By Anamika Mukherjee
Published by: HarperCollins
Price: Rs. 299
When all that’s familiar disintegrates in the brunt of a nuclear winter, the time is ripe to reinvent the plough, and more importantly, to keep the fire going. Time, where it stands, triggers the survival instincts of those who have managed to play truant from the same disaster, which has terminated their near and dear ones. Such is the premise of Survivors.
Survivors, “a novel set in the outskirts of Delhi in a post-apocalyptic world”, emerges from an understanding of how societies form and function, informs author Anamika Mukherjee, who has studied both psychology and archaeology. “So, the idea that one group could work together to survive while another could develop so differently, be so brutal, and yet survive, had played in my head for long. Naturally, the aspect of a nuclear calamity was brought to the forefront by the disaster at Fukushima and the realisation that it could so easily have been much, much worse. I did a lot of research around that disaster before writing a single word of this book,” says Anamika.
When the story begins, the main characters, Ved and Natasha, lead the readers to a journey in space and time, people and places that depict the story of the survivors. In Anamika’s mind, the main character of the story is Natasha. “She is a strong, independent, but also vulnerable and fragile person. I knew that she would be a person who forms few bonds, but when she does, she would be fiercely loyal and stand by them. I also knew that she wasn’t a person given to romantic love. Ved formed more slowly, as a counterfoil to Natasha, someone she would love but not romantically,” says the author.
With premise, characters and plot in perspective, Anamika thought about the formal shape of Survivors, with the story catapulting from the present to the past and back. “I wrote the middle of the book first,” explains the author. “It was that part which seemed most gripping—the first moments, the first few days after such a cataclysmic event. But I realised that I couldn’t start with this section and then just leap 20 years into the future. Besides, the tone of this section, the journal, is very different. It’s written from the point of view of the professor and it has his dry, pedantic style, and it’s in the first person. Letting it be a journal that Ved and Natasha read together just seemed fitting—for both of them to discover together how they got to where they are.”
“The aspect of a nuclear calamity was brought to the forefront by the disaster at Fukushima and the realisation that it could so easily have been much, much worse.”
Survivors, as Anamika’s first work of fiction, develops with a matter-of-fact idiom of storytelling. This novel follows her non-fiction work, including Worth Every Gasp, a light-hearted, humourous narrative of her treks in the Himalaya, and Adopted Miracles, a serious, intimate account of her experience of infertility and adoption. “My books have nothing in common with each other,” says Anamika. “With Survivors, I set out to tell a story, to get people thinking, and to examine how life might be if everything we take for granted were to suddenly disappear.”
Given the intent of Survivors, Anamika has had some intriguing responses to her first work of fiction. “I was very surprised to read a review that said, ‘A riveting story, this book is one of which you have to read just one more page and then just one more page again and before you know it you have spent half the night finding out about this new world where nothing is familiar or comfortable.’ I somehow thought of Survivors as a slow-paced book that you’d linger over, not as a ‘riveting’ story. I also heard from a reader on the east coast of Canada who had done extensive research on nuclear power generation, although he wasn’t a scientist by training,” says the author.
Having set the ground for a post-apocalyptic world with Survivors, Anamika reveals that its sequel answers two compelling questions that readers and the “survivors” themselves are wondering about: what happened to the rest of the world? And what would it be like when the survivors are finally discovered—how would they get integrated into the modern world after so many years of isolation?
Survivors is a relevant work of literature in a nuclear world. And Anamika would like people to start thinking about the risks of nuclear anything—power, weapons, waste. She says: “We don’t really understand what we’re playing with here. Reading about the cost and timeframe for the Fukushima clean-up exercise, about the impact of other past nuclear catastrophes, we should learn something from history. With Fukushima, in reality, the world was lucky. It could have been much worse. But almost no one is thinking about that.”