I wanted to travel to Bridgeton, Missouri’s West Lake Landfill to see the kind of radioactive waste dumped there, a journalistic urge to see things firsthand.

By Jey Sushil

It was one of those dull days, when after my afternoon nap on the sofa, I mindlessly surfed channels, until the screen showed serene mountains of green grass and I heard a weary fading voice say, “waste.” For some reason, I put down the remote and focused on the screen. If my memory serves me right, after the fading voice and the camera zooming across the greenery for a while, the scene changed to a lawyer sitting in her library. “These people cannot live here,” she said. “The government is not doing anything. Without consent, they dumped the waste here.”

At issue was radioactive waste that had been dumped in the backyards of a residential population. I tried to imagine the scene with heaps of waste lying around but there were no such visuals to be had. The homes on the screen looked like the serene backyards of any rural settlement in a European country. The sky was blue, patches of green, scattered small houses white in color with slanted roofs. They looked like toy houses to me: utterly beautiful. The waste lay somewhere in the background. The eyes of the camera had no access. The filmmakers could only show the worried faces of the residents, who complained about the ill effects of radioactive waste. Terms like ‘congenital deformities’, ‘genetic defects’, ‘itching’ blurred my mind as I watched.

These residents were fighting a court case against the government. The government was acting like a government, i.e., being evasive with information and not helping the people. I kept watching and I didn’t even believe for a moment that this was a scene from America even though all the characters in the documentary film were white. I guessed that the film must have been filmed somewhere in Eastern Europe. I was new to the United States, so it was impossible for me to imagine such a problem in this country.

When the film ended, it showed something in the credits that made me jump on the sofa: “St. Louis Moms.” This was the group that was fighting the battle against the government. What was the big deal? Well, the sofa and the home where I slept and thanked God every day for allowing me to sleep in the afternoon and no work for a while, was in St. Louis. It was surreal, and at that moment a thought dawned upon me, “The past never leaves you. If you run away from the past, it will follow you with more vigor.”  I felt like I was staring at a black hole under my feet. I sat stunned for a while and then slowly stood up, trying to move my feet away from the hole. The hole was nothing but ghost of my past.


The documentary “Atomic Homefront” was produced by HBO and shot in three years. Of course, I’d googled; I had been a journalist, obsessed with radioactivity for a while and then with running away from it. Now I was again confronted with the ghost. The coincidences didn’t end there. The release date of the HBO documentary was – 17 June – the same as the day of my birth. Also, it was released in 2017, it was also the year I came to the U.S as if it was waiting for me.

The day I watched the documentary, it was the 1st day of the 29th week of my wife’s pregnancy, and we were all settled for safe delivery at Barnes Jewish Hospital in the city. I used to walk my wife to her classes every day, joking with her, saying, “Walk a lot, otherwise, I will have to shout in the hospital: Push…! Push…! Push!” And she laughed hearing the words push…push. Our image of pregnant women delivering a baby had been dominated by the shouts of push…push (in English-language movies). Behind these jokes, I never revealed to her the fear I always had, of my past. A past I tried to avoid discussing all these years, confronted me from the screen on that afternoon.

I wanted to travel to Bridgeton, Missouri’s West Lake Landfill to see the kind of radioactive waste dumped there, a journalistic urge to see things firsthand. I asked one of my wife’s professors who took me to art shows in the weekends. The professor became friends with us because of his interest in Yoga and all things Indian. “Can we go to West Lake Landfill?”  I asked him without giving him too much information. He agreed to take me, and we made plans to go there in next few weeks. Soon, I backed out after a visit to the hospital for my wife’s final ultrasound. The hospital, ultrasound, and x-ray equipment had triggered the fear in me: What if my child….?

I have yet to name that fear. There are no words in the languages I know to explain that fear. Fear of my past impacting my child without any of it being his fault. Maybe I am guilty of being born in a certain place, but can you choose where you are born? Can anyone choose where they will be born? The fear remained with me for a while. After the birth of our child, I felt relieved that he was born healthy, but I still fear a genetic disease popping up in my children or my children’s children. There is a valid reason for this lingering fear and to understand it we must travel into that tunnel, which you can call my past.


Seven years ago, back in 2010, I was working as a journalist in Delhi when the news broke. In India, however, the idea of breaking news had lost its impact a few years prior; every bit of news came as breaking news. It was a dull day in the office in terms of news. The morning meeting has ended and most of us were trying to find something interesting to file for the day. No one cared about this breaking news until someone shouted, “It is radioactive material. Check this out!” I heard the word “radioactive” and saw the hanging television screen in front of me. “Radioactive cobalt-60 found in Maya Bazar.”  The place was not far from the office.

I felt a shudder run down my back. I got up and walked to the restroom trying to ignore the news anchor shouting on the screen. I washed my face with cold water and suppressed the rush of memories. Walking out of the restroom, I heard a senior colleague calling out my name, and the moment I turned to face him, he said, “Please go to Maya Bazaar. You are our radioactivity expert.”

He had said it with a grin, and I got the joke, but it made my heart ache. I didn’t want to go, but in the Indian offices, saying no to any assignment is not an option. Without replying, I left the office where all my colleagues were hooked to the television waiting for some kind of doomsday report. Journalists are the only creatures who look excited in a doomsday scenario, waiting for the catastrophe to unfold. It is difficult to decide whether we are naive or brave. The line is thin between naivety and bravery.

The office driver was more enthusiastic than me driving to the contaminated area. Probably something exciting was happening in his life after many dull days of driving us for simple press conferences. “Do you know it is dangerous out there?” I both asked and informed the driver. He laughed it off, “Oh no sir! I saw three OB (outdoor broadcast) vans going that way.” Ignorance is bliss at times. I decided not to try to educate him. My mind hovered over the past.

It was a day in 2004 when I started working in the office and the day I’d joined the office, something had happened which made me aware of my identity in a new way. The office ran a website and a radio service, and I was supposed to work for both. During my introduction to the staff members, a senior journalist had asked me, “Where are you from?” A standard question. “Jharkhand,” I said. “Which part?” “Jaduguda,” I said with the confidence that they might not have heard the name. The senior smiled, “You will do good radio as you are already radioactive.” The joke was subtle. For the others in the room, the senior colleague explained that Jaduguda is the only place in India that has an active uranium mine.

From then on, I was known as “radioactive man.” I would have preferred to be identified as a man from the land of magic, as the literal meaning of Jaduguda is “land of magic.”  It was a place I had run away from for various reasons, one of them being poverty and lack of career options. That comment about my being “radioactive” led me to a journey, which I can call looking down. I traveled into a tunnel. Who am I? Where do I belong?

I was still consumed by my thoughts when we reached the Maya Bazaar, which is famous for being one of the biggest metal scrap markets in Asia, until we were stopped by police wearing gas masks. They didn’t let us enter. The area was quarantined, and we were asked to turn around. The driver was disappointed. He proposed sneaking me into the market from a “secret way” and drove towards it, but the police had already sealed off the so-called secret way. We came back to office without any juicy doomsday story, and the office let it fade into oblivion over the next few days. I silently followed the story in the newspapers. The coverage was on third, fourth or fifth pages and treated as regular news story.

The origin of the radioactive Cobalt-60 pencils in the Maya Bazar was found to be the “Gamma irradiator” which was bought by Delhi University’s chemistry lab in 1968 from Canada and was not in use for 25 years. The chemistry lab has auctioned the machine containing the radioactive material to the scrap dealers a few months back. One person died and a case was registered against six professors in the next few weeks. No one in my office was interested in the case anymore, as there was no apocalyptic imagery to go with the story.  After few days, when I proposed doing a longer feature, the answer was, “There is no urgency left in the story.” I didn’t fight back. According to media reports (mostly in newspapers as television channels dropped the story from their bulletins within a day or two) people who were exposed to the radiation in Maya Bazar that day struggled with health complications afterward. A tumor, peeling skin, and paralyzed body of a scrap dealer who is dying a slow death doesn’t make a juicy news copy. A slowly dying man has no news value.

Urgency: the keyword I suppose. What would be the key word in the stories where you can’t see the evil. It lingers in the air you breathe, in the water you drink, on the land you walk, and gradually enter your bones. The impact is not immediate, but it is to be seen over generations. Who would link the genetic complications of a child to its parent, the worker who handled the Cobalt-60 pencils in the scrap market? That child will be termed as destiny’s child like the genetically deformed children of Jaduguda had long been addressed by their parents.

It was not for no reason that I was branded as a radioactivity expert in my office. Whether I like it or not, I was the only one who was concerned and wanted to highlight the problem of radioactive pollution in India.

In 2006, while working in the same organization, I had made a radio documentary on the issue and became aware of the devastating effects of a uranium mine, radioactive waste, and its impact on humans in Jaduguda. As a journalist I expected my documentary to make waves and change the situation on the ground: better facilities in the mine for miners, protective gear, proper dumping rules to adhere to, and medical care for children and adults suffering from congenital diseases in the area. Nothing changed, to say the least. The trucks that carried the waste got covered with plastic sheets for a while and some of the children who were born with no legs were given wheelchairs. I was annoyed and resolved not to think about the issue at all from then on. But how can you do that. It was in my bones, in my blood, and in my mind all the time. But was I always aware of it? No! For sure No! The awareness came while making the radio documentary and it was not pleasant. But when you know that you can’t do anything with your past then you simply try to forget it.


My childhood was as good as it could have been. That’s what I thought, anyway, because there was nothing to compare it with. There was no television to see the world. Newspapers were rare and the radio was meant for parents who never let us touch it. For me, life simply meant a basin surrounded by mountains on three sides where we (children in the colony where I grew up) could play. The world was small and during our walks on these mountains, we speculated, “How many mountains do we have to cross to find another colony or people or maybe another state?” The guesses were seven, three, five, twenty-four depending on who was answering.

Once, I and two of my friends decided to cross at least seven mountains to find the answer, but after two, I was scared when we came upon a (what I thought was) a small factory in the jungle that made small boulders. They were lying outside as if no one cared about them. There in the green jungle, the hundreds of bluish-grey cylinder-shaped boulders looked like aliens. We ran back home and never talked about it again. After a few years, one of the friends started working at the mine. I don’t remember his name, but I still remember that he told me the secret of those small boulders, “They are used after blasting the rocks in the mine.” He said, “After the blasts, there are holes and cracks in the mountains below the earth’s surface. These boulders fill those gaps otherwise our colony would collapse.” At times I imagined our colony disappearing into a giant hole.

I learned more about my place in the school. When I read about Jaduguda in grade seven, I was elated to know our homeland had a place in the science book. I underlined this sentence in the schoolbook: “The only Uranium mine in India is in Jaduguda.” I had no idea what Uranium meant and what it did. It was just Uranium, a metal or element which was extracted inside the mine where everyone in the colony worked. Much later, in high school, when we memorized the periodic table and read about fusion and fission, we learned that Uranium is required for making nuclear bombs. It was a piece of scientific information, which we memorized without thinking much about it because nuclear weapons were nonexistent in our imaginations. Then in the year 1998, India tested a nuclear bomb for the second time. It was in May and ironically the operation was named: Buddha Smiles. By that time, I was a young man, I had graduated from college and was looking for a job. Television had recently arrived in Jaduguda and newspapers could be read in the afternoon when they reached us. I desperately looked for the name of my home in the newspapers, as I thought we had played an important role in making India a nuclear power.

Jaduguda was missing in the newspaper reports. The first nuclear tests were done in 1974, I gathered in the newspapers. After a few months, I left my small industrial colony for another degree and became a journalist in due course. As a journalist working in Delhi, I saw once in a while reports in magazines and newspapers about congenital disabilities that were prevalent in Jaduguda. I always read the reports in disbelief. I knew most of the people in the colony who were interviewed. The activist Mr. G who was quoted in each of the reports was someone who lived on my block; we knew him as a mysterious man then, who did not work for the company but managed to live in company quarters. We often wondered, “If Mr. G. did not work for the company, then how does he earn money to maintain a good lifestyle? Who are the people coming to meet him in big cars?” I called my friends and enquired about the activist, and they told me that he had shifted out of the colony and now led an agitation against the company that operated the mine.

I visited Jaduguda occasionally after I started working as a journalist, but still I never thought of writing a report. Why didn’t the idea come to my mind? I must have been either in psychological denial or fear that the company would retaliate against my father who was still employed in the mine. Years passed, my father retired, and I joined a media company based in London, the same institution where the journalist labeled me a radioactive man. That labeling made me think and see Jaduguda and my past journalistically. Gradually as my reporting and radio skills were honed, I proposed the idea of working on a radio documentary about radioactive waste. Despite knowing most of the people in my colony, I approached the story as someone who was digging into his past without involving his parents. I was also not sure how my parents would react about me doing a news report about the uranium mine.

I read most of the media reports related to the issue, talked to some of the reporters, academic researchers, and activists on the ground. The picture that emerged from these readings and conversations shattered my childhood. I did not want to believe what I was learning. It is easy to live in denial. The house I lived in, the grounds I played on, the food I ate for many years might have been contaminated; a thought that begin as a fear slowly build an outrage inside me. I could feel the distinct stench of the open sewer flowing on the sides of the dusty ground where I played cricket as a teenager. It was not even a ground. It was a dump yard, a radioactive waste dump yard.

The reports mentioned it as “slurry dam.” We knew it as “Salai dam,” a mispronunciation on our part. One can dispute whether it was even a dam. The workers who had settled in the beginning, like my father, tells us that they made an artificial slope-shaped wall of cement, more than 500 ft wide. The plan was to dump the waste generated from the mine behind this wall. With time, the slope got covered by soil and when we grew up, it looked like a small mountain with little or no vegetation. One could walk on the wall and see the greyish blue viscous waste lying in open on the other side. Miles and miles of greyish mud. We came to know that animals get drowned in that. It was forbidden to go to the other side of the wall but there was no one to stop us if we wanted to go. We didn’t venture because it looked threatening. We feared getting drowned in that bluish swamp. The dump yard had an odor that attracted many like me to go and sit over the wall. It smelled like my father when he came home from the mine without taking his mandatory bath. It was a peculiar bearable stench, unlike the sewer stench. I could see that smell in the tiny particles of air when father changed his factory clothes. I can sense that smell even now.

The slope-shaped cement wall could be seen from the road as an open field led to it. The open area was mostly dry with pockets filled with the slurry coming from the factory: the byproduct of the mining process. The slurry entered the dam crossing the wall via green pipes perpetually leaking on the way resulting in oily black slippery mud pits. The area was bereft of any tree or grass. The place pockmarked with these slurry-filled potholes became our occasional playground as a small settlement popped up nearby on the edge of the dam. The villagers were the original inhabitants of the land who were evicted from the jungle and settled near the slurry dam.

In the summer months, everything went dry. Even the marshy-viscous waste behind the wall. With the hot winds of early summer, the dust spread all over. The radioactive dust, sticking to the faces and bodies of people outside in those afternoons, turned them into shadowy ghosts. We played in that open space and enjoyed becoming shadowy ghosts only to be beaten up by our fathers when we returned home. No one told us not to play on that ground. No one ever told us that it was harmful to play in the wasteland. We were supposed to understand it by the beatings probably. I never asked my father whether he knew about the radioactive waste or not because there was no point now. He was retired and took no interest in talking about radioactive waste and its ill effects. He always and even now discourages my inquisitive questions. In hindsight, I believe that the idea of waste existed, but the idea of radioactive waste was beyond the understating of the miners.

Travelling back there to make my documentary I was about to see the place with different eyes and recalibrate my memories. My world was about to change. I had always gone back to visit Jaduguda as a homesick boy. This time I was there as a journalist confronting authorities, trying to dig up the truth. A part of me knew what the truth was but the part in denial wanted to see things on its own.


While making the documentary, what I saw can be compared to a long-forgotten war-ravaged place. I was looking at my home differently, as a journalist. I was an insider-outsider. I met families whom I recognized by face but had not before earlier. My inquiries with anyone working in the mine were stonewalled with a simple answer, “We can’t talk. You will leave after your work. We will face the music from authorities.” But even with those answers, they pointed me to cases in their own strange ways, “Look at Mr. Khosla’s son. He is not handicapped. What do you think about his disease?” or “What about Gudiya? You know her. She doesn’t talk, doesn’t walk since birth. Go talk to them.”

Gudiya was not an isolated case of congenital disease in Jaduguda. There are many more people like her, who have gone without proper medical attention; they die a slow death. They are kept inside homes, not to be talked about, not to be photographed, not to be known. The doctors in the area were tightlipped with phrases, “We are not equipped to answer about radioactivity and impact of waste on people.” Then when I switched off my recorder, they would say, “Why do so many people in this area have these strange diseases? One should think about it.”

A boy born with one eye, a girl born with no limbs, a boy who had a strange case of bones breaking internally, one who was paralyzed from the neck down, other, many more children who have never spoken a word since birth. They were all around me when I was in Jaduguda. I never thought that this might be because of the uranium. Now I could see the connection. The radioactive dump yard was now out of bounds for outsiders, especially journalists. The ground outside the yard where I played is still there and occasionally children play there. After the nuclear tests in 1998 and reporting by media, a board was erected near the dump yard: “photography is prohibited. Trespassers will be prosecuted.” The villagers who had settled near the slurry dam drank water from a handpump and complained of the strange taste of the water. A river passing nearby was also contaminated—people complained of itching after taking bath in the river—but they still bathed there. They had no other option.

I noted down everything. I asked questions to the authorities who ran the mine. They gave me the usual answers: “There is no radiation in Jaduguda. Radiation is everywhere and it is common. It is within the permissible limit. Those who have a disease, it is because they drink alcohol and do not have a healthy lifestyle.” One of the senior officials who was about to retire from the company told me off the record, “Our nation needs uranium. It is a question of patriotism. Someone has to pay the price.”

These are the same arguments given by all companies that produce toxic waste. I have read such reports and at times I laughed on my own, reading their answers. How predictable they were in their lies? They think they are safe in their homes in the colony. This experience made me skeptical about nationhood, humanity, and progress on a larger level but also led me to bouts of depression and anxiety.

The documentary was broadcast and received well. When Financial Times in London reviewed the radio program as “the most disturbing piece of radio this week”—someone sent me the paper cutting via mail. I read it but could not muster the courage to carry it home. The words written in appreciation annoyed me. The paper cutting felt like radioactive material. I wanted to dissociate myself from anything related to radioactivity. I did not want to talk about it anymore.

The faces of all the people I had interviewed flashed in front of my eyes. Those faces stared at me in silence. The nightmares followed. The image of the past I had carried with me became muddied with new information. The mountains, jungles, and rivers of my childhood could not remain as they had been. Everything was blurry. I could see a bluish haze on every memory I had of my childhood. Friends were no more just friends; I could only identify them as ‘the one with a deformed nose,’ ‘the one whose sister bore three dead children,’ ‘the one with a hunchback’, ‘the one having trouble in reading’. They were no more my friends, but victims of a catastrophe engineered and executed by men for the sake of power.

After the radio documentary aired, I was called to speak on several anti-nuclear forums, which I declined politely. I had become the so-called expert of radioactivity in my office. Confronting your past and talking about it in gatherings is not easy. I struggled with my anxieties for a while. At times, the thought lingered in my mind, “Am I also affected?” I tried to write it down to forget (I tried to write a non-fiction book on Jaduguda but could not complete a draft). The more I tried, the more I became aware of my precarious situation. I was looking for an escape and got one when my wife applied for her MFA degree in the USA. I was glad to leave the polluted air of Delhi, my radioactive past, and the identity of being a radioactive man.


I had no idea where St. Louis was on the map before arriving in this city. I thought I could start fresh, resting for a while, eating, and sleeping in the afternoon, zoning out to American TV. But the ghost of my past followed me. This time I finally decided to confront it and release it in the only way I knew: to write about it, to tell the world about the atrocities by humans against humans and nature. I started writing another book: this time fiction.

While researching for the book, I came to know that one of the children I had interviewed in 2006 for the documentary had died: Gudiya was seven when we met her and interviewed her parents for the documentary. She was bed-ridden since her birth, with no capacity for talking, walking, or standing on her own. Her voice, a muffled sound of a caged bird haunted me for a while. I phoned Gudiya’s father who did not remember me but told me in his depressed voice, “It was good that she died. Who would want such a life? Half-dead.”

His words “half-dead” reminded me of V.S. Naipaul’s book Half a Life, an autobiographical novel about a man with an ancestral past in India, childhood in the Caribbean, and a new identity in Europe. A half-life is the life of any immigrant pursuing a new identity. I started reading the novel again and this time, I could only think of the half-lives, we the people of Jaduguda have been living since our birth.

A former multimedia journalist with BBC World Service, Jey has a bachelor’s degree in Botany and master’s and MPhil degrees in International Relations from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. He recently published a serialized Hindi novel Diary of a House Husband for a digital app and an eBook of memoirs about JNU that has been translated in Gujarati, Punjabi, Urdu, and Bhojpuri as eBooks. Sushil has translated two books for Penguin India including A Turn in the South by Nobel laureate V.S.Naipaul. He co-heads a relational art project “Artologue” with his artist partner Mee Jey and collaborates in performance projects with her.