Bhopal survivor recounts ordeal

One woman recalls the early hours of December 3, 1984 when the gas leak from a pesticide factory killed thousands.

It’s one of those stories that’s been told so many times but one that’s still hard to tell.

Walking around a purpose-built community for women widowed by the 1984 Union Carbide gas leak, the biggest challenge I had was focusing on just one story. Every woman I met had a compelling tale of years filled with despair, poor health and frustrations. Every woman I spoke to has struggled to raise a family, care for herself, and simply survive for the past 30 years.

In the end I sat down with 75-year-old Kalpura Bai, a slow-moving, mild-mannered grandmother. Her laboured style of conversation, I quickly found out, is a result of the chronic breathing problems she has suffered since inhaling poisonous gas all those years ago. The seriousness of her health problems was summed up by her description of her most recent operation: “Doctors took a vein from my leg and put it in my chest,” she told me. 

Kalpura described how in the early hours of December 3 1984, she ran barefoot from her home, the burning sensation she felt in her throat and in her eyes as she sought refuge from the poisonous gas, and the scenes of carnage and horror that are etched in her memory.

Kalpura says she’ll never forget the sight of dead women and children piled up in the alleyways of her neighbourhood, the mass exodus of people from Bhopal in the aftermath of the accident, and the horror that still remains.

In communities like the one Kalpura calls home, that horror is everywhere. It’s etched on the faces of the marginalised women who descended on this sparse enclave all those years ago. It manifests in the decaying infrastructure of their neighbourhood, and adds a subtle tremor to their voices as they speak of the tragedy they’ve lived through, and the desperation with which they are trying to build better lives for their children: Away from here, away from death and destruction, and away from the story of the pesticide plant that ruined their lives and those of so many others.

Kalpura Bai, 75, widowed in the 1984 gas leak in Bhopal, shows her pension statement from 2012, with earnings of less than $3 a month. [Neha Tara Mehta/Al Jazeera]

[Camera and Editing by Maurya Gautam]