In the beautiful and terrifying novel The City of Devi, communal hatreds escalate in India and Pakistan until the two countries feel compelled to threaten each other with nuclear weapons. At least, it starts out as a threat. Pakistan vows to take out Mumbai, and India will level Karachi. But everyone involved knows that nuclear war doesn’t really work that way.
“Nuclear bombs are like potato chips,” the author Manil Suri writes, “nobody can stop at just one. Every scenario predicts that a country under attack will launch all its weapons at once to avoid losing them.”
The populations of the two cities panic. A great exodus takes place as residents flee by car, by train, even by foot, and the wealthy try to snag the last berths on the outgoing ships. A woman and a man traverse this chaos in search of the object of their affections: it’s love in the soon-to-be-ruins. They hope against hope that the bombs won’t fall. And then an accident happens, as they so often do, and Pakistan mistakenly launches one missile at Mumbai. And India retaliates with four strikes on Karachi.
One of the characters in the novel, Mr. Cheerio, assesses the damage from some faraway perch via short-wave radio:
You might think me cold-blooded, but this is one of the best possible outcomes in terms of human…