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Nuclear apocalypse

March 17, 2019

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The writer is an international commercial lawyer based in Karachi
The writer is an international commercial lawyer based in Karachi

THE Indian air strikes at Balakot on Feb 26 and Pakistan’s retaliation the next day brought India and Pakistan to the brink of nuclear war like never before. It is the first time in history that two nuclear-armed states carried out air strikes against each other in a situation so volatile that it could have conceivably got out of hand and led to a nuclear apocalypse. Hence, the most surprising aspect of the recent escalation of tensions is the laissez-faire attitude of the Indian media and some sections of the common populace on both sides of the border in talking about the strikes (including possible nuclear strikes) which revealed a stark cultural disconnect from the grim realities of a nuclear war.

In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War and in the backdrop of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the American author E.B. White’s comment in the New Yorker on Aug 18, 1945 gave the world a sense of irreversible change and the dangers facing humanity when he wrote, “for the first time in our lives, we can feel the disturbing vibrations of complete human readjustment. Usually the vibrations are so faint as to go unnoticed. This time they are so strong that even the ending of a war is overshadowed”.

In the decades since the end of the Second World War, the irreverent power of the atomic bomb and its ability to bring the world, and with it humanity, to an end has occupied many storytellers, novelists and filmmakers. This is because literature reflects upon cultural aspects in an attempt to change them which, in turn, leads to new literary developments. Much of the Cold War literature diverged from the prevailing aesthetic norms of its times in an attempt to influence episodic, anecdotal and emergent history. And, whereas, holocaust literature recounts hitherto unfathomable atrocities from the past, the majority of nuclear fiction imagines an apocalypse yet to come as a result of man’s obsession with war using dangerous weapons.

There’s hardly any nuclear fiction from the subcontinent.

Stanley Kubrick, in describing his motivation behind his film Dr Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, said “it was very important to deal with this problem dramatically because it’s the only social problem where there’s absolutely no chance for people to learn anything from experience”. Similarly, Nevil Shute’s novel On the Beach was the author’s attempt to warn the world of the dangers of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of smaller states as if the larger states would be more responsible with their weapons, a hypothesis painfully contradicted by recent Indian behaviour. Ultimately, literature helps one fathom the unfathomable. The doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction is only a doctrine until one reads a story of human misery, death and destruction involving it.

Interestingly, the vast majority of Cold War literature has been Western, with the bulk of it being American. Russian writers were slow to start writing about nuclear war primarily because of severe censorship rules while Stalin was alive and also because the USSR was not seen as an aggressor country that had used atomic weapons. Perhaps the most famous Russian nuclear war fiction is the film Letters from a Dead Man in which a dim sky sets the scene of total destruction where humans languish in wet cellars during a nuclear winter.

Nevertheless, there is very little, if any, nuclear fiction emanating from the Indian subcontinent. Apart from the fact that the post Second World War years saw the subcontinent embroiled in its own existential struggle as a result of its newfound independence from the British empire, the threat of a nuclear war simply did not and still does not weigh on the minds of ordinary citizens. This, in turn, leads to callous jingoism and war-mongering similar to what we saw from the Indian media during the recent crisis that can itself precipitate a nuclear war. Therefore, there is an urgent need in the subcontinent to internalise the abject human misery associated with nuclear war like age-old wisdom and common sense.

The Cuban Missile Crisis spawned varied nuclear fiction and satire which not only highlighted the dangers of nuclear brinkmanship but also denounced the cultural forces that made such dangerous practices acceptable. One can only hope that the recent escalation of tensions between Pakistan and India will yield similar fiction and films that permeate social consciousness on both sides and educate and change our attitudes towards a nuclear apocalypse.

Until then, the finest instruments of our own technology that are hell bent on destroying us may well defeat our gallant spirit and the oxymoron that is humanity. Thus, in the words of the American poet John Gery, now is the time for the subcontinent’s storytellers “to confront annihilation’s otherness without capitulating to its seductive power”.

The writer is an international commercial lawyer based in Karachi

Published in Dawn, March 17th, 2019