Under The Nuclear Shadow

Photograph of Arundhati Roy

When India and Pakistan conducted their nuclear tests in 1998, even those of us who condemned them, balked at the hypocrisy of the Western nuclear powers. Implicit in their denunciation of the tests was the notion that blacks cannot be trusted with the Bomb. Now we are presented with the spectacle of our governments competing to confirm that belief.

This week as diplomats' families and tourists quickly disappeared from the subcontinent, journalists from Europe and America arrived in droves. Most of them stay at the Imperial Hotel in Delhi. Many call me. "Why are you still here?" they ask. "Why haven't you left the city? Isn't nuclear war a real possibility? Isn't Delhi a prime target?" If nuclear weapons exist then nuclear war is a real possibility. And Delhi is a prime target. It is.

But where shall we go? Is it possible to go out and buy another life because this one's not panning out?

If I go away and everything and every one -- every friend, every tree, every home, every dog, squirrel and bird that I have known and loved is incinerated -- how shall I live on? Who shall I love? And who will love me back? Which society will welcome me and allow me to be the hooligan I am, here, at home?

We've decided we're all staying. We huddle together. We realise how much we love each other. And we think, what a shame it would be to die now. Life's normal, only because the macabre has become normal. While we wait for rain, for football, for justice, on TV the old generals and the eager boy anchors talk of first strike and second strike capability, as though they're discussing a family board game.

My friends and I discuss Prophecy, the film of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The fireball. The dead bodies choking the river. The living stripped of skin and hair. The singed, bald children, still alive, their clothes burned into their bodies. The thick, black, toxic water. The scorched, burning air. The cancers, implanted genetically, a malignant letter to the unborn. We remember especially the man who just melted into the steps of a building. We imagine ourselves like that. As stains on staircases. I imagine future generations of hushed schoolchildren pointing at my stain... that was a writer.

I'm sorry if my thoughts are stray and disconnected, not always worthy. Often ridiculous. I think of a little mixed-breed dog I know. Each of his toes is a different colour. Will he become a radioactive stain on a staircase too? My husband's writing a book on trees. He has a section on how figs are pollinated. Each fig only by its own specialised fig wasp. There are nearly a thousand different species of fig wasps, each a precise, exquisite, synchrony, the product of millions of years of evolution.

All the fig wasps will be nuked. Zzzz. Ash. And my husband. And his book...

A dear friend, who is an activist in the anti-dam movement in the Narmanda Valley, is on indefinite hunger strike. Today is the twelfth day of her fast. She and the others fasting with her are weakening quickly. They are protesting because the government is bulldozing schools, felling forests, uprooting handpumps, forcing people from their villages. What an act of faith and hope. But to a government comfortable with the notion of a wasted world, what's a wasted value?

The threshold of horror has been ratcheted up so high that nothing short of genocide or the prospect of nuclear war merits mention. Displacement, dispossession, starvation, poverty, disease -- these are now just the funnies, the comic-strip items. Our Home Minister says the key to India's development is not education and health but defence. Perhaps what he really meant was that war is the key to distracting the world's attention from fascism and genocide. To avoid dealing with any single issue of real governance that urgently needs to be addressed. For the governments of India and Pakistan, Kashmir is not a problem, it's their perennial and spectacularly successful solution.

Meanwhile, the International Coalition Against Terror makes war and preaches restraint. While India and Pakistan bay for each other's blood the coalition is quietly laying gas pipelines, selling its weapons and pushing through their business deals. Buy now, pay later. Britain, for example, is busy arming both sides. Tony Blair's "peace" mission a few months ago was actually a business trip to discuss a one million pound deal to sell Hawk fighter-bombers to India. Roughly, for the price of a single Hawk bomber, the government could provide over a million people with clean drinking water for life.

"Why isn't there a peace movement?" Western journalists ask me ingenuously. How can there be a peace movement when, for most people in Indai, peace means a daily battle: for food, for water, for shelter, for dignity? War, on the other hand, is something professional soldiers fight far away on the border. No one knows what a nuclear bomb is. No one cares to explain. Part of me feels grateful that most people here don't have any notion of the horrors of nuclear war. Why should they, on top of everything else they go through, have to suffer the terror of anticipating a nuclear holocaust? And yet, it is this ignorance that makes nuclear weapons so much more dangerous. It is this ignorance that makes "deterrence" seem like a terrible joke.

The last question every visiting journalist always asks me is: "Are you writing another book?" That question mocks me. Another book? Right now? When it looks as though all the music, the art, the architecture, the literature, the whole of human civilisation means nothing to the monsters who run the world. What kind of book should I write?

It's not just the one million soldiers on the border who are living on hair-trigger alert. It's all of us. That's what nuclear bombs do. Whether they're used or not, they violate everything that is humane. They alter the meaning of life itself. Why do we tolerate them? Why do we tolerate these men who use nuclear weapons to blackmail the entire human race?


© Arundhati Roy 2002

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