Sunday, June 5, 2011

Utpal Sandesara & Tom Wooten's "No One Had a Tongue to Speak"

Utpal Sandesara, the son of a Machhu flood survivor, is pursuing doctoral degrees in medicine and social anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. Tom Wooten lives in New Orleans, where he teaches writing and researches the recovery from Hurricane Katrina. They graduated from Harvard University in 2008 with degrees in social studies.

Sandesara and Wooten applied the “Page 99 Test” to their new book, No One Had a Tongue to Speak: The Untold Story of One of History's Deadliest Floods, and reported the following:
The crisis on the Machhu River had already far exceeded the bounds anticipated by the radio message.

So begins page 99 of No One Had a Tongue to Speak, our narrative nonfiction account of a long-forgotten disaster that offers profound lessons for the twenty-first century world.

Thirty years ago, in the western Indian state of Gujarat, a two-mile long earthen irrigation dam collapsed under torrential monsoon rains. Up to 25,000 people perished in the resulting flood, as a thirty-foot tall wall of muddy water wiped out dozens of villages and the industrial city of Morbi. Subsequently, the government quashed a commission set up to investigate the disaster and rebuilt the dam without acknowledging the failings that led to its collapse. Though recognized by experts as one of history’s deadliest flash floods, the disaster was quickly forgotten by all but its survivors.

In 2006, we traveled to India as wide-eyed Harvard undergraduates, having resolved to investigate the tragedy that Utpal’s mother had survived in her youth. After digging through thousands of archival documents and interviewing 148 people, we realized that we had happened upon a story of tremendous intrigue and profound humanity. We had not expected to learn, for example, that a centuries-old curse had presaged the flood, or that a convicted murderer had won a pardon after plucking more than seventy people from the floodwaters (only to stand accused of another murder), or that cover-ups and conspiracy theories had obscured the disaster’s true causes from survivors for decades. We could not have imagined the emotion the disaster still conjured; residents recounted their terrifying stories so vividly that it seemed as if the flood had happened only yesterday.

Page 99 encapsulates the tension that pervades early chapters of No One Had a Tongue to Speak. It straddles two of the numerous vignettes through which we present our multivocal narrative. The page begins with communication failures leaving downstream residents unaware of the emergency brewing behind the dam. In the next vignette, the reader meets Dhirubhai Mehta, a quiet, meticulous shopkeeper whose life will soon be thrown into turmoil. Though the monsoon rains are whipping the dam’s crew into a panicked frenzy, they merely leave Dhirubhai with a dearth of customers on a dreary afternoon…
A beaded curtain of runoff veiled the entrance to the Mehta Machinery shop. From his seat behind the counter, Dhirubhai Mehta glanced out at the Mahendra Quarter, the middle-class neighborhood northwest of Morbi’s main market. A gushing stream filled the street, and a damp coolness hung in the air. Although large-scale evacuations were underway in the city’s low-lying neighborhoods, life in the Mahendra Quarter continued to follow the routine of a mundane rainy day. Dhirubhai Mehta pored over his business ledgers.

For the most part, Mehta was an unremarkable man. His bland shirts and pants covered a body that stood average in both height and build. He tended to remain silent, holding his gravelly voice in reserve except when compelled. His dark face rarely betrayed emotion.

Like Mayor Ratilal Desai and the woman who had cursed the city centuries earlier, Mehta belonged to the Vaniya merchant jati. Unlike Desai, he had not achieved widespread distinction. He had spent his life in the Mahendra Quarter, quietly tending his agricultural machinery business and bringing up three daughters. He passed his days haggling with farmers, praying at the local temple, and socializing with fellow members of the Rotary Club.

Recently, however, he had found a new passion in life, something that filled him with satisfaction and a small degree of self-importance. Over the last five years, Mehta’s son Vimal – the only boy after a string of three girls – had become the greatest joy in his life.
Mehta’s harrowing account of attempts to save his son amid the floodwaters appears verbatim in the subsequent narration of the disaster’s chaos. By combining the words of survivors like Mehta with insights gleaned from previously classified documents, No One Had a Tongue to Speak finally bears witness to a landmark tragedy.
Learn more about No One Had a Tongue to Speak at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue