Guest post by KIRAN SHAHEEN
Impeachment by Anjali Deshpande, published by Hachette India, is a well-told fictional narrative skilfully woven around the aftermath of the shameful disaster commonly known as the Bhopal Gas Tragedy.
The novel is dedicated to Dr Heeresh Chandra, a name we have seldom heard in the 28 years since the tragedy. Who is this doctor to whom the book is dedicated? The author, in a conversation says that for her, this doctor of the dead is not simply unsung but the only true hero of Bhopal.
While reading Impeachment it is difficult to decide whether it is history claiming to be fiction or fiction masquerading as history. The novel recounts actual incidents that still haunt us, intertwined with the fictional private lives of activists that are also the arena of intense gender and caste politics.
The story opens four years after the gas leak in the wake of the controversial Settlement between Carbide and the Government of India. The liberal intelligentsia, incensed by this sell off, decides to fight back. The period’s furious protest demonstrations, angry slogans, the uninhibited criticism of Supreme Court Justices, the abuses heaped on the establishment and the passionate debates on the value of Indian lives have been captured vividly in the novel.
The drama of the lives of several activists plays out in this explosive backdrop. If you are looking for a conventional single protagonist you will be disappointed. The collective of a group of activists is the real protagonist of this novel. The group has several strong, unconventional professional women and men trying to carve out spaces for themselves in a tradition bound society and pushing against its boundaries.
Avidha, one of the main characters, is a rebel inside and a liberal outside through whose confusion we arrive at the sad conclusion of the tale. She dares to ask uncomfortable questions that irk the brahminical mindset of the political class. Behind her upfront public facade is an embarrassed, almost shamefaced, creature hopelessly in love with a married man who is looking for a way to be rid of her.
While she is driven to acknowledging the truth of this relationship the massive challenge of the Bhopal Settlement confronts her at a deeper and intellectual level. A connection between her personal and professional life begins to evolve. It becomes increasingly difficult for her to distinguish between her life as an ‘impartial’ journalist and a partisan activist.
All the main characters are similarly engaged in intense struggles in their personal lives. The extremely angry Mukta is frustrated by the need to hide her lesbian relationship even in this highly liberal set. She struggles to convince her partner Vineeta that alternate sexuality is not only about physicality but about developing democratic structures and rescuing their own relationship from the conventional family structure.
Impeachment, is populated by activists of all shades and colours. There are lawyers, there are judges, there are politicians, there are academicians sitting in their comfortable study rooms passing judgements, there are men in white collars and there are women in black, white and grey shades.
Each of them see Bhopal through their own prism. For social professionals it is an opportunity in disguise, for activists it is an eye opener, for middle class intellectuals it is the storm in a cup of tea which constantly keeps them busy exhibiting their social responsibility. And for the courts it is a date with no deadline, while the number of living dead increases day by day.
One can easily relate the story with today’s harsh realities of Vedanta, What I like most about the book is the strength and vulnerability interwoven in the characters that makes them very real. The author has not used the allegorical route to avoid unpleasant reactions of friends and critics. The actual names of the locations and the references to actual political and judicial events make it more reliable in terms of contemporary connections. Though the story revolves around mid eighties’ Supreme Court judgement and the dubious role of NGOs in the whole justice seeking process, when one hardly knew how the LPG (Liberalisation, Privatisation and Globalisation) politics was preparing to pounce upon developing countries. Jaita Pur Nuclear plant, Koodankulam and many more struggles which have entered the public discourse and resistance. It is not surprising that in Koodankulam more than 700 activists have been booked under sedition charges for opposing the nuclear plant like the activists in the Bhopal struggle.
As one of the survivors says in the novel, ‘They killed us and you people are arguing whether we should have stoned their building. Do you people never get angry?… The courts will let go of carbide and out us in jail…’
See the connection. Similarly Avidha, the protagonist, addressing a crowd, gathered to watch a street play on the judicial betrayal of Bhopal says, ‘ Have you ever sprayed insecticide on insects at home? Seen them run helter-skelter and choke to death in the open air? That is how people died, people of India, our own people. They died like insects, choking in open air, breathing in poison, starved of oxygen.
And the poison turned slowly into cyanide inside their blood. It killed them slowly…It happened because Carbide had come here to make and sell pesticides. It began to make losses. You know what they did when that happened? They simply cut down on safety measures. To save some money. They knew that they had lethal poisons in their tanks. But they did not store it safely. Their gauges and valves and who knows what else malfunctioned. They said no problems. What will happen? Only some poor Indians will die. Who cares?’
Sounds similar to those of today’s death beds? Who cares? The tone and temper of Deshpande’s language is not alien to us, it emerges from the experience of our day to day lives and that is the strength of a writer.
The author takes a deep, critical look at the role of NGOs, with the understanding of a political activist. From the 1970s social change in India has been ‘NGOised’ and people have begun accepting NGOs as the harbinger of change. An examination of their role in this case serves to explode the myth. Deshpande exposes how all the tools of the system work in tandem while the NGOs only seem to act as safety valves that let out steam when the pressure of injustice and oppression gets too high.
Hally, a dalit activist who is caught in the machinations of a funded NGO, trying to keep a diverse group together as part of his job, has to eventually face the question that has today become more relevant than it was in the eighties: can funded NGOs truly aid the cause of justice?
Just as the doctor of the dead says that he has to look into the ashes of the tank from which the gas leaked to discover evidence, Anjali Deshpande sifts through the ashes of the 1989 struggle against the Settlement to discover culpability. That Carbide is guilty is in no doubt, that the Government of India may have helped Carbide slip off the noose from its well fed neck may be a matter of debate among a few, but that the gas disaster provoked widespread revulsion and anger among the people is unquestioned. Why then did the struggle fail to get justice? A very timely question in these days when ‘spontaneous’ movements are in high fashion among the chatterati.
There are very few fictional works that connect history so directly with the lives of fictional characters. Anjali Deshpande gets into the daily routine of activism that has yet to be seen in any novel. Her deep understanding of the mutual antipathy of characters, the turf war between different sections in the group makes it clear that she knows what she is writing about. However, she refuses to let it deteriorate into petty squabbles and keeps the differences and the debates at an ideological level preventing it from becoming juicy gossip. Deshpande has been a long time journalist and has lived in Bhopal for a brief period. She has been a keen observer of contemporary political processes making her more reliable story teller. Naturally, you wonder whether it is an autobiographical novel. And it well may be in some parts though the author stoutly denies it.
Deshpande has to be congratulated for daring to write about a subject and characters that are still part of living memory. Although many will take a shot at guessing who the characters portrayed in the book are, it is important to remember that even if some of them are patterned on real life persons, the characters are essentially fictional.
The author admits that the small but crucial role of the ‘doctor of the dead’ in her novel is based on the role of Dr Heeresh Chandra who held classes for activists after the tragedy to explain the medical science involved in the case. She recalls how bitter he grew after he was ruthlessly reviled by the very activists whom he trusted to take on Carbide. This part in the novel could have done with some more details. This peep into the role of a dissident medical expert makes you wish she had given us more details about his relationship with the activists but that part has been left to our imagination.
The cover is superbly designed by Vani Subramanian bringing together elements of abstract art and activist angst.
The book could have benefitted from some tight editing as the writer tends to sometimes over explain the thoughts and motives of her characters. The details of the case also could have been compressed to make for easier reading. But these are minor faults given the scale of this amazing first novel and the multiple issues it brilliantly explores.
Kiran Shaheen is a journalist and civil rights activist