday like any other. Eight hours later, as he returned to his rough shanty in the bustee of Jaiprakash Nagar, there was little to remark upon. Or at least little that was known to Khan.

It was wedding season in Bhopal, the lake city of Madhya Pradesh, the state that lies in the very heart of India. If a bejeweled white stallion had cantered along Berasia Road that December night and disappeared like an apparition into the wind, no one would have batted an eye, least of all Nadir Khan. Baraats, or wedding processions, reach their peak in the winter months and Khan had come to know this as a seasonal commonplace.

To see Khan that night would be to observe a 35-year-old, slight of build, medium height, with a full head of dark hair and a pencil moustache that arced dashingly above his plush upper lip. He walked south on Berasia, then east along what had come to be known as Union Carbide Road. He was not the type to hurry his walk.

Bhopal - Thirty Years Later

Thirty years are enough to heal wounds and rebuild lives. But for the people of Bhopal, their past haunts them and clouds their future. From the photographs of long lost loved ones on their walls, to the constant trips to hospitals, every day comes with a reminder of 3rd December, 1984.

“I lost my son and husband...people continue to die.
 There is poison in our bodies.”
 - Shamshad Begum Survivor and activist
That day, poisonous methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas leaked from the plant of Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) and killed up to 10,000 people. Hundreds of thousands more were left with permanent disabilities. The effects have now trickled down to the second generation.

BusinessLine travelled to Bhopal on the 30th anniversary of the industrial disaster and found a city that was helpless about its past but was clinging on to a slim hope of a better future.

Matchbox Museum Bhopal

Something drew him to the colour, vibrancy and intricate pictorials on small wooden boxes which held safety matches. Lure of a phosphorus burst, smell of sulphur with every strike of a match and a fire was lit, the flame tamed and the box crushed or tossed into the waste bin, but it sparked off a passion in Sunil Bhatt. He picked up the pieces while smoke encircled the doused matchstick. Bhatt turned matchboxes into his museum of fame. He became a phillumenist without being aware of it. Bhopal's first matchbox, the Hamidia brand, vintage World War II matches used by soldiers in trenches, is part of his rare collectibles.

Warren Anderson - The Villain Of Bhopal

WARREN M. ANDERSON, the chairman of the Union Carbide Corporation, has not taken his wife Lillian out to dinner much in the past five months. "I kind of felt that if somebody caught me laughing over in the corner over something," he said, "they might not think it was appropriate." 

Warren M. Anderson (November 29, 1921 – September 29, 2014) Chairman and CEO, Union Carbide Corporation at the time of the Bhopal disaster in 1984
To be sure, since Dec. 3, 1984 when a chemical accident at a Union Carbide plant killed more than 2,000 people and injured thousands more in Bhopal, India, the 63-year-old Mr. Anderson has not felt much like laughing anyway. "It must be like when someone loses a son or a daughter," he said. "You wake up in the morning thinking, can it possibly have occurred? And then you know it has and you know it's something you're going to have to struggle with for a long time." The public ordeal of the Union Carbide Corporation since the Bhopal tragedy has been well-chronicled. The huge chemical concern has seen its stock plummet, its financial health challenged by multibillion-dollar lawsuits and the pace of its strategic acquisitions slow due to problems in raising cash. But obscured amid the corporate concerns has been the personal trauma of the one man who bears ultimate responsibility for his corporation's actions. He would willingly avoid the aftermaths of that reponsibility, but cannot. 

In fact, he offered to resign in return for "a golden handshake" - a lucrative severance package - but was turned down. He recalls one board member saying, "You got us into this, you've got to hang around and get us out." A picture of the toll that the trauma is taking emerged during an unusually candid 6 1/2-hour conversation spread over two days in Mr. Anderson's simply furnished office at Union Carbide's headquarters in Danbury, Conn. And it was reinforced by a two-hour talk with Lillian Anderson, a soft-spoken former schoolteacher who had never been previously interviewed by a reporter, in the living room of their Greenwich, Conn., home, overlooking a small garden of geraniums, azaleas and other flowers that she had planted. The discussions provided a glimpse of how an unprecedented corporate crisis looks from the inside and of how a huge company coped with a disaster in the first days after it hit. They revealed a formerly low-profile chief executive who suddenly must balance the conflicting demands of stockholders, company attorneys, reporters, employees, Congressmen, foreign government officials and other constituencies, all in the glare of the public eye.

Act Four Take One

"Arre Sahu miyan, I was looking for you", startled by the call, Dinesh Sahu looked back to find Azim Bhai waving frantically for him. Catching up Azim narrated the matter "You remember Ezaz, son of Jamila Bia ? He has become arrangement assistant for the film studio, and was asking for a person in early fifties, short with a balding head. I immediately recalled you and suggested your name to him. There is a bit role in the shooting going on at old jail, and they will pay you for it". 

Now this was god sent for Dinesh Sahu. God knows, he was in desperate need for money. Once a prosporous video shop owner, his fortunes had dwindled with the lost business of videos. He tried to revive his fortunes by shifting into CDs but the advancement of Internet killed even that market. Since the last five years he spent much more than he brought home, merely to exist. 

Shakeela Bano Bhopali

Duniya ko laat maro… (to hell with the world),” sang nine-year-old Shakeela Bano Bhopali at the last Nawab of Bhopal’s palace innocently kicking in the Nawab’s direction, with her father nervously gesturing her to stop. But Shakeela continued to sing, never sparing the high or the mighty. 

Shakeela was a rage in Bhopal from very young age. Her mother Jameela Bano was opposed to the idea and, according to Shakeela’s younger brother Anees, tied her hands and feet to scare her. But Shakeela did not relent. She joined the Variety Theatre and played lead roles. Later, when she became a big name in Bhopal, her mother learnt to play the harmonium for her.

Her entry to the world of professional singing was accidental. One night, while B R Chopra was filming NAYA DAUR near Bhopal with Dilip Kumar, Vyjayanti Mala and Johny Walker, the shoot had to be cancelled due to rains. Someone suggested Bhopali's name to Chopra who invited her to perform a qawwali mehfil. Bhopali, then barely in her teens, mesmerized the audience, and the event that was supposed to be of an hour lasted whole night. Dilip Kumar said to her:"Aap Bhopal ki cheez nahin hain. Bombay aa jaaiye (You are not Bhopal material. Come to Bombay."