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Raminder Kaur’s “Atomic Mumbai: Living with the Radiance of a Thousand Suns”. New Delhi: Routledge 2013

In Kaur on March 2, 2013 at 12:15 am

Reviewed by John Hutnyk.

This book both begins and ends with comics, but the sting is not in the tail. Rather, throughout, the disturbing words of Oppenheimer, lifted from the Bhagavad Gita, hover threateningly – it is in the title, so you know the quote will come in the text, it is relevant on every page, but it waits, with much foreboding, like the sensibility that drives the author and the immense power of the topic: ‘I am become death, the destroyer of worlds’. It is not until the very last pages that these words make their doomsayer appearance, and here is the books merit. You had me at the get go.

The book ostensibly starts with the story of a twelve-year-old boy reading a comic about a nuclear-powered superhero and I am immediately thrown back to the cartoons of my own childhood where Prince Planet, ‘with a medallion on his chest’, was all-powerful, and nuclear of course. Which naturally enough prompts an adult question: why do comic heroes in particular have such an intimate relationship with atomics and is this an ideological get-em-while-they’re-young marketing strategy or something still more aberrant? Vigilantes, law and order, planetary survival, all underpinned by a new supernatural power to rival the gods.

Beneath this mild-mannered speculation a far harsher reality of cancer deaths and poverty, a health care system wholly insufficient to requirements and a legal and legislative morass that allows criminal loopholes like an x-ray machines leaks gamma rays. Raminder Kaur’s survey of all things atomic in India is very welcome, and indeed urgent. The questions she asks press at the time, relevant both to Nehru and now: ‘how entwined are the (grand) children of the midnight hour of independence to a perception of the minutes-to-midnight scenario in the city?’ (Kaur). The city in question is Mumbai, with its nuclear research facilities and reactors. This urban anthropological study stands out as a compelling, relevant and insistent call to notice.

An archival investigation of the bomb in Bombay (the city’s old name allows the alliteration). The book documents Indian responses to atomic science from Gandhi on Hiroshima to contemporary vernacular cultural responses to geopolitical brinkmanship and the Indo-Pak tests of 1998. Along the way, newspapers, cinema, oral testimony, and as already noted, comics, and cartoons, provide the fissionable materials.

It is an anthropological study, but not so anthropological that the disciplinary protocols get in the way of the storytelling. There is one short graphing of the odourless, invisible, maleficence of radiation onto the way anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard described ‘witchcraft’ among the Azande, but the analogy is not pushed too far – since there is no consensus that radiation might be a ‘natural philosophy’. Nevertheless, the gesture of reference to one of anthropology’s ancients will be approved by some.

What has India thought of nukes? The early newspaper reportage in India after Hiroshima and Nagasaki is also a record of critique of colonialism and superpower machinations. An anti-American strain across India in response to ongoing atomic ‘tests’ in the Pacific, but on another plane there is also a Ghandian-Hegelian ‘spirit’ that posits an alternative to militant atomic science (strange bedfellows, Gandhi and Hegel) in ‘atma’, ‘stayagraha’ and ‘ahimsa’. Is this a staging of soul, truth and non-violence over against the destroyer of worlds? This is further strained through a kind of mad dialectical adaptation of H.G.Wells’ story ‘The World Set Free’  and forecasts of another war, this time nuclear, needed before humanity steps back from a mutually assured destruction to renounce war altogether. All this at the same time that Nehruvian socialism and Congress non-violence also joined hands with H.J.Bhabha’s Nuclear Energy Commission and the warm glow of technological advance was adopted to nurture the nation. A Third path through science and non-alignment would be the promise of a progressive post-independence future.

Yoga, Vishnu, Hanuman, space flight, chemistry, the Vedas, global warming, commercial markets, tilak paste, the films of Arnand Patwardhan, research reactors, spills and leaks, saffron, suits, signs and risk, the range of topics bombard us with a terrifying and convoluted story. Yet the text never leaves off worrying at its main theme – the atomic narrative as it appears from the perspective of the (many) peoples of Mumbai. Whether this be from the window of a mega-city skyscraper, from a lab in the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), a middle-class activist daughter’s household, or over a tiffin box lunch or shared tea at a stall, the view from atomic Mumbai is the story of the city retelling itself. Much more than a travel-guide or urban history, in this atomic perspective we get to know the city intimately, and – for give the pun – to its core.

Continue reading this review: NXRB Raminder Kaur’s “Atomic Mumbai: Living with the Radiance of a Thousand Suns”

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