Art of the interview – “Shakeel’s story”

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Below is a transcript of the best interview I’ve ever read.

It is a conversation recorded in November 2000 with a boy called Shakeel, his mother Rubaida and grandmother Aliya. The interview took place at their house and was conducted by Sathyu [Sarangi] and Sambhavna staff.

Clearly Sathyu knew the family very well, his background knowledge was good. The conversation is steered gently around the history of sickness and tragedy in the boy’s family and the story emerges naturally, one detail after another. There are flashes of absurdity, and comedy, and wonderful jumps of the imagination.

The interview arrived in an email sent late at night from Sambhavna. The interview had been translated for my benefit but often as in emails, the typing was hurried and and in our exchanges we were not bothered about capitalisation, exact spellings or those kinds of niceties.

This was the raw material I received at the end of November 2000 and it was so powerful that I published it as it was, with just a few edits for length, but without changing anything else at all, including the punctuation.

The more raw and real it seemed the better, because the way the interview was conducted told its own story, of compassion, affection, and of the huge amount of work to be done, caring for the sick of Bhopal.

 

Background

Shakeel was born in February 1985. While in his mother’s womb he was heavily exposed to the toxic gas cloud that leaked from Union Carbide’s pesticide factory in Bhopal on the night of the 2nd/3rd December 1984. 40 tons of methyl isocyanate, hydrogen cyanide and other unknown gases have killed more than 20,000 people and maimed more than half a million people to date. Shakeel is one of the many exposed children who are suffering physical and mental growth and development problems as a result of the gas.

 

The interview: “Shakeel’s story” 

Sathyu’s questions are in bold type.

His added comments are in italics. [[Editor’s comments in double brackets]]

Shakeel’s replies, and those of his mother Rubaida, are in plain type.

The interview begins with some information from Rubaida, Shakeel’s mother:

When Shakeel was born he had a boil like thing on his forehead. In 3-4 months his whole head was covered with boils. His hair used to be stuck with pus. His head was slimy with pus. When he was one year old we had his hair shaved.

When he was born there were blue patches all over his body. When he was three months old he used to blink his eyes and tears flowed often. When he was not crying, blinking and tearing, I was worried he would become blind or something. He still blinks a lot and his eyes water.

When he was 2-3 months old he had a boil on his upper lip, and his upper lip split. He could not suckle. I was not having enough milk at all. His grandfather used to soak cotton in weak tea and drip in to his mouth. Grandfather used to hover around the kid worried that I would get fed up and angry with his continued sickness from birth. He survived mostly on weak tea (because we had no money to buy milk).

 

Shakeel was not registered in the house to house survey that followed the disaster though he was about a month old when the survey began. When the survey people came to her house in March 1985, Rubaida got scared. She thought they had come to take away the babies who were born sick after the gas. So she lied when they asked how many children. She named only Husna and Rais. The family is currently living on compensation they received for Husna’s personal injury claim which was 15,000 rupees. Shakeel’s father is severely affected by the gas and can’t earn enough to feed the family.

Now the interview moves on to talking directly with Shakeel.

How many brothers and sisters have you got?

two sisters and three brothers.

What are their names?

my eldest sister is Husna bano, small sister is Shabeena and my brothers are Rais, Rais ahmad, he is older to me and Muzaffar khan, he is younger. Shabeena is the youngest.

When is your birthday?

I don’t know. Looks at mother. She says it was the kundo wali month on the 28th day of the moon. Shakeel remains mystified.

Who are your other brothers and sisters who are of your age?

one is Ayaz, Ayaz Ahmad. They say he was one day old when the gas leaked.

How do you know about the gas?

my ammi told me.

When did she tell you?

I was very small. (Shakeel asks his ammi, was I in your gode (arms/lap) when you told me, mother Rubaida says no, you were about four years old).

And what did she tell you?

gas had leaked, it killed lots of people. Lots and lots of people were injured.animals were killed. My nanis ‘mitthu’ parrot died too. [[mithu=’sweetie’]]

Do you know where the gas leaked from?

yes, from the gas factory in front of my nani’s (grandmother’s) house.

What is the name of the factory?

gas factory.

Do you know which company owned this factory?

no, I don’t know.

Do you know what a company is?

no.

Where else did you learn about the gas?

from all around. Just anywhere. People.

And who are your other brothers and sisters who are of your age?

one is Ayaz. That I told you, then there is Rubeena whose real name is Gasbano because she was born on the day before the disaster, she is the daughter of my eldest mamu.

(Information from mother – Rubaida and grandmother, Aliya: Gasbano’s parents Mohammed Ameen and Naseem Bano. Mohammed Ameen is eldest son of Aliya and Wilal Ahmed. Wilal Ahmad died in 1992 after eight months in bed with what was possibly throat cancer. Naseem Bano, who had unexplained and unbearable persistent headache as well as breathlessness and other symptoms died in 1989. Earlier in 1988, her two twin daughters died after birth. Aliya says Gasbano has menstrual problems and has not started yet, she too has growth problems, breathlessness, vomoting and other symptoms.they also say that Ayaz is not growing well since he was little. He is as small as Shakeel).

Do your brothers and sisters have any health problems?

yes they all have. They have headaches, vomiting and they get giddy (chakkar). Another sister (cousin) Sanno. She behaves weird. Something is wrong with her head. And lots of times they stay in bed. One of my brothers Abid he gets breathless badly. He cant go to school.

Do you go to school?

no, I went till 3rd grade and left.

Why did you leave?

I left because I used to get beaten. I could not remember my lessons. And my teacher would beat me. My brother Rais used to go with me too. He used to be sick and shit in his pants. So he had to stop. I stopped because I could never like (man nahi lagta tha) studying, I forgot what I read. I left school because of the beating.

And what problems do you have because of the gas?

I get chakkar (giddiness, head spins) vomitting, headache. My eyes water. I get cough often.

(Mother says and he is very very irritable. The smallest things irritate him, he has a little argument with his brother he walks out of the room. The other day his father told him something while he was having his tea, something he did not like. And he moved the cup away and walked out saying I do not want to drink your tea).

Your mother says you are irritable, is that right?

Yes anger comes to me. (Gussa aa jata hai) I do not know how. It just comes.

Do you remember a time when you did not have any health problems?

no.

Just one time when you felt really good in your body and your head?

no. long pause. I get sick jab kabhi (whenever).

Who else in your family is sick?

my father. He has pain in his stomach all the time. He has vomiting. He gets breathless and coughs a lot. Just a month back he was carrying a sack of grain and he could not balance himself and he fell down and hurt his head. My father cannot go to work when he is ill.

Who else?

my mother, my sister Husna and my brother Rais.

(Info from Rubaida – Shakeel’s mother – she (Husna) gets breeathless, smoke bothers her a lot, she has pain all over her body, always feels tired, she gets anxiety attacks and irregular cycles. Rubaida was in the community next to J.P. Nagar on the night of the disaster – Rishaldar Colony. She and her husband rented a small house and lived with Husna, Rais, and Rubaida’s brother, Rafiq. Rubaida was 6-7 months pregnant with Shakeel. On the night of the disaster Rafiq carried Husna, Rais was carried by his father and they all started running together. Rubaida got seperated from her brother and Husna after only about 50 metres. She lost her husband and Rais a kilometre later. All got reunited the morning of the disaster when they couldn’t open their eyes to see each other all they knew was they were all alive. Exposure related deaths in the family occurred later.)

What do you think should happen to the company whose gas killed so many people?

they should be punished.

What punishment?

they should be punished. I do not know what punishment.

Do you think punishing them will serve any purpose?

I don’t know. Maybe not.

What punishment should they get?

they should be killed.

But if you kill them you are punishing their children too (they will lose their fathers) and their children have done no harm.

that’s true their children have done no harm.

If you go somewhere, some other town to your relatives, and you find a similar factory coming up what will you tell the people there?

I will tell them about the gas. And that people died. Became sick.

What will you tell them if they ask you what to do?

I will tell them to stop the factory.

But you could also advise them to go and live somewhere else, where there is no factory.

thinks for a long time. No then the factory might go to this other place.

And how many people in your family died?

(thinks. Concentrates.) Several.

Who?

my grandfather, (‘Chacha’ means uncle but many children address relatives in different ways and the name sticks, Shakeel must have started calling his grandfather Chacha when he was very small. Rubaida and Aliya say Shakeel was very close to his grandfather. It was he that brought Shakeel up)

and my Badi mumani (mother’s eldest brother’s wife Naseem bano)

and Shammu mamu

(Shamim Ahmad, Aliya and Wilal’s second son who died in 1996 after long sickness) and Khalu, Zahid Khalu (mother’s sister Salma’s husband who died in 1995). Shakeel does not mention the death of Ammen and Naseem bano’s twin daughters, or that of Rasheeda bano, Shameem’s wife who went mad, she used to run away from home. When Shameem was admitted to the hospital she would run away to see him, she died four months after Shameem. Shakeel also doesn’t mention Rasheeda’s little daughter who died on the tenth day of the death of Wilal Ahmad in 1992.)

Whose death do you remember most?

my chacha’s. he loved me. He used to call me Kalua. I was more with him than my parents. He used to buy me things. Sweets and savoury (pakodey). He was in lot of pain. He asked me to wet a towel or a hanky or anything and bring it to him so he could put it on his throat. There was a fire inside he used to say. He loved my younger brother Muzaffar too. He is not weak like me.

(Aliya remembers, Shakeel’s grandfather’s / her husband’s narration of the night of the gas, he had run in search of his daughters, Shakeel’s mother and her sister, fell unconscious midway and found himself in a pile of dead bodies outside Hamidia Hospital. When he woke up he couldn’t see anything his eyes were swollen so. He heard doctors talking about giving injections. He got worried and fearing for his life (at the point of death) he pushed himself sitting on his haunches away from the hospital to the gate. On the way his tow hit several dead bodies. Then he rested his head by the side of a majar and waited for day break.As the grandmother talks Shakeel too remembers his grandfather telling him about the night of the gas. Several times he nods his head says yes and adds that bit about him resting against the majar (tomb of a minor saint). Wilal Ahmad was a load carrier, “hammal” in Galla Mandi, the grain market but he could read and write and did some drafting work too for the grain merchants.)

Who are the other people whose death you remember?

I don’t remember Shameem mamu’s death, except that he used to be often in the hospital.

(Information from Aliya: from the morning of the gas Shameem helped in taking dead bodies out of homes, carrying them to their burial or cremation sites. He was more exposed because of this. When bodies were moved gas escaped from their mouths and clothes.)

[[Shameem mamu]] was admitted to the government hospital thrice for long periods and his mad wife ran away from home to see him. She died four months after she died. One time Shameem mamu was in the bed with tubes going up his arm and all. And my aunt reached there. Shameem mamu tore of the tubes and brought her home. Then he was carried to the hospital.

And then?

I remember Zahid Khalu’s death. He used to cough a lot. And he used to smoke bidis, quietly (hiding it from rest of the family, but Shakeel must have seen him). He brought out loads of mucus ‘balgam’. Then he became very sick. He had fever. He used to stay in bed all the time (possibly TB). Then he could not smoke. I cannot remember how many years back. (Zahid Hussain, Shakeel’s mother’s sister’s husband died in 1995).

What do you want to be when you grow up?

I want to be a ustad. I want to be a mechanic ustad. (The honcho in the garage where people repair their motorcycles, scooters or cars).

Do you watch tv?

no I don’t watch TV. We don’t have TV.

When you are free between three and five what do you do?
(Shakeel goes to the tea shop in Sabzi Mandi at 6am, comes back at 3pm and then works at the provision store in J.P. Nagar from 5pm till 9-9.30pm).

I don’t do anything. I sit in my nani’s place.

Do you have thoughts going in your head?

no.

You don’t think of anything, just sit there?

yes. Just sit.

You don’t talk to anyone?

I don’t feel like talking to anyone.

Do you pray? (read namaz).

I used to pray on Fridays but now I don’t get leave.

Do you ask Allah for something?

no.

Have you read a story, a fairy story?

no.

If a fairy granted you a wish what would you ask for?

I don’t know.

If a magician came up to you and granted you one wish what would it be?

I don’t understand.

Have you seen a magician?

no.

Do you play games?

no.

Why not?

just like that. I don’t like to play.

Have you ever played any games?

no I don’t like it. I get breathless. I can’t run.

If you are made the Chief Minister for one day and you were told that you could do whatever you wanted, what would you do? Shakeel thinks for long. Then I prompt him. You are the Chief Minister, you can either punish the guilty, do justice, give people jobs, give good effective treatment or give compensation money or whatever or see that people don’t have to drink poisoned water or whatever, what would you do?

treatment.

(His nani Aliya pushes his knee and says “You should have said jobs because the stomach is the most important part of the body”. Shakeel’s mom enters from the kitchen where she is preparing tea for us. She says to her mom, “No, the boy is right, you may get money from work but what good is money if you are sick all the time? You don’t even feel like eating. What use is food? Look at Husna, she is so much better now…”).

Did you know that your sister Husna went to our clinic? (Sambhavna)

yes

And how do you think she is now?

a lot better. She now bothers me, tries to teach me reading.

What about your other sister Sabeena?

she too has headache, her eyes get swollen.

 

At this point the interview ended, because the time was very late.

 

PICTURES ACCOMPANYING INTERVIEW

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Two of a set of pictures of Shakeel requiring no caption 

 

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Rubaida and sons Shakeel [at left], Muzaffar and Rais, photographed by Raghu Rai. The underdevelopment of their upper bodies can clearly be seen

 

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Shakeel’s cousin ‘Gas Devi’ or Gas Bano, named because she was born on the night of the gas. Photo by Raghu Rai.

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