Monamie Bhadra Haines
At the threshold of meeting
Let us linger at this moment before we meet, this space of anticipation and apprehension and possibility, before you invite me in or shun me, before we assign each other categories, before we harden our minds in judgment. Let us run our fingers against the door, passing invisibly on either side. Let us yearn for acceptance without conditions even as we recognize its impossibility. Let us be open to each other’s language, so I might comprehend your fears, desires, and experiences, and you mine. Let us be brave, and reveal our weaknesses and insecurities, and be humble when we demonstrate strength. And above all, let us meditate on peace, and hope that once the doors are opened, violence will not follow.
Murmurs outside the India Gate
You, Government of India, may ask in the spirit of friendship/curiosity/suspicion/indifference/fear who I am. But even before the question of identity passes your lips, you hesitate at the door, squint through the peephole. Why am I here at your doorstep, asking to be let in? Shall I repeat to you now what I have written in the application for my research visa? If I say, “I wish to conduct dissertation research funded by the American Institute of Indian Studies at the University of Chicago on the political and social dimensions of nuclear energy in India,” would you, Government of India, open the door? As seven copies of my application are flung to seven corners of the Indian bureaucracy, I keep ringing the doorbell and wait and think of all that that remains unsaid, of how it is about nuclear energy and so much more. But there is never a line on the application to write of these matters…
Before you let me in, then, let me try to lay myself bare, so we can start from a place of candor.
Ask me anything and I will answer.
The United States of America, and the State of Texas know me as Monamie Bhadra Haines. Arizona State University and all my academic affiliations know me by my maiden name, Monamie Bhadra. Perhaps you will allow me this little feminist affectation? But, for you to know who I am, Government of India, you want to know of my family. You need the assurance that my lineage runs long and straight through India, avoiding detours in Pakistan, Bangladesh, or Afghanistan, all places terrorism could seep into our bloodlines. And if I can prove my political purity, you will want to know I belong to a “good” and “upright” family.
Let me give it a try.
My father (or Baba, as we call him) is the eldest son of a homeopathic doctor, who died of a brain lesion in 2005, and his wife, who died of a stroke in 2003. Both passed away in their house in Kolkata. But I know the death of Indians in India is not enough to prove my Indianness. Birth is key, but for me, is murky. My grandparents were born in a village in present-day Bangladesh. During Partition, my grandparents fled with an assortment of my grandmother’s younger siblings to West Bengal, and gave birth to my father there. I hasten to add that we have no ties to Bangladesh anymore—well, maybe a sibling or two of my grandmother’s. But we haven’t spoken to them in ages.
Will you still let me in?
You may want to know what kind of man my father was, because in your eyes, I bear the sins and virtues of my family. May I tell you what he was like as a boy? I like to remember his childhood, because it reminds me of the person he used to be. If you like him, maybe you will be more disposed to like me.
Baba was a dreamer. When Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, he crowed the good news to his friends, hoping they would share in his awe and wonder. Instead they balked; Baba was not right in the head, they thought, and no longer invited Baba to play cricket and football. Although friends were few, there were books aplenty, and Baba devoured books about science fiction, science and technology. And his time at the famed Ramakrishna Mission only whetted his appetite. Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke were his muses, Homi J. Bhabha and Satyendra Nath Bose were his heroes, and the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore was his soul.
You see, my father embodies the “scientific temperament” Nehru tried so hard to instill in newly sovereign Indians. For Baba, nuclear energy symbolized the boundless possibilities of technology to create a truly better future for all Indians and the world beyond. And he yearned to be a part of it. Having passed in the first class division in the Bengal Engineering and Science University, Baba came to the United States in 1972 to work as a civil engineer in the booming nuclear energy industry.
What of my mother, you wonder? I wonder, too. The word, “deceased,” next to her name should do.
What about me? I was born into this history in 19— in Charlotte, North Carolina. My father tried to instill the scientific temperament in me from an early age through science experiments, watching Star Trek, and taking me to the Epcot Center in Disneyworld. He taught me algebra when I was six, the theory of relativity when I was seven, and the workings of nuclear fission when I was eight. We built a telescope together when I was five and together squinted into the angry red eye of Jupiter.
If my father gave me the scientific temperament, my mother cultivated in me a love for literature. Unlike Baba, I read widely from authors of mystery (Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie), science fiction (Octavia Butler, Mary Shelly), love stories (the Bronte sisters, especially), adventure stories (Jack London, Mark Twain) and stories incomprehensible to me at a young age (Shakespeare). I didn’t understand everything I read, but I learned to appreciate complexity in our world, accept its inherent contradictions, and admire the diversity of human experience. Perhaps most important of all, I learned to empathize with characters and see through their eyes—even that of the villains’, if the author was really good.
There is one other thing about me you should know, Government of India. From a very early age I strove to be the Indian my parents expected. I spoke Bengali at home. I recited Tagore’s poetry from memory (though I scarcely knew what I was saying), ate Bengali food (when I craved chicken nuggets), read and wrote Bengali script, painted Hindu deities, and danced to Rabindra Sangeet—all for my parents’ happiness, which seemed somehow fleeting and precious. But, after years of imitating Indianness, I still don’t feel Indian, even after living in Calcutta for two years after my mother’s death. And my whole life since has in some way been a search to understand India and feel Indian.
I know, Government of India. You have your flashcards of categories ready for me. You have deduced I am a Bengali woman, possibly of the merchant Kayastha caste from my last name, and most likely from a middle-income family. You may also think me an ABCD (American-born confused Desi) for social purposes, and an NRI (non-resident Indian) for visa purposes. And since you must have inferred I married a white man from Brooklyn, you may well think me a coconut—brown on the outside, white on the inside.
I may be all of those things. But can you also see me as I see myself? Can you see a person who can bring together the “scientific temperament” and social sensitivities to ask different kinds of questions—or maybe the same old questions, in a new way—about how to think about science, technology and development policies, and how these choices should be made?
As Walt Whitman said, “I contain multitudes.”
Please, I want to write my dissertation on nuclear energy, science and democracy in India so desperately.
Please grant me a research visa so I can keep my fellowship!
Please don’t derail my hard-won academic career!
Please grant me a research visa!
Sorry. I got ahead of myself. I won’t allow myself to beg just yet.
If only I had picked a safe topic, the decision would end at the Indian Consulate of Houston, and I would probably be granted my research visa. But I have chosen nuclear energy, and now it falls to you, Government of India, to decide whether I can come through the door.
How impudent you must think me, to imagine I could waltz into India without resistance! What audacity you must think I have, to believe I could learn something new about nuclear energy that you do not already know! Or, perhaps you are worried of what I might learn. Maybe it’s both. In your mind, my degree in English and my honors degree in Geology are no match for your experience and knowledge of nuclear technology. And you are right. I cannot quibble with you about the finer points of reactor design. When you tell me that your science proves to you beyond a shadow of a doubt that nuclear reactors are safe, what can I do but either accept the dictates of science or intervene with flighty emotions and gut feelings to the contrary? I could do nothing but accept your self-professed expertise on nuclear matters. And that has defined the relationship between you, Government of India, and your citizens for a long, long time.
I believe I understand what nuclear energy means to you, Government of India. Nuclear energy is the pinnacle of human achievement, and the beloved offspring of imaginative, ingenuous, and tenacious men. In India, these traits shine especially brightly. To create nuclear energy, you have had to dig deep and find resources and resourcefulness in the face of being labeled a nuclear pariah. And despite all that adversity you have succeeded. Even when scholars note that you have accepted foreign help in building nuclear reactors, it does not at all take away from their indigeneity. You own it, have your heart in it. Nuclear energy is in many ways an avatar of Lords Rama and Krishna (so many of you are Hindu!), which will help rid India of its economic and social woes. Who am I to rip that child from you?
I don’t want to take nuclear energy from you. But I do want to offer you something else. My dissertation is not about challenging you about your nuclear science. It is about trying to understand you, Government of India, and the anti-nuclear activists, too. I want to understand why the politics of knowledge around nuclear energy have not changed in the last 30 years. Why have you forgotten, judging from your shock at the recent protests, that fishermen in Tamil Nadu have been opposing the Koodankulam nuclear power plant since 1989? Why do villagers tend to trust anti-nuclear activists more than you? Why do communities readily believe that as soon as a nuclear power plant is built, they will start to develop cancer, grow extra fingers, and give birth to deformed children? I want to understand the vitriol against nuclear energy, and how experts respond to these criticisms, and what all this means about the future of nuclear energy and Indian democracy. It may be, that in the process of answering these questions, you might rethink your investment in nuclear power. But what I want to contribute above all, is to help you and anti-nuclear activists forge a common grammar that will allow both of you to respect one another and have a legitimate deliberation on the future of nuclear energy.
I do believe that despite your apprehension, you really do want to know how to achieve this elusive goal. You are always portrayed monolithically as a villain when it comes to economic development, social justice and environmental protection. But please believe me when I say, I don’t think you are evil! I have an inkling of the burden you face. You have 400 million citizens without access to modern forms of electricity, and a rising middle class that wants the trappings of modern living from air conditioners to automobiles. You still have a middling, lackluster Human Development Index. On top of this, you are trying to maintain domestic peace and create solutions to prepare for and fight climate change.
A movie came out recently, Cosmopolis, based on a novel by American novelist Don DeLillo. In the film, the protagonist, a high-powered Wall Street investment banker, practically lives in his luxurious limousine and observes the world through his tinted windows in cool detachment. You, too, Government of India are living in that limo—not in the sense of the lavish accoutrements, but in the sense of being unable to empathize and connect with your lower class citizens.
I think you have become immune to the massive movements of outrage and indignation that channel Gandhi, the anti-colonial revolution, and the idea that Indians are more powerful together than as individuals. For you, the would-be leaders of social movements are nothing more than badly drawn characters you watch from the cool remove of New Delhi. You grow weary of the endless reenactments of the Great Struggle—the drone of morality when talking about the responsibilities to the poor, of social justice, of cultural diversity, and environmental protection. And why not? You want more action, fast, and not more thought. You know what needs to be done to build the nation! An 8% growth rate. Poverty, sickness, poor sanitation, malnutrition, child labor, sex trafficking, religious foment—all social ills—will slowly disappear with a bigger economy. And you have used the very best science-based policies to make this happen.
And I would like to gently tell you that perhaps you are so invested on this premise for reasons other than science. The neo-liberal economic model has become so naturalized that it is easy to internalize. It is easier to retreat from governance and leave it to the new class of industrialists to take the reins. But so many of your people look to you for help! And you have done so much already. You have passed the
National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, and are working hard to revamp the colonial Land Acquisitions Act of 1894. But there is so much more left that you must take a lead on.
Nuclear energy is one place to start. Although it is true that nuclear scientists have tried to speak to everyday people and those who are “scientifically innocent” through newspapers and public forums, there is always a palpable condescension in these efforts. I know you are the expert, but sadly, expertise no longer has the value it once did, and there is little you can do to change that when it comes to nuclear energy. After people saw the tragedy at Fukushima happen before their own eyes, they did not need or trust expert interpretations any more. And when one of your officials said, “There was no nuclear accident or incident,” expertise lost even more credibility.
What can you do to regain trust? What can you do start communicating with anti-nuclear activists, instead of talking passed them? Stop charging protesters with sedition and war against the state, to start. I’m sure that a government must maintain a sense of healthy paranoia and avoid complacency, but peacefully protesting villagers should not be detained or harassed. You could even offer an apology. But stopping physical violence is just an obvious and easy remedy. What you should do is much, much harder. I don’t think you can regain trust with more demonstrations of your knowledge and expertise. What you need to do, then, is find it in yourself to cultivate an openness to the experiences and knowledge of people who are very different from you, whose interests you are supposed to represent.
The conversation about whether or not pursue nuclear energy should have happened long ago. I understand why it didn’t. Even Gandhi himself did not always trust Indians to make the best decisions. And Nehru wanted to create Indians with the scientific temperament to make ideal citizens. But it has been sixty-five years and the model Indian citizen is nowhere in sight. What you do see, however, are thronging, unruly citizens with a great diversity of experiences and wealth of knowledge, often based on their lived experiences, who look to you for leadership and representation. It falls on you to learn how to recognize the value in this diversity, to hear their voices, their fears, their hopes with compassion and honesty, and take them into serious consideration. And if you let me in, I might, in a small way, help you become more responsive.
You are known as the world’s largest democracy; make it a substantive one. But creating scientific literacy will not usher in this democracy, let alone bring into being the kind of citizen who will unconditionally accept nuclear energy and your model of development. What is the scientific temperament after all but a way to make sense of our experiences? Even science would agree that we understand our world, not through rote rationality, but through our cultural, political and emotional experiences. You do not need more science, but a cultivation of compassion and openness.
I have written at great length, but now it is time to plead. Please make the right decision. Grant my research visa.