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Book Review: Amitav Ghosh’s ‘Countdown’

By Lalima Chakraverty

Title: Countdown
Author: Amitav Ghosh
Publisher: Penguin Books, 2010 

Amitav Ghosh’s Countdown is a work of nonfiction, where we find his journalistic acumen and literary prowess at its peak. The book is a key work that also reaffirms his stance of being an activist and an anthropologist. The author portrays the ideology of developing nations in their urgency to emulate the capitalist economies. Countdown describes the state of affairs in economies where power resides in the possession of a nuclear warhead. It describes the clear obsession of countries wanting to possess such armaments, and their sheer competitiveness to be equal with the economies already in possession of it. The stakes and risks of testing such bombs in emergent nations are often overlooked and disregarded.

The book is a socio-political narrative on the five nuclear devices tested by India on 11 May, 1998 and the ripples it caused later. The text explores the polygonal significance of the nuclear tests and examines the concurrent issues related to it. Ghosh comments on the content of nuclearization and its implications on the human world in a unique way, where he brings forth multiple narratives in the form of dialogues, interviews, discussions, meets, and talks. There is a wide range of conversations with people from politics, the military, scientists, journalists, and common people from all around the Indian subcontinent. Ghosh endeavours to engage his readers on the topic and spark responses from them.

A powerful analysis of the ‘bomb-cult’ from the different levels of society and nations makes the book a treasure of facts and first-hand details. The text displays a diverse spectrum of emotions, anguish, beliefs, and hopes that makes it a powerful read. The first part of the book describes a village named Khetoloi, located six kilometers away from the nuclear test site, where a villager speaks about the aftermath of the test: “Before the tests of 1974, cancer was unknown to Khetoloi.  Since that time some ten to fifteen people had died of the disease” (5). K. Subrahmanyam, the person behind India’s nuclear policy, offers a counterargument to this view, as he says, “nuclear programme is premised on the view that nuclear weapons are the currency of global power… India wants to be player and not an object of that global nuclear order” (8). The passage presents two images – one of extreme haplessness, tragedy, and destruction and the other is of pride, production, and achievement. The tussle between these two extreme situations brings into light diverse perspectives on the issue from different levels of society.

At the very beginning of the book, Ghosh lays bare the paradoxes around the nuclear test. One the one hand, the nuclear tests devastate the natural habitats, causing immense health issues and suffering to people. On the other hand, the bomb exudes “an aura of harmlessness… thought of purely as symbols…as an icon of empowerment” (Ghosh 10). This quote exemplifies the intentions of the developing countries, which try to follow the norm, set up by the powerful economies of the world and owe their allegiance to them. The belief that the possession of a nuclear bomb is a symbol of power, “a scream of self-assertion”, minimizes the catastrophic implication of nuclear arsenal, in the eyes of its supporters. The text candidly presents how the country looks at the ownership of nuclear power as a symbol of military leadership, as a significant authority in the global power structure. The supremacy of nuclear tests justifies the abject pathos and suffering of ordinary people in the pursuit of technological advancement and growth.

The next section of the book dwells on the narration of events, accompanied with biographical accounts of politicians like Mr. George Fernandes, characterized by the writer’s impeccable storytelling style. The focal point of the text lies in the way Ghosh has captured his conversations, meetings, and travels with Mr. Fernandes, the Defense Minister of the country at that time, and other political figures and key personalities.

An array of debates, political stances, and expert commentary on the rightness of the nuclear test unfolds with the narrative. The arguments provide a profound insight into the global nuclear order and each country’s stand in ratifying its position to acquire one: “A nuclear weapon acts like a million pound note…it buys you credit and that gives you the power to intimidate” (8).  Some key figures, who understand the annihilatory violence of the nuclear weapons, refute this view.  Politicians like Mr. Ram Vilas Paswan view the nuclear tests not in favour of “Indian national interest … [but] done in the interest of the party” (13). At this point, the book succeeds in bringing out the unbiased opinion of Mr. George Fernandes, the Defense Minister of the country, who acknowledges that “some day we will sink and this is not anything to do with China or Pakistan. It is because this country is cursed to put up with a leadership that has chosen to sell it for their own personal aggrandizement” (20).

In the next part of the book, Ghosh travels to military installations in the Kashmir region with Mr. Fernandes and his entourage. While interacting with military personnel, Ghosh expresses his disbelief when he becomes aware that the role of the army was minimal in the nuclear tests. The irony of the whole situation is the realization that India’s first nuclear explosions were a civilian affair, where the army played a second fiddle. This section brings to light how the Indian nuclear programme was a civilian enterprise, in which the role of the defense ministry was negligible.

Ghosh visits Surankote, an army base connecting Kashmir to India. Here he poignantly narrates the tense and unsettled feel in the region, as after Mr. Fernandes’ speech is over, he is surrounded by people, querying “for jobs, roads, schools” (25). This aspect of the book exposes the real-life situation in Kashmir, where people still long for a normal living. Ghosh’s interaction with the Generals and the army staff highlights their continuous entanglement in warlike situations on the border and their remoteness from anything apart from that.

Ghosh further journeys to Ladakh and unveils India and Pakistan’s ‘cartographic aggression’ over the Siachen Glacier that they both wish to claim. Both countries stake their soldiers’ lives and cause immense suffering to ordinary people, in a situation that is reminiscent of the Faustian will of man to achieve power and success at any cost. The paradox of the above situation becomes all the more apparent when soldiers are ready to lay down their lives in the wake of each country’s claim to maintain its territorial integrity. In this case, it is over a glacier, which “has absolutely no strategic, military or economic value” (27). Such human sacrifices are willingly accepted and hailed by all, as it stands as a symbol of progress and power. The alarming fact of the whole situation is expressed when many ruling parties in power, as a political stance, have been experimenting with nuclear technology knowing that the bomb has the fearful potentiality of self-destruction.

The last section of the book is about Ghosh’s visit to Lahore and his interview with the famous human rights lawyer, Asma Jehangir. The interview dwells on the hostilities that India and Pakistan have shared for decades in their attempt to outrival one another. The interview brings out the irony of the whole situation as ordinary citizens in both countries suffer in the name of development and technological advancement. In their quest to gain power and success, the neighbouring nations disregard the basic rights of their citizens.

Countdown is a critique of the Indian nuclear programme. The author’s aim is to understand and evaluate the image of a modern man dealing with an anti-human weapons system and anti-civilization nuclear armaments. The book assesses the current economic development of the country carried forward by war machines. Countdown is perhaps the final call to make humanity realize that it has gambled its own existence in its commitment to technology.

Countdown is available here.

Lalima Chakraverty has taught English Literature and Communication Skills at Patna Women’s College, Birla Institute of Technology, and Amity University. She has a PhD in English and has been awarded a gold medal for her Masters Research at Patna University.


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