November 1999

“It was the worst industrial disaster in the world,” said my Class 9 history teacher.  She was describing a famous, or rather, infamous part of history – the Bhopal gas tragedy.  “On the night of 2nd December, 1984, around 40 tons of methyl isocyanate, a deadly gas, leaked into the atmosphere from the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal.”

I was listening in rapt attention.  It was the first period after recess and most of my classmates were fighting the urge to doze off.  I would have been no exception – history was a subject I loathed – but today, this topic somehow stirred my interest.  

The teacher must have noticed, for she directed her gaze on me most of the time, almost as if she was explaining the chapter to me alone.  

She continued, “The initial effects of exposure to the gas were coughing, severe eye irritation and a feeling of suffocation, burning in the respiratory tract, breathlessness, stomach pains and vomiting. People awakened by these symptoms fled their homes….”

My stomach churned as I imagined the scene.

“Don’t worry, Akshita, it won’t happen again.”

I was startled when the teacher addressed me.  I realised that I’d been holding my breath and my face had lines of worry.

The entire class looked at me and burst out laughing.  I turned red with embarrassment.

Well, no one had to struggle with drowsiness for the rest of the history period that day.  


That night, I was fast asleep when suddenly, I woke up with a choking sensation.  I found myself surrounded by acrid fumes.  I couldn’t breathe.  I tried to call out to Ma, but no sound would come out of my mouth.  My stomach knotted in terror.  The teacher was wrong.  The tragedy is happening again!!

I felt myself being shaken violently.  I sensed that I was lying on my bed, eyes closed, breathing normally.  Presently, I heard Ma scream, “Akshita, what happened?  Why were you screaming?”

I opened my eyes to see the worried faces of Ma and Papa.  I was drenched in sweat.  I realised I’d just been through a nightmare.

I was down with fever the next day.  I skipped school.  My parents were concerned.  I was puzzled.  I still couldn’t understand why the Bhopal gas tragedy got so deeply imprinted in my mind.  For, you see, I was a below average student who could barely keep anything in her head for half an hour and was promoted every year through grace marks.  Well, almost every year.  I had repeated Std 7.  Yet I could remember the entire chapter of the Bhopal gas tragedy.

To my relief, the nightmare didn’t happen again.  But the incident kept recurring in my dreams in some form or the other.  Like the teacher would come home and explain it to my parents.  Or the neighbourhood cat would turn into a human being and tell me how she had survived the gas leak all those years ago.  Or I would step out of the door of my Mumbai flat and instantly come face to face with the Union Carbide factory.  

I would explain to myself that this was due to overthinking.

Till one day, four months later.

It was exam time in late March.  I was preparing for the history paper the next day.

It was 1:00 am when I decided to call it a day.  

At around 3 am, I dreamt of hundreds of people screaming, choking and running, chased by a menacing dark cloud.  As expected, I woke with a fever.

Nevertheless, I wrote my paper the next day.  The thought of repeating a class again was motivation enough.  And when I imagined myself learning the Bhopal chapter a second time, the fever willingly took a backseat.

After the exams, Papa gently explained that I should keep myself occupied with activities, so that I gradually forget the incident.  So I got myself into a music class, in addition to school and tuition classes.

But the incident didn’t want to forget me.

It returned a couple of months later.  And decided to disturb me all the time.  I  had random visions – in the middle of the road, during a science practical exam, midway through music class… I would suddenly zone off, staring into space with eyes as  big as marbles.  My classmates and teachers were convinced that I had gone crazy.

Sometimes, I saw random people running, choking and gasping for breath.  At other times, I saw a family of five running along with the crowd.  Father, mother, two girls and a tall boy.  I could see the face of only one girl clearly.

The visions disturbed me.  But I couldn’t bring myself to tell my parents.  They had enough worries already.  My academic performance was worsening, if that was possible.  My music teacher almost declared me tone-deaf.  I was now in Std 10, a crucial academic year and a stepping stone to my career path in life.  But instead, I was wondering where I was headed.

Till one day…..


I was enjoying an icecream with my friends, when I saw them again.  This time, the father was holding his wife and son in the surging crowd and screaming, “Where are the girls?”  Then one by one, all three of them collapsed.

I didn’t sleep that night.  

Two weeks later, I saw the girl whose face I now knew.  In a morgue.  I burst into tears.

Some days later, I saw the girl again, alive on a hospital bed.  How come?  And where was her sister?  I now had a constant puzzled look on my face.

I kept seeing the girl again, almost as if she were living in my neighbourhood.  First getting discharged from hospital, then roaming the streets, apparently searching for her family.  Sometimes I would see her sitting alone on the steps of a building, crying silently.  At other times, she would stare vacantly into space, till a woman who appeared to be a nun, emerged from the building and took her in.  I saw the name of the building.  “Happy Home Orphanage.”  Well, at least she was safe.

I had started feeling that I was watching a daily soap, when things changed.  Drastically.

It was a Sunday.  Two months before my final exam.  I was studying in the balcony, when I saw the girl, accompanied by the nun, standing in front of a dilapidated, abandoned building called “Shanti Niwas.”  It looked and sounded familiar.  So did the rest of that street.  Why?

On an impulse, I marched over to Papa and declared, “I want to go to Bhopal.”

Papa’s eyes popped out in surprise.

I told him everything.

Papa looked at me as if I’d lost my mind.  I just looked at him expectantly.  I had a theory in my mind.  A farfetched, crazy one.  I blurted it out.  Papa was the only person in the world who would listen to it without laughing at me.  And I was right.

After what seemed an eternity, Papa got up, went over to the attic and extracted an old tattered diary from an old tattered briefcase up there.  

Papa dialled a number from the diary on our telephone.  I could see that he was calling an old colleague who had settled in Bhopal after retirement.

Five minutes later, he hung up and said, “Pack your bags, Akshy.  We’re going to Bhopal.”

I was excited, puzzled and scared, all at the same time.  I was also worried about my final exams, but I knew I couldn’t concentrate on my studies till I got this mystery solved.  

Papa’s former colleague received us at Bhopal Junction.  After a bath and a meal at his house, the three of us set out.  The two men looked at me and asked, “Where?”

I mentioned the street name.  And to their surprise and mine too, I found myself giving directions to the place.

I’d never been out of Mumbai in all my life.

An hour later, we were standing in front of Shanti Niwas.  It was a six storeyed building on the verge of collapse, exactly as I’d seen it.  There was a board outside, warning people of falling debris.

All of a sudden, I saw the building come alive.  It was freshly painted, strong and full of lively families.  I saw a happy family of five in one of the houses, cutting a birthday cake with the names “Rekha” and “Rini” on it. The girls.  Twins.  Now I realised how the same face could be seen in a morgue one day and alive the next.

And I had no doubt that I was the one in the morgue.  I didn’t think it was a coincidence that I was born on 3rd December 1984.

The unknown elements of the universe had conspired to reunite us.  I must fulfill the purpose set out before me.  

With this thought in mind, I told Papa, “Let’s find the Happy Home Orphanage now.

Two hours later, I was knocking at the door of the girl’s room at the orphanage.

She opened the door and stared at us, the way you look at unexpected strange visitors.

I knew I had quite a task at hand.  But I was determined to bring her back with me.  To her new family.  To my loving Ma and Papa.

“Rekha,” I began, “I’m Rini…..”
Author’s note:  Excerpts from Wikipedia were used to describe the Bhopal gas tragedy.
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Archie Iyer
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