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Fission, Fusion, Confusion?

By B S Prakash
Last updated on: October 20, 2008 16:31 IST
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Dr Ghosh looked gloomy. I was visiting him in his lovely faculty housing at the verdant campus of the National Institute for Fundamental Analysis. (Names of  not only individuals but also institutions have been changed for reasons of confidentiality). Old posters asking that Nescafe dispensers be banned hung here and there limp or torn; stray students roamed the campus with Nokias in their hands; and occasionally a couple was seen emerging from under the trees as the dusk fell, no doubt engaged in intense intellectual activity.

Ghosh is an old friend, normally a cheerful soul, and especially so as the whiskey is poured and the ice tinkles in the glass. Not today, not as the soda is opened, not even after seeing me, his old friend from abroad, visiting him now after years. I was transiting through Delhi after finishing my stay in the US. The `Deal` had not yet been done, and the debate raged relentlessly. Ghosh had asked me whether this was the Number One topic of discussion in America too and I had told him honestly that though it indeed was for people like me -- a part of the Establishment -- the majority of Americans seemed oblivious of it. From what I had seen and heard, the Number  One issue as he termed it, seemed to be gasoline pieces, followed by Barack Obama, I had told him. 

"How has the Nuclear Deal been for you? Your institute must be buzzing with the analysis?" I asked as we imbibed our first sips.

"I wish I had paid more attention to Physics when it was being forced down our throat," he now said with a touch of sadness. "I should have taken good old Mr Swaminathan a little more seriously," he said recalling our old Physics master from the school. Same here, I nodded. 

I looked around. His desk was littered as always with tomes, monographs, papers, clippings etc, but this time something was different. It was not the standard stuff that I had always associated with 'Laltu' as Ghosh was known before he became a 'Dr' and an analyst. I was used to always seeing impressive books in his digs. Formidable looking treatises on: anti-imperialism, neo-colonialism, globalization as the new villain and similar titles generally abounded. He now was surrounded by something altogether different, as I glanced at the titles: India's energy needs in 2050; Clean Coal -- a distant goal?; The Nuclear nightmare; Atoms for the dummies.

"What happened to you? Why this crash course?" I asked though the reasons were obvious.

"Can you believe it?  I haven't written a single article, column, let alone a paper for a journal on this subject," he said as he looked around with desperation. "Not invited for a single panel discussion: neither in a seminar, nor on the TV."

"Must you? There are enough experts and you certainly are no expert," I said.

I had some knowledge of  Ghosh's core competencies, to use a management phrase, a discipline that he loathed. In the early years of his academic career Ghosh was a star on the post-colonial dilemmas of developing societies or a similar sounding subject and I hope memory serves me right here. It seemed to combine history, economics and international relations and to hold the key to unlock many seminar doors. But I had been told that academic fashions are even more fickle and consequential than sartorial fashions. It is as important to keep up and know the current trends in discourse, and a researcher still stuck in colonial studies is as lost as a designer bringing out mini-skirts when the hemline is two inches below the ankle.

In the last few years Ghosh had moved on. The world had become a dangerous place and he did 'terrorism' and that was a good academic move, before the field became saturated. All kinds of terrorism experts jumped in, ranging from retired generals to police chiefs to spooks. `Terrorism` in general was insufficient; there were experts on Al Qaida, Hamas, Hawala transactions and `the mind of a suicide bomber`. Ghosh felt lost. He had to make a course correction and caught the 'Clash of Civilsations' theme just in time.

Someone coming back from USA had given him the Huntington volume fairly early. He did a spirited rebuttal of the theme and how the Indian experience invalidates the thesis of an inevitable conflict between faiths. Much acclaim, but everyone with any sense in India could make the same argument. 'Gender' was a hardy perennial. He was doing some excellent papers on 'Gender perspectives in State violence' and 'Gender and conflict' when the tsunami hit and there was a tectonic shift in academic priorities. `Nuclear` burst upon the scene without an explosion.

"What is the difference between megawatts and gigabytes?" he now asked while casually opening the book on his table, India's energy dilemmas.

"I am the wrong person to ask, but I have a suspicion that one has something to do with power plants while the other with computers," I said.

"Do we need 25,000 megawatts or gigabytes by 2050?" he asked.

I have no idea, I replied honestly.

"You have to help me. I may still get a panel discussion on TV and cannot be ignorant about CTCT and FMBT," he fumed.

"Better be careful. It is actually CTBT and FMCT," I said and spelt out the long versions, something I did know.

"Why can't they cut off the tests and ban the fissile material?" he asked, irritably.

Good question, I conceded.

Is there a gender dimension to the nuclear debate, he now wondered.

"It is worth exploring. I have not heard of any women eminents on the weapons side or for that matter even the power side of the nuclear issue." There is a separation issue, I said mainly to encourage him, though they speak of separation between the civil and the military rather than the gender, I said.

He made some notes.

"The colonial hangover and the nuclear enterprise. How does that sound?' he asked.

"Sounds very impressive. But what will you say?"

"I have to come up with something. At least I know one half of it. The colonial denial of science," he now said with sardonic humour.

"You cannot avoid science these days. If it is not nuclear, it is the climate change, or the HIV/AIDS or even the wretched bird-flu," he moaned.

We sipped in silence, reflecting on the irony and injustice of it all.

Suddenly something snapped and the old revolutionary spirit in Ghosh surfaced. It was as if the decades of discourse on the anti-imperialist injustices had found a new focus.

"To hell with Physics. I will be true to myself and my creed," he now declared growing more spirited. "This nuclear agreement is a sellout. Why should I bother with fission or fusion? I am sure we are giving up our sovereignty, autonomy and space. Why do we need electric power alone? We should have real power," he said.

He was now beaming.

"Ha, how is that for a title -- The imperative of national power, not nuclear power; let me put that down," he exclaimed starting his computer.

Just then the lights went out.

"What we first need is some illumination," I said as we stepped out for the kebabs.

Image: Uttam Ghosh

(B S Prakash is India's Ambassador in Brazil and can be reached at

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