I met M.V. Ramana in 1998 when I was writing Countdown, my essay on the nuclear situation in the Indian subcontinent. He was one of the most knowledgeable of the many experts I sought out (he has a PhD in physics from Boston University and has devoted many years to nuclear issues).

To work full-time on nuclear issues is to live with anxieties and apprehensions that most of us cannot begin to comprehend. Some of those who put themselves through this ordeal become numbed and unresponsive; one learns to recognize them by the absence of affect in their demeanour. Others are scarred by what they discover: it is as if their work had given them terrifying visions, not only of impending catastrophe but also of the human capacity for folly and evil. They often seem to be teetering on the edge of hysteria – and who can blame them?

Ramana has, I am sure, had as many visions of this kind as any other member of his highly-specialized circle. In 1996 he wrote an extraordinary paper entitled ‘Bombing Bombay? Effects of nuclear weapons and a case study of a hypothetical explosion‘ in which he estimated that a single nuclear bomb attack on Mumbai could result in 860,000 deaths – and this with a small, outdated bomb of the kind that was dropped on Hiroshima (this paper was one of the most important influences on my own essay – here is a link to an interview in which Ramana talks about his essay).

Such is the apocayptic import of this essay that the mien of the author comes as a surprise when one meets him in person – for his demeanour is as calm as his manner is mild. It is instantly evident that he is one of the sanest, most reasonable of men – and this serves to make his conclusions all the more persuasive and frightening.

Ramana is associated with the Nuclear Futures Laboratory and the Science and Global Security program at Princeton University; he is also a member of the Coalition for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament. His forthcoming book  “The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Power in India” (Penguin India) is sure to be the definitive study of the subject: I can’t wait to read it.

Of late Ramana has been writing extensively on the Kundakulam nuclear plant and the resistance to it: here and here are links to two recent pieces on the issue (both co-authored with Suvrat Raju). Particularly notable are the paragraphs in which they deal with the theory, recently circulated by a government official, that a ‘foreign hand’ is behind the protests.

Addressing this, the authors write:

“In recent years, dreams of a nuclear-powered future got a fillip with the India-U.S. nuclear deal. The deal served as the flagship of the Manmohan Singh government’s efforts to give its foreign policy a pro-Western tilt. For the United States, the deal was, in the words of Ashley Tellis, an important adviser to the Bush administration, intended to craft “a full and productive partnership with India.” But this relationship is not one between equals. India soon fell in line with U.S. strategic objectives, for example, by twice voting against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and halting the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project — an important potential source of energy.

“Dr. Singh’s government is also willing to pay generously to reinforce this “partnership.” As the former DAE head, Anil Kakodkar, admitted in an article published in a Marathi daily earlier this year, India must import reactors worth billions of dollars because “we also have to keep in mind the commercial interests of foreign countries and of the companies there.” It is these imports and the larger foreign policy shift that hasten the process of “neo-age imperial subjugation.”

“So the “foreign hand” is partly behind the nuclear expansion, not the local protests that have sprung up at every site earmarked for a nuclear plant. The conspiracy theory being peddled by the NPCIL amounts to dismissing genuine local concerns out of hand. The end result of this policy is visible in Kudankulam. The villagers, who have been opposed to the project since the beginning, were ignored and ridiculed till they finally escalated their protest in desperation. The public money that has been spent on the Kudankulam plant is imperilled not by the intransigence of the local residents, but by the failure of the government to heed their concerns earlier.”

I don’t know what is more disturbing: that powerful officials should attribute legitimate environmental concerns to a ‘foreign hand’; or that such people are actually in positions where they can take decisions on matters which may mean life or death for millions of us in years to come.


Reading Ramana’s articles over the years I’ve often wondered how, knowing what he does about the perils of the future, he still manages to keep his keel so evenly balanced.

Recently I received a message from Ramana that suggested an answer of sorts: he has not allowed his awareness of horror to blind him to other aspects of the world we live in.


Dear Amitav,

Greetings from Princeton. I am enjoying River of Smoke, but a question has popped into my head and it refuses to go away. So I thought I would share it with you. Among all the books of yours that I have read so far, this has got to be the one with the most descriptions of food. From parathas to dan-dan noodles to mutton dhansak to chai garam, there is quite a range of cuisines and dishes that enter your book. At your talk in Princeton last semester, you spoke a bit about how you traverse the twin-universes of being a journalist (and sticking scrupulously to fact) and of being a fiction-writer (where you can take some liberties). The question that comes to my mind is how much of these descriptions are fact and how much is made up? Was chai garam really drunk (invented?) by Parsis in Canton in the early 19th century? Was there a dish called dan dan noodles that was eaten by the Chinese in Canton during that period? You get the gist. Since I know that you usually back up your books with a lot of research, I suspect you have evidence for these. If so, I would be curious about what sort of sources you go to for these.

Thank you and warm regards,


In my reply I told Ramana that I would answer his questions in a blog post. I would have liked to do it today but I’m out of blog-time so it will have to wait for my next post.

For the moment I am content to savour the pleasure of receiving an inquiry about chai-garam from a nuclear expert as distinguished as M.V.Ramana.




2 thoughts on “M.V. Ramana and Nuclear Sanity”
  1. I have experienced the twin pleasures of working on nuclear issues and sampling many cuisines with Ramana, and I think something Orson Welles is supposed to have said, is apt at this point.

    “Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for lunch.”

    I think Ramana does both quite effectively!

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