“I love the smell of methyl isocyanate in the morning. It smells like… massive industrial negligence and corporate murder covered up by successive corrupt governments.” – Colonel Kilgore, Apocalypse Now (modified, Tom Bell)
From Aurangabad, my next destination was Bhopal, state capital of Madhya Pradesh and scene of the 1984 Union Carbide disaster, in which a leak at a chemical plant exposed over half a million people to toxic gas, killing at least 3000 instantly and subjecting countless others to health problems which continue to the present day. I didn’t go there for industrial accident tourism, though I did consider visiting the Sambhavna Trust to find out more about the disaster and its lasting effects (unfortunately, due to the events below, I didn’t have time). I mainly wanted to use it as a base to visit Sanchi and Bhimbetka, both within day trip distance.
To reach Bhopal, I had to go via Indore. That meant a very uncomfortable ride on a nasty sleeper bus, infested with mosquitos and cockroaches. I couldn’t do anything useful, either sleeping or writing, because even on smooth roads, the bus jerked and shuddered along appallingly. And mostly the road wasn’t smooth. If it wasn’t potholes, we were going over clusters of multiple speed bumps. Because what Indian roads need are more bumps. Thanks for that, Maharashtra Road Development Corporation, you bunch of utter twats.
I arrived in Indore in the morning, having had no sleep. A mob of autorickshaw drivers seemed to attack the coach as it entered the bus terminal, like a scene from a post-apocalyptic film where rioting crowds tip over vehicles. One of them was pointing at me, shouting, as if he’d laid claim to me, like I was goods being offloaded from a truck. I ignored him and went to one of the travel company offices lining the terminal, to ask about a connecting bus to Bhopal. They didn’t run them from here, so I would have to get an autorickshaw to another bus stand (they never have just one bus stand) to catch the next one from there. When I went back out, my possessive auto driver was waiting. I looked around but all the other drivers were now throwing themselves at the side of another coach, just arriving. I could have waited, but I was tired and wanted to get going, so I let him win. Next time I’ll be stronger.
Indore to Bhopal was meant to be a relatively short local service – a mere three hours. What the bus people didn’t tell all the passengers before they got on, was that they needed to make a two hour stop halfway through the journey, to replace the bus’s wheels, while we were still on it. I’m not sure anyone would have been happy getting on the bus, knowing that there was a problem with the wheels which was only due to be fixed 100 km further down the road. But after the two hour service was completed, and we set off, the wheels (replaced with reconditioned old ones, not new ones) seemed worse than before. One was clunking every time it went round. The driver looked at it, and carried on. Then, a louder clank and grinding noise. The driver looked again, carried on. It seemed fine for a while, then an enormous bang, and the driver pulled over and gave up. We all had to get off and wait for the next bus to come along on the same route. We eventually got to Bhopal after eight hours. Did I mention it was swelteringly hot? And the bus was packed. I was lucky to have a seat. And an Indian fell asleep on my shoulder.
I finally got to Bhopal, where I’d booked a hotel conveniently close to the bus stand. But guess what? The bus from Indore didn’t stop at that bus stand. So I got another packed bus between the bus stands. I was crammed into a tiny space, with my knees crushed against the seat in front. By the time I got to the hotel, it was too late in the day to do anything, like visit the Sambhavna Trust or try to see if there’s anything else of interest in Bhopal, and I was exhausted, so I just monged out on the bed and watched The Wedding Crashers on Indian TV.