BY TERRY ALLAN, AUGUST 10, 2006
I first met Sunil in early 1988, three years after the gas disaster. I was with a friend and we were trying to find an activist named Sathyu who lived in JP Nagar. We started asking around and this gang of young boys appeared and offered to get him for us. Sunil was one of the gang. He must have been about 15 at the time. Later when we met Sathyu we heard that Sunil had lost most of his family and was bringing up his younger sister and baby brother, who had also survived, on his own. Sunil was hanging around while we talked. He was curious but shy, listening and interjecting bits to fill in the stories that Sathyu was telling us about the Bhopalis’ struggles to get compensation and health care from Union Carbide. These were the years before the sell-out settlement was reached, when the citizens were trying to set up their own health clinics only to have them raided and destroyed by the government. Sunil was there, on the front lines. He laid the symbolic foundation stone of the first People’s Clinic (it was made of poles, thatch, and scrap materials) on the grounds of the abandoned factory. He was marching in protests, organizing, and trying to scratch up enough to sustain himself, his brother and sister. When you lose everything, you grow up fast, but in so many ways Sunil was still a child. Sathyu worried about Sunil and kept a close watch on him. He often talked about killing himself and fell into deep depressions.
Sunil with torch leads the march at an anniversary commemoration
My heart went out to Sunil that day. His eyes revealed his kind heart and open soul. I wanted to hug him tightly like a big sister, but he was too shy.
I visited Bhopal many years later in 1999. I met Sunil again. Now a grown young man, Sunil had struggled with his mental health and fits of depression. He couldn’t hold down a job, but was active doing various things for the fledgling Sambhavna Clinic. He had attempted suicide a number of times. Sathyu tried to find help for him, but it wasn’t easy. The government never recognized mental health problems as one of the effects of the gas disaster, so there was no counseling or psychiatric help available. During especially difficult times Sunil lived with Sathyu, who kept him close and involved and loved him like a big brother.
Sunil carries the fight “Against Corporate Crime and Toxic Terror
In 2002, I returned to Bhopal again to stay for three years. I was helping Sambhavna set up a garden to grow herbs for its Ayurvedic medicines. Sunil was as sweet and shy as ever, proud of small accomplishments, and often made fun of himself. Sambhavna had affiliated with a psychiatrist and Sunil was under care for paranoid schizophrenia. The drugs made him spacey, and sometimes he would stop taking them and fall into a deep depression. After one such bout we convinced him to come out of hiding and join the garden crew. He helped us in the garden for a good three months and seemed to improve quite a bit. He enjoyed the companionship, but could also work off by himself when he was feeling overwhelmed. He always hummed a tuneless song, to quiet the voices in his head, and sighed “oohh Ma”. He chewed betel nut and tobacco constantly, and would proudly display the brown mouth lesions that arose from this heavy habit. He often joked that he was now immune to any chemical poisons or toxins the world could throw at him. A year later, after an attempt to kill himself by eating rat poison, he commented that “Rat poison tastes sweet”.
Sunil working in the Sambhavna garden
Most days withdrawn, Sunil would suddenly light up, eager to tell his story to a journalist or writer. He always had the most deeply insightful things to say about the whole Bhopal struggle, and the daily lives of survivors. But it might take days for him to recover from an interview, from the memories. And then he would worry self-consciously about what would be written about him.
If Sunil was careless for himself, he was full of love for his friends and small family. He loved playing with young children, and had an idea that he wanted to raise puppies. He was immensely proud of his younger brother Sanjay, who has grown up into a fine young man and is doing very well in his studies. And his sister is married and living in Lucknow with her young family. Perhaps he felt that his responsibilities were fulfilled.
Sunil, you were the thread that tied me to Bhopal all of these years. Despite your discomfort, I hugged you as often as I could these past three years, and was rewarded with your shy smile and embarrassed blush. You survived the disaster and the poisons, but you couldn’t survive yourself. Oh little brother! now I need to hug you and cry on your shoulder, for all of us. I will love you forever and never forget you. Oh little brother, I hope you have finally found your peace. Oh little brother.