The night between December 2 and 3, 1984, went down as the world’s worst industrial disaster after 42 tons of deadly methyl isocyanate leaked from the pesticide plant of Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) in Bhopal, killing 15,000 people and impacting the lives of over five lakh!
As hundreds of people ran across the streets in the middle of the night, gasping for breath, frothing at their mouths, and a burning sensation in their eyes, two pet cats emerged heroes.
The loss of lives and the after-effects of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy can never be reversed, but this is a small attempt at highlighting how a pair of cats managed to save the lives in a family.
34 years ago, Fahmida Sayeed was sleeping alongside her daughter and her five-month old cat, Polly, on a double bed. Their home is in Ameer Ganj, about 6-km from the now abandoned Union Carbide Plant.
According to The Times of India, when the toxic leak turned the areas around the plant, including Ameer Ganj into a gas chamber, Polly alerted the family.
Speaking to the publication, Fahmida says, “On that fateful night, my daughter Faiza and I, and our five-month-old cat Polly slept cozily under blankets. It was rather cold so fortunately, I had closed all doors and windows, leaving one ajar near my head for fresh air. Had I left them open, it could have been certain death for all of us.”
It was at the time that strange hoarse cries from Polly woke her up from her deep sleep.
In the dimly lit room, the cat started jumping on the bed, growling, coughing and foaming at the mouth.
Fahmida, who has poor vision, as a result of the tragedy, continues, “It was suffocating in the room. When I looked up, I saw thick white clouds curling inside the room through a window I kept ajar. By this time, Faiza also got up coughing. Polly woke both of us and suddenly dived under a thick lehaaf (blanket). This was indication that we must do the same as animals have strange instinct of self-preservation. Faiza followed suit and hid herself under the blanket and slept.”
Fahmida too should have done the same, but the gut-wrenching cries of people from outside, running across the streets, coughing and hastily moving cars, pushed her to do otherwise.
“It appeared as if the Day of Requital had dawned. I opened the door leading into a drawing room with the intention of opening the front door to look around. I was not able to breathe and thought my last moment had come. Was it a case of clear atmosphere or poisonous cloud dissipated? As I was on verge of collapse, a strange thing happened. I heard a sound of someone scratching at my bedroom door. In a flash, there was ‘meow meow’.”
While she thought it was Polly yet again, she was confused as to how the cat got out in the thick smoke. She rushed to the door to open it.
And there was a gush of fresh cool breeze that revived her from the verge of collapse. It wasn’t Polly though.
“I saw my sister’s cat Shanu looking up at me. She had saved my life. My sister Farida aapa told me afterwards the cat woke them up in time. Shanu was jumping, coughing and frothing at the mouth just like Polly,” she told TOI.
That night several people lost their eyesight. But Faiza, who suffered from acute myopia, was saved, thanks to Polly; and Fahmida was gifted a saving gush of fresh air, thanks to Shanu.
34 years later, the struggle for adequate rehabilitation, compensation and medical treatments continues. But, Faiza, Fahmida and Farida remember the furry heroes who turned their saviours that night.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)