Countdown by Amitav Ghosh – #ReadDiverse2017 Review

I didn’t expect to find this book at all. I was visiting Higginbothams in Chennai, my yearly pilgrimage. Year on year, I’ve seen this legendary bookshop lose its allure, and fall into the shadows – with dusty shelves, no curation, no new books. Their mainstay still being academic books – their general categories reduced to dust covered Indian editions.

As I perused the shelves, I found a thin book with Amitav Ghosh’s name. I first thought it might be a novella – and I like small books – books that give me a sample of the literary prowess without demanding the next week of my life. I picked it up and I was more intrigued to find that it was non-fiction – a journalistic essay on the nuclear powers of India and Pakistan. I was intrigued.

It didn’t take long to read, but still the arguments were well placed, the research and first hand gathering of information was wonderful and it wasn’t an opinion piece – it was really a good analysis of why India and Pakistan are hell bent on acquiring nuclear weapons and the probability of an impending war.

Pokhran where India’s nuclear tests were conducted

The facts are scary, and heart-breaking. The reality is frustrating. Any Indian who grew up in the 20th century India knows that politics has stopped functioning for its people and I could hear the echoes of why our politicians are failing us. When this travesty grants control of the button to start nuclear war to these self-serving political class, we are truly facing a similar crisis to that of America and the UK where demagogues and identity politics are rife.

Imagine a world where North Korea is poised to press the button as it now has an agnostic, inward looking US government along with China being angry with the US’s handling of foreign policy under the current administration; India and Pakistan now left to their own devices to deal with their squabbles while the US itself is not far from the pressing the dreaded button as a show of hollow might, with UK not far behind. We have a truly global nuclear conflict in sight and for the first time the planets have aligned for the wrong kind of outcome.

In this context, reading Countdown was like a wake-up call. Even though it was written years ago, when BJP government was in power, with Modi now in power under the same BJP government, with Hindu ideologies that are performing surgical strikes into Pakistan and gloating over it, we are truly back into countdown mode. The nationalistic wave that has swept the nation in 2015-16 has whipped up a frenzy of anti-Muslim rhetoric and the said button is not too far away.

If anything, I think this book should be reissued again in today’s context with perhaps some updates on how this threat is more real in a world where Narendra Modi boasts of his friendship with Donald Trump and how their anti-Islamic rhetoric is not in step with the liberal citizens of their country.