August 6 marked the 75th anniversary of the world’s entry into the full horror of the nuclear age. Three quarters of a century later, it is impossible not to think about the shock and awe it evoked, the fears it spawned of imminent global holocaust which have mercifully remained unrealised so far — and of the human beings whose lives were ended or irrevocably altered by that unforgettable soaring mushroom cloud.
When I visited Hiroshima 15 years ago, I didn’t know quite what to expect as I stepped off the train. Certainly not the spacious station arcade, with gleaming stalls advertising cappuccinos and beer, nor the sight, soon after my taxi turned a corner, of the Groovin’ Disc Shop, selling new and used CDs. Maybe the profusion of blond heads towering above the Japanese throngs on the platform should have alerted me: Hiroshima was now an international city. Its history ensured it belonged not just to Japan, but to the world.
Visiting Hiroshima for the first time, 60 years after this mid-sized Japanese city became the first populated place on earth to endure a nuclear explosion, was a sort of pilgrimage for me. At some unconscious level I suppose I had expected sombreness, the quiet solemnity one associates with cemeteries, not the bustle of a thriving city where every second building near the station seemed to be an international hotel.
Nor was sombreness in the air. It was a brilliantly clear summer’s day, the air crisp, the sky a bright blue, when I walked through the Peace Memorial Park to the Hiroshima Museum. The park, which stands at the centre of the explosion, is lovingly maintained as only Japanese gardeners seem to know how, with monuments scattered through it, most dedicated to victims of the A-bomb, though some pay tribute to famous peaceniks such as the Swiss doctor Marcel Junod and the American editor Norman Cousins. One ruined building, the Atomic Bomb Dome, stands undisturbed in the park as it stood in 1945, its rubble a stark reminder of that summer’s day when clocks stopped at 8:15 am and most of the rest of the city was obliterated. Otherwise grass gleams and flowers bloom on land where scientists had predicted nothing would grow for decades.
So life had, as always, triumphed over death. And yet the memorial museum remains the highlight of any visit to Hiroshima. One cannot fail to be impressed by its evocation of the scale of the tragedy: A huge photograph entirely covering a long wall showed the city minutes after the explosion, with practically every feature levelled, a handful of steel-and-concrete buildings standing skeletally, the rest a smouldering ruin. Large dioramas, each the size of two ping-pong tables, displayed the city before and after, recreating homes, office blocks, the railway station, and then their remains; a red ball suspended in the air above pointed to the hypocentre of the explosion, directly above the city centre. Displays explained A-bomb technology, the historical forces at work, and the target selection process that doomed the 230,000 victims in Hiroshima. (If clouds had not prevented it, the city of Kokura — the originally-chosen target — might have been immortalised instead.) Extracts from US military cables revealed that the absence of any Allied prisoner-of-war camps in Hiroshima had helped seal the city’s fate.
But history buff though I am — and impressive though the museum’s recreation is — it was not the immensity of the event that struck me most deeply. It was, instead, the little personal stories lovingly collected by the curators and displayed throughout the museum. A picture of a schoolgirl with 80 per cent of her body covered with burns. The skin and nails of a schoolboy who died in agony, his flesh literally melting off his body. The charred lunchbox of another, its blackened remains still inside. Shredded school uniforms. The burned-out favourite tricycle of a three-year-old killed while riding it. Pictures of a woman’s back, the pattern of the kimono she was wearing imprinted onto her skin by the bomb’s radiation. The shadow of a human being engraved permanently into the steps and wall of a building.
All tragedy is ultimately personal. The intimacy of these details touched me more profoundly than the mind-numbing statistics about the horror of that day. I asked the museum’s director, Minoru Hataguchi, whether his own family had been affected by the A-bomb. “Yes,” he said simply. “My father was a railway employee, working at the station that morning. He died instantly.” His mother? “She was pregnant with me the day the bomb hit.”
I expressed relief that he looked so well, when so many babies born after the explosion had suffered grotesque deformities and cancers. “I am well — so far,” he said, grimly. But his face lightened when I gingerly asked him about his mother. “She is 85,” he told me. “And she hasn’t been ill for a day since the bombing. But now, alas, her memory is going.”
A metaphor, perhaps, for what I had seen in Hiroshima: Survivors who have transcended the horror, and whose memories, at last, are going. But when the museum commemorates its 65th anniversary this year, 75 years to the day after the A-bomb fell, it will help the world to keep its own memories intact — so that humankind can, through these searing reminders, ensure it never suffers or witnesses the horror of nuclear bombing again.
This article first appeared in the print edition on August 7 under the title “The survivor’s message”. The writer represents Thiruvananthapuram in the Lok Sabha.