Lightning must not strike twice

I have forgotten some of the names. But not their faces – or their stories.

I had walked with Sunil Dutt on his peace march against the nuclear bomb from Nagasaki to Hiroshima in 1988. We stayed and lived off the roads for nearly three months from June to August, bathing in spas, sheltering for the night in temples and churches along the way, and ending it on August 6, the anniversary of the bomb, under the Atomic Dome in Hiroshima.

En route, we visited hospitals dedicated to those still affected by the bomb and many of these were children born to parents or grandparents who directly came under radiation in 1945. There was a woman we met who had blacked out when the bomb was dropped as she was crossing the street. She came to in a hospital with an enormous backache but apart from some mild cuts the doctors thought she was ok.

The backache, though, never went away and, as she grew older, she doubled up bit by bit. Finally, with new technology and better means of coming to diagnosis, the doctors realised that a small piece of shrapnel had lodged in her spine between two of her vertebrae which had fused together under the impact of the heat of the bomb. There was no cure. They could not operate so many years later – they thought it would kill her.

“But I died the day the Americans dropped the bomb on my unsuspecting family,” she told us. She was out to buy some supplies, her home melted into the atmosphere and her family into thin air with the impact of the hydrogen bomb. “What is there for me to live for even now?”

But the fact that God had spared her, made her work with the children in the hospital in her spare hours while she eked out a living at a beauty parlour in a posher part of town.

Japan was truly a new age reconstruction as I saw it, walking through its towns and villages. I noticed the uniformity of the landscape which even in Europe or the US is steeped in history, no two cities in any country quite so similar. But the post-war reconstruction of Japan had ensured that every village had a spanky-shiny 7-11 store (small groceries and home supplies), a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet and a McDonald’s. I used to escape to these from the live fish and octopus that was served up to us most of the times by our Japanese hosts and learnt to slurp my tea – rather than sip it delicately as I had been taught all my life, the British way — lest the hosts consider me unappreciative. This was also where I learnt to use chopsticks with finesse – to date, friends and family are surprised at how deftly I can pick up all sorts of food with the sticks and transfer them to my mouth without incident.

Not much is written about this anywhere but I thought the Japanese were wonderful with shoes – all kinds, high-heeled, delicate, prettily flowered patterns as well as highly durable ones. I bought several pairs that lasted me for years, even the delicate variety, considering they had to carry my considerable weight through both the work fields and the formal events I attended over the years. I remember how I came by those shoes: I was directed to one particular outlet by some shoe factory workers who were on strike. They were all wearing black bands and were all making only the left pairs. They had serious issues with their employer but lest they lose precious work hours they continued to manufacture — but only the left pair of each design. “When our demands are met, we will start manufacturing the right pairs for each design. That way we wont lose either time or money, nor will our employer.”

That impressed me mightily and, as I looked longingly at a pretty left shoe, the floor manager at that factory said, “If you want that badly, perhaps some of our stockists still have a pair or two left from an earlier batch. We would have made it for you in a couple of days but we have a point to prove.”

And prove it they did, for all of us were mighty impressed by the Japanese’s devotion to work — such that they continued to work, with just a black band to shame their employer, even when they were on strike!

But whenever I think of those striking workers still producing left pairs in that shoe factory, I also think of the very unfortunate 42-year-old child – yes, I cannot call her anything but a child – I met in the home of her tailor-father. She would/could never wear any shoes but those meant for children. Her mother was pregnant with her when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and, but for some shrapnel, she and her unborn child seemed to have escaped much injury. But it would be some years before the cruel truth would dawn upon the parents: their beautiful baby girl would not grow mentally beyond three years of age. What was worse, her feet would not grow beyond a child size either and would not support her adult body. So some 60-65 kilos of her came crawling into the living room on all fours, raising herself on one knee to wave to us with a happy smile. She was kept entertained with colourful picture magazines (like National Geographic) and the television. Her delight at the animal pictures and colourful toys we brought her were so child-like that it was heart-wrenching and made even Sunil Dutt burst into tears.

Her mother had already passed on and, at almost 70 then, her father’s chief concern was who would take care of her after him, if she would get the kind of home care they had given her all her life and how long could she survive his exit from this world.

If she is still alive, she would be around 60 now, I guess. And, knowing Japanese society, being well taken care of.

Japan’s Prime Minister described the current crisis with his country’s nuclear reactors as the worst since 1945. But lightning should not strike anyone twice. I salute the Japanese spirit to pick up the pieces and reconstruct their lives all over again. But I sincerely hope this second catastrophe does not give rise again to more people like that beautiful child, with an adult body and a baby’s mind and hands and feet.

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