22 May 2012

Impeachment by Anjali Deshpande

Easy to read; hard to come to terms with
Sometimes books transport their readers to a time they once knew, and the feeling of a familiar territory overwhelms, becoming even stronger than the plot or style. I felt that way when I read Day Scholar by Siddharth Chowdhury and A Pack of Lies by Urmilla Deshpande, and this book did the same to me too. These books were about places and people I had lived among! I didn’t really want to go back there or anything – but they filled me with nostalgia for a time long gone – like looking through an old family album.
Impeachment is set four years after the event best described as “the Bhopal gas tragedy”. There is a lot of information here about this infamous tragedy; all the complications and ramifications and the terrible deadlock that ensued. It forms an elegant showcase of the sort of mess a third world but wannabe country could get itself into: a country in which industry is somehow viewed as a blessing and industrialists are vested with divine rights. (Employing people is not a necessity of industry but a favour done to them by kindhearted investors.) And here is a government that is part owner of the factory that went amuck – and who disparages its own experts by bowing to the versions of Western scientists (and looking away red-faced when those white scientists confirmed what some Indian doctors had said the day after the leak.)
And in the end, who should be impeached? The politicians and officials whom Carbide financed, who went shopping with their wives in New York at company expense? The inspectors who gave a clean chit to faulty gauges and malfunctioning meters they found, in exchange for hefty fees? The doctors who floated theories that people did not die of the gas, they died because they were already ill and dying, and who was going to miss them anyway?
So this is an important book because it forms a ready-reckoner of a very important but never resolved historical event. But though it is about a serious issue and explores it in painstaking detail, it is also good-quality entertainment. The characters are lifelike and very true to their time: sincere and well-qualified professionals and socially-concerned citizens – but with the level of awareness prevalent then. They participate in events and get embroiled in emotional situations that – and even though these, too are socially relevant and in particular feminist issues which create awareness – keep your interest up all the way. Consider this:
Dear old daddy! She felt like hugging him. He would not even mention the word abortion. He only wanted to be rid of the proof of her actions. Was it her mother’s belated idea of saving the family from disgrace? If there is no proof does that mean the act had not been performed? What hurt him more? The fact that she had slept with a man she was not married to? Or any man who did not want to marry her? Or the idea that there may be more than one man in her life? Or that she was going to have a baby without being married? … Is that what he would have wanted had one of his students been pregnant by him? … How do even highly educated people like him explain their double standards to themselves?
She found it strange that all the commonality of thought and perception was not considered special; only physical intimacy was thought to make a relationship special.
One of the characters in this book is a journalist who tries to give comprehensive and balanced information in her reports about this tragic and horrible event but her editor says, “Save your historical analyses for your memoirs”.
I was tempted to email Anjali Deshpande to ask if that was actually her, and how much of this book arises from her personal experience and knowledge of what happened on that horrible night in Bhopal and the events that followed. But the author blurb in the books says that Anjali Deshpande “manages her world without much discipline, any sense of design or patience, and cultivates the virtues of laziness. She lives in Delhi with her husband and without cats or children.” Though this made me smile, it also intimidated me from getting in touch and I decided to quietly draw my own conclusions.

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