Monday, November 3, 2008

The alternative to my nuclear Ark

The Times of India, Friday, May 31, 2002
The alternative to my nuclear Ark
by Sonia Jabbar

Somebody, please build me an Ark. It should be large and capacious, able to accommodate not only my family and friends and the chance acquaintance, but also the neem and gulmohur trees in front of my house, a pair of Indian elephants, Bengal tigers, Himalayan bulbuls and rose-ringed parakeets, my books and CDs, my dogs, my friends' dogs, and any other sentient being on this subcontinent wishing to leave.
I don't particularly want to sail away from my beloved land, but at this juncture the alternative on offer doesn't really inspire confidence.

Amidst the sabre-rattling, the battle cries and the glib talk of a limited war, which may escalate into a nuclear exchange, comes this reassuring piece of news: the DRDO [*] has developed a portable nuclear shelter usable for 30 people up to 96 hours, equipped with its own power supply, toilets and water tanks. This is the alternative to my Ark.

We must rank first among the loony nations. Until yesterday we were witness to our government's inability to contain the Gujarat carnage, and today we blindly trust it to navigate us through a possible nuclear holocaust unscathed - assisted by portable nuclear shelters. Naturally, neither the government nor the DRDO elaborates what would happen to the shelter were it to be three to 30 miles within the radius of the blast; whether it would be able to withstand the temperatures rising over 300,000 degrees Celsius? This government has long since abdicated responsibility of answering such questions. Trifling questions, perhaps, when it comes to defending the nation's honour, but which must be answered.

The most honourable, patriotic, nationalistic people were the Japanese; ever ready to die for land and the Emperor until Hiroshima put an end to all that nonsense. Taketa San is a man every Indian should meet. I met him in '98 right after our nuclear tests.
He was barely in his teens when the Americans nuked Hiroshima. They lived out in the suburbs, but his sister was in the city that day and they bundled her home in a wheelbarrow. He spoke to us in Japanese, but from the tears flowing down his cheeks and the eloquent gestures of his hands I knew immediately that his sister was among the thousands whose skin had peeled off and had hung down from raw flesh like rags.

Her death many hours later had been excruciatingly painful. Taketa San keeps the memory of that tortuous day alive, like a festering wound. Even though it must cost him physically, mentally, emotionally to do so, he recreates it afresh each time for a new audience so that we must feel what he felt, must feel the horror of it in our bones, so that we never, ever allow it to happen again.

For those who lack a sense of history to temper their bravado: The American A-bomb dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a prototype, a crude and smaller version of the kinds of nuclear weapons we have in our possession today, and yet it killed over 200,000 people, many instantly, and many more slowly and painfully.

A recent study conducted by Dr M V Ramana and his team at Princeton showed that a limited nuclear war between India and Pakistan, using only a tenth of the weapons in their possession, would kill or injure over four million people. Many would die in the immediate blast. Others would suffer slower deaths from burns and radiation. The truly unfortunate would take their lifetime dying slowly, a lifetime searching vainly for water in the sere, treeless nuclear wastelands.

Admittedly, one good thing about the bomb is that it is perfectly democratic. So whether you're the Raja of Race Course Road or the Leper of Lodhi, you get fried and no money in the world can bribe your way out of this mess. Also, it is perfectly incurable. One small dose of radioactivity - and there's much of that around with the mega-bombs - and cancer with impressive keloids could be your lot. As for your children, should they survive, and their children's children, factor in the radioactive lifespan of Plutonium 239, which has a half-life of 24,000 years, and then hedge your bets. India, as we know it, would be over. This wonderful, mad, exuberant civilisation, which took over 5,000 years to build, could be destroyed in under five minutes.

On second thoughts I'm not so sure I'd set sail on the Ark after all. What if half way across the globe I'd suddenly remember the smell of the earth after the first monsoon showers, and know I'd never smell that smell again. And if I were to recall Phooli, my cleaning lady, who for some reason couldn't come along, who bore her poverty with dignity and a toothless grin... or Humayun's tomb or the Sal forests of the Terai which would surely be no more, I know my heart would shatter into a million irreparable pieces.

No, I think the alternative to my Ark would be to figure out where exactly the first bomb was going to drop and then to set up camp right there in the middle of it. Chances are, I would be vaporised immediately. And you, who will still choose the path to the DRDO shelter, consider this: that as your 96th hour draws to a close you may just envy me my fate.

[*] Defence Research and Development Organisation (India)

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