I was ten years old when my father, who was then a Major in the Indian Army, was posted in Bhopal, India. It was 1984 and the last half of the year showed me that the world was divided in the name of religion and made me come to terms with the finality of death.
Two incidents that took place in 1984 will forever be embossed in my memory: the death of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and the Bhopal Gas Tragedy.
When Indira Gandhi died, for the first time I was faced with death. Most of my grandparents had all passed away before I had been born; only my paternal grandmother was alive. No one who was close to me had died and when Mrs. Gandhi passed away, I felt like someone I knew had gone away. It had nothing to do with politics, after all, what does a nine year old know about such matters? My devastation arose from losing someone who had been a constant in my little life. I distinctly remember watching her funeral and throughout the ceremony I wished and hoped that they had made a mistake and she was actually alive.
In the aftermath of her death, the country went into mourning and chaos. The ensuing riots didn’t leave anyone unaffected. That was the first time I came face to face with the idea of a war between religions. What had seemed inconceivable to me–to fight in the name of religion–was happening and I struggled with trying to understand this. After all, my entire life, I had played and studied with children of all religions, caste and gender. Every day I pledged my allegiance to my country at the school morning assembly and vowed that I would not discriminate in the name of religion.
Even before I could recover from Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination, the night of December 3, 1984 brought with it more carnage and tragedy. We were having our half-yearly exams and I remember desperately memorizing something for a Sanskrit exam in the school bus. When I heard that there had been an explosion in the railway station and that all doctors (this came from children whose fathers were doctors in the army) had been called away in the middle of the night, I was relieved. There probably wouldn’t be an exam. We could go back home. It was days before I understood what had happened and how lucky we had all been.
The Army Center where we lived was just a few kilometers away from the Union Carbide plant. It was the wind, blowing in another direction that saved our lives.
For years I wanted to tell the story of that year, to convey what had happened without losing the small picture. I wanted to tell the story of people who were affected by what happened, how the human spirit is strong and no matter what is thrown our way, we survive.
A Breath of Fresh Air came to me years later when I was living in Utah, thousands of miles away in time and geography. I already knew who Anjali was, had known for several years but I didn’t know who would tell her story or what her story would be. Slowly, it unraveled and I was caught up in her life and the story I wanted to tell found a voice.