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December 1984 was supposed to be happy family time. A wedding in the family meant relatives from all over would be congregating in Calcutta. Joy, mirth and unlimited fun – life couldn’t have been better. School became a distant memory as winter vacations were advanced for me!

With just a week to go for the December 9 wedding, the household was in a state of organised chaos as is wont to be in most Indian weddings with everybody running around the house to set the motion. I still recall my grandmother being a bundle of nerves – excitement, tension, joy, sadness, angst – predictable emotions when the youngest daughter in the family is tying the knot. And remember these were times when the now omni-present mobile phone hadn’t yet appeared – Sam Pitroda was yet to convince Rajiv Gandhi to unleash the telecom idea – most event coordination required human intervention. And it was also the times when news didn’t travel at the speed of sound, like it does now and the big, black, dial-a-phone was a rare commodity.

Most outstation guests were expected around the 5th or the 6th, and those who couldn’t attend had already expressed their regret via snail mail much in advance. However, my grandmother was expecting her sister-in-law from Bhopal with whom she was very close to make it for the wedding. And I, personally, was looking forward to having her around – purely for vested interest – as it ensured that no one could admonish me for even the most serious offence. And the numerous goodies that she would always get for me from coloured hair clips and rubber-bands to handmade dolls and story books…what more could a kid, all of six, ask for?

One phone call in the afternoon of December 4 changed that. And more, as we realised, although much later. The grand-aunt was never able to make it for the wedding as she had consumed the deadly methyl isocyanate gas leak from the Union Carbide plant. A vivacious and affable person, she was one of the numerous statistics among those 15,000 who were victims of the world’s greatest gas tragedy.

A pall of gloom descended upon the household. Sadness and silence now became twin partners in this wedding. I remember the elders of the house endlessly discussing the episode. Too young to participate, I only listened. And silently prayed that, by a stroke of fate, somehow she would appear (along with my goodies). But that was not to be.

Soon after, the wedding got over, without any other horrific development. And we got back to our regular lives. Warren Anderson, Union Carbide and Arjun Singh – he was the CM – became a part of the family lexicon, dominating drawing-room, dining-table conversations. Family gatherings remained sombre and quiet for a long time to come.

Over the years, my grand-aunt deteriorated. Her husband and two children ran from pillar to post seeking justice — fighting bureaucracy, lack of infrastructure and the appalling condition of healthcare (which unfortunately still persists) in the country in their pursuit. She shrunk and became a frail little thing. Immobility struck her. She had to be lifted around for the remaining part of her life. Her earlier radiant skin turned black, symbolic of the tragedy. Appetite became a foreigner for her.

And this is how she lived or died. For almost a decade-and-a-half after the tragedy struck her. I had seen her one last time in 1996 at my grandfather’s funeral. Tears swelled my eyes. Childhood visions flashed across my mind – her effervescent, radiant personality now replaced by a shrunk frame, shrivelled skin, and her being was carrying the burden of an American corporation’s lack of liability. At that moment, an idealistic, college-going girl like me also realised what dying a slow death meant.

She passed away in her sleep in 1998. For the pain that she underwent in life, a “peaceful” death was the least that Dame Fate could have given her.

P.S.: A court in Bhopal today has convicted all the eight accused. It has taken more than 25 years for the wheels of justice to set in motion. Are accountability and corporate liability only text-book fundas?


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