Memory is like the theatre of the absurd. It is buried in the sands of time and space, and seem to be forever getting lost. It comes back, only to die a lonely and tiring death. It becomes visible only to yet again become invisible.
Many educated youngsters in India don’t even know the most crucial landmarks in world and Indian history, despite India boasting of a new generation of special talent and innovative university systems. A recent survey found out that majority of youngsters in the top colleges of Delhi have no idea of the Emergency. Many of them do not even know the minor details of the Vietnam war, or the mass ethnic cleansing in Kosovo-Bosnia, the holocaust in Germany and Europe, the reasons behind the occupation of Palestine, the Tiananmen Square massacre or the break-up of the Soviet Union.
Surely, most of them are therefore completely unaware of the Telengana land movement after independence, the Naxalbari uprising, the 1984 state-sponsored killings of the Sikhs, the demolition of the Babri Masjid by the Sangh parivar and the killings and riots that followed, the 1992-93 pogrom against the Muslims in Bombay, the bomb blasts which followed, or even the Gujarat genocide of 2002 with Narendra Modi at the helm, and State-sponsored with cold-blooded precision and brutality. In that context, to seek the memory of the Chernobyl disaster, or the Bhopal gas tragedy of 1984 in which more than 20,000 people died and thousands were rendered disabled, crippled in body and spirit and disease-stricken for generations, might seem an apparent misnomer.
Memory has been lost and buried in the continuous consumption of the affluent society, with manufactured consent and mediocrity submerging the political unconscious with continuous trash, high decibel shouting matches passing off as prime time debate, and organized and relentless fake news in what is called the post-truth era.
Hence, to write a novel on the Bhopal gas tragedy in Hindi is an act of great resilience, craft and bravery. More brave is the fact that the literary genre, the artistic rendition, the recapturing of the oral tradition which has been lost, the writing of the script or the craft of aesthetic reproduction, is not lost in the narration of this complex and epical tragedy, which continues till this day. This is like a dark cinema on the transparent landmarks of ritualistic injustice, hatched by the highest institutions in the country, whereby the entire might of the Indian State, under successive regimes, joined hands in a diabolical and ruthless nexus, with one of the most notorious multinationals in the world, which was allowed to go scot free. Even while the people of Bhopal and other parts of the country fought a dogged, stoic, peaceful and protracted struggle for justice, which was both delayed and denied.
Anjali Deshpande is a veteran woman journalist based in Delhi who has been in the frontlines and faultlines of all major conflict zones and people’s movements in contemporary India. She is also a progressive and radical activist, and a key member for decades of the Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ). Her novel, ‘Mahaabhiyog’ (Impeachment, first published in English), is as much an accusation of the entire State machinery, including the judicial process, it is also the dismantling of the scaffoldings which went into the making of the great disaster when a black, monstrous, murderous poison smoke, methylisocynate, gassed the people of Old Bhopal, mostly daily wagers, jhuggi dwellers, working class people, the most ordinary people of India who were hard working, poorest of the poor, and surviving on the margins of society. The book has been published by Rajkamal paperbacks.
It is as much a quest for truth, as it is a documentation of the bitter realism of the times. Most crucially, it is the counter narrative of the long and protracted struggle which follows the death and destruction of ordinary lives, which turns this book into a classic.
Most of us who were reporters then, reporting on the Bhopal gas tragedy and the struggle, or were part-time activists. We can recognise many of the characters in the book. What is significant, however, is the urban, middle class backdrop of Delhi in the struggle, with a subtle, fascinating and beautiful feminist screenplay which runs along the aesthetic narrative, in the form of female protagonists who are in the forefront of the political struggle. They are beautiful women, strong, independent, radical, many of them from small towns, journalists, lawyers, apolitical creatures, activists, lovers and beloveds, who are routinely breaking all norms and thresholds of patriarchy and establishment politics, turning the political into personal, and the personal into the political.
You will carry all the originalities, authenticity and search for meaning of this extraordinary women in your heart, like a counter culture of great defiance, passion, magic and beauty. They are full of contradictions, they are celebrating, they are drinking, cooking and bonding, they are adulterous, lovers and committed companions, they are political creatures, they are writers and activists, they are walking on the streets and breaking the barricades, they are the finest you can meet in terms of both radicalism and feminism in any era in any part of the world. Bhopal comes to them like a rainbow coalition, melting them, making them stronger, stoic and hard, compelling them to redefine the paradigms of their lives, shifting their prejudices and clichés, breaking old structures of patriarchy and feudalism, celebrating life in all its myriad forms and kaleidoscopes. There are men too, eccentric, insane, resilient, political workers, opportunists; but it is the assembly of independent women which turns this literary genre into an art form of magnificent feminist counter culture.
The apocalypse now of Bhopal, turns into an apocalypse in their lives too. But they are renewed and resurrected like magic and miracle, they walk solitary and in a collective, they face the cops and corrupt politicians with no fear, they fight it out inside the courts and outside, and they refuse to accept defeat. The book is gripping; every page becomes a revelation; every chapter an uplifting tale of comradeship and retreat and the will to fight.
Indeed, it is difficult to write a book, so heavily loaded with tragedy and political substance, exposing the glaring contradictions of the civil society movement in the face of the world’s biggest industrial disaster. And, yet, it is nuanced, erotic, sensuous, replete with the possibilities of liberating love and passion, as much as the quest for knowledge. It is at once a political treatise, as it is the liberation of the female form in body and spirit.
It is the women protagonists in Delhi, living in this barsati or that, drinking their share of rum or gin, kissing their lovers or refusing to surrender, who mark the beautiful and enduring rupture. A wonderful book, in the ruins of death and disaster, resurrecting both pessimism and optimism, leaving you speechless and solitary on a midnight street, with the smell of gas and smoke inside your burning eyes. And, yet, there is hope. The dawn is no longer and illusion.