Uday Singh’s thriller weaves story of love and revenge around fallout of 1974 Pokhran nuclear test
The train chugged along towards Delhi, and I kept wondering whether any of this would’ve happened if I hadn’t received that gift from papa at the start of the school this year.
It had been quite a few months since I had returned from my visit to Kakekapura and was unable to get over the loss of Samarjit. I was totally lost and directionless while at school or back at home, when I found this big box with an image of a television and a black pad that looked like a bunch of buttons on it, placed in the centre of my room.
“That is a gift for you!” Papa announced with a big smile. I had never seen him that excited or smile that widely before.
“What is it?” Didi and I were curious.
“It is called a personal computer. It is said that it can do most of the thinking and memorizing that humans can do,” he explained, as he started opening the box.
“This must have cost a lot of money,” I asked, not knowing how well I could use it.
“Yes. It did cost me my last year’s salary, but it will be helpful for you in all the science and mathematics that you do with Ramesh sir. I consulted Ramesh sir and he agreed that this will be useful in your education,” he continued as he took the TV like contraption out of the box and placed it on the floor.
For the next few weeks, I was glued to the computer, learning everything it had to offer and understanding the fundamentals of programming and how to use it to do things I had been doing in my head or on a piece of paper. The more I used it, the more I began to love it. Although it was no replacement for Samarjit, it was my closest, next best friend. And I found that time does heals all, even the bottomless pain and hurt from the loss of my friend.
Although I would go to school because papa wanted me to and it would make him happy, I had no desire to go there anymore. Especially with the computer at home, and Ramesh sir visiting home on a regular basis to work with me on it, I had everything I needed at home. Within the next few months, I had already built models of the solar system on the computer that could exactly predict the onset of eclipses and other planetary events. It was amazing to see planetary models play out on the computer screen.
“Why don’t you take something more complicated and challenging?” Ramesh sir pushed me to do more.
“Building the planetary model of the solar system was quite complicated having to factor in Newton’s laws, interactions of the different planets and the precise astronomical masses and distances,” I replied trying to elaborate on the complexity involved in what I had done.
“Maybe something that is equally complex and potentially useful to us,” Ramesh sir was mulling something over in his head as he spoke. Whenever he was doing that, his eyebrows would narrow in a frown and he would massage his temples with his fingers.
“Do you have something in mind for me to model?” I asked, looking for a challenge that would please Ramesh sir and papa, because those were the kind of things that really got papa excited and interested in whatever I was doing. Most other times, papa would just come home and bury himself in his work or books and papers.
“How about modelling the “Smiling Buddha” nuclear test we had right here at Pokhran, just a year before you were born?” Ramesh sir asked looking at me intently, without a smile, indicating that he was not joking.
“I don’t even know where to begin on that one,” I protested, imagining the challenge to be way beyond me.
“Remember, if the scientists who were in charge of the test could do it, then you can do it too,” he spoke reassuringly.
It had already become dark outside and papa had just come home from work. Didi burst into the room and announced, “It is dinner time! Let’s get going, Chaitu.”
“Ramesh, please join us for dinner. Papa and all of us would like it very much if you stayed and had dinner with us,” Didi asked Ramesh sir.
At the dinner table, Ramesh sir shared with papa all the computer projects and scientific models that I had created. Ever since the computer arrived in the house, such pleasant moments were a bit more common where papa would ask questions and engage on something that I had been doing. It was made even more pleasant as I worked on those things because I truly enjoyed doing them, rather than working on something just to please papa. In some measure, that work diverted my mind away from missing Devyani and Samarjit.
“Starting today, Chaitanya will be modelling the impact of the ‘Smiling Buddha’ nuclear test on the computer,” Ramesh sir mentioned casually, which made papa abruptly stop eating.
“What will that computer model predict?” Papa asked trying to mask his curiosity, while his tone betrayed it.
“Given all the right parameters and modelling assumptions, the computer should be able to predict whether there was any likelihood of nuclear fallout from the test. Of course, it will also provide the total output of the blast the temperatures at the centre of the blast, and the amount of radioactive material trapped in that crater,” Ramesh sir explained.
That level of interest and curiosity from papa was enough for me to get engaged on the task of modelling the nuclear test. It was sheer fun to pull the covers off the nuclear blast that took place right around the time I was born.
“Have you factored the type of the bomb?” Ramesh sir would ask targeted questions, guiding and channelling my thinking and efforts in the proper direction.
“How do I estimate the amount of energy released from a gram of Plutonium?” I asked sounding like a nuclear expert, having learnt more about the bomb in the past few weeks than I had known in all my life. It was surreal to think that the blast happened right in my backyard, just a few kilometres from our house.
Any time I was stuck with building the model and Ramesh sir also didn’t have an answer, he would write to his friend who was a professor at one of the big colleges in USA. Over the next few weeks, I would also write letters to Professor Gopal, who was very intelligent and knew everything there is to know about nuclear physics and nuclear bombs.
After weeks of relentless refinements, I believed that the model was ready. Given the type of the bomb, size and type of fissile material, the model would predict the explosive output and the behaviour of the particles at the subatomic level. Finally I was ready to share that model with Ramesh sir.
“Based on my model, the total output of the blast should be thirteen kilotons of TNT,” I shared my model and the results with Ramesh sir, as he began to pore over the details in front of him.
“The results of your model are higher than the official accounts as published in the newspapers at that time. The official accounts had it at twelve kilotons of TNT and the international media had it in the range of two to twenty kilotons of TNT,” he continued to speak as he inspected the details of the model.
“Let’s send the model to Gopal. He can run this against his data and tell us whether what you have built is useful from the point of being able to predict the output of nuclear bombs,” he said, finally convincing himself of the details.
In the meanwhile, papa would enquire how things were going on the model. Another first for him – I got to see him waiting in anticipation for the results of something that I was working on. I suddenly felt responsible and knew that my efforts were having an impact on him. I wanted to reveal the details and the results of the model to him, only after I was absolutely certain that it had the correct answers or at least when Ramesh sir believed it was ready for me to share with papa.
“I heard from Gopal today. He thought that your model was really thorough and was able to predict the actual outputs of all the nuclear tests, for which the data was available at MIT data repository, fairly accurately. He thinks you will have a great future at MIT, if you decide to take up your education there,” Ramesh sir came up to me at the end of the class at school, when all the students had left and as I was just about wheeling myself out.
“But, how can it be accurate? The model doesn’t predict any nuclear fallout escaping out of the nuclear blast during the ‘Smiling Buddha’ test.” I shared my findings with disappointment, as I was trying to get to the final answer that papa cared most about.
“Have you considered the depth at which the bomb was placed in the cellar dug underground?” he asked, trying to make sure that I got all the variables right.
“I had the depth at a hundred feet below the surface,” I indicated, as he agreed in agreement.
“What did you model for the type of soil?” he asked.
“Sandy soil throughout,” I replied.
“Hmm..,” he paused, as he pondered further. “We should take input from your father. He will have a better sense of the type of soil at different depths in the area based on his canal engineering efforts,” he advised.
That day, Ramesh sir accompanied didi and me all the way home as we returned from school. I could not contain myself, as I was eagerly waiting to ask papa for his input and hoped that the real details of the soil of Pokhran would show that there was in fact nuclear fallout that escaped and made its way to the population around the area. If only I knew the series of events that knowledge would unleash and ultimately lead to papa being murdered so brutally, I would’ve demolished my computer and the nuclear model right then.
“The soil is sandy till about fifty feet. Below that, it is hard clay for about forty feet, and then it is the rocky core.” That night, papa happily provided the details we were missing.
Once we incorporated that into the model, it was clear that the depth was not enough to absorb the full output of the bomb. The hard rocky shell acted as a reflector of the blast, pushing it up- wards.
“Yes, there was nuclear fallout from the blast!” I exclaimed as Ramesh sir looked on intently at the flickering computer screen. Papa was very animated to see the result of my model. His face lit up like someone who had come into light for the very first time.
“Are you really sure?” he asked looking at both Ramesh sir and me.
We both nodded, confirming that we were certain of the results, as we knew that after all the effort that had gone into building the nuclear model, and more importantly after confirming it with Gopal, that the predictions from it were very close to actual out- puts.
“I knew it!” Papa pounded the table with the rolled newspaper in his hand, as he got up.
“The scientific team that was behind this test should’ve known and shared it with the country. The political leadership at that time should’ve been informed and should’ve taken measures to clean up the fallout. More importantly the newspapers and the media who covered the blast at that time should’ve spoken up, as they have a responsibility to state the truth,” he continued to pour out his anger and frustration on everyone who was involved with the nuclear test.
“I will write to the chief scientist of that test and share the result of your model. The least they can do is acknowledge it and ensure that those that are affected by the fallout are offered the best medical treatment that is possible in this country,” he clenched his fists as he spoke.
[Extracted from the chapter 'Deeper into the Pokhran Nuclear Blast (1985-1990)']
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