A Doctor’s Journal Entry on August 6, 1945
By Vikram Seth
Preamble …Japan was down on its knees militarily towards the closing years of the Second World War. Defeat stared it in its eyes, yet this valiant nation refused to lay down arms. Casualties were mounting on both sides, but the attrition was much higher in the Japanese side than in the American’s. War was dragging on painfully, piling up misery on the tiny but gallant country. To stem the flow of further blood, and bring the War to a quick end, the Americans dropped atom bombs on the two Japanese cities with a gap of just three days. Hell descended on the hapless people as they simmered in the heat of the deadly bombs.
The tragedy was cataclysmic. The Japanese people had long been inured to the suffering and cruelty of war, but the pain inflicted by the two bombs was beyond their endurance. But, the hapless citizens endured the suffering with stoic resignation as the pain had numbed their senses and their sense of judgment.
Vikram Seth is adored by his readers for his humanism and deft portrayal of characters. In this poem, written more as a diary, he brings alive the lament and the wrenching pain of the ordinary civilians. They were mere pawns, caught in the whirlpool of strategic maneuvering of the two nations locked in war.
Poem’s meaning.. The victim and narrator is a doctor whose job is to alleviate the suffering of others. Now, he himself has become the suffering soul.
On that fateful morning, he is jolted out of his bed by a monstrous blast that rips off his under garments. The old lantern lighted up on its own as if a ghost had ignited it. Two blinding flashes came one after another. The doctor thought it was the usual magnesium flare normally used in battle fields, but hr was mistaken. These were far more sinister. He was puzzled.
His house made mostly of timber came crashing down. Rubble were strewn all over the place. His garden and his house were in a shambles. The sight looked so intriguing and frightening. His vest had flown away from his body—such was the fury unleashed by the blast. A piece of shrapnel had pierced his right thigh. The dangling object caused him excruciating pain. Blood flowed from the incision. His cheek had also been badly bruised. He somehow extricated the glass piece from his thigh. He was clearly flummoxed by the sudden turn of events. Amidst this confusion, he wondered where his wife was. Her name was Yecko-san. The doctor called out her name with a full-throated cry.
To add to his horror, the artery in his neck had been bruised. As a doctor he knew how ominous it was. ‘Am I going to bleed to death,’ he wondered. Trembling with trepidation, he shouted to his wife summoning her to his presence at once. Hopefully for him, she appeared, undoubtedly very shaken. She had blood stains on her body. The blast seemed to have reduced her to a lump of nervous wreck. As the husband, he tried to instill some hope in her. ‘We will pull it through,’ seemed to be his message to her as he held her by her elbow.
The duo rushed out of the house trying to reach the street, but they tripped and fell flat on the way. He tried to figure out what he had stumbled upon. He recoiled in horror discovering that it was the head of a dead fellow human being. He had been crushed to death by the weight of a falling gate
It was no time to grieve, nor reflect upon. He prodded his wife to pull up herself, so that they could make it to the hospital nearby. Just around that time, a house in front, uprooted from its foundation leaned sideways, staggered like a drunken man, and crashed on to the street. It was a really a dreadful sight to see when the earlier events had virtually drained them of their verve and fortitude. A fired appeared from nowhere and clawed dangerously forward.
The doctor’s conscience told him that he should do something for his beleaguered staff, but his enfeebled body did not permit him. Thirst and injury had taken a toll of his stamina. He slumped on the ground although he desperately wanted to reach the hospital. There was not even drop of water to quench his thirst.
The doctor felt breathless, perhaps out of exhaustion and thirst. However, in a show of remarkable tenacity, he could muster some strength in his limbs to get on his feet again. He had been completely stripped of his clothes by the fury and the fire unleashed by the blast. He felt no need to cover his body. A normal man’s sense of shame had deserted him. He was distraught though, reflecting upon his predicament and the way his mind had been benumbed by the dance of death and destruction all around.
A soldier stood nearby, silently, possibly trying to make sense of what had happened. He offered a towel to the disrobed doctor to cover his body. His legs, after so much of battering, refused to take commands. He told his wife Yecko-san to proceed to the hospital without waiting for him. She left reluctantly: his eyes followed her as she walked away. The parting, though insignificant, seemed to be so painful, but he had to be pragmatist in this hour of distress.
The Doctor was overwhelmed with a torrent of thoughts. Angst, dread and doom overtook his power of judgment. A pall of gloom seemed to have fallen on the city. The atmosphere was ghoulish. People, with deep burns on their bodies seemed to move around aimlessly. They looked like ghosts from the other world. With hunched back and bent shoulders, they moved clinging to the last straw of hope to stay alive.
The doctor saw a woman with her child in her arms moving towards the hospital. The mighty bomb had disrobed the hapless innocent duo! The sight was so sickening, so revolting. In normal times, a person sheds their clothes in the bathroom, never in the public streets. He had to turn his face away. He realized that an event of demonic proportions had happened robbing the clothes and the sense of shame from him and the mother and child. An old woman lay on the ground seething with pain, but quite strangely, she was quiet. Perhaps, she would meet her end soon.
A weird silence had shrouded the survivors. They did not cry, wail, call out for help, protest, or pray. They just obeyed the commands of the Unseen to lay silent.
Question …What prompted Vikram Seth to write this poem? What does he aim to accomplish through this poem.
Answer ..Vikram Seth is a pacifist. His heart weeps for the innocent and down-trodden human beings. The scale of destruction caused by the August 8, 1945 nuclear attack on Japan’s two cities was colossal. The human race had never seen devastation of life and property in such gigantic scale. Vikram Seth penned these lines to vent his grief and frustration at the pain endured by innocent civilian victims of the two cities. To underscore his empathy for the dead and dying people in the area, he has donned the robes of a doctor. The situation is so tragic that the doctor struggles his and his wife’s life despite his conscience asking him to tend to the injured and crippled citizens all around him.
The doctor has been disrobed by the blast’s waves. It is an onslaught on the dignity of a human being. That an atomic attack robs the victims of every possession—real or notional—is borne out by this parody. Vikram Seth, through this poem, provokes the world’s citizens to do some soul-searching about the hideous nature of atomic weapons. For the present and posterity, his poem will provoke the thinking human beings to find ways to banish this weapon forever.