Thursday, November 29, 2001

poison in the night

By Shailaja Neelakantan
(This book review appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in November 2001).

It was Five Minutes Past Midnight in Bhopal, By Dominique LaPierre and Javier Moro. Full Circle, 250 rupees ($5.20)

AT FIVE PAST MIDNIGHT in Bhopal, India, on December 2, 1984, a Union Carbide plant leaked a noxious chemical into the winter air. The wind, blowing from the north, swept deadly methyl isocyanate across the slums of the city, killing between 20,000 and 30,000 people and poisoning as many as 500,000. It was the world's worst industrial disaster, and in much of the world it has already been forgotten.

Carbide said it was sabotage. But it was obvious that poor safety conditions and dangerous cost-cutting measures led to the tragedy at the plant the company had deemed "as inoffensive as a chocolate factory." Carbide never apologized.

The U.S. has yet to extradite to India Carbide's then chairman Warren Anderson. Meanwhile, the company paid a measly $470 million in compensation, on the condition the Indian government press no further legal charges, and very little of that money reached the victims. Seventeen years later, women still give birth to diseased and deformed babies and 160,000 people are still awaiting treatment.

It was Five Minutes Past Midnight in Bhopal, written by Frenchman Dominique LaPierre and Spaniard Javier Moro, uses novelistic and journalistic techniques to tell the story of the tragedy through the experiences of a young girl, Padmini and her family, who lived in Bhopal at the time.

The book opens in the eastern state of Orissa where black aphid insects have devastated the crop on a small piece of land owned by Padmini's family. This misfortune, the authors say, was just one tiny episode in a tragedy affecting the entire world. The black aphids were among 850,000 varieties of insects that had been devastating crops for centuries.

For decades, companies and laboratories around the world had been looking for the perfect pesticide that would exterminate these insects. The authors say that scientists realized in the mid-1960s that only the chemical industry could come up with an effective pesticide, and this is where Union Carbide makes its entrance in the book. Carbide played a major role in the two world wars, was a huge global presence and with 14 factories in India was a well-known name to millions of Indians as well.

LaPierre and Moro alternate between accounts of Carbide's growing involvement in the pesticide industry and the progression of Padmini's life. Her family, not knowing what lies ahead, moves to Bhopal after the crops are destroyed. They become part of the itinerant labour force that is building a railway line there, and live in Bhopal for many years. It is on the night of Padmini's wedding that the deadly gas leak occurs. She's half blinded and falls unconscious in a stampede and is mistaken for dead. As she's about to be cremated a volunteer notices Padmini's hand moving and she is saved. But her father perishes.

The authors have talked to a variety of people, including a local journalist, Rajkumar Keswani, whose painstaking and prescient reports of security breaches in the Carbide plant went largely ignored. Keswani managed to obtain a copy of a 1982 report on the Bhopal plant that itemized roughly a hundred breaches of operational and safety regulations

LaPierre and Moro have tracked down interesting sources, but unfortunately, the novelistic turns the book takes are not that successful. "Novelizing" the tragedy could have exposed its human dimensions powerfully, but here melodrama and orientalism glamorize the victims.

The incongruous cover art -- a photo of a beaming, bejewelled girl -- betrays the authors' eye for the exotic. The book is packed with orientalist descriptions, purple prose and unfortunate metaphors. The authors never fail to refer to their characters as Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or Christian. There are long non sequiturs about beggars, pimps and lepers. And completely egregious details of decadent soirees held by Bhopal's former royalty.

It is hardly surprising then that the book has become a runaway bestseller in Europe. Oliver Stone is planning to film the novel, with Penelope Cruz -- of all people -- playing Padmini. This is all familiar terrain for LaPierre, whose City of Joy, also set in India in Calcutta, was made into a maudlin film starring Patrick Swayze.

Meanwhile, no court of law ever passed judgment on Union Carbide. The book quotes a Carbide defence lawyer who argued that an American court was not competent to assess the value of a human life in the Third World: "How can one determine the damage inflicted on people who live in shacks?"

If nothing else, at least It was Five Past Midnight in Bhopal brings the tragedy to centre stage again. Bhopal should not be forgotten.