Chernobyl

by Sayantani Dasgupta

 

The morning I first saw snow, real real snow, as it rained onto my black coat purchased the night before from Ross—Dress for Less, I stood outside my main door, frozen in place, my fists clenched to the sides in fear. You see, I didn’t think “snow.” I thought, “Chernobyl,” as memory plunged me back to a moment in time twelve years ago, to the summer of 1994 and a tenth-grade classroom in New Delhi, where my classmates and I read an essay on the Chernobyl disaster. I don’t remember all the details except this: the children rushed out to play because they thought it was snow, and their mothers let them because they too mistook the ash.

I snapped out of it when I saw my neighbors going about their lives as usual. This wasn’t scary. This was expected. This was November in Moscow, Idaho, after all. There had been a forecast of snow and ice. This, right here, was the reason I had bought the winter coat.

I reached out my palm to catch my first snowflake. I couldn’t even see it properly before it disappeared into my skin, invisible from the entity it was not a millisecond ago.

Recently, I looked up Chernobyl again. I relearned that the disaster occurred on 26 April, 1986, when Reactor No. 4 exploded after what was supposed to be a routine test, and that the fire burned for ten days, the resulting radiation 400 times more than Little Boy, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. But what I learned for the first time is that in spite of the toxicity of the land and the deaths of many of their companions, there are babushkas— Russian grandmothers—who have returned to their original homes. They are in their seventies and eighties, and no amount of administrative orders, threats or cajoles can convince them to leave the land of their ancestors. That falcons, wolves, wild boars, and moose are thriving in the surrounding forests. That the rivers are thick with catfish. When they were young, these babushkas survived Stalin and the Nazis; they emerged on the other side of war and famine. These days they slaughter pigs, they embroider, they attend the local St. Elijah’s Church. How can they be expected to fear something neither male nor foreign, that does not even have feral teeth, but whose only crime is that it breathes and disappears into the same air.


Born in Calcutta and raised in New Delhi, SAYANTANI DASGUPTA is the author of Fire Girl: Essays on India, America, & the In-Between (Two Sylvias Press, 2016), and the chapbook, The House of Nails: Memories of a New Delhi Childhood (Red Bird Press, 2016). Her essays and short stories have appeared in Chicago Quarterly Review, The Rumpus, Phoebe, Gulf Stream, India International Quarterly, and others. She edits nonfiction for Crab Creek Review, and has won fellowships from Centrum and Artsmith. She teaches creative writing and South Asian literature at the University of Idaho and has also taught writing workshops in India and Italy.

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