‘Bhaag Bhari’: — A Study of Nuclear Disaster
The grim reality which typifies contemporary South Asia, with two major nuclear power states of India and Pakistan perpetually at loggerheads to set in motion irreversible processes of mass destruction, is too dismal to be portrayed only in hardcore academic writing. Fiction or rather reality-based fiction at such times is the most effective medium through which such stark reality can be captured and made available to both powerholder and the public.
Safdar Zaidi undertakes the mission to foreground the potential disaster hanging like the Sword of Damocles over the heads of 1.6 billion people. In a 416-page the author very vividly and graphically presents the horrors a nuclear war between India and Pakistan can cause. He warns it will not be confined and cannot be confined only to the two countries. In an already destabilised world where climate change with all its concomitant features of green house effect and increasing temperatures and the weather cycles badly disturbed the impact of a nuclear war can prove disastrous to the entire world.
It is in the light of such a global background that the author sets the story of Bhaag Bhari (a woman blessed by good fortune!), an Untouchable woman who is additionally a bonded labourer belonging to a village in the interior of Pakistan’s southern province of Sindh.
Typically, at a tender age she is raped by Jaffar Shah, younger brother of the Wadera Haider Shah (landlord), becomes pregnant, implores the Wadera for justice and succour but is subjected to extreme humiliation amid abuses and blows. The Wadera marries her off to an old man from her caste who dies soon after. Bhaag Bhari gives birth to a son, Sawan.
Sawan is the key protagonist in the novel. Bhaag Bhari does all she can to protect her son from harm, but the boy falls in a trap of a cleric who converts him to Islam, gives him the name Khalid. Khalid is sent to a madrassa in Karachi.
From there onwards Sawan aka Khalid is indoctrinated to hate the enemies of Islam and that sort of mindset inevitably takes him on to terrorism. The terrorism is directed at the non-Muslim minorities in Pakistan as well as the Shias, whose beliefs are found colliding with extreme Sunni dogma. A mentor for Khalid is Muaviya.
Both ardently believe that the world is unjust and unfair and as true believers in Islam it is their bounden duty to change it in accordance with the will of Allah. Khalid is sent to India where he continues with terrorist missions.
Khalid meets his mother but tells her he is a Muslim. Bhaag Bhari is shocked. Khalid however warns Haider Shah that he will have to pay a heavy price for oppressing him and his mother.
The author also examines the rise of Hindu ultra-nationalism to government and state power in India. On both sides extreme forces increasingly indulge in chauvinism and jingoism threatening each other with dire consequences. Arvind from Benares personifies the counterpart of Khalid while at the level of state and government Mr Mukherjee represents aggressive Hindu majoritarianism.
Since both India and Pakistan are armed with nuclear weapons, their rapidly deteriorating relations which could ignite a nuclear war become a matter of great concern for world powers, especially the United States. However, international concerns do not suffice and finally a nuclear exchange does take place.
The author very skillfully uses the idea of a nuclear war to warn about such an eventually. Pakistan fires a missile at Delhi at the capital of India, Delhi, which India deflects away from the megacity through the anti-missile system provided by the United States. It hits instead the Himalaya mountain range while the India missile directed against Islamabad is steered by away by the United States from the target and hits the mountains outside it.
Although major population centres are missed the nuclear exchange wreaks havoc as the temperature rises, mountains melt and river courses are disturbed causing floods, rains and the fallout of radioactive nuclear waste.
Both countries are saved from total annihilation but the consequences for human and other forms of life as well as for nature are disastrous. Sawan or Khalid dies coughing as the radiation unleashed by the nuclear blasts destroys his lungs.
Safdar Zaidi has carefully checked relevant source material and he refers to scientific and other academic studies to back up his assertions. It is truly a novel in the best traditions of realism-fiction and a major contribution to literature on the explosive situation in the Indian subcontinent.
The writer is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University; Visiting Professor Government College University; and, Honorary Senior Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. He has written a number of books and won many awards, he can be reached on [email protected]