Her faith in the medical profession was shaken as she watched the junior doctors grapple with the symptoms the victims presented without a coherent treatment plan and the seniors got down to contesting diagnosis. She had watched with horror the bitter fight that broke out in the medical community over diagnosis and the denigration of the head of the forensic department who had first handed in his verdict on the cause of death. ‘The dead bodies have cherry coloured blood. People are dying of cyanide poisoning,’ he had said categorically and had immediately prescribed the antidote to it, injections of Sodium Thiosulphate. The dominant faction in the hospital had denied the diagnosis.
‘He is a doctor of the dead. He has no business diagnosing and recommending treatment. It is our job to diagnose, his job is only to confirm or refute our diagnosis,’ the head of the medicine department had told her. Then he had gone on to assert that there was no cyanide in the victims’ system, sections of their alveoli had burnt out, their oxygen intake had gone down and people died because they already had TB or were otherwise sick.
‘Sad,’ he said, ‘malnutrition kills a lot of people. It wasn’t the gas. That may have hastened their demise but it was not the main culprit’.
The forensic scientist had told her calmly, ‘The dead never tell lies. The dead talk to me. They told me what they died of. They died of cyanide poisoning. Let these agents of Carbide disprove the evidence.’
Even some of her colleagues had begun lambasting the forensic scientist as a mad man and ascribed motives of self aggrandisement to him ignoring the heroic efforts he made to gather and preserve the evidence. He had insisted on terming the gas leak an ‘aerosol disaster’ refusing to accept that Methyl Iso Cyanate was the only gas that had leaked from the factory. ‘Do you know, these great professors of our IIT could not even identify some of the compounds that I had isolated in the tissues of the dead,’ he had told her before throwing her out of his chamber one evening when she tried to ask him how everybody else could be wrong. He had withdrawn into a stubborn silence after that refusing to trust anyone.
She had watched the ruthless refusal of the antidote to cyanide poisoning in government run hospitals and had been perplexed about the stance the government adopted. She had not understood how and why denial of the antidote to cyanide poisoning was in the interest of the government. She had laid the blame, then, at the door of the politicians’ lack of understanding of the medical issues. Her ears burned to think of the many mistakes she had committed in her reporting, the many leads she had not followed because they had seemed insignificant to her then. It was only later that Nirmala had told her that the effectivity of the antidote could be proof of cyanide poisoning and the industry and the government must have been keen to prevent the accumulation of such evidence.
She herself did not remember now when the press veered round to the consensus that only MIC had leaked out of the factory tank forgetting there were other gases, forgetting that in the first few days they had always said that a mix of gases had leaked some of which remained unidentified. She had herself begun addressing it as a MIC disaster. Was it for the sake of convenience, the urge to simplify leading inevitably to simplistic descriptions and finally to acceptance of that reductionist explanation? She now wondered if they were gently edged into accepting this simplified version by sarkari scientists and babus who constantly talked about the ‘killer MIC gas’? Nirmala had been very angry with her for succumbing to it.
‘In all this confusion Carbide probably spoke the truth only once when it claimed that MIC does not kill,’ she told Avidha. ‘That was an indication that there was something else that leaked, something else that killed.’
Avidha had assumed that Carbide was lying.
The real disaster, she thought now, was the way the aftermath had been handled. The only living evidence of the gas leak, the people who had survived it, had been destroyed systematically. Their lives made to depend on charity. Their right to rehabilitation never properly recognised, planned or implemented. She had seen local leaders of political parties corner contracts to supply doles siphoning off large parts of the rations. Even the communists had fallen prey to philanthropy and ran charities fighting only for proper distribution of the full amount of rations and cash to the victims, incompetent to examine the politics behind it. Eventually even the right of survivors to take the culprit to court had been taken away from them with the press giving a standing ovation to the government for agreeing to become the representative of the resourceless.
She had gradually begun to realise that no matter which party came to power the people would remain unprotected and disempowered and the powerful culprits would remain immune. Before the catastrophe two parties had come to rule the centre and the state had seen an alliance of several small parties elected to rule but it had made no difference to the way industry functioned. The sword of the state power was never raised in favour of the weak and the resource less, only against them.
Avidha still could not understand how from being an essential part of the economy industry had come to be viewed as a blessing and industrialists came to be vested with divine rights. Employing people was never seen as necessity of industry but a favour done to them by kind hearted investors.
It was now becoming clear to her that even in those initial days the political instincts of the leaders were alive. At payback time they had proved their loyalty. The foundations of the Settlement had been carefully laid in the way they had obliterated the evidence of culpability and she now felt acutely guilty for not having been able to understand and question it fully. It required too much time and she was interested in too many issues.
She had told Nirmala straight, ‘Honestly, I don’t see myself doing only this. I don’t feel up to it.’
‘How does honesty matter to the world?’ Nirmala had asked her.
Avidha had to admit it did not make much difference. That could be the reason why things never seemed to change. Even the faces in the several campaigns did not change. There were just those five hundred of them, growing older, more cynical, less optimistic, a little tired, who led and populated all the campaigns and protests. There seemed to be something missing in their campaign for people at large remained as apathetic as ever.
‘P, I am pregnant. Thought I would let you know. A’.
She put it in an envelope and went to his office after having called to check that he was in. She had to wait two days before he was available. She went in, placed the envelope on his table, and told him, ‘I only want you to read this. I am leaving.’ She turned and left.
Prashant opened the envelope wearily. ‘More drama’, he thought. ‘More of that ‘you don’t do this for me’ type of letter again’, as he slid the sheet out of it.
He stared down at the two sentences not believing them.
I don’t know how many people she is going to bed with,’ was his first thought and he immediately felt ashamed. He knew had there been another she would not be so obsessed with him. She would not have told him about her condition had he not made her pregnant. A heavy weight of responsibility descended on his brain. In a flash the consequences dawned. If she got to know his wife would end the marriage. What would his son have to say about it? He was old enough to understand such things. He immediately dialled Avidha’s number. She was obviously not in having left his office only minutes earlier. He called again late in the afternoon then again in the evening, staying back in the office. He finally got her on his fourth attempt. He had to meet her. He had to. If possible now. At this moment.
Avidha felt the power she had acquired with her pregnancy. She made an excuse to not meet him that day. ‘Let him stew for a while,’ she said to herself, ‘like I did’. He called immediately after she put down the receiver. He had to meet her. Had she forgotten? He was leaving for England in four days. They must discuss this.
‘Have you forgotten that I have work to do? I can’t leave the office before eight,’ she told him.
‘I will pick you up at eight then,’ he said.
She met him outside the Rail Bhawan a full twenty minutes after eight. He was waiting for her when she got there. ‘My fortune changes,’ she thought, ‘Too late for me to enjoy it.’
He took her to the restaurant in the Lodi Garden that was secluded enough for them to have a private conversation. He looked concerned and very worried.
‘I am sorry for what happened,’ he told her.
Avidha suddenly felt that she had misunderstood him all along. He was not such a selfish guy after all.
‘This will be a major problem,’ he told her.
‘For you?’ she asked.
He knew enough to sidestep that. He also did not wish to create any problems for her. He was actually concerned as much for her as for himself. He did not want to feel responsible for destroying her future. She was young. She could find someone else. Her whole future was at stake here and he knew she was foolish enough to stake it first and think about it later.
‘For you. as well.’ he began to talk to her about the loss of face she would suffer. ‘You must get rid of this. Okay?’ he told her.
‘You are worried that I may tell your wife,’ she asked clutching at her abdomen. ‘That if this comes out it will destroy your marriage. Are you not?’ she asked him.
‘Yes I am.’ He told her. ‘I would be lying to you if I said no. but believe me I am more worried about you. It does not reflect so much on men as it does on women. It will create more problems for you. Won’t it?’
He was right of course.
She hung her head and said she needed time to think.
‘What do you need to think about?’ he asked annoyed. Was she going to have a child only to exercise some power on him? He did not know how close he was to the truth. For the first time Avidha had discovered he would come running to meet her at midnight, if necessary, only because of her condition. She did not know whether to thank that bundle of cells inside her for bringing him to her or to hate it for having more power than her.
‘I don’t know if I want to kill the child,’ she said deliberately using the word ‘kill’. He looked astonished. He said she was being stupid. ‘It is not as if we planned this. We did not. So let us please put this behind us,’ he said to her. ‘Avi, if you are worried about the money I can help you. I can. I mean you can go to a private facility too. Please don’t worry about the money. Let me handle that part at least. That is the least I can do.’
He wanted to ask for details. When did she discover it? Why did she not tell him? He did not ask. He could work out the maths. There was very little time for her to make the decision. She must do it fast. ‘Be sensible,’ he told her.
He dropped her close to her house looking as sick with worry as he was when he met her. ‘Let me know by tomorrow. I will worry,’ he told her.
‘I may take more time to decide,’ she said with an imperceptible smile.
He got angry. Did she not know he was going away?
‘Why should your convenience decide everything in my life?’ she asked flaring up.
He calmed down. ‘Okay take your time,’ he said. ‘How much time do you have to get this done legally?’
Even if it was a little beyond the legally stipulated time he could help. No problems. He was quite well placed for that. In fact placed in the right ministry. ‘I will be away for two weeks,’ he told her. Something he had not told her the day she asked him.
She was feeling emotionally exhausted. She had no energy to think.
‘Give me your address. I will write to you’, she said.
He could not do that. So he was not going on his own. ‘So much for being worried about me,’ she thought.
‘The letter may reach there after I have left. I am there only for two weeks,’ he told her. ‘I will call you.’
He did. Twice in one week. In the office. Around seven when she was sure to be in. She told him she had yet to make her decision. She was thinking about it.
‘Don’t keep thinking till it is too late’, he told her the first time. ‘I know you feel bad about it but think how bad it will be for the baby.’
The second time he grew annoyed. ‘Why are you being so stubborn?’ he asked her. ‘If you decide not to abort just remember I will have nothing to do with it. Nothing. You are on your own there.’
‘Suit yourself’, she told him. ‘I dare say you are quite used to doing it.’
She put down the receiver and felt empty of all feeling. She sat at her desk feeling like an outsider watching herself, devoid of thought and emotion. He had finally set her free with those uncompromising words of his, ‘I have nothing to do with it’.
With that disownment he had made the unborn child inside her, hers alone. Now it was up to her to decide whether it had a future or not. Till now it was only a symptom, a constant nausea, for her and perhaps a weapon to hold against Prashant, till now it was something that was linked to him, however tenuous that link was. Today he had severed that link.
She was curiously no longer distressed. Her brain began to function as if the cells had awoken after a coma. There was no hurry to decide anything, her brain told her. She knew she would sleep very well tonight.
She pulled out a cigarette from her pack and walked out. Then breaking the cigarette into two she threw it down from the second floor leaning over the veranda and opening the door to Suguna’s office peeped in, calling out to her. Suguna came out.
She told her what had happened smiling, word for word, standing near the stairs outside her office.
‘His concern for me is conditional, you do what I expect you to do or it is good bye. That is his attitude,’ Avidha said to her.
Suguna was struck by the change in her demeanour. ‘Avi, does it not hurt you?’
‘I am beyond hurt now. He has lost the power to hurt me. Suguna, I am so happy today. I belong to myself again,’ she said.
Suguna did not understand what she said but she hugged her. Her friend was back.
He did not call again.