It was January 1972. Pakistan had recently, only the previous month, lost a thoughtless military campaign against its own people (though Bengalis) in the east, into which India had sent troops. As a result, East Pakistan became independent Bangladesh and some ninety thousand Pakistani troops languished as India’s prisoners of war. It was after this humiliating defeat that the new president of Pakistan, Beyram Teymuri, made an unequivocal resolution about his country’s future: to that end he called an urgent secret meeting of the nation’s top scientists. The meeting was held in the western city of Quetta, and Nurul Islam had been invited.
When he was called by Pakistan’s High Commissioner in London and informed that the president had invited him for this meeting, Nurul had to excuse himself from his lecture duties for a week and postpone a seminar he was to give at Manchester so he could go. It was inconvenient, but “secret” and “urgent” placed a compulsion on the invitation. This was almost an order. What could be the reason for it? Education or industrial policy or something similar would not warrant such an order. Was this pure politics—elections round the corner, rounding top scientists to one side? At Lahore Airport he was met by a military adjutant, taken past immigration and customs gates without inspection, then straight to a government guest house, where already a few other science brains of the country had been put up. They all knew him and came to pay respects. Here he found out, much to his astonishment, that they were all bound for Quetta early the next morning.
“What’s this fellow like—Nurul Islam? Pukka Punjabi, you say?” asked Beyram Teymuri.
“Yes. Ancestry is partly Persian, though. More important, as you know, is that he is from the Shirazi Sufi sect.”
The president threw a glance at General Owaisi.
Beyram Teymuri was sunk in an ornate sofa in the receiving room of the residence of the chief minister of the province. He was a man of above-average height, and slightly paunchy, though pictures from student days showed a slim, dashing young man in blazer and ducks, who played cricket and tennis. The skin on his face was fair and smooth, his hair an ample dark brown. He came from aristocratic stock, his ancestors having been viziers of nawabs in pre-independence India.
“Yes, but what’s he like?” Beyram Teymuri persisted, crossing his legs, joining his hands behind his neck, and leaning back.
“A genial fellow, very likeable. A devout Muslim, though. He’s made himself a spokesman for—”
“I’ve been told.” The president turned thoughtful. “Our most eminent scientist,” he mused. “Does he have to wear his religion on his sleeve? We all believe in Islam—the religion based on which this country was founded. But faith should be like a wife, you have one, that’s all. And you show her when required. You don’t carry her around all the time.”
“Well . . .”
“I thought these physicist fellows were more the atheist or agnostic types, you know, they claim to explain everything rationally, what’s the need for God, and so on? I knew a couple of them at Oxford.”
“Our man is an exception. Of course he comes from a small town, and belongs to a small sect. They are followers of the Sufi philosopher Ibn al Arabi—whom, as you know, the orthodox in our country consider a heretic. Father said the azan at the local mosque—in Pirmai. Boy was a genius, best matriculation result in Punjab, it has not been topped on either side since Partition.”
“How marvellous. And a Shirazi. Can’t he keep it to himself? Can’t they keep it to themselves, these Shirazis and others who rushed into this country at independence, instead of openly advertising their deviancy and rousing the fanatics? I wonder which side’s more fanatic sometimes . . .”
The general did not correct the president to say that Pirmai was on this side of the border, and it was the Teymuris who had packed bags and fled to the new country. Such details didn’t matter and history was what you made it to be, anyway.
The president poured himself a Scotch from the decanter in front of him and sat back again. “Send our genius in,” he said wearily.
“Come in, Professor Islam. Have a seat.”
“Adab, President Sahab. It is a pleasure to meet you,” Nurul said.
“Dispense with the Urdu, yaar. This is official business. Let’s stick to English, or we’ll be reciting Ghalib and Mir endlessly and accomplish nothing.”
Nurul laughed, and said in English, in an accented voice that seemed momentarily to startle the president, “All right, sir. Let it be English, then.”
“Professor, I’ve heard a great deal about you. Naturally. We are filled with admiration . . . what can one say. You are a model of achievement, a beacon to our science students. A blessing to our nation.”
“With God’s assistance. I’ve been lucky—which may be the same thing.”
“That’s fine,” replied the Teymuri. “We give thanks to Him”—he glanced upwards—“in His own time, meanwhile we can take pride in your accomplishments, which I understand are considerable. Mind you, it’s beyond my comprehension—I was shown one of your famous publications, and I confess it looked to me like ant trails going all over the page. I’m an Oxford man myself, you Cambridge chaps always beat us when it came to numbers . . . and instruments.”
You Oxonians are good at making speeches, you mean, Nurul thought. “President?” he inquired.
“What do you think of nuclear energy?” asked Beyram Teymuri. “That’s the subject of this small and extraordinary conference that I have called here in Quetta. I thought I should meet you privately first, hence this meeting. It’s a privilege. And I must apologize for the inconvenience—the secrecy and so on—but to come to my point, what do you think of nuclear energy, Nurul Sahab?”
“I am a firm believer. It would solve our country’s energy problems and bring us into the modern age. So many of our people still don’t have electricity. But you must know that I have advised the government on these matters.”
“Yes, and you’ve done salutary work with our Atomic Energy Commission and helped us procure the Canadian reactor. And advised the Institute of . . .”
“Nuclear Science and Technology, sir. PINSTECH, as they call it.”
“Yes. The Taj Mahal of Pakistan, is that what they say?”
“The site is very beautiful, sir . . .”
“Yes. Designed by an American. My point, however, is, what do you think of the military use of nuclear energy?”
Nurul’s heart took a jolt. He picked up the cup of tea which had been placed before him. Sweet and creamy, desi style without his asking, though he didn’t mind. The president had received his in a silver teapot, with sugar cubes and milk separate. His eyes met the president’s. Why do I agree to these games? For the sake of my country, to do from afar what good I can. Or perhaps it’s vanity?
“You mean an atom bomb, sir?” He used the layman’s term.
“Precisely. To cut to the bone. A weapon like the Americans used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—and which six other nations already have, including Israel, and India will soon have.”
So it’s true. We are to embark on a road to folly, spending millions on a weapon which dare not be used, while millions in this country live in dire poverty. Nurul Islam had already heard from his friend Zaffar Khan, an old classmate from Lahore who was also present at this conference, that the nuclear bomb was the main—no, the only—purpose of this Quetta meeting.
He was aware that the majority of the population of Pakistan, especially the scientists, would support a Pakistani nuclear weapon. It was a status symbol, like an airline. It would solve their bruised ego after the humiliation the country had just suffered in the east. Why should only the Western powers, our former colonizers, have it? Now China had it too, and India would have it soon if that man in Bombay, Bhabha, had his way—he had already publicly declared his enthusiasm for it. But Nurul knew he did not have the heart to endorse it, give his blessing to something with the potential for such massive destruction. How could anyone who had seen pictures of Hiroshima victims speak so blithely about nuclear bombs? But then perhaps he had become too alienated from his roots and was not used anymore to see real suffering—? But that’s how he was. The only argument he knew that made sense to him for possessing nuclear weapons was that of mutual deterrence: if you have it, and I have it, neither of us dares use it. Unless there’s a madman among us who doesn’t care. And the horrors of the subcontinent’s Partition, let alone the recent war in the east, had amply demonstrated that there was no dearth of madness on either side.
“I think, sir,” Nurul began, in answer to the president’s question, “and can I be frank, sir?”
“Please. I expect nothing but. Go ahead.”
“I think, sir, that the world already has too many nuclear weapons. We should be calling for their total ban. Worldwide. We should set an example. It has been calculated that there is a total destructive capability on our planet equal to thousands of Hiroshima bombs . . . there exists a real possibility of the total annihilation of human life on earth.”
“Surely the good Lord would save us from that fate, professor,” the president said, with a forced smile. “He needs human beings to worship him, after all . . .” In spite of the quip, he looked ruffled, stunned, Nurul thought. But where do you begin your honest warnings if not at home?
Teymuri had recovered and his pitch was higher as he continued.
“We, Nurul Sahab? Who is we? We have been humiliated by the war in the east, where we lost half our country; thousands of our finest jawans were captured by the Indian army, and to bring them home I have to go through a Versailles of our own, agree to the most humiliating conditions that will be demanded by that Nehru’s crowing daughter. This would not have happened if we had been properly armed. Professor! We are a smaller country than our enemy, and for our survival we need the atom bomb!”
“We will have bombs, sir, and they’ll have their bombs—and who wins then?”
“I see that you know your Gandhi.” There was the mildest hint of sarcasm in that. Teymuri went on, “The point is that we should not lose. If nobody wins, that is precisely what we want. If we had the bomb, we would not have lost the east. Professor—have you considered this, you who speak all the time—and rightfully so—of the achievements of Islamic science in the past—consider this: the Christian world has nuclear capability, the communist world has the capability, the Jews and the Chinese and the Hindus have the capability. Where is the Islamic deterrent? Where is the Islamic bomb? We who once led the world in science and other achievements?”
Which is what the president, his bald pate gleaming dully, exhorted to the gathering of twenty-two chosen scientists an hour later in the brightly lit room which had been set aside for this meeting. The large fireplace sent off heat against the January cold. As was customary, tea had been served, with two digestives for each. Outside the large windows, the grounds were being watered. The president had paused for effect, and now he continued in a more even tone, “I want you to give us that bomb. Make this nation proud once again.”
An uneasy murmur erupted around the long table. The men—they were all men—exchanged looks. What’s he saying? Is this for real? Do we have the capability? The money? How and where?
“How long will it take?” persisted the leader, ignoring the sceptical looks.
“Ten years, at least, sir,” ventured a senior scientist.
“Yes, that seems reasonable, if not too optimistic,” agreed another one.
“Too long. We will get you everything you need. Money, facilities, staff. In two days I fly to Saudi Arabia to talk to the oil sheikhs. Money will be no problem for an Islamic bomb, I assure you.”
“We can do it in five,” a young scientist from Islamabad piped up.
“I want it in three,” declared the president, and they knew he was serious.
Amidst all this, at his place at the table close to the president’s, Nurul Islam was well aware that his own somewhat muted reactions were under scrutiny. Teymuri had pointedly not asked for his opinion here, and that had sent out a signal: our genius professor has reservations. But around the table general disbelief had turned into excitement and hope. Finally, the government was paying attention to their needs. The program would give a long-awaited boost to their impoverished departments, with money, equipment, and staff, and to the status of science in the country. If they failed, they would still come out winners. But to make and successfully test a nuclear bomb would be a major achievement, putting them among the ranks of Fermi and Oppenheimer of Los Alamos fame; it would be an accomplishment to make the nation hold its head up among other nations. Teymuri was promising unlimited funding. It all seemed irresistible if you did not keep in mind the evil object under discussion, a monstrosity with the capability of causing the death or mutilation of hundreds of thousands at a go. But other nations had it, as Teymuri said, their arch-enemy next door, India, would soon have it, and one nation had already used it.
Bringing the session to an end, the country’s leader said, “Three years! Go to it, boys! Pakistan zindabad!” and in the resulting echo of Long Live Pakistan! he stood up and headed for his helicopter.
As soon as he had left, General Owaisi got up and spoke about secrecy. Not a word to colleague, family, or friend. All present would sign a secrecy oath before leaving. Funding would come under the banner of “Better science education for our future.”
A lavish buffet had been set up outside, towards which the delegates headed with undue haste.
“I’m not sure I can be part of this, my friend,” Nurul said to Zaffar as they sat down at one of the small tables with their plates. “It will do us no good in the end. It is utter folly! We should, instead, call for a total nuclear weapons ban in our region.”
“I don’t think much is expected of you, Nurul. Or of me. I had a meeting earlier this morning with Owaisi and expressed my reservations. As soon as we gave our opinions on the matter, we cut ourselves out. And we’ve made a powerful enemy in Teymuri.”
“He’s only a politician. They come and go.”
“Don’t forget the family. After him his son. What can a man from Pirmai, and now London, know about the affairs of Pakistan?”
Nurul chuckled at Zaffar’s last quip. “Yes, when I left, there was no Pakistan. I departed from Bombay.”
Groups of scientists had formed to discuss their next moves and possible collaborations. Select members of the defence bureaucracy were going around answering questions. Army security hung about. There was excitement and urgency and even disbelief that such a serendipity had come their way, and they would be able to do world-class science at last.
“You’d better tread carefully around this, Nurul. Don’t breathe another word about your reservations. Or in no time you’ll be branded a traitor. And you are a Shirazi heretic, don’t forget.”
“Yes . . . already half a traitor, you mean.”
“Don’t give them an excuse. The switch can be turned on any time, and there will be riots. Remember ’53? You were not here, I was. Go along for the time being.”
In 1953, massive riots, no, a pogrom, had erupted against the Ahmadiyya sect in Lahore and other cities, instigated by a fundamentalist party. Other small sects were also attacked, and there were several anxious days as Nurul and Sakina awaited news from home, fearing the possibility that the violence would spread to Pirmai.
Having signed their secrecy oaths, Nurul and Zaffar left for their hotel and met later for dinner, after which they sat together late into the night in the lounge, drinking tea and discussing recent events in politics and science.
He was flown back to Lahore the next morning. He had spared a day for this city that he had known and loved so well as a young man. If you’ve not seen Lahore, you’ve not seen the world, it was said. Having checked into his hotel, he called for a tonga to take him into town. A cool, wintry breeze blew against his face as the old-fashioned horse-driven conveyance clip-clopped past old sites and new developments. A sinking feeling of time having passed. Gulberg, the location of his hotel, was a modern, expensive suburb, with wide roads, fancy shops, and classy restaurants. It could be any place where there was money. Slowly now the old city arrived, first signalled by the noise, then the air, and they were absorbed into its bustle of people and traffic. He got off at Government College, where he had received his start as an undergraduate. They had offered him a job when he finished with accolades at Cambridge, but with the understanding that he would have to step back from the scientific frontier where he currently was, to become an ordinary science lecturer at a third-world college. A modest but important job, and he would be required to coach badminton as well. Did he want the job? No, thanks, he replied, he would stay where he was for the time being. Now he walked the grounds and the corridors, smiling past excited, busy, chattering students, peeped into classrooms where he had studied, gave free rein to his nostalgia for his carefree years. His happiest years? Perhaps, but happiness matures too. When he wandered into the library he found it as haphazardly stocked as before, and still behind the times. As he sat reminiscing over a cup of tea and a samosa at the outdoor canteen, he happily eavesdropped on an animated conversation by some young engineers on the subject of space exploration. So much potential, he mused. At noon, finally, having introduced himself to the astonished, exhilarated physics head, he gave an impromptu lecture to a full house on another recent pet subject—the value of fundamental—not fundamentalist, he quipped—science, even though it seemed practically useless. If it had been valued in his time he might have returned, he told his audience. And he floated an idea: Why not think of a Pakistani institute of fundamental science that would attract scientists from all over the world? Such an institute would be a peacemaker. Science for peace instead of war.
Later that night Nurul went to Zaffar Khan’s room to catch up with his old friend. Zaffar had requested a meeting. He had been like an elder brother to Nurul in Lahore, and in England when he had felt utterly lost in a country he had thought he would know because there had been such a British presence back home. Zaffar had been a good physicist, but he knew he would never achieve the heights, so he had opted to advise. They sat in the two florid armchairs in the room under low lights, having tea. For a while they discussed the conference, then their families. Zaffar wanted to know all about Nurul’s visit to Harvard. Nurul gave him the gist. Zaffar missed the excitement of research and the wistfulness was evident in his sparkling eyes. They spoke of low-key Rosenfeld and his hospitality. A good man. At this point Zaffar sat back and said, in somewhat fake innocence, “That Hilary, she’s a nice girl. Quiet for an American, I thought. Rosenfeld’s student, is she?”
“Yes, and she’s very good too.”
“I notice she has a thing for you . . . and you for her?” Zaffar now allowed the briefest smile.
“Leave it, yaar . . .”
“Ah. Something more, then? You’re a famous man, my brother. Eyes upon you.”
“And watch out for that Sood fellow. A snake in the grass.”
“The one who goes around with the Polaroid?”
“And he has his eyes on you. Avoid looking at that Polaroid.” Zaffar reflected for a moment. “These things happen, Nurul—infatuations—at our age especially, but don’t let it rock your position . . . it passes . . . I know you’ll be wise.” Before Nurul could reply, Zaffar interjected, “But I have to tell you something important, Nurul—in absolute secrecy.”
Nurul looked up. “You have a mistress? And you’re preaching to me?”
“No. Of course not. I want to tell you that Project Babur is on. I thought you should know that.”
“You’re sure? It’s actually on? Funding and so on?”
Zaffar nodded, “Yes. And I’m telling you this in strictest confidence.”
Nurul swore in the choicest Punjabi invectives he could muster. “And he told me—they told me—do you know, this messenger from Teymuri, Major So-and-so, came especially to my home one evening to reassure me? Project Babur is on hold, he said. Too costly. It’s atoms for peace now. The bastards. I should have known. I had suspicions.”
Nurul didn’t tell him about the presents. The bribe.
There was silence. Then Nurul looked hard at Zaffar. The question on his mind burning, but Zaffar took his time. He swallowed.
“I’ve considered,” Zaffar said. “If the Indians test theirs, then . . .”
“Then I will join the project. Our bomb effort. I thought you should know.”
“Oh,” came Nurul’s response. He felt his heart drop. He must have changed colour. “You surprise me, yaar.”
Nurul got up and they embraced. “Till next time,” he said. “Khuda hafiz,” his friend replied. God protect you. Then Nurul opened the door and left, dark thoughts in his head. The door clicked shut behind him.
Am I so out of touch . . . the world passes me by . . . old at forty? All has changed. And me and my illusions. Science for peace, what bullshit. Even Zaffar has seen the light . . . or darkness?
A cable came from Zaffar Khan: In London Friday, looking forward to seeing you. When can we meet? Nurul replied immediately, Come to my office at 12? Lunch. Flights arrived from the subcontinent early in the morning. He had a graduate seminar till half past twelve, so that morning he left instructions for the department secretary to welcome his guest. When he breezed into his office following the seminar, Zaffar Khan was seated at an angle in the chair across from the desk, studying a paper. He looked up, stood up with a smile, and they embraced. There were two other men in the room, one of whom now turned from reading a conference poster on a wall, and the other rose up from the extra chair by the door. They looked younger, perhaps in their mid to late thirties, and were clad in smart blazers and light trousers. They were Zamil Akhtar and Sajjad Khan, and came forward to shake hands. They were both with—Zaffar hesitated, having introduced them—the IAEA. The International Atomic Energy Agency. Zaffar himself, Nurul observed, with slight amusement, was in a dark business suit and had received a smart haircut that partially hid the grey.
“So, then, you must bring me up to date on recent developments,” Nurul said.
“That’s exactly what we intend to do,” Zaffar replied.
Sajjad looked at his watch, took a moment, and excused himself. “I’ll be back soon,” he said and left the room.
“Friday prayer,” Zaffar explained.
“Shall we say ours here?” Zamil asked.
“Why not?” Nurul replied.
They spaced themselves out and said their midday prayer. The three visitors already had a lunch date at the Pakistan High Commission, and meetings thereafter, so it was agreed that they would visit Nurul Islam at his home at eleven the next morning. Zaffar would fly out that evening, the two others the following morning.
“Actually, I’m on my way to see my daughter in Boston,” Zaffar explained afterwards, brushing the dust off his knees. “I thought why not stop over and see my old friend in London, bring him up to date, and I invited these two chaps to come over. They were desperate to meet you.”
Zamil looked embarrassed. “Yes, sir,” he said sheepishly. “This is an honor.”
Before Nurul could learn more from them, all his three visitors were gone. Is this how far apart we’ve drifted, he mused, that he only drops in and out? The last time we saw each other was in Rome; since then, no contact. I haven’t done much either, to stay in touch. Something happened there, the air between us altered, and we became shy of each other. And now? The suit, the pen, the shoes. The haircut. And he sounds different somehow. If India . . . , he had said . . . then he would join. And he has joined. Senior scientist, big shot. Government servant. Zaffar Khan, my friend. Used to be a regular chap.
Zaffar arrived with his companions the next day at five before eleven. Beaming smiles for Sakina Begum, with a box of special Lahori namkeen, presents for the three kids—an embroidered cloth bag, a signed cricket ball, a handcrafted pencil box. “Bhabhi,” he said to Sakina, “we can’t eat lunch but we’ll have your famous tea.”
Nurul watched in amusement as Sakina gave Zaffar Khan a glare. “You’ll have tea here and then lunch,” she said flatly and went away to prepare.
Zaffar threw up his hands. “When will I learn?” Then he said, “You’re a lucky fellow, Nurul Islam.”
“I know,” Nurul replied.
The two young men said they wanted to do some shopping, they would be back at two, and they would eat out. So it was agreed.
After lunch—vegetable biriyani, chicken curry, daal, and roti—and when the two younger men had returned, the four of them sat down in the living room.
“You have a place I can lie down, after that lunch?” Zaffar joked as Sakina left them.
“You are always welcome,” she said.
“Well,” Nurul asked, “what’s going on in our holy homeland these days?”
“It’s serious, Nurul,” Zaffar said. “We’ve come with a special request from high up. A plea. And you must listen.”
“So it’s not just to see your old friend?”
“Nurul,” Zaffar said. “I’m telling you in confidence that we have information that Indira Gandhi during a secret visit to BARC in Bombay gave it a thumbs-up to go ahead and test a nuclear device. Deterrence is the only option for Pakistan. We must follow suit, and you must come on side.”
“How do you know about this thumbs-up?”
Zaffar picked up his tea, which Sakina had brought. He exchanged looks with his companions.
“I’ll tell you, but in strictest confidence. Hear me and forget about it. There’s an informer at BARC, not high-level, but enough to pick up the buzz after Mrs. G’s visit. And there’s an agent in Delhi . . . and an American spy also in Delhi who plays both sides, and we have partial access to his information. This is highly confidential. I repeat.”
Nurul gave a long sigh. His heart was racing. “And these fellows?”—he looked at Sajjad and Zamil. “They are privy to this—”
“They are at the IAEA, which has been monitoring India’s nuclear program. They know what’s what, though they are here on personal visits. And it’s true they were anxious to meet you. You know that Bhabha had declared publicly that India could test a device within two years if it desired.”
“I knew that.”
“Bhabha died, there was another war, there is a new regime—Mrs. Gandhi. Hawkish.”
Homi J. Bhabha had always championed a nuclear-armed India. Nurul had met him once at Los Alamos and found him somewhat arrogant. BARC was named after him.
“In two years India will have tested a nuclear device,” Zaffar said.
“A peaceful one. A PNE?”
“As they say, the difference between a Peaceful Nuclear Explosion and an actual bomb is only the exterior paint. You know that. Deterrence is the only policy option, Nurul. They’ll have the bomb, we must have ours.”
“What do you want me to say?”
“Join the effort, sir. Give us your leadership,” pleaded Sajjad Khan.
“If they had Bhabha, we have Nurul Islam,” spoke his companion with feeling.
M G Vassanji is the author of ten novels, three collections of short stories, a travel memoir about India, a memoir of East Africa, and a biography of Mordecai Richler. He is twice winner of Canada's Giller Prize (1994, 2003) for best work of fiction in Canada; the Governor General's Prize (2009) for best work of nonfiction; the Harbourfront Festival Prize; the Commonwealth First Book Prize (Africa, 1990); and the Bressani Prize. Vassanji was born in Nairobi, Kenya and raised in Tanzania. He received a BS from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania, before going to live in Canada. He lives in Toronto, and visits East Africa and India often.
Pakistani ::: Bi Kidude
Nuclear War ::: Sun Ra
Atom & Evil ::: The Golden Gate Quartet
Mujaah Haave ::: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
Come With Me ::: Ghazal
Raga Deem Todi ::: Pandit Kamalesh Maitre
History ::: Mos Def
Lajo Lajo ::: Shujaat Khan