In India, a maddening calm

Far from her homeland and tormented by the threat of war, a California woman wonders how her family can remain sanguine in the nuclear shadow.

By Rashmi Sinha
Published June 7, 2002 7:44PM (EDT)

I gave in and made the call yesterday, the call I had been dreading for the past few days. What is the proper way to inquire of loved ones (on the phone) whether they are taking precautions in case of nuclear war? Miss Manners has no etiquette guide for that particular situation.

Although my century-old ancestral home in the state of Uttar Pradesh boasts several dark, old airtight rooms with lots of rats, they would not make very good bomb shelters. And the news is that the Indian government is manufacturing portable bomb shelters, with toilets and all. But I am not quite convinced that the shelters would be effective. Moreover, they are available only for defense personnel and not manufactured for the general public. There is no demand from the Indian public, the government says.

But I was dreading the call for another reason: I was sure I would be laughed at and told: "You have been watching too much American media." And I was guilty as charged. The political pundits going on about "armies standing eyeball to eyeball" and two nations "near the nuclear brink" had not fazed me. Nor had the reporters that, without ever talking to a Kashmiri, described that land as "the most dangerous place in the world."

No, I was doing fine when they were discussing the nuclear threat in general. But when they attached numbers to those dangers (3 million deaths, which increased to 12 million and counting) and estimated how far the radiation would spread, it started getting to me. I have estimated that most of the people I know and love are within the danger radius.

So I dialed the numbers and plaintively asked: "Will there be war?" Across the Atlantic and many countries, my brother was quiet for a moment. And then he replied: "You are talking politics on the phone again. Of course there will not be war! And how are you doing?" I persisted, asking what his plans were in case of war. He dismissed the question, saying that he would not be able to take leave, and so Delhi is where he would be. And then continued nonchalantly about his weekend plans.

I tried my mother next: "So, are you worried about the possibility of nuclear war?" She thought for a moment and said: "Well, people have been talking about it ..."

I wanted to scream in exasperation. The whole world (at least the American media) is scrutinizing every move made by both countries, and you're talking about it? I hope so. But I probed hopefully: "Have you made any contingency plans?" I explained that I was referring to hoarding food, water, medical supplies, etc. After all, though they're not so close to the border, they're well within range of the missiles. She implied that she and my father had discussed the idea once in the past few days. And continued in her quiet way: "There is nothing we can really do. If it is meant to happen, it will. And if it does, then there is no point preparing ..."

I wanted to tear my hair in frustration. In the United States I know so many people who start hoarding food and other essentials at the slightest emergency. I know people who spent tens of thousands of dollars on building bomb shelters during the '80s, just in case. And Indians, faced with their own Cuban missile crisis, or worse, are calmly going about their business.

My parents were still planning to go to Bombay, the financial capital of India and a likely target in any nuclear exchange. My brother was focused on his weekend plans. While I, in far-away California, was getting more stressed every hour, on the hour, with the grave voice of NPR news reminding me that "India and Pakistan are closer to the brink."

The fatalism of Indians never ceases to amaze me. What do you say to a people who refuse to worry -- even when they are educated and understand the horrors of nuclear war -- when they're faced with that possibility? "It's the Indian attitude," a friend offered. It is a stoic approach to life, accepting the problems life brings, refusing to be bowed down by them. It's an attitude that makes them totally unprepared for earthquakes. But it is also an attitude that lets them live while they are alive.

This fatalistic attitude is tempered by the understanding that this is a drama staged by Indian and Pakistani leaders. They're like two medieval knights who don their coats of arms, mount their horses, unsheathe their swords, and do all but charge at each other -- because to charge is unthinkable. There have been so many instances of going to the brink that the brink has been redefined in Indian and Pakistani minds.

It's an attitude that exasperates the Indian anti-nuclear lobby and the peace activists. How do you do anti-nuclear lobbying in a country where even the educated and well informed are calm while the rest of the world waits with bated breath?

It's an attitude that I seem to have lost after many years of living away from India. I confess, I did go to the grocery store to stock up on water, food, and batteries before the millennium. And we do have an earthquake routine in our California house. If I were in India right now, I feel as if I would be headed south, out of missile range. Or maybe the sanguine attitude there would affect me as it seems to have affected all the Americans there, and I would ignore the State Department's travel advisory like a wayward child, forcing it to issue sterner warnings.

Rashmi Sinha

Rashmi Sinha is a lecturer in the School of Information Management at the University of California, Berkeley.

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India Pakistan