A must read, this

A must read, this
How would you feel if you were told that the water you’ve been drinking every day for the past decade contains toxic waste from a nearby factory? Or when you’re told that this was known by the companies in question but nobody bothered? How would you feel if a child in your family is born with brain cancer because the mother drank the water while pregnant? This, in short, is the outline of the skeleton that tumbles out of the closet in New Jersey’s small town of Toms River.

A Pulitzer Prize-winner is a book that needs no other recommendation. But even so, a book like Toms River is a treasured possession nonpariel. On the face of it, it’s the story of one town’s battle for answers — answers to why the dreaded tentacles of cancer were enveloping its children at a starkly alarming rate; a battle against toxic dumpers and apathetic state agencies. But this isn’t the story of one town. It’s the story of the world we are living in, it’s a story that is more chilling than any supernatural horror tale, because it’s the kind of slow, invisible horror that could attack anyone anywhere.

This is amazingly in-depth investigative journalism by Dan Fagin, which traces almost the entire evolution of cancer research and the case-study of clusters to correlate the causes, along with the 60 year saga of polluting of a town’s river, soil, air and groundwater by callous industrial behemoths — Ciba Geigy and Union Carbide — who refused to comply with state regulations or build waste-treatment plants because those things would incur huge costs and eat into their profits. That the cost of these profits would be borne by children getting blood, brain and spinal cancers was a point that didn’t seem to matter.

Among the industrial ‘villains’ that feature, Union Carbide is a name that Indians can never forget — for the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. The book highlights the very tragic reality that under cover of providing ‘mass employment’ and ‘economic growth’, industrial giants are allowed to get away —literally — with murder.

Fagin hits you in the gut with the tons upon tons of stomach-churning details, but never a dull page would you find. Every line is worth poring over, because Fagin’s astonishing writing prowess alternates so superbly between the emotional, the medical and the criminal. Every chapter is replete with facts and research yet has the quality of a fast-flowing page turner.

But sadly, unlike a regular thriller, there is no retribution at the end. The families battle it out, waiting for scientists to establish that the companies’ pollution did indeed lead to their children’s suffering.

But statistical tools and scientific research prove inadequate and whatever little progress is made is outshouted by lobbying and business clout.

There were, of course, victories: like the clean-up operation which treated ‘343,000 cubic yards of soil’—“enough to cover 27 football fields with six feet of tainted dirt”, the charging of Ciba at various counts and the “the largest legal settlement in the annals of toxic dumping.” Yet, the feeling at the end is that of rage and helplessness.

You read the book with eyes popping out and mouth contorted, wondering how much of this could be happening in the place you call your own. Particularly when time and again, the book says that dye-making operations — complete with killer gases and carcinogenic wastes — have moved to Asia on account of cheaper labour. It ends, in fact, with exactly the same happening in South China. You and I have reason to shudder, especially when the blackened Toms River reminds you of the scarred Yamuna frothing sickly at the mouth…

This is a book that simply must be read, if only to shake us out of our ‘growth-induced’ stupor.


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