November 1, 2021

Book Review: Supersonic: A Thriller That Rewrites History

Written By: Murali Murti

On 6 August 1945, Colonel Paul Warfield Tibbets, the 30 year old commander of 509 Composite Group, US Army Air Force, flew a mission which was to bring World War II to a quick close and change the course of world history. Flying the B-29 Superfortress—an American four-engined propeller-driven heavy bomber, named Emola Gray by Tibbets after his mother, the mission was to release a 10,000 pound atomic bomb, dubbed “Little Boy,” over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The bomb was dropped at 0815 local time, the blast killing about 100,000 people and injuring countless more. Japan surrendered nine days later, on 15 August, bringing World War II to an end. But a new era of atomic warfare had begun.


The US effort to build an atomic weapon had been designated as the Manhattan Project. The Soviet Union soon followed with its first atomic test on 29 August 1949, code-named RDS-1. Britain tested its first nuclear device in 1952, France in 1960 and China in 1964. The nuclear race had well and truly begun. But it was destined to be within these five powers, for none of them wanted nuclear technology to further proliferate. And thus began under the radar operations to prevent other countries from acquiring these technologies—and India was in the crosshairs of such attempts.


Towards the end of World War II, a brilliant Indian nuclear physicist, Homi Bhabha, conceived the idea of setting up a school of research in fundamental physics, with special reference to cosmic rays and nuclear physics. He hoped to set up such an institute in Bombay, with support from the Tata group through their trust funds. And thus began India’s journey in this very exotic branch of science. Unknown to him, there were forces at work which would go to any length to see that he did not succeed.


Along with India’s nuclear ambitions, was the quest to produce its own fighter jet aircraft. This became another bone of contention with the nuclear haves, who wanted to deny India not only the means to produce a nuclear weapon, but also the means to deliver such a weapon.


In this backdrop, Murali Murti has set the stage for his novel, “Supersonic – A Thriller that Rewrites History”. The plot is reminiscent of a genre of political thriller novels comparable to the work of authors such as Frederick Forsyth, Tom Clancy and Richard Condon, which keeps the reader glued to the book. Set as a novel, it makes the reader wonder where truth ends and fiction begins. Or is this simply truth telling, disguised as fiction?


It is a fact that people who were involved in India’s nuclear programme died under mysterious circumstances. Homi Bhabha, in an interview he gave to All India Radio in October 1965, stated that if given the green signal, India could make a nuclear bomb in 18 months. Three months later, Bhabha was dead, killed when the Air India Flight 101 he was travelling in—a Boeing 707 airplane named Kanchenjunga—crashed near Mont Blanc on 24 January 1966. A few days earlier, on the night of 11 January 1966, India’s Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri died in Tashkent, after concluding a peace treaty with Pakistan, under Soviet auspices, post the 1965 India-Pakistan War. The cause of Shastri’s death remains a mystery till date. No autopsy was carried out of his body, even after it was brought back to India! Significantly, Shastri had given the green signal to manufacture the bomb. These deaths cannot be put aside as mere coincidence. Neither can the death of Vikram Sarabhai in December 1971. Sarabhai was the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission when death came to him in a quiet room in a Kovalam resort on 30 December 1971. His death too was not investigated. That India still tested its first nuclear device in Rajasthan’s Pokhran desert on 18 May 1974—an operation code named Smiling Buddha—is a testimony to the grit and determination of India’s scientific community and the support it received from every Prime Minister of India.


Along with hostile attempts to sabotage India’s nuclear programme, there were attempts to scuttle the building of India’s first fighter jet aircraft. The story of Kurt Tank who helped India make its first fighter jet, the HF 24 Marut, and the devious attempts to sabotage India’s nascent fighter jet programme cannot just be wished away. Could India have had a robust aerospace sector today, had things been done differently then? One wonders! The lessons are stark and clear. In the realms of upper end technology, other nations will be out to scuttle India’s programmes. The Nambi Narayanan case, though not part of this book, is just an example to show the extent that foreign agencies can go to, to scuttle cutting edge technology development in India. Nambi Narayanan was in charge of the cryogenics division at ISRO and he was falsely implicated on trumped up charges and imprisoned. That set back India’s quest for a cryogenic engine by a good two decades.


The world of shady defence deals, and the death and destruction it brings in its wake makes for spine-chilling reading in this book. That India has remained dependent on imports for meeting its defence requirements, despite huge investments made in its defence public sector, was not due to lack of talent within the country, but has much to do, as brought out in the book, with other factors. Much of the development effort for a vibrant defence industry was scuttled by officials who could be bribed for a pittance or lured through other means. This is a story of corrupt politicians and government officials, shady arms dealers, of spies and killers lurking in the shadows, a story which makes one sad to see how national interest can be compromised for a handful of silver. But it is also a story of hope, of rejuvenation, of women and men with unimpeachable integrity, of those occupying high office in the political realm, and also in government and in the private sector, who could not be bought and for whom the country came above all else. Many such people remain unacknowledged, primarily due to the nature of work that they were then doing and which many continue to do in the present times. It is a mix of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, all juxtaposed in a seamless web, to come to what most certainly is a fascinating twist in the tale, in the very last chapter.


The book has been set as a work of fiction, but the narrative is a blend of real life events intertwined with the lives of fictional characters. Some of the fictional characters too, have evidently been created from real life people, which makes the book that much more intriguing. What we eventually get is an insight into the high stakes games that are being played on the world stage, where access to and control of futuristic technologies is the prize. We see a blurring of lines between friends and foes in this world of shadows, where the rule of the game is domination and control, for which all means, fair and foul, may be used. India’s quest for futuristic technologies and its potential emergence as a major producer of advanced weapons system will hence be contested by friend and foe alike. Protecting our scientists is a challenge which we are being increasingly being exposed too, and this too must form part of the larger security discourse.

Published by Dhruv C Katoch

Maj. Gen. Dhruv C. Katoch is Editor, India Foundation Journal and Director, India Foundation

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