Dec 24, 2009

Seasons Greetings 2009

Happy, Happy Christmas, 
That can win us back to the delusions of our childhood days, 
Recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth, 
And transport the traveler back
to his own fireside and quiet home!
-Charles Dickens

Dec 21, 2009

Waterhouse Photographs - Bhopal and surroundings

In a compelling chapter on sartorial conventions by Rosemary Crill from the V&A, London, Crill describes the begums as ‘wearing an elaborate embroidered and plumed hat and, like so many of Waterhouse’s subjects, apparently enjoying the photographic session. How Waterhouse arranged the photographing of Shah Jahan is unclear, since although a number of portraits were made, in one of his notes Waterhouse briefly mentions that her photograph was ‘taken inpurdah, so I did not see her’. Presumably, the general arrangements for the photographs were made in her absence, possibly with a stand-in, and then Waterhouse either withdrew, leaving an assistant to make the actual exposure, or perhaps operated the camera himself, while concealed behind a curtain of some sort.’

An article by the Curator of Alkazi Foundation for the Arts. An exhibition of photographs based on the book, The Waterhouse Albums: Central India Provinces, edited by John Falconer and published by Alkazi Collection of Photography and Mapin, will run at Shridharani Gallery, Triveni Kala Sangam, New Delhi from 18 December to 6 January

Dec 10, 2009

Babulal to Krishna - The Gaurs of Bhopal

Pre 1984:
Before the gas accident, a Bhopal lawyer called Babulal Gaur was involved in a dispute between Union Carbide and local farmers who claimed their cattle were being poisoned by the factory. Later Gaur became a minister in the local BJP government and to him fell the duty of caring for the city’s gas survivors.

He (Babulal Gaur) told the Christian Science Monitor that the groundwater was contaminated and complained that the previous Congress state government had tried to hush the matter up. In May of that year India’s Supreme Court ordered the state to supply clean water to the poisoned communities. Gaur’s government ignored this order.

A year passed and a group of women and children went to government offices to ask why nothing had been done. They were savagely beaten, punched and kicked by the police. A month later Gaur, by now the Chief Minister, announced an ambitious Rs 600 crore plan to beautify the city with ornamental fountains and badminton courts.

July 2005:
Turning a deaf ear to criticism both from within and outside the BJP, Madhya Pradesh CM Babulal Gaur went ahead and appointed his daughter-in-law Krishna Gaur as the chairperson of the Madhya Pradesh State Tourism Corporation. She has been given a ministerial rank and the perks of a cabinet minister. Krishna Gaur, who has been a housewife till now took over the office on Thursday morning. Peeved BJP leaders were unable to say whether she is a member of the party and no one knew of her educational qualifications. Babulal Gaur's son Purushottam Gaur died of a heart attack in October last year. Three weeks after Purushottam's death, Krishna Gaur was seen accompanying the chief minister for most of his functions. Link

Even as Gaur was gloating over Jamuna Devi's complaint against Chauhan and his wife, the Bhopal media splashed a story (attributed to unidentified sources) that Gaur's daughter-in-law Krishna Gaur was also guilty of the same offence as Sadhna Singh. Krishna Gaur had, so goes the story, purchased three trucks and got them registered at the Rewa RTO on October 5,2005 (Babulal Gaur was then chief minister). Krishna Gaur had given her wrong residential address (JP Nagar) as Sadhna Singh had done. Krishna's trucks, too, had been leased out to JP Associates. Link

July 2005
With growing dissent in the party rank and file over her appointment, the BJP top brass in Madhya Pradesh today eased out Chief Minister Babulal Gaur’s daughter-in-law, Krishna Gaur, from the post of Madhya Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation chief. Her appointment, about 10 days back, had fuelled speculation that the Chief Minister was looking for his political heir. Gaur had lost his only son, Purshottam, to a cardiac arrest about six months ago. Link

October 2008
The ruling BJP in Madhya Pradesh is in a dilemma over the constituency from which the Madhya Pradesh Commercial Tax Minister and former Chief Minister Babulal Gaur would contest next month’s Assembly elections in the State. The question being asked in political circles with regard to Mr. Gaur is if he would contest from his traditional constituency of Govindpura in Bhopal or the veteran leader would make way for his daughter-in-law and State Women Morcha vice-president Krishna Gaur to fight in his place. In case this happens, Mr. Gaur will stake his candidature for the Bhopal Lok Sabha seat. Mr. Gaur who has won six times consecutively from the Govindpura seat, may not be in the fray this time for the Assembly polls and his daughter-in-law may fight from there, party sources said on condition of anonymity. “If party gives me a ticket from Govindpura seat, I will surely contest from there if Babulal Gaurji allow me to do so,” she (Krishna Gaur) says. Link

November 2009
It's clearly advantage for the BJP from the beginning. Krishna Gaur appears a strong candidate compared to Congress' Abha Singh, whose name was announced after much deliberations. In the end, Suresh Pachouri's writ prevailed. BJP candidate Krishna Gaur who is former Chief Minister Babulal Gaur's daughter-in-law has long been in the public domain, and is a familiar face in Bhopal. Abha Singh is the wife of an Indian Police Service (IPS) officer. She says that her father Thakur Balram Singh was not just the Mayor in Bilaspur but was also elected as an MLA. The Congress candidate said that she was in politics for a long time and was in the legal cell of the state Congress. Though it will be foolish to call her lightweight, the truth is that a much stronger candidate was expected from the Congress. Though Pachouri is confident that Abha would crack down on Krishna and snatch away the pivotal seat due to several reasons. Sitting Mayor Sunil Sood has vouched to accompany Abha on her campaigning and several other leaders in close circles of Pachouri would also be seen besides her. The state Congress chief himself would largely be sticking to Bhopal as this has again turned out to be prestige issue. A very senior and influential leader of the party openly commented before the PCC chief that Bhopal choice might have been wrong. Many strong contenders were left aside to promote Abha, he said. She really does not stand a chance before Krishna Gaur. Though Pachouri did not like the comment, but he is sure worried about the decision and would give maximum time to Bhopal polls. Link

December 2009
Mr. Gaur, a former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister, said the State government has sought Rs. 116 crore from the Centre to build a memorial for the victims in the factory premises spread over an area of 67 acres. However, he said that people would not be allowed to enter the Factory unit which once manufactured pesticides, adding the visitors can see it from a distance. Link

December 16 2009
Daughter-in-law of Babulal Gaur, Krishna Gaur, defeated Abha Singh of Congress by 15,321 votes as per result declared at 1:30 AM on December 16th 2009

Dec 2, 2009

Changing Lives In Bhopal

The Lifting of the Veils

In the years after the poison cloud came down from the factory, the veils covering the faces of the Muslim women of Bhopal started coming off too.
The Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan (the Bhopal Gas-Affected Women Workers'
Organization), or BGPMUS, is the most remarkable and, after all these years, the most sustained movement to have sprung up in response to the disaster. The BGPMUS grew out of a group of sewing centers formed after the event to give poor women affected by the gas a means of livelihood. As they came together into the organization, the women participated in hundred of demonstrations, hired attorneys to fight the case against Carbide as well as the Indian government, and linked up with activist movements all over India and the world.
On any Saturday in Bhopal, you can go to the park opposite Lady Hospital and sit among an audience of several hundred women and watch all your stereotypes about traditional Indian women get shattered. I listened as a grandmother in her sixties got up and hurled abuse at the government with a vigor that Newt Gingrich would envy. She was followed by a woman in a plain Sari who spoke for an hour about the role of multinationals in the third world, the wasteful expenditure of the government on sports stadiums, and the rampant corruption to be found everywhere in the country.
As the women of Bhopal got politicized after the gas, they became aware of other inequities in their lives too. Slowly, the Muslim women of the BGPMUS started coming out of the veil. They explained this to others and themselves by saying: look, we have to travel so much, give speeches, and this burkha, this long black curtain, is hot and makes our health worse.
But this was not a sudden process; great care was paid to social sensitivities. When Amida Bi wanted to give up her burkha, she asked her husband. “My husband took permission from his older brother and my parents.” Assent having been given all around, Amida Bi now goes all over the country without her veil, secure in the full support of her extended family.
Her daughters, however, are another matter. Having been married out to other families, they still wear the burkha. But Amida Bi refuses to allow her own two daughters-in-law, over whom she has authority, to wear the veil at all. “I don't think the burkha is bad,” she says. “But you can do a lot of shameful things while wearing a burkha.” Half of the Muslim women still attending the rallies have folded up their burkhas for ever.

Sajida Bano's Story
Sajida Bano never had to use a veil until her husband died. He was the first victim of the Carbide plant: In 1981, three years before the night of the gas, Ashraf was working in the factory when a valve malfunctioned and he was splashed with liquid phosgene. He was dead within 72 hours. After that, Sajida was forced to move with her two infant sons to a bad neighborhood, where if she went out without the burkha she was harrassed. When she put it on, she felt shapeless, faceless, anonymous: she could be anyone's mother, anyone's sister.
In 1984, Sajiba took a trip to her mother's house in Kanpur, and happened to come back to Bhopal on the night of the gas. Her four-year-old son died in the waiting room of the train station, while his little brother held on to him. Sajiba had passed out while looking for a taxi outside. The factory had killed the second of the three people Sajiba loved most. She is left with her surviving son, now 14, who is sick in body and mind. For a long time, whenever he heard a train whistle, he would run outside, thinking his brother was on that train. Sajiba Bano asked if I would carry a letter for her to “those Carbide people,” whoever they are. She wrote it all in one night, without revision. She wants to eliminate distance, the food chain of
activists, journalists, lawyers, and governments between her and the people in Danbury. Here, with her permission, are excerpts that I translated:

Big people like you have snatched the peace and happiness of us poor people. You are living it up in big palaces and mansions. Moving around in cars. Have you ever thought that you have wiped away the marriage marks from our foreheads, emptied our laps of children, bathed us in poison, and we are sobbing, but death doesn't come. Like a living, walking corpse you have left us. At least tell us what our crime was, for which such a punishment has been given. If with the strength of your money you had shot us all at once with bullets, then we wouldn't have to die such miserable sobbing deaths. You put your hand on your heart and think, if you are a human being: if this happened to you, how would your wife and children feel? Only this one sentence must have caused you pain.
If this vampire Union Carbide factory would be quiet after eating my husband, if heartless people like you would have your eyes opened, then probably I would not have lost my child after the death of my husband. After my husband's death my son would have been my support. But before he could grow you uprooted him. I don't know myself why you have this enmity against me. Why have you played with my life so much?What was I, a poor helpless woman, spoiling of yours that even after taking my husband you weren't content. You ate my child too. If you are a human being and have a human heart then tell me yourself what should be done with you people and with me. I am asking you only, tell me, what should I do?


The gas changed people's lives in ways big and small. Harishankar Magician used to be in the negative-positive business. It was a good business. He would sit on the pavement, hold up a small glass vial, and shout, “Negative to positive!” Then, hollering all the while, he would demonstrate. “It's very easy to put negative on paper. Take this chemical, take any negative, put it on any paper, rub it with this chemical, then put it in the sun for only 10 minutes. This is a process to make a positive from a negative.” By this time a crowd would have gathered to watch the miraculous transformation of a plain film negative onto an image on a postcard. In an hour and a half, Harishankar Magician could easily earn 50, 60 rupees ($2) in this business. Then the gas came.
It killed his son and destroyed his lungs and his left leg. In the negative-positive business, he had to sit for hours. He couldn't do that now with his game leg, and he couldn't shout with his withered lungs. So Harishankar Magician looked for another business that didn't require standing and shouting. Now he wanders the city, pushing a bicycle that bears a box with a hand-painted sign: 


Passersby, seeing the mysterious box, gather spontaneously to ask what it is. He invites them to put on the Stethoscope, which is a pair of big padded headphones attached to the Machin. Then the front panel of the Machin comes alive with flashing Disco Lights, rows of red and yellow and green colored bulbs. The Machin, Harishankar Magician tells his customers, monitors their blood pressure, then tells their fortune through the Stethoscope. The fee is two rupees (six cents). Harishankar doesn't
like this business; with this, unlike his previous trade, he thinks he is peddling a fraud. Besides, he can only do it for an hour and a half a day, and clears only about 15 rupees (43 cents).
Harishankar Magician is sad. He yearns for the negative-positive business. Once the activist Sathyu took a picture of Harishankar's son, who was born six days before the gas came. He died three years later. Harishankar and his wife have no photographs of their dead boy in their possession, and they ask Sathyu if he can find the negative of the photo he took. Then they will use the small vial of chemical to make of positive of their boy's negative, with only 10 minutes of sunlight.

From “Bhopal Lives” By Suketu Mehta
Published in: The Village Voice - 1991

(Photograph above : A Pre 1984 advertisement of Union Carbide)

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