What Is It About the Death of 70 Kids in Gorakhpur That's Eating My Heart and Soul?

Are these children just a piece of news, some numbers, data? Or a legacy of 70 years of apathy that runs in my – and everybody else’s – free veins?


Oxygen cylinders. Credit: UNICEF

India has one of the worst infant mortality rates in the world. It has fallen in recent decades but is still about a little over 40 deaths per 1000 children born. Four children out of 100 in India will die for no reason and become statistics. On any day, go to a stadium filled with 40,000 spectators watching a one-day cricket match. Now imagine 1600 of them lying dead on the pitch. That’s the number of kids we kill on an average and we don’t even blink. My eyelids are also included in that apathetic group that doesn’t like to blink.

We are like that, we don’t care. We know people die all the time and we can do nothing about it. Children are also little people, who will either grow up and die or die before they grow up. However, some deaths do affect us – all deaths are equal but some deaths are more equal than others.

So what is it about the 70 kids who died in Gorakhpur that is eating my heart and soul? What’s so special about them? Nothing actually, they are just a piece of news, some numbers, data. A legacy of 70 years of apathy that runs in my free veins – and in everybody else’s too.

But then, there is so much more to it. It’s something in the air that I breathe. It’s something in the water that I drink. It’s something in the sights that I see. It’s something in the voices that I hear. It’s like arsenic and it’s slowly eating my being.

Like a disciplined screenwriter, let me start by putting the conflict right at the beginning – in front of my audience. It happened around 5 pm. I was playing with my three-and-a-half-year-old son, who was insisting I step out of my apartment and play with him in the ground. I was trying to make excuses to not step out as I was writing through the day and had neither showered and nor was in the mood to. I had already heard that 30 kids had died due to lack of oxygen in a government hospital in Gorakhpur, but didn’t pay much attention to it. It was a good day for me as I had written some stuff that I liked.

Then my wife switched on the news on TV. I was still not paying attention. I was busy wrestling with my son on the couch, who, by the way, was winning. He was playing the part of a blue octopus and I was a red shark. I challenged him, saying it was my turn to start winning. I held him in my arms and slammed him on the soft couch. Then I held him close to my chest as he giggled, trying to free himself. Right then, on TV, I saw a man being interviewed. He had lost his child in that hospital in Gorakhpur. As far as I can remember, this is what he said:

The oxygen had finished at the hospital and then they me gave some balloon looking pump which I was supposed to continuously press so that my child could breathe. I pressed it for three-four hours and then my child died.

Let me cut to a flashback sequence here.

A few years ago, a screenwriter friend and I were having a conversation. We were discussing ‘What is the worst way to punish a man’. We talked for a while, until I said something, to which my friend instantly agreed, that that was possibly the worst way to punish a man. What I told him was something I had possibly seen in a movie. Let me narrate what it was. The worst punishment would be to make a child stand on his father’s shoulders under a tree, throw a rope over the branch, tie one of its ends to the trunk of the tree, make a noose on the other end and put it around the child’s neck. Then, tie the father’s hands and feet so that he can’t move. After that, tie the child’s hands behind his back and then just leave. Watch the drama from a distance.

If the father moves even a little, his child will fall. His body weight, helped by gravity, would be enough to snap his neck. Or worse, it won’t snap his neck but will make the suffering last longer. In those few minutes of excruciating suffering, the noose would the cut the supply of oxygen to his lungs and then he would die.

Imagine what that father would go through. He would keep standing for hours. He knows his child’s life depends on him. If he gives up, his child dies. His feet would tremble, his knees would give in, his back would stiffen, his shoulders would scream for help. His eyes would lose light, his head would be splitting, his mouth would be dry, his heart would try it’s best to pump blood to his veins. And he wouldn’t give up. He would stand there – hours would pass and he would not give up, waiting for some help that might come from somewhere. But then, the help wouldn’t come. He might not give up but soon his body would. And he would fall, and his fall would surely kill his child, killing everything that was alive inside him. What a sadistic punishment for the father. The kind only a Bollywood villain could dream up.

A father cradles his child at the BRD hospital, Gorakhpur. Credit: PTI

That’s exactly how that man on TV – who was pumping air into his dying child’s lungs – would have felt. He tried for three-four hours, he tried his best. His palms must have become sore, his wrists must have started hurting, maybe he and his wife took turns. Maybe he doesn’t remember for how long he pumped or maybe he lied. Maybe it was not three-four hours, maybe it was two-three hours. There are a lot of maybe’s in the scenario – except one. He knew for sure that if he stopped pumping, his child would die. And because his child died I know for sure that he will hold himself responsible for his child’s death. After all, it is his fault, because it was he who stopped pumping. But who gave him this punishment? Was it fate? Was it god? Was it the hospital authorities or was it our government?

Have all of you forgotten where I was? I am still holding my little son close to my chest, playing fake wrestling. But in a moment all that laughter and giggling was smashed to pieces. The first thought that came to my head was that that kid could have been my son. That father could have been me.

I was so frightened, I can’t explain it. I hugged my son so hard, he screamed and I had to let him go. Then a deep sadness took over me, which persisted as I sat there uncomfortably numb. Then I was angry. I wanted to do something. I wanted someone to pay for this. I wanted things to change. It was personal.

I made my opinion clear to everyone – in person, on social media, anywhere I could. But what happened next is what is eating my heart and my soul. My friends, batchmates, my colleagues – some of them, I realised, didn’t share my anger. They weren’t even concerned. First they called my anger an overreaction. Then they started coming up with excuses like ‘did Yogi stop the oxygen himself to kill these children?’ or ‘not a single death was because of no oxygen, these are all normal deaths due to various diseases’ or ‘this is all propaganda to taint the Yogi government’ etc.

Since people around me know that I am opposed to Narendra Modi’s politics, soon they all started attacking me. Telling me that I need to think positive (think positive?). That there is great work happening in the country which I can’t see because I have put on blinders. India has changed completely in last three years. A positive attitude is all that I need. I kept reminding them that this was about our 70 dead children. But none of those ‘some’ people cared or listened. For them, these 70 deaths are not the problem. For them, the problem is the opposition and the media that is ‘politicising’ these deaths. Then followed a barrage of fake explanations on WhatsApp, most probably written by the BJP IT cell, explaining the reasons behind the deaths of these 70 children. Each and every one covering a different angle. Some talked about the track records of past government, some about the REAL reason behind these deaths, some about the politics that Congress is playing, some blamed the Lutyens media and one forward was about how great a city Gorakhpur is, all thanks to the yogi.

They told me that an enquiry is happening at the highest level and that when you question them, when you say ‘post-mortems are not happening, how will they determine the cause of death?’, they will reply, ‘don’t you trust Modi?’

By the end of all this, I was called anti national, jihadi, sickular, Leftist, anti-Modi and what not. I sat in my room, helpless, thinking, why I was angry about the death of the 70 kids? No one else is, everybody is okay. It’s news, just like any other news, that keeps breaking and changing every hour.

Then I remembered that father again. The father who pumped air manually to his child’s lungs for three-four hours until his body gave up. That father who will never ever get over his trauma. Those parents who have lost their children, who will never see their children laugh or cry again.

Oxygen cylinders. Credit: Mike Gabelmann/Flickr CC 2.0

It’s not those 70 dead kids that is eating my heart and my soul, it’s the apathy of our society. People who support Modi are not eating my heart and soul, but these supporters, who have forgotten, that in supporting him, they have started opposing their own country and its people. It’s not the manipulative WhatsApp messages that are eating my heart and soul, it’s the people who believe them, because they want to believe them.

It seems like the past is eating into our present and the future of our children. Where were you when this happened, where were you when that happened – everybody talks in slogans. Everybody wants to win an argument. Everybody has a ‘whatabout’. ‘Whatabout’ is the weapon of choice these days. You can stab with it, you can shoot with it, you mix it in a drink to poison minds. We live in the age of ‘whatabout’. ‘Whatabout’ will soon provide food to the poor, it will give employment to the youth, it will send satellites into space. What we Indians couldn’t do in last 70 years, ‘whatabout’ will do for us. It’s a great app. It’s a Yoga pose. It’s in cow’s milk that will soon cure cancer. ‘Whatabout’ is the future. As we all know ‘whatabout’ has already won elections, it will soon change our constitution.

The preamble of our constitution would change soon, it would not start with: We, The People Of India. But I, The Whatabout Of India.

I refuse to believe that the people who are supporting the establishment are naïve or gullible. I believe all of them are accomplices in this massive cover up. The cover up of the murder of 70 innocent children. I am now sure we have lost our moral compass as a society if we can’t even see the dead bodies of children. I believe, if your heart doesn’t bleed after seeing dead children, there is something seriously wrong with you and your heart can never bleed for your country.

Because a country is not a piece of land – a country is its people. Dead or alive.

Darab Farooqui is a screenplay writer and wrote the screenplay for Dedh Ishqiya.