The shape of a mushroom cloud

As a child, one of the things that fascinated me was that the two atomic bombs which were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (on August 6 and 9, 1945) had names: Little Boy and Fat Man. That things so destructive could be called something, especially something so playful, even irreverent, as if they were nicknames for kids I played with, struck me as incredible. But, like many private truths discovered in childhood, few around me I knew were interested in my discoveries. Over time, with a child’s possessiveness for secrets and a taste for competition, I believed those names told me more than they told my classmates about how the world was truly constituted. For me, those names became trivia to be used in a quiz competition or as means to impress my parents’ friends at dinner parties with my precocity should talk ever turn to war or atomic bombs. But talk among my prospective audience rarely veered to atom bombs or Japan. While the Cold War’s peace was largely kept thanks to the logic of mutually assured destruction by nuclear weapons, few in my middle-class Indian childhood wondered aloud about the shadow of annihilation under which we lived.

An illusion of knowledge

Undeterred, however, with the patience of a stamp collector, I accumulated more obscure details about the atomic bomb: the Little Boy designs were decommissioned well before the mid 1950s, the name Fat Man came from the novel The Maltese Falcon , the original goal was to bomb Kokura but cloud cover led the Americans to Nagasaki. Names, personas, histories, and so on. I thought about them every so often on my way from school, cycling amidst the grime and smoke of traffic, burdened by homework, with the melancholy of a con artist who couldn’t share his secrets with the world. During one of those rides, what struck me as incredible was the possibility that one could know history, even something so concrete and all-powerful as an atomic bomb, through a collection of facts.

Somewhere amidst this childhood obsession with atomic bombs was an emergent recognition that the more facts I knew about the world, the more the world would become comprehensible. To understand what I saw all around me, I told myself that all I needed were facts, numbers, hierarchies. Where did this idea come to me, I cannot say. But by my fourth or fifth grade, collecting facts irrelevant to my daily living — the capital of Liechtenstein is Vaduz, the temperature of the universe was 4 degree in the Kelvin scale, and so on — became an abiding passion. Similarly, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the numbers killed, and technical details of the bombs used were filed away in the storehouse of my mind. Neatly, like some easily retrievable piece of paper, which gave me the illusion of knowledge.

It wasn’t until three decades later when I happened upon Kenzaburo Oe’s masterful narrative on Hiroshima (which, in turn, I discovered thanks to The New Yorker editor David Remnick’s moving essay on Oe and his son Hikari Oe’s autism) that I realised how little I actually understood. On reading Oe, I was slowly filled with a sense of shame as he calmly chronicled the sufferings that followed, the dignity of the survivors, or the innumerable small and large personal storms into which many lives capsized. Amidst all those facts on the atom bombs, I had somehow glided past the eternal brutality about that blinding violence that incinerated men and even ashes into nothingness. Somehow, over those years of reading, the technicalities of mass murder had intrigued me more than the nature of suffering that followed. That I had never found the imagination or energies to think of what happened in those cities filled me with a private recognition of how profoundly amoral was the kind of knowledge I had accumulated.

Beyond words

I had mistakenly thought information was understanding, reading was recognition, and that numbers conveyed magnitude. What I had missed was that at the extremes of human experience — such as an atomic bomb — words become deformed. Their meaning and their context fold into themselves, revealing the emptiness at the core of all our constructs. It is hard not to conclude that our conventional vocabulary has no means of articulating the singular horrors of atomic wars. It is this recognition that makes the present war of words between Washington, D.C. and Pyongyang all the more indistinguishable from a theatrical preview for the macabre. It is one part posturing for effects, and another a litany of bureaucratic euphemisms for death.

This tendency to be loose with words and looser with their meaning is not solely a forte of distant political or military rulers. It permeates across society, including our education system, media discourse, and self-descriptions where technical and commercial vocabulary substitute for moral conscientiousness. The result is a kind of milky white blandness that afflicts many, especially among the upwardly mobile in the developing world. In their scramble to educate themselves, to control their environs, to escape their middling lives, they find solace in the enumerable, the quantifiable, and in the manipulable. Many of their capacities for imagining the suffering of the other — a quality typically often developed in close- knit communities, castes, or communities — are slowly effaced for this instrumental knowledge that produces an illusion of control even if it leads to a mushroom cloud on the horizon.

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