DECEMBER 3, 1984 BHOPAL RAILWAY STATION BHOPAL, INDIA
I waited patiently for the first hour, and then I started to get impatient. The Bhopal Railway Station was abuzz with late-night activities. The homeless were wandering, begging for money and food; some people were waiting for their train to arrive and others, like me, were waiting for someone to pick them up, as the hands of the big dirty clock in front of me came together to welcome midnight.
I turned my wrist again to look at the watch my husband had given me after our wedding just a few months ago. It was a nice Titan watch, with a green background and red numbers and hands. It was a compulsive action to look at the watch, since I already knew what the time was.
Why wasn't he here? He knew when I was getting back. He had bought the tickets himself. How could he have forgotten?
Soon the homeless stopped begging and started looking for places to settle in for the night. The Station Master used a long, thick wooden stick to prod the homeless, who were sleeping in front of his office and the waiting rooms, into moving. He was successful with some and unsuccessful with others. He looked at me curiously and then ignored me. He had probably seen many women wait for their husbands or loved ones at the railway station.
I flipped once again through the Femina magazine I had bought at the Hyderabad Railway Station. By now I had read all the articles and the short story, and the advertisements, but I looked through them once more to avoid staring at the dirty white clock or my beautiful watch.
"Memsaab, taxi?" a Sardarji taxi driver asked me.
I inched farther back into the metal chair I was sitting on, grasping my purse tightly in my lap and moving my sari-clad leg to touch my small suitcase in a subconscious effort to protect it.
"No," I said, and focused on the slightly crumpled pages of my magazine.
"Late in the night it is now, Memsaab." Sardarji was undeterred by my casual refusal. "Not safe it is at the station."
I let the fear of being accosted late in the night pass first. My husband would be here soon, I told myself. I thought up an excuse: His scooter must have broken down. I thought up another: The tire must have been punctured. It happened all the time on the bad roads of Bhopal.
"Where do you have to go?" Sardarji asked me.
I took a deep breath and looked at him. He didn't look dangerous in the dim yellow lights of the railway station, but you can never tell by someone's face what he is capable of.
"Bairagarh," I said succinctly, and he moved away from me without comment. The EME Center was in Bairagarh and if I lived there, I was an army wife, and he probably didn't want to mess with me.
I kept time with my shifting feet and the rustle of the oft-turned pages of the magazine, pages that didn't look brand-new and glossy anymore, but were wrinkled like the ones roadside peanut vendors wrapped fried peanuts in. My eyes wandered to the entrance of the station, again and again looking for a familiar face.
I didn't even know how to get in touch with my husband --- we didn't have a phone. Colonel Shukla did. I could call him, I thought, and then decided against it. How would it look if people knew my husband forgot to pick me up?
I turned my head when there was a small commotion at the other end of the station, and it started then. Slowly, but surely, it spread.
I became aware of it for the first time when I inhaled and felt my lungs being scratched by nails from the inside, like someone had thrown red chili powder into my nose. I took another breath and it didn't change. I clasped my throat and closed my eyes as they started to burn and water. Something was wrong, my mind screamed wildly as I, along with the others, tried to seek a reason for the tainted air we were breathing.
Sardarji, who was standing nearby, looked at me, our eyes matching the panic that was spreading through the railway station. The homeless had started gathering their meager belongings, while others were standing up, moving, looking around, asking questions, trying to find out what could be done. Soon it became unbearable and the exodus began. People started to clamor to get out of the station. The entrance was jam-packed; heaving bodies slammed against each other as they tried to squeeze past the small entrance to save their lives. Some people jumped across the tracks to get to the other platform and look for an exit from there. People were everywhere, like scrounging ants looking for food.
"Taxi, Memsaab," Sardarji cried out as he came toward me.
I didn't question his generosity and picked up my suitcase and started to run along with him to the entrance. Our bodies joined the others as we looked for a small hole, a pathway, out of the railway station. People were running helter-skelter, trying to breathe. Something is wrong, I thought again, this time in complete panic, something about the air in the railway station is very wrong.
The struggle to get out of the station became harder because no one could breathe. My lungs felt like they would implode and even though I tried to suck in as much air as I could, it was not really air that I was breathing. It was something toxic, something acrid, something that was burning my insides and scratching my eyes. Each breath I took made me dizzy and the burning sensation, that terrible burning sensation, wouldn't go away.
My suitcase and purse got lost somewhere in the crowd, but I was half-crazed with the need to breathe and forgot about them.
Sardarji was having trouble breathing as well. His voice was high-pitched and shaky and I could hear him hiss as he tried to breathe. He pointed in the direction of his taxi and we started running, pushing past people who just like us were trying to find a way out. It looked like every automobile in the city was out on the streets. The sound of honking vehicles mingled with the cries for help, while the city stood bright, lit up with car, scooter, and auto rickshaw headlights, like a bride covered in gold and diamonds just before her wedding.
"What's happening?" someone screamed.
"Run, out of the city, out of the city!" someone else cried out.
We reached the taxi and as soon as we got inside, people clamored and banged at the car windows.
For once, compassion failed me. "Drive," I said through my misery, and the engine mercifully started.
Navigating the taxi out of the crowded parking lot, where cars lay haphazardly like dead and wounded soldiers in a battlefield, proved to be difficult. Sardarji tried his best. The honking of his taxi joined the sounds of other impatient cars. It was getting increasingly difficult to drive. The crowds were blocking the way and our inability to breathe was not helping either.
I held the edge of my sari to my nose, hoping to dissipate some of the spice in the air, but nothing would make the air clean.
A few cars moved and we managed to get to the road, which could just as well have been a parking lot itself because the cars were not moving. As I struggled to stay alive, a new fear gripped me. Was my husband caught in this? I shuddered at the thought and prayed he had indeed forgotten to pick me up. But if he had come and picked me up when my train arrived two hours ago, we would have been safe. I would have been safe, my mind cried out.
"Memsaab, we will never get out of here," Sardarji said, stumbling over the words. "Maybe we should get out of the car and run."
"Run where?" I asked, hysteria sprinkled over my voice. "Where would we go?"
When he didn't answer, I turned to him and saw him lying on the steering wheel. I shook him hard, screaming for him to wake up and drive us out of there.
He managed to straighten himself, but before he could step on the accelerator or drive into the space the car ahead of us had made, he collapsed on the steering wheel again, and this time I couldn't wake him up.
My heart felt like it had stopped beating for an instant. I didn't know how to drive; I had never learned. My husband and I didn't even have a car. I wanted to help Sardarji, check on him, but I couldn't, I couldn't even breathe, and suddenly nothing seemed more important than breathing. I had taken it for granted all my life and now I couldn't breathe without feeling my insides rip open against the onslaught of the spice in the air.
I opened the taxi door and pushed into the people who swarmed around the car. There was no relief for anyone.
Someone got into the taxi as soon as I left and I saw Sardarji's lifeless body being pushed out of the driver's seat onto the road.
I looked around as people jostled me, searching for a way out. People were running in all directions and I wondered, Which one was the right direction? Which direction gave you life? I moved aimlessly, going first in one direction and then in another. The world revolved around me in slow motion as my eyes started to shut on their own accord. I knew that I was going to join Sardarji.
It was then, when I was almost sure that I was going to die, that I saw an army Jeep, and it looked like a beacon of hope. I cried out for help, but my voice was drowned by the voices of others, screaming and yelling and demanding the gods for an answer.
I think the Jeep driver saw me first, and then someone from inside called out to me. They knew my name and they knew whose wife I was. I felt relief sweep through me, even as energy seeped out. Just like it happens in the movies, I quietly collapsed onto the asphalt road.
My eyes had trouble adjusting to the whiteness. Everything around me was white. But I knew I was not dead. I knew I was in a hospital because of the telltale smell of medicines. I lifted my hands but couldn't see anything. I could feel there were tubes going into my nose and some were coming out of my hands. I felt like an octopus.
I wanted to talk, to ask someone what was going on, but my throat was clogged, and then I remembered in fuzzy detail the night I thought I had died. I breathed in with trepidation and was relieved to not feel any burning, but my lungs still felt full and heavy, as if water had been pumped into them.
I licked my dry lips and tried to speak. I called out for my husband and waited, but I wasn't sure if I was making enough sound to attract his attention. I wasn't even sure if anyone was near me. I could hear some voices at a distance, far away.
I could not concentrate clearly on anything, but I heard the faint voice of a newscaster saying something about a Union Carbide factory and some gas that had leaked into the city of Bhopal.
Excerpted from A Breath of Fresh Air © Copyright 2012 by Amulya Malladi. Reprinted with permission by Ballantine Books. All rights reserved.
A Breath of Fresh Air