Rocket Boys 2 dropped on SonyLIV this weekend and takes forward the story of the birth of India’s space and nuclear programmes. At the centre of this story are two men: Dr Homi Bhabha and Dr Vikram Sarabhai.
The first season of Rocket Boys ends with India’s humiliation at the hands of China and Jawaharlal Nehru granting Dr Bhabha the permission to build an atom bomb. Sarabhai and Bhabha differ in their views on the bomb, the former preferring to use nuclear power for peaceful purposes only. But even as the two take their own paths – Sarabhai aims to put satellites in space even as Bhabha takes on the project to make a bomb – the two remain friends.
Merely by virtue of the covert nature of Dr Bhabha’s work, his story tends to take precedence in this season. Unlike Dr Sarabhai who, in the show, is surrounded by people that really existed – his wife, Mrinalini, daughter Mallika, his father, the industrialist Ambalal Sarabhai, even his lover Kamla Chowdhry, the first faculty member of IIM Ahmedabad – Dr Bhabha’s track has a lot of fictional characters.
Who is Pipsy in real life?
Parvana Irani or Pipsy played by Saba Azad, never existed. By all accounts, Pipsy’s character is inspired by the real-life Phiroza Wadia who went by Pipsy. Even though Dr Bhabha never married, Pipsy Wadia and he remained close friends.
According to the website of the art gallery Chatterjee & Lal, Pipsy Wadia was part of Dr Bhabha’s inner circles. Little exists about Pipsy in the public domain but the few mentions of her reveal that she had an eye for art.
Bhabha himself was a Renaissance Man, dabbling not just in the mysteries of the universe and nuclear physics, but also music and the arts. It was no surprise that the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) that Bhabha helped set up, features priceless works of art. Bhabha was a patron of the Progressive Artists Group whose origins can be traced back to Kala Ghoda.
Some accounts suggest that Pipsy had her own collection and would on occasion loan some of it to the institute. The late artist Jehangir Sabavala has recalled seeing one of his works from Pipsy’s private collection being on display at the TIFR.
Less reliable sources have speculated about the nature of Pipsy and Bhabha’s relationship, but Pipsy as we see her in Rocket Boys didn’t exist.
Also read: Ishwak Singh: The story of Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai is so inspiring
Who are Dr Vishwesh Mathur and Dr Raza Mehdi?
Unlike Pipsy, whose character has some roots in reality, Mathur and Raza are entirely fictional. The disclaimer at the beginning of each episode says as much. They do add drama to the plot and intrigue to the story of India’s nuclear programme.
What was CIA’s involvement in Dr Bhabha’s death?
There has been much speculation about the mysterious nature of Dr Bhabha’s death. Officially, his aircraft crashed into the Alps. While this is accurate, there is speculation about whether the aircraft was sabotaged. CIA spook Robert Crowley has hinted at this in one of his interviews, the American intelligence agency itself has never acknowledged or confirmed this claim.
As to why India may have wanted to keep Dr Bhabha’s alleged assassination under wraps, the show itself provides an answer. Dr Bhabha’s death preceded that of Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri who died in Tashkent, officially, of a heart attack. The two men died less than a fortnight apart. To this day, Shastri remains the only Indian PM to have died on foreign soil, fanning rumours of conspiracy for decades.
As Indira Gandhi says in the show, publicly accepting that the two deaths – one of the prime minister and the other of the country’s leading scientist – may have been assassinations, could have exposed India as a weak nation.
What is the Land of Five Mirages?
A greater part of the season finale of Rocket Boys 2 is about CIA agents trying to get evidence of India planning to conduct a nuclear test. Mathur, who by now has been appointed as Dr Bhabha’s successor, is aware of the plan but doesn’t know when and where it would be executed.
As he struggles to find evidence to hand over to the CIA, we see him come across a reference to the Land of Five Mirages and Smiling Buddha. Even though Mathur has managed to successfully eliminate Dr Bhabha, his late boss continues to frustrate him even in death.
Unbeknownst to Mathur, Pokhran in Rajasthan had been selected as the test site for the nuclear bomb test scheduled to be carried out on May 18, 1974. Far away from human settlements and with no groundwater reserves, Pokhran was ideal for a nuclear test since the radiation wouldn’t affect people living nearby. (To be sure, this has come under scrutiny since, as reports suggest that people may have actually been affected.)
In what is clearly a made-up scene, not unlike the climax of Argo (2012), the CIA and the government of India are in a race to the finish line. As the US Ambassador to India marches to the Prime Minister’s Office to demand an answer and ask that she stop the test, a team of scientists, including a young Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, are racing against time to carry out the explosion in Pokhran before the ambassador meets the prime minister.
It is at the very last minute that Mathur works out the code. The name Pokhran quite literally means the land of five mirages. Pokhran is hugged by five large salt rocks that create these mirages.
Why was the operation codenamed Smiling Buddha?
A nuclear test codenamed after someone who preached peace is an irony that the show misses but one that anti-nuclear activists don’t. As we learn in the show, ‘Buddha is smiling’ was supposed to be the code for the successful completion of the test. The multiple references to Buddha in a nuclear test can be traced back to the fact that May 18, 1974, the day when the tests were conducted was Buddha Purnima, yet again, an irony that isn’t lost.
No matter where you stand on the nuclear debate, Rocket Boys 2 offers a great view of what unfolded in the early years of Indian independence. The struggle to be self-reliant was real. How two men among many others helped us get there is a story for the generations.