The Rabid Optimist

on Tuesday, June 24, 2008

One apocalyptic night and 23 years on the battlefield. Satinath Sarangi is still not ready to stop. ANASTASIA GUHA profiles a poet-warrior

MORNING HAS BROKEN over Delhi but the clouds block out the sun, casting the city in a pervasive gray. Outside Jantar Mantar on a stretch of pavement, under a canopy of rags, in front of a banner that counts the number of days he has been on hunger strike, Satinath (Sathyu) Sarangi, 54, is tying his trademark turban. Today it is red, the colour of revolution, matching his long khadi kurta. A tall, striking man with a lush beard, he looks every inch the warrior. And like a warrior, the core of Sathyu’s life is built on a certitude. “There is no gray, the facts are all black and white — the rights and wrongs of this issue are more than apparent,” he says. The Union Carbide gas leak killed 15,000 people in 1984; today the killing continues through a cycle of pollution, contamination, corporate crime and government neglect.

But Sathyu’s story did not start with Bhopal: he is not a survivor of ‘that night’. Unlike the others camping with him on a Delhi pavement, he does not have nightmares about ‘that night’. Born in Jharkhand, Sathyu went to 10 schools in 12 years, as his father who worked for the central government was transferred around the country. Books were his succor from the staccato nature of those years. He particularly loved stories of Indian revolutionaries and their fight against social injustice. “I was a child of the 60’s, surrounded by Naxals. You would have to be utterly dumb, or utterly insensitive, not to become radical,” he says. Hostel life at Benares Hindu University (BHU) matured the anarchist fantasies of his youth into a conscious political sensibility.

A gold medallist several times over from BHU, Sathyu gave up the comfort of life as a metallurgical engineer, lived out in some pristine research laboratory, for a life of tougher purpose. It has had its renumerations. “Most of my batchmates are CEOs of corporations or own companies, and we have alumni meets all the time. When they are drunk, they say, ‘Hey man, all I can say to my kids at the end of the day is that I have produced X tones of steel’,” he laughs.

Bhopal was meant to be merely a punctuation in his life. He went there the day after the gas disaster, intending to stay a week. 23 year later, he is still there. “I realised fairly early that I had a skill set that I could deploy very effectively. I spoke English, which was needed to take the issue to the international world, and I had spent enough time in organisations to know what does not work,” Sathyu says. This is typical of him. No dramatic stories of transformative moments, no stories of compassion and rage, nothing to explain why a week’s visit changed to a lifetime’s work — although clearly they lie somewhere beneath this telling. Instead, a cold, almost hard, rationality — his friends say the only time he gets angry is when other Bhopal activists lose their cool under pressure.

And then there is the integrity: no window displays for that either. You’d have to be utterly dumb, or utterly insensitive, though not to get a measure of it when you hear that he has lived among the people he serves, in a tiny room in a particularly squalid part of town, sharing their poverty, eating the same poor diet, drinking the same pollu - ted water. Or that he has lived on Rs 1,000 a month for years, subsidised occasionally by friends and family. He has now graduated to a monthly honorarium of Rs 6,500 from Sambhavana, a clinic he helped set up. Booker-nominated author and activist, Indra Sinha says it took considerable armtwisting to get him to accept even that.

ON APRIL 5, 2008, 50 Bhopalis reached Delhi after a gruelling 800 km Padyatra from Bhopal to Delhi. For eight weeks, the survivors waited in vain for the Prime Minister to meet them. Finally, on June 9, they decided to protest outside the PM’s house, chaining themselves to his gate. All of them — women and children included — were arrested, beaten, and jailed. Now, as the city continues about its business, 9 of the survivors have started an indefinite fast in Delhi, joined by 10 others around the world. “The PMO offered us a meeting with the PM but we did not want a photo op. We want answers,” Sathyu explains.

There have been many dark moments in the struggle and one of the darkest was on 26 July, 2006. Sunil Kumar — a dear friend and activist, a smiling, courageous man — was 12 when he lost his parents and 3 siblings. He fought for justice for 22 years, often surviving on Rs 4 a day to bring up his remaining two siblings. When they lifted Sunil down from the ceiling fan from which he had hanged himself, he was wearing a T-shirt that said, “No More Bhopals”. It is a slogan under which Sanjay, his younger brother, sleeps every night as he continues fasting, right next to Sathyu.

“In my darkest moments, what gives me strength are these survivors,” says Sathyu. “They fight the government; they fight for their livelihood and for their family’s health and they surround me all the time; they are my support, so I don’t go crazy with all this.” Perhaps another thing that stems the madness is his gift for irreverent, playful poetry, which he recites at the drop of a hat with rueful smiles and a stirring passion.

There are also the sudden shots in the arm. Meeting Sinha in 1993 was a watershed moment in Sathyu’s life. “A sense of helplessness had started to gnaw at my soul. I was seeing all these families trying to get treatment at the local hospitals and getting nowhere. By the time I met Indra, I was very low.” Sinha himself — then a highly successful ad-man in London — was deeply moved. He created an ad asking for funds for a health clinic for the Bhopal victims. The British public responded by giving over 50,000 pounds. The Sambhavana trust and clinic was started with this.

The clinic is clearly a source of great pride for Sathyu: a tangible crown atop the shimmering pain of the struggle. It has given free medical care to more than 30,000 people, developed new therapies and conducted ground-breaking research, using a combination of alternative therapies and modern medicine to treat people with multiple chemical sensitivities

But for all of that, Sathyu wears his years at war lightly. It’s almost as if by giving up one kind of life, he has sprouted an armour against “wanting things”. Yet there are glimmers of the other life, the one he did not live. Sinha says Sathyu adores children, that there’s a sadness to him that he does not have his own. Indeed, ask Sathyu about children and the armour slips a little. “I do want to have biological children. This may sound politically incorrect but I want to hear their heartbeat while they are still in the womb. I would like to spend a lot of time with the baby.” Almost defensively, he adds, “Perhaps my level of involvement will change. But then, bringing up a good person is an act of political activism as well. The child will be for society so I will not feel selfish.” The dream of a blade of grass, pushing through the hard pavement on which he has chosen to fast.

Yet, Sathyu is a rabid optimist. Even as he struggles to bring the behemoth Dow Chemicals to book, his life is redeemed by small pleasures. He loves to cook for friends and look after his long thick hair (he says he wants to look good). His love for table tennis is borderline obsessive. And then there are his friends. “I am not rich in anything except friends”, Sathyu says. Sinha recounts a party in Fran - ce where Sathyu imbibed rather a lot of potent redwine and lay down to rest, only to sit bolt upright every few minutes to greet passers by with “bonjour monsieur”, “bonjour madame”, to much hilarity.

All of this could be a different tale though. Sathyu could have led the Bhopali survivors to a violent struggle, burned a bus or two, called bandhs, blocked public highways. Every day they are confronted by the greater efficacy of that route. Instead, shrouded in a glowing righteousness, taking an inured society and an insensitive government in his stride, he leads the fast into its ninth day. “The hunger has given way to a curious sense of peace,” he says. “I feel satisfied because so many things we are working for in Bhopal are not just about Bhopal. This place is a microcosm for everything that is wrong with the world. That is what we are fighting to save.” •

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 25, Dated June 28, 2008