“The tale of Hiroshima is an unpleasant event. Hiroshima depicts the reality of man’s selfishness, of the transitory short-lived nature of this world, and of the ill-effects of an undesirable use of human knowledge in the modern era.” So began a letter by V. R. Karlekar dated May 12, 1946, and reproduced in the Marathi periodical Chitramai Jagat. Karlekar was an air force serviceman, originally from the Indian port city of Bombay.1 The letter was one of four he sent reflecting on his recent visit to Hiroshima while he was stationed in Japan.2 Hiroshima had been almost entirely razed on August 6, 1945, and along with it, tens of thousands of people were carbonized on impact, their shadows etched on the grounds. As news of the figures leaked out through print and radio, inflated figures such as 480,000 dead and rising in Hiroshima and Nagasaki became commonplace (“Atom Bomb Leaves”).3 Unlike earlier World War II bomb attacks that carpeted Tokyo and Dresden, for instance, the death toll from one bomb was hard to fathom—a toll that vacillated alongside leaked reports, rumors, and the effort to comprehend the effects of singular bombs dropped in the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Although Karlekar does not go as far as to condemn the perpetrators of the devastation, it is implicit in his lament to the inhumane use of technology when reconciling himself with scenes of desolation in Hiroshima.
Such brief glimpses of the impact that the atomic attacks had among Indians in the mid-1940s afford a unique intervention in the debate that has hitherto been dominated by commentaries from the United States, Europe, and Japan. As is memorably cited, J. Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director of the Manhattan Project, resorted to the power of parable by invoking verses from the Bhagvad Gita to describe the atomic tests in July 1945 in terms of it emanating “the [End Page 70] radiance of a thousand suns” and Krishna’s speech to the Pandava prince Arjuna, where he reveals the phenomenal powers of his divinity: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Reflecting on the atomic scene before the scientists at Los Alamos, Oppenheimer added, “I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”4 The verses reflected the moral dilemmas of Arjuna, who could not bring himself to kill his own kin, friends, and teachers on the rival side of the Kauravas in the battle from a longer epic, the Mahabharata. On seeing his consort and guide, Krishna, reveal his sublime form, Arjuna is simultaneously terrified, elated, and humbled. Krishna reminded Arjuna of his dharma—that he was a warrior, a Kshatriya, and had a duty to act accordingly in the battle. Under duress, as James A. Hijiya elaborates, Oppenheimer used “philosophy as an anodyne for the pangs of conscience” (125), having been involved in the development of a devastating bomb with an enemy in mind during war. The question pursued here is how did those positioned in the Indian subcontinent invoke this text among others as they reflected on the boundless powers of atomic science when it made its public debut in the theater of World War II a month later on the sites of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? How did they reconcile their intrigue for the technology with the horror of its capabilities? In this article, I consider the available evidence as to how the atomic bomb was received in the subcontinent from August 1945.5 I first provide a reappraisal of theories of the sublime in terms of atomic schizophrenia, before demonstrating its multiple affective nuances with examples from the years after news of the atom bomb exploded onto people’s consciousness.
From the Sublime to the Schizophrenic
Shortly after the atomic attack in Hiroshima, an editorial in the nationalist Bombay Chronicle asked:
What of the future which that bomb has blasted open? It is a discovery or conquest that has two opposite potentialities. It may bring about the end of the species and this earth; it may also mark the beginning of a new world of human progress, prosperity and happiness . . . the next major war, can lay in ruins...