Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Voices from Chernobyl - Ingrid Storholmen

I was fooled by the title. Never knew there are two books with the same title. The one I was keen to read was the one by Journalist Svetlana Alexievich, which is the accounts narrated by people affected by the disaster. The error was realised only later. I understand that the original title is "Chernobyl Stories", but the clever business tactics got the book released with the same title as the former one in India by Harper Perenniel ( I havent seen any reference to this book on the internet apart from India) But, the fear was unfounded. Ingrid Storholmen's book is intense and hard hitting.

The 1986 disaster at Chernobyl reactor, had far fetched repercussions. The effects of the disaster was felt  at countries 1000s of kilometers away from the site. Ingrid Storholmen, 10 years when the disaster occurred, herself was a victim of the radiation. Two of her sisters had to undergo Thyroid removal operations ( who carry the marks like a necklace, she mentions) as the wind carried the impacts to Central Norway, where she belonged to.

To bring back the memories of one of the worst nuclear catastrophes in the modern world, the book starts:
On Saturday, 26 April, 1986, at 01.23 am, something went terribly wrong with Reactor Four at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station in the Ukraine. Due to an experiment to try to produce electricity from the residual energy in the steam generator, several safety precautions were out of operation. Uncontrollable heat was produced, which caused an explosion of steam in the core of the reactor. The explosion blew away the reactor’s roof and the graphite in the core caught fire. The blaze went on for several days, casting huge quantities of radioactivity a thousand metres up into the atmosphere. To quench the fire, five thousand tonnes of lead and stones were dropped from helicopters. It was a long time before the local people were given warnings and evacuated. Later a concrete sarcophagus was built around the reactor and a zone three miles in radius was established around it, within which nobody was allowed to stay.
Stroholmen's book is a work of fiction. I've seen the mention as a novel somewhere, which I am not too sure. She spend nearly two months at the site, resulting in the writing of this book. It is constructed in the forms of multiple voices, directly or indirectly affected by the disaster. Each voice, given the feel of authenticity, by the writer. The intensity, the inner anger, despair or sense of loss is maintained as though it is from the mouths of the sufferer.  There is no standard format, few are short paragraphs, few are detailed. The span is over 20 years. The images are powerful, the after effect of reading are profound and few of the pages are written fabulously.

The mother, who visits the rescue center office every day enquiring about her missing son ( knowing that he is dead, but the purpose of her existence is the waiting for the return of her dead son),  a father ( member of the ruling regime at the local level) , who escapes with his two daughters, leaving his wife and mother to the fate, only to protect the kids, the young scientist, locked in the single room, dying of cancer, but not before assembling his own version of Atom Bomb, and many more.

People are moved en-mass ( after many hours of the incident)as  the air and water are contaminated with high radiation. The crops are poisoned, the fodder is useless, every child in the womb is aborted, every cancerous organ has to be removed. People are "untouchables" to the rest of the world. Even after moving to safer zones, the rest of the world do not want to have anything with them for the fear of radiation. The effects of the radiation continue to torment many many years since the disaster.

The book is full of these varied narration, each has the same tale to tell. A rather loose collection of pages with no particular order. You can start anywhere and skip any, as they are all the same. Its all a single perspective and a single view or opinion. The disaster destroyed a 'town' of their homes, their land, their beloved, their own self. The memories, the love, the life, the human-ness , changed over night. The new realities, helplessness, sense of cheating ( to the authorities, to the world in general and to the God), heroics and sacrifices become part of the life, all of a sudden. Though it is repetitive at times and monotonous , the book is able to recreate the days of human disaster, after all these years.

As our country continue to debate the future of Koodankulam ( the opinion is divided in favor and against, where people oppose are branded as anti-government and anti-development ), it is important to read these books. The recent event at the Fukushima plant, about which there aren't many data available, is still fresh in mind. 

Voices from Chernobyl ( 2009 )

Ingrid Storholmen ( translated from Norwegian by Marietta Taralrud Maddrell 2013)

Harper Perennial

175 Pages
Excerpts at Pratilipi, Hindu, Business Standard

No comments: