A PRESIDENT’S PILGRIMAGE TO HIROSHIMA
‘YOU REALISE THAT THERE ARE THINGS THAT EVEN NUCLEAR BOMBS CAN’T QUITE DESTROY’
These days, as election campaigns accelerate in Australia and America, you hardly hear the words ‘moral awakening’ or ‘a moral revolution’. The morality of modern politics is suspect as citizens become more aware of their mortality in a seemingly mortally wounded world. The emphasis is always on economic plan, free trade agreements—‘jobs n’ growth’. You wonder if any other kind of growth may be possible in the stunted landscape of our shrinking and so deeply damaged planet. Even the corals are being bleached white in the Great Barrier reef, one of the wonders of the natural world.
The emphasis is now on the concept of a planet – a planet of apes, perhaps, when you hear some of the aspiring ‘leaders’. One, however, doesn’t wish to be unfair to our genetically ancient ancestors.
Obama, a voice of sanity
Yet amidst all the chaos and uncertainties, there are voices of sanity. One such visionary voice is that of now the lame-duck President Barack Obama. He has been in the White House now for almost eight years— the maximum of two four-year terms for a US president.
In the last few months of his presidency, Obama has developed a global reach and perception, aware of the legacy he’ll leave behind; and cognizant of what America could become if a wrong person becomes the new president in November. The perils of democracy are many and varied. In the last few months, Obama visited Cuba as the US President, first in 80 years; Vietnam where America suffered its first military debacle; and now Hiroshima, where the first atomic bombs were dropped by the Americans in August 1945, when the life-giving sun had become a shining sheet-shroud.
Nuclear age begins
The Second World War ended soon after when the Japanese surrendered unconditionally. Hitler had committed suicide and the Russians had intentions of painting the world red. The nuclear age had begun with a bang and man now had the power of destroying more than Mother Earth. But, so far, we’ve survived the bombs. In the circumstances, one is moved by the visit of President Obama to the cenotaph in Hiroshima. He laid a wreath in memory of thousands of civilians killed by the first nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The second bomb, like the Second World War, remains an enigma. Only the other day I heard a respected commentator say that during the 20th century we killed 150 million human beings, mostly civilians. It’s an appalling statistics.
As a young teacher, I recall the closest the world came to self-annihilation was during those 13 days of the Cuban missile crisis. To read that account today is to shudder at what might have happened if you didn’t have a President like JFK, who ignored the military advice of his hawkish generals; instead he listened to a European diplomat who suggested: give another 500 miles to the Russian fleet; in other words, give the Russians space to think. They thought and blinked – the world became a bit safer from the devastation of a split atom. This, of course, wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t have the unspeakable examples of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The two have become symbols and beacons of the apocalyptic fate awaiting more than humankind.
Obama’s visit to Japan touches the writer
So Obama’s visit touched me: his meeting with the three elderly hibakusha was the most poignant moment as he embraced one of them and clasped a withered hand as a sign of human bondage beyond any bomb.
You realise that there are things that even nuclear bombs can’t quite destroy for it is the force of human recognition more powerful than any other. The atmosphere at the memorial was somber but it was imbued with a sacred hope. Where 70 years ago a city was in ashes, today we’ve cherry trees, birdsongs and children riding their bicycles on the grass-covered paths, while young lovers walk holding each other’s hands.
The writer-president, once again, in his measured tone and thoughtful cadence, talked of moving from that terrible scientific revolution to a new moral revolution, an awakening of the human spirit for better things. One hopes that once he has shed the burdens of the White House, he’d devote his life to the destruction of the nuclear stockpiles which can destroy our earth many times over. It won’t be easy as the developments in the South China Sea ominously indicate.
But it’ll bring a special kind of greatness to the American President who has created so many hopeful precedents during his tenure of being the most powerful person in the world’s only super power. In his book Dreams From My Father, one discovers it is really the dream from his mother that shaped him most creatively: ‘I know that she was the kindest, most generous spirit I have ever known, and what is best in me I owe to her.’
Poem dedicated to Obama
Some years ago I’d written a poem, after reading the death of the last survivor of the two bombs. I titled it:
The Twice-Bombed, The Twice-Blessed
And today I dedicate it to the writerpresident Barack Obama, twice-elected. The poem was published in a New Anthology of Contemporary World Poetry, The Second Genesis, containing poetry from 60 countries. On January 6, 2010, Tsutomu Yamaguchi died, aged 93. He was the last survivor of the two nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I read his story in a magazine in New Delhi on 30 January,2010. Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated in New Delhi on 30 January, 1948. I was a student in Delhi University in the 1960s when President Dwight Eisenhower on his visit to India, standing next to the philosopher-President S. Radhakrishnan, spoke to us: Ike’s image and phrase - ‘humanity was hanging on the Cross of Iron’ – has remained indelibly etched in my memory.
The garden is green, beautiful, In the leaves of trees there’s peace: The birds twitter, the caterpillars crawl: There are butterflies On the quiet breast of their earth— Remain close to your home-soil.
The old man sits, crying uncontrollably.
Tears have wet his tattered cheeks, torn shirt: His face is leaning towards infinity. He’s past ninety, past life, past dreams.
Yet nothing is really past.
Mr Tsutomu Yamaguchi, in his hoed garden, Died on 6 January 2010.
I’m reading about Gandhi— The papers in New Delhi, having seen The parade of weapons, Are full of tributes to another life’s span.
What really is the measure of any man?
The morning in August, in January, Had its usual brightness The sky was blue and the birds flew In a pattern which only they knew: It was an ordinary day.
Yamaguchi was walking to catch a train From Hiroshima to Nagasaki; He’d finished his assignment-Time to say goodbye to friends In the offices of Mitsubishi. And buy a gift or two for his wife And his only son. Three months in Hiroshima Was long enough—it’s time to return home.
All good things have their ends.
Across the green potato fields He walked: Sometimes Life can be just crossing a green field. In the clear , blue sky, a plane hovered, Circled the city, A white parachute mushroomed Yamaguchi saw them float, fall Before he fell, face burned, Flesh a molten monstrosity In a sheet of light.
He remembered the flash Its white magnesium light-I’ve become Death, declared the red sun:
Krishna-Christ, Gautama-Gandhi are One.
He lay in the burnt potato fields Bleeding Feeling the soft earth beneath his melting skin. It’s reported he was two miles from The epicenter of the first atom bomb Dropped on the heartbeats of a city And a very young man.
Burnt, eardrums ruptured, He made his way to the railway station To catch a train to Nagasaki: How trains still ran on time.
He crossed the angry river On the raft of human remains Floating, broken, dead: Corpses in the sunken Ganga.
II Years later, he told the school children: On the bridge of inhumanity On the boat of bloated bodies I crossed to the other side.
The old man wept The children stared at his wet face. He simply said: he reached Nagasaki, just in time, To report to his office. His manager at Mitsubishi Was, as usual, incredulous, skeptical: How can a city be killed by a single bomb?
For a nation at war with itself Weapons are a necessary evil.
Suddenly the same white blaze Flashed through the office window: The bars melted, the boss died. Young Tsutomu was thrown again To the ground, made of steel.
Close to death, he clung to life In the reinforced bars; His house was vaporized, His wife, his little son survived.
His son was to die of cancer, aged 59. At the funeral, the Father wept twice: How the white light had darkened his son’s life.
III Often Mr Yamaguchi would cry Long into the midnight When there was nothing But the approaching silence of death, Birds asleep in their nests And dried leaves fluttered On an empty path towards a garden Into a green potato patch.
It’s said the old man Painted many faces of the Buddha, He wrote tanka—31-syllable poems. Within these acts of creation He summarized two nuclear bombs Believing in the nameless art of worship And small human affections.
Peace, he often murmured, is God: And the blue sky, the green earth Will not perish.
He became the only nijyuu hibikusha: The twice-victim of the first two atom bombs.
And now he, too, is gone: Surely somewhere another Mahatma must be born?