from “Eyes Wide Open”
by Vaiju Naravane
There have been attempts to draw parallels between Salman Rushdie and Indra Sinha. Some of the similarities are startling — they were both born in Bombay, attended Cathedral School, went to Cambridge and became advertising executives only to give up lucrative careers in order to write full time. But there the similarities end. Unlike the much-married and gregarious Rushdie, Sinha is quintessentially a family man, deeply devoted to Vickie, his wife of 30 years and their three children. And towards the end of his career in advertising, when, aged 45, he decided to chuck it all up for writing and charity work, he had already taken a completely different route, campaigning for Amnesty International and the Bhopal Medical Appeal with ads that are even today considered amongst the best in their genre.
So what made him go towards the Amnesty and Bhopal appeals? “I think for the first 10 years proper in my career in advertising I was just having fun. London advertising in the 1970s and 80s was full of some very amusing, very clever people who all liked a good time and it was a big laugh and everyone knew each other. We had a very easy lifestyle and we were horribly spoilt, paid far too much. You only had to be seen lunching with the Creative Director of another agency and you’d be summoned by the Managing Director who said, here, have another £20,000 or something like that. It was silly money. I didn’t regard it as real and so there was no reason to open your eyes. And then we were asked to do this pitch for Amnesty and I saw all these pictures…”
Pictures of terribly tortured bodies, of hollowed out people, so gruesome they were unprintable. And that marked a change, he says. “Suddenly in the office someone says, ‘Coming for lunch?’ and you think ‘I don’t want lunch; I don’t feel like eating, I don’t feel like making jokes, I don’t feel like being amusing. I feel destroyed by what I’ve just seen’. That’s how it was.” Close on the heels of a very successful ad campaign that helped Amnesty win many new members, an activist from Bhopal, Sati or Satyunath Sarangi, walked into his life.
“Like many others I was unaware that nothing had been resolved in Bhopal. Nine years after the tragedy to learn that people were struggling on with all these illnesses, that the politicians didn’t want to know, that they’d been sold down the river by Rajiv Gandhi’s government with a settlement so feeble that the company’s share price actually leapt when the news came out… I remember it was a lovely sunny day in the Weald of Sussex when Sati told me. And suddenly I felt as if a dark cloud had descended upon us. I told Sati that the only way I could help was to write but that there was no guarantee of success.”
For a whole year Sinha struggled to find money for the ads. Taking a huge financial and personal risk he inserted a double page spread in the Guardian on the 10th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster. “When the ad actually appeared, on a drizzly week-end in December, I was in a bit of a sweat, but when Monday came along, it had covered its cost already. And then it went on to make something like 60 grand so a net profit of £48,000 — enough to buy a building, hire people. So that became the Sambhavna Clinic.” The clinic is still up and running and has treated over 30,000 patients.