Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Tragedy revisited

New book explores the silent deaths of 30,000 in Bhopal, India.

Posted By on Wed, Aug 20, 2003 at 12:00 AM

After reading "Five Past Midnight in Bhopal," you may savor filling your lungs with air. Dominique Lapierre and Javier Moro's description of the mass suffocation caused by a leak at a Union Carbide pesticide plant outside of Bhopal, India, is stunning. They vividly capture how, in the midnight hour of Dec. 3, 1984, low-hanging gases silently crept from wedding parties to a railroad station to slums filled with sleeping people, killing many in their path. By the time the air cleared, up to 30,000 people were dead and 500,000 more were affected.

Although this tragedy was widely covered at the time, Lapierre and Moro personalize its devastation. Belying a great deal of spent shoe leather, the book is written in a light tone, approaching that of an allegory. With short, sharp sentences, the Bhopal disaster is told through the people the chemical plant touched: those who took pride in building the facility in 1976, those who anticipated how its products would prevent India's crops from being eaten up by insects, those who saw the plant as bringing abundant incomes, those who foresaw the dangers the plant held after it was written off as a money-loser by Union Carbide, and those whose families were annihilated by its deadly gases.

At times the juxtaposition between the light writing style and the severity of the conditions it describes — before and after the tragedy — are striking. "For Ganga Ram, the opportunity to don one of Carbide's coveralls would have to remain a dream," the authors write of the failed attempt of one man to work at the plant, rejected because he once had leprosy.

Lapierre and Moro thoroughly explain how the deadly chemicals escaped their tank, which they trace to untrained staff and lax, on-the-cheap safety procedures. However, the two make only passing mention of the string of subsequent botched lawsuits and prosecutions of Union Carbide executives. Nor do they explore the dangers of installing large, potentially harmful industrial plants that, however much benefit they may bring, require an unfeasible level of upkeep. Such speculations are left to readers.

What makes the book powerful is how the writers cram in as many of victims' stories as possible. But capturing everybody's experiences would be impossible, and inevitably individual recounts are overtaken by the descriptions of how the dead overwhelmed the streets, hospitals and graveyards. In the end, that's where "Five Past Midnight in Bhopal" succeeds, showing how the impact of this tragedy was so large that, despite the authors' best attempts, its victims still fade into anonymity.

Joab Jackson writes for City Paper, where this review first appeared. Send comments to


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