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It is convenient for people to forget about Chernobyl

Ingrid Storholmen’s haunting novel about the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster is a must-read for those who profess blind faith in nuclear energy, writes Aditya Mani Jha.

ADITYA MANI JHA  22nd Feb 2014

Ingrid Storholmen

n 2011, as part of our college curriculum, my fourth-year geology class visited Jadugoda in Jharkhand, home to uranium mines controlled by the UCIL (Uranium Corporation of India Limited). Jadugoda is one of the few places in India with a negative population rate. It is further plagued by an unusually high occurrence of disability, cancer and stunted growth among children. Photo essays about the town (readers are encouraged to see Chinky Shukla's, in particular, published in several magazines/websites last year) are studies in despair, full of grieving mothers, baby graves and malformed children with rickety limbs. At the time of my field work, I knew that Jadugoda was infamous for these reasons. What I didn't know — and wouldn't, until I experienced it firsthand — was the extent of the Jharkhand government's keep-calm-and-carry-on brand of propaganda.

On my way to the UCIL headquarters, I could see banners, put up by the government-run Atomic Energy Central School (yes, that's what it's called) which proclaimed, "Who Says Nuclear Energy Is Unsafe? Even THE SUN Uses Nuclear Energy!" To compare a nuclear power plant to solar energy is preposterous, of course, but the two dangerous things about the banner are that a) It is technically true, although the sun uses fusion reactions — a very different and even more unstable process than the fission reactions used by nuclear power plants, and b) It is meant for young and impressionable children, some of whom I saw playing with discarded waste-balls (the size of bowling balls) from the factory.

While reading Ingrid Storholmen's harrowing (I mean that in the best way possible) novel Voices From Chernobyl (translated from the Norwegian by Marietta Taralrud Maddrell) these scenes from a "graveyard town" came rushing back to me. The novel begins on this unforgettable note: "Nuclear energy is the hubris of humanity, like aspiring to fry bacon on the sun." Voices From Chernobyl is written as a series of short narratives, ranging from a few paragraphs to about a dozen pages; all in the voices of victims, survivors and people affected by the explosion that took place on 26 April 1986 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, an accident of catastrophic proportions — Storholmen reckons that a half million people, at least, have suffered radiation-related illnesses, although the official death count is still a paltry 31.

"No one knows for certain," Storholmen tells me, as we talk at Pragati Maidan, where she has just finished a panel discussion with Maddrell, activist Teji Grover and translator Arunava Sinha. "It depends upon who you're asking. It's convenient for people to forget about it, of course." Maddrell, who joins us presently, chips in, "The USSR is no longer around, and there's a feeling that people (affected by Chernobyl) don't have anyone to blame. Many people say that it's Chernobyl that cracked the USSR open. There's no one who'll take the responsibility." After a pause, she says deliberately, as if quoting from a textbook, "The soldiers that were sent to clean the reactor... as the novel says, they died slow and painful deaths."

Storholmen’s “choir of voices”, as she puts it herself, is a bleak, poetic ensemble, informed in part by her own family’s experience – her father is a scientist who’s researching the impact of radiation on Norway’s flora and fauna. Both her sisters bear “scars shaped like necklaces” on their necks, as a result of having their thyroid gland removed.

Storholmen's "choir of voices", as she puts it herself, is a bleak, poetic ensemble, informed in part by her own family's experience — her father is a scientist who's researching the impact of radiation on Norway's flora and fauna. Both her sisters bear "scars shaped like necklaces" on their necks, as a result of having their thyroid gland removed.

or the first 20 pages or so, reading Voices From Chernobyl can be a slightly confusing affair, as the author introduces new voices, scenes and narratives at an alarming rate. But soon, you realise that this structure — or lack thereof, is itself a grim reminder of what the accident's immediate aftermath felt like to a Chernobyl insider; people all around fleeing in a mass exodus, the survivors trying their best to delude themselves into feeling safe, others who switch to doomsday mode with a nihilistic flourish. In one of the novel's most horrifying sequences, a man called Grigori is handed a devastatingly clear message by his doctor — one that he ignores immediately.

"Tongue far inside the most open lips, her largest mouth, the kisses don't stretch far enough. She lets out an agitated groan, her hands clutch my shoulders, my hair. No, I can't do it. I won't be able to hold back either. My semen is phosphorescent. The doctor's face appears in front of my eyes. Grigori, you must not... promise me... mutations... monsters. Goddammit! A woman who gets you inside her lies with an atomic weapon, a deadly nuclear missile. I laugh hysterically, put all the fingers of my left hand inside her. The right hand gropes for her throat, something to squeeze to bits."

Storholmen is primarily a poet (the Harper Perennials edition has a bit of her poetry at the end of the book) and she believes that form is very much a part of her novel's content. I mention the Elfriede Jelinek novel Women in Love as another example of a book which teaches the reader how to read it. Much to my surprise, she says, "Years ago, when I was at a writer's residency, I had two cats, named Herta Müller and Elfriede Jelinek!" Her next book is a novel about the World War II German battleship Tirpitz; bombed by the British and sunk off the coast of northern Norway, killing an estimated 1,000 people on board. We talk about becquerel levels (a measure of radiation), India's eagerness to buy nuclear products of dubious origin, and why scientists never seem to agree upon how much radiation is safe. For now, though, she leaves me with a quote from her book, one that she's fond of using, by her own admission. It's a scathing indictment of government apathy and every over-eager, under-informed advocate of nuclear energy on the planet.

"If a windmill overturns, will it cause changes in the genetic structure of an embryo?"

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