Disenchanted with his studies at the University of BHopal, he'd been working some 50 kilometres away in a rural area. That morning, a brief news item on All-India Radio alerted listeners to a gas leak somewhere in the city, killing under a hundred people. It didn't sound dangerous, but Sathyu (as Sarangi is known) thought otherwise. He left immediately to volunteer his help for a week.
With a few rupees in his pocket he alighted from the almost empty train -- an oddity in India where trains usually overflow -- he walked into the station forecourt uprepared for the scene confronting him. He could not make sense of what he saw, he told me when we met in early February. People huddled close together in groups, their eyes swollen, tears streaming down their cheeks. Groaning. "People walked around as if drunk, falling over."
Dumfounded, he stared at the sweep before him. Wherever he looked people writhed in pain, or sat stock still groaning and weeping, or walked around not knowing what to do. "There was this complete and utter helplessness. You could see that. I don't know how many people were there but it seemed more than a thousand."
Someone had turned a nearby bus shelter into a First Aid post where a crowd had gathered. Still unable to make sense of what he saw, Sathyu found volunteers giving antibiotic eye drops for burning eyes, milk and juice to soothe raw throats, antacids to relieve searing digestive tract pain. People said something had affected them during the night, something like a gas that smelled like burnt chillies but they didn't know what. A lot of them had never heard of Union Carbide. Or that its local plant employed many of the men whose families lived in the slums surrounding the plant. Or that the plant manufactured a pesticide farmers across India spread on their fields to kill the beetles, bugs and insects that ate their seedlings. But they did know that whatever it was, it had turned the leaves black on the trees and that birds, cows, goats, oxen, chickens, dogs, rats, cats -- and people -- lay dead in the streets and homes of the city.
Sathyu helped carry the sick to cars and trucks and autorickshaws for transport to hospital. And then, all of a sudden, the odourless colourless gas hit him. For the first time in his life, he fainted.