I was at work in Indore 200 km away when Bhopal happened. There was a rumour that there had been a gas explosion the night before. I headed back. As we got closer, we saw buses and trucks, overflowing with people, leaving town. Our Ambassador seemed like the only vehicle heading in. There was bedlam at Hamidia Hospital, Bhopal’s main medical centre. Bodies shrouded in white sheets lay in row upon organised row outside. People were wailing. Others were being carried in.
I drove through the slums near Union Carbide. Human death on a mass scale is invariably accompanied by massive physical destruction of the city but Bhopal was intact. It was eerie. It was hard to remain unmoved by the bodies, concentrate on finding out what had happened and why.
I was just 28 and had to work alone because everyone else was busy with the forthcoming general elections. Thankfully India Today, for which I worked, was then a fortnightly and my deadline was still a week away.
I began investigations but made slow progress because the city was in a daze. And then I got the break of a lifetime, an anonymous call. A tearful male voice told me he’d tell me what had happened at Carbide. Could he trust me not to be pressured by the state government (which, people somehow assumed was complicit)?
He landed at my office-cum-residence with three friends and rambled on unintelligibly about chemicals and procedures. He was a supervisor at Carbide and, as I suspected, hadn’t given me his correct name. I told him we needed to go over the story again slowly. He said he was hungry and that they’d be back soon. I agreed though I was terrified to let him out of my sight. They did return, though, and he told me the whole story about human lapses and corporate carelessness.
But I needed to double-check. Through a friend, I met a mid-level Carbide engineer but he wouldn’t help. In desperation, I tried a ploy that had worked before. While people don’t like being the ‘primary source’, they have no compunctions about confirming someone else’s story. I ran the engineer through what I knew and he got involved. I gradually felt more confident of my facts.
Next, I needed the dope for a detailed illustration, showing how things had gone wrong. I found a local studio that was Carbide’s official photographer. I bought more than a hundred photographs of the Carbide premises from every conceivable angle. I also plotted the layout of the plant on a sheet. Then, at the back of every picture I noted the angle from which a particular piece of equipment had been photographed.
Meanwhile, I had located a former safety officer of Carbide who now worked in Delhi. I flew down and ran him through what I had. He said it sounded technically plausible. And when our artist put together an illustration based on the photographs and layout sheet, the safety officer was amazed by its accuracy.
We’d run out of time to write a complicated cover story. As I frenziedly hammered out the different bits, my editor Suman Dubey wove them beautifully into a readable whole. When the issue appeared, the dailies still hadn’t caught up with us.
I was transferred out of Bhopal sometime later and, over time, lost track of the story. I moved out of news journalism in 1989 to set up a magazine and, later, to become an internet-based entrepreneur. But what I saw as a news reporter has influenced my outlook towards life. When I hear people grumble about luck, I think to myself that they often don’t know what they are talking about. Bad luck to me is being killed for your religion when you don’t even feel strongly about it. Or dying in your sleep, clawing at your throat, because a chemical gas you had never heard of seeped through under your door. In the old days, it may have been an invading army or a plague perhaps. The end result was always the same.
Leading a normal life, doing normal things, that’s the good luck we don’t even think about.
(The author is the founder-director of afaqs!, an advertising, media and marketing website.)