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Mudilapa. One of India's fifteen hundred thousand villages and probably one of the poorest in a country the size of a continent. Situated at the foot of the remote hill region of the state of Orissa, it comprised some sixty families belonging to the Adivasi community, descendants of the aboriginal tribes that had populated India over three thousand years ago before the Aryans from the north drove them back into the less fertile mountainous areas.
Although officially "protected" by the authorities, the Adivasis remained largely beyond the reach of the development programs that were trying to improve the plight of the Indian peasants. Deprived of land, the inhabitants of the region had to hire out their hands to make a living for their families. Cutting sugar cane, going down into the bauxite mines, breaking rocks along the roads-no task was too menial for those disenfranchised by the world's largest democracy.
"Goodbye wife, goodbye children, goodbye Father, Mother, parrot. May the god watch over you while I'm away!"
At the beginning of every summer, when the village lay cloaked in a leaden and blazing heat, a lean, dark-skinned, muscular little man would bid farewell to his family before setting off with his bundle on his head. Thirty-two-year-old Ratna Nadar was embarking on a strenuous journey: three days of walking to a palm grove on the shores of the Bay of Bengal. Because of the strength in his arms and legs he had been taken on by a tharagar, an agent who traveled about recruiting laborers. Work in palm groves required an unusual degree of agility and athletic strength. Men had to climb, bare-handed and without a safety harness, to the top of date palms as tall as five-story houses in order to collect the milk secreted from the heart of the tree. These acrobatic ascents earned Ratna Nadar and his companions the nickname "monkey-men." Every evening the manager of the enterprise would come and take their precious harvest and transport it to a confectioner in Bhubaneswar, the capital city of Orissa.
Ratna Nadar had never actually tasted this delicious nectar. But the four hundred rupees he earned from a season spent risking life and limb enabled him to feed the seven members of his family for several weeks. As soon as his wife Sheela had wind of his return, she would light an incense stick before the image of Jagannath, which decorated one corner of the hut, and thus gave thanks to the Lord of the Universe, a manifestation of the Hindu god Vishnu adopted by these Adivasis. Sheela was a frail but spirited woman with a ready smile. The braid down her back, her almond-shaped eyes and rosy cheeks made her look like a Chinese doll. There was nothing very surprising about that; her ancestors belonged to an aboriginal tribe, originally from Assam, in the far north of the country.
The Nadars had three children. The eldest, eight-year-old Padmini, was a delicate little girl with long dark hair tied in two braids. She had inherited Sheela's beautiful, slanting eyes and her father's determined profile. The small gold ring, which she wore, as tradition dictated, through the ala of her nose, enhanced the brightness of her face. Getting up at dawn and going to bed late, Padmini assisted her mother with all the household chores. She had helped to raise her two brothers, seven-year-old Ashu and six-year-old Gopal, two tousle-haired little rascals more inclined toward chasing lizards than fetching water from the village water hole. Ratna's parents also shared the Nadars' home: his father Prodip, whose gaunt face was traversed by a thin, gray mustache, and his mother Shunda, already wrinkled and bent.
Like tens of millions of other Indian children, Padmini and her brothers had never been anywhere near a school blackboard. The only lessons they had learned taught them how to survive in the harsh world into which the gods had ordained they should be born. And, like all the other occupants of Mudilapa, Ratna Nadar and his family were always on the lookout for any opportunity to earn the odd rupee. Each year, at the beginning of the dry season, one such opportunity arose: the time came to pick the various leaves used to make bidis, the slender Indian cigarettes with the tapered tips. For six weeks, along with most of the other villagers, Sheela, her children and their grandparents, would set off each morning at dawn for the forest of Kantaroli. There, the people would invade the undergrowth like a swarm of insects. With all the precision of robots, they would detach a leaf, place it in a canvas haversack and repeat the same process over and over again. Every hour, the pickers would stop to make up bunches of fifty leaves. If they hurried, they could generally manage to produce eighty bunches a day. Each bunch was worth thirty paisa, not quite two U.S. cents, or the price of two eggplants.
During the first days, when the picking went on at the edge of the forest, young Padmini would often manage to make as many as a hundred bunches. Her brothers Ashu and Gopal were not quite as dexterous at pinching off the leaves. But between the six of them, the children, their mother and their grandparents, they brought back nearly a hundred rupees each evening, a small fortune for a family used to surviving for a whole month on far less.
One day, word went around Mudilapa and the surrounding villages that a cigarette and match factory had recently been set up in the area, and that children were being taken on as labor. Of the hundred billion matches produced annually in India, many were still made by hand, and mostly by children, whose little fingers could manage the delicate work. This was true also for rolling bidis.
The opening of this factory created quite a stir among the inhabitants of Mudilapa. There were no lengths to which people would not go to seduce the tharagar whose job it was to recruit the workforce. Mothers rushed to the mohajan, the village usurer, and pawned their last remaining jewels. Some sold their only goat. And yet the jobs they sought for their children were harsh in the extreme.
"My truck will come by at four every morning," the tharagar announced to the parents of the children he had chosen. "Anyone who is not outside waiting for it had better look out."
"And when will our children be back?" Padmini's father gave voice to all the other parents' concern.
"Not before nightfall," the tharagar responded curtly. Sheela saw an expression of fear pass over Padmini's face. She sought at once to reassure her.
"Padmini, think what happened to your friend Banita."
Sheela was referring to the neighbors' little girl whose parents had just sold her to a blind man so they could feed their other children. There was nothing particularly unusual about the arrangement. Sometimes in the mistaken belief that their children were going to be employed as servants or in workshops, parents entrusted their daughters to pimps.
It was still pitch dark when the truck horn sounded the next morning. Padmini, Ashu and Gopal were already waiting outside, huddled together against the cold. Their mother had risen even earlier to prepare a meal for them: a handful of rice seasoned with a little dhal, two chapatis? each and a chili pepper to share, all wrapped in a banana leaf.
The truck stopped outside a long, open, tiled shed, with a baked earth wall at the back and pillars to support the roof at the front. It was not yet daybreak and kerosene lamps scarcely lit the vast building. The foreman was a thin, overbearing, bully of a man, wearing a collarless shirt and a white loincloth.
"In the darkness, his eyes seemed to blaze like the embers in our chula," Padmini would recount.
"All of you sit down along the wall," he ordered. Then he counted the children and split them into two groups, one for cigarettes, the other for matches. Padmini was separated from her brothers and sent to join the bidi group.
"Get to work!" the man in the white loincloth commanded, clapping his hands. His assistants then brought trays laden with leaves like those Padmini had picked in the forest. The oldest assistant squatted down in front of the children to show them how to roll each leaf into a little funnel, fill it with a pinch of shredded tobacco, and bind it with a red thread. Padmini had no difficulty imitating him. In no time at all she had made up a packet of bidis. "The only thing I didn't like about it was the pungent smell of the leaves," she would confide. "To get through the pile of leaves in front of us, we found it best to concentrate on the money we'd be taking home." Other workmen deposited piles of tiny sticks in front of the children assigned to making matches.
"Place them one by one in the slots of this metal support," the foreman explained. "Once it's full, turn it round and dip the ends of the sticks in this tank."
The receptacle contained molten sulfur. As soon as the tips had been dipped and lifted out again, the sulfur solidified instantly. Padmini's younger brother surveyed the steaming liquid with apprehension. "We'll burn our fingers!" he said anxiously, and loudly enough for the foreman to hear.
"You little idiot!" the man retorted. "I told you, you only immerse the end of the wooden sticks, not the whole thing. Have you never seen a match?" Gopal shook his head. But his fear of being burned was nothing compared with the real risk of being poisoned by the toxic fumes coming off the tank. It was not long before some of the children began to feel their lungs and eyes burning. Many of them passed out. The foreman and his assistants slapped their faces and doused them with buckets of water to revive them. Those who fainted again were mercilessly expelled from the factory.
"Shortly after our arrival, a second shed was built to house a work unit to make firecrackers," Padmini would recount. "My brother Ashu was assigned to it with about twenty other boys. After that I only saw him once a day, when I took him his share of the food our mother had prepared for us. The foreman would ring a bell to announce the meal break. Woe betide any of us who were not back in our places by the second bell. The boss would beat us with the stick he carried to frighten us and make us work faster and faster. Apart from that short break, we worked without interruption from the time we arrived until nightfall, when the truck would take us home again. My brothers and I were so tired we would throw ourselves onto the charpoy without anything to eat and fall asleep straightaway."
A few weeks after the opening of the firecracker unit, tragedy struck. Suddenly Padmini saw a huge flame blazing in the shed where her brother Ashu was working. An explosion ripped away the roof and wall. Boys emerged, screaming, from the cloud of smoke. They were covered in blood. Their skin was hanging off them in shreds. The foreman and his assistants were trying to put out the fire with buckets of water. Padmini rushed frantically in the direction of the blaze, shouting her brother's name. She was running about in all directions when she stumbled. As she fell, she saw a body on the ground. It was her brother. His arms had been blown off in the blast. "His eyes were open as if he were looking at me, but he wasn't moving," she would say. "Ashu was dead. Around him lay other little injured bodies. I picked myself up and went and took my other brother's hand. He had taken refuge in a corner of the match shed. I sat down beside him, held him tightly in my arms, and together we wept in silence."
One month after this accident, a uniformed official from the Orissa Department of Animal Husbandry appeared in Mudilapa. Driving a jeep equipped with a revolving light and a siren, he was the first government representative ever to visit the village. Using a loudspeaker, he summoned the villagers, who assembled around his jeep.
"I have come to bring you great news," he declared, caressing the bullhorn with fingers covered in rings. "In accordance with her policy of helping our country's most underprivileged peasants, Indira Gandhi, our prime minister, has decided to give you a present." Bemused, the man marked the astonishment clearly visible on the faces of those present. Waving a hand at random in the direction of one of them, he inquired, "You, do you have any idea what our mother might want to give you?"
Ratna Nadar, Padmini's father, hesitated. "Perhaps she wants to give us a well," he ventured.
Already, the man in uniform had turned to someone else. "And you?" "She's going to make us a proper road." "And you?" "She wants to provide us with electricity." "And you? ..."
In less than a minute, the government envoy was in a position to assess the state of poverty and neglect in the village. But he was not concerned with any of these pressing needs. Heightening the suspense with a protracted silence, at last he continued: "My friends, I've come to inform you that our beloved Indira has decided to give every family in Mudilapa a cow." "A cow?" repeated several stupefied voices.
"What are we going to feed it on?" someone asked anxiously. "Don't you worry about that," the visitor went on. "Indira Gandhi has thought of everything. Every family is to receive a plot of land on which you'll grow the fodder you need for your animal. And the government will pay you for your labors."
It was too good to be true. "The gods have visited our village," marveled Padmini's mother. She was always ready to thank heaven for the slightest blessing. "We must offer a puja at once."
The government envoy continued his speech. He spoke with all the grandiloquence of a politician coming to dispense gifts before an election. "Don't go, my friends, I haven't finished! I have an even more important piece of news for you. The government has made arrangements for each one of your cows to give you a calf from semen taken from specially selected bulls imported from Great Britain. Their sperm will be brought to you from Bombay and Poona by government vets who will themselves carry out the insemination. This program should produce a new breed in your region, capable of yielding eight times more milk than local cattle. But take note that to achieve this result, you will have to undertake never to mate your cow with a local bull." The bewilderment on the faces of the onlookers had been replaced by joy. "Never before have we had a visit from a benefactor like you," declared Ratna Nadar, sure that he was relaying the gratitude of them all.
The day the herd arrived, the women dug out their wedding saris and festival veils from the family coffers as if it were the Diwali or Dassahra? celebrations.
Excerpted from Five Past Midnight in Bhopal by Dominique Lapierre Javier Moro Copyright © 2002 by Pressinter S.A. and Sesamat Worldwide Rights S.A.. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted December 6, 2004
There is no doubt that a huge catastrophe visited the city of Bhopal, India, in the wee hours of December 3, 1984. But was the death toll 1,754 reckoned by the Indian government? The 8,000-plus claimed by ¿independent organizations¿? Or the 16,000-to-30,000 claimed by the ambulance-chasing lawyers? More than 500,000 Bhopalis suffered and continue to suffer from the effects of the toxic cloud of hydrocyanide acid, methyl isocyanite, phosgene and other deadly gasses¿eye and lung diseases, brain, muscle, joint, liver, kidney, reproductive, nervous and immune system ailments, chronic fevers, impotence, anorexia, depression, anxiety and suicide. But was Union Carbide chiefly responsible? Was it really an accident or deliberate sabotage? How liable was the government of India, which rescinded the visas of qualified American engineers, in its rush to nationalize the workforce and management? Who deactivated safety systems and postponed, then abandoned maintenance? Twenty years later, why has the Indian government still not distributed to the long-suffering survivors and the families of the victims the $470 million paid by Carbide? This enormous tragedy features a cast of thousands. Authors Lapierre and Moro try to give the massacre a human face¿for instance, Padmini, the young woman whose fairy-tale wedding ceremony was interrupted when she was struck down by the ¿geysers of death,¿ only to be rescued from a funeral pyre, about to be set alight, her eyelids quivering. An epic tragedy, well told, that leaves many questions unanswered.
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Posted June 27, 2014
Posted June 18, 2004
Posted July 7, 2004
I heard the author on NPR last year and bought the novel. It is a hard book to put down as you read of the main character and her family and the extreme poverty in India. The American company that brought so much hope to India ultimately betrayed the people in the worst possible way. You will not forget this book. An important novel.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 27, 2010
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