No One Had a Tongue to Speak: The Untold Story of One of History's Deadliest Floods

No One Had a Tongue to Speak: The Untold Story of One of History's Deadliest Floods

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On August 11, 1979, after a week of extraordinary monsoon rains in the Indian state of Gujarat, the two mile-long Machhu Dam-II disintegrated. The waters released from the dam’s massive reservoir rushed through the heavily populated downstream area, devastating the industrial city of Morbi and its surrounding agricultural villages. As the torrent’s thirty-foot-tall leading edge cut its way through the Machhu River valley, massive bridges gave way, factories crumbled, and thousands of houses collapsed. While no firm figure has ever been set on the disaster’s final death count, estimates in the flood’s wake ran as high as 25,000. Despite the enormous scale of the devastation, few people today have ever heard of this terrible event.

This book tells, for the first time, the suspenseful and multifaceted story of the Machhu dam disaster. Based on over 130 interviews and extensive archival research, the authors recount the disaster and its aftermath in vivid firsthand detail. The book presents important findings culled from formerly classified government documents that reveal the long-hidden failures that culminated in one of the deadliest floods in history.

The authors follow characters whose lives were interrupted and forever altered by the flood; provide vivid first-hand descriptions of the disaster and its aftermath; and shed light on the never-completed judicial investigation into the dam’s collapse.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781616144326
Publisher: Prometheus Books
Publication date: 05/24/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 411
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Utpal Sandesara (Philadelphia, PA), the son of a Machhu flood survivor, is pursuing an MD and a PhD in social anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. As a Harvard Frederick Sheldon Prize Fellow, he worked as a researcher for Peru’s Ministry of Health, preparing a report on the integration of prenatal care with testing and treatment of HIV and syphilis in the national health system.

Tom Wooten (New Orleans, LA) teaches writing at KIPP McDonogh 15 School for the Creative Arts in New Orleans as a Teach for America corps member. As a Harvard Kennedy School research fellow, he traveled to New Orleans to conduct interviews with the leaders of the city’s neighborhood-based recovery efforts.

While pursuing degrees in Harvard University’s Social Studies program, the authors traveled to India, where they did the field research that is the foundation of this book.

Read an Excerpt

No One Had a Tongue to Speak

The Untold Story of One of History's Deadliest Floods
By Utpal Sandesara Tom Wooten

Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2011 Utpal Sandesara and Tom Wooten
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61614-431-9

Chapter One

On the Banks of the Machhu River

The sun rose above a hazy horizon to reveal that the river remained completely dry. It was late July. The monsoon still had not reached Gujarat, but life in Morbi went on.

A steady stream of traffic swerved, honked, and shouted its way into downtown on the Buffalo Bridge—a grand masonry structure whose arches spanned a quarter of a mile across the empty Machhu riverbed. Two bronze bulls, imported from Italy at great expense by Morbi's king nearly a century before, surveyed the traffic from their pedestals near the center of the bridge. Those who could afford to take their eyes off the road—passengers in auto-rickshaws, schoolboys balancing on the racks of bicycles, wives clutching children while riding behind their husbands on overloaded mopeds—beheld a panorama of grand architecture, the legacy of centuries of prosperous royal rule.

On the Machhu's eastern shore, south of the Buffalo Bridge, a tower rose up from a gleaming, white marble palace, the former residence of Morbi's royal family. Across the dry riverbed, the Machhu's steep western bank tapered into a vertical masonry wall. Dotted with an intricate pattern of balconies and large windows, the wall rose up five stories into the old royal court.

Downstream, the ornate towers and turrets of the Mani Mandir complex loomed over traffic entering downtown via the bridge. Built at the turn of the century by King Vaghji Jadeja after the death of his beloved concubine Manibai, the Mani Mandir consisted of a central temple surrounded on all four sides by a majestic, two-story castle. Dazzling carvings adorned every arch, pillar, and banister in the immense, red sandstone structure. Surrounded by lush green trees, the building stood, regal and serene, at the entrance to an otherwise frenetic downtown.

Morbi had expanded greatly in recent decades. Its inhabitants now numbered more than sixty thousand, and its choked avenues could barely accommodate the traffic flowing off the Buffalo Bridge. Long-horned buffalo with humped backs sat in the middle of the road, paying little heed to the pandemonium around them. Schoolgirls in colorful uniforms darted across lanes, giggling and clutching their books. Auto-rickshaw drivers, craving a morning dose of sugar and tobacco, swerved over to stop in front of their favorite paan shops. Their idling vehicles puttered as they approached the small storefront windows, exchanged pleasantries with the shopkeepers, and placed their orders.

Paan shops were ubiquitous in Morbi. Though little more than a brightly painted cabin located just north of the main market, Pratapbhai Adroja's paan shop was one of the most popular. The counter at Bhoot Tambool (Ghost Paan) directly faced the street, and on this particular morning, the line outside the window snaked well down the block. The space behind the counter was cramped, leaving just enough room for Adroja's stool. Bags of chips, peanuts, and various Indian snacks lined the walls. A small stack of newspapers sat for sale. Candy and fruit also competed for customers' attention in the limited counter space.

In spite of the variegated offerings, most visitors came to the shop for the paan. Sitting on the counter in front of Adroja, a small set of wooden drawers held a rich assortment of ingredients: betel nut, fennel seeds, fruit preserves, shaved coconut, tobacco, and spices. As each new customer approached the window, Adroja spread a betel leaf on his cutting board and set to work, meticulously laying down pinches of every ingredient requested. When finished, he would fold the leaf just so, securing it with a toothpick and passing it into an eagerly outstretched hand. The customer would tuck the leaf between his gum and his cheek, sucking on the sweet blend of juices that turned saliva bright red. Prosperity as a paan merchant rested on the ability to achieve a perfect balance among diverse ingredients, and Adroja's workmanship always seemed just right.

At the same time, the small man's constant smile, high-spirited banter, and quirky sense of humor did much to endear him to his customers. In Ghost Paan's scant free space, Adroja kept a sizable personal collection of ghost and goblin likenesses. The shop's hand-painted sign sported two ghoulish skeletons, and stylized skulls and bones studded the awning's metal frame. Sometimes, a customer would ask Adroja about his shop's unusual theme. The response, delivered in a nasal squeak, never varied: "I love ghosts!" When his interlocutors seemed dissatisfied with the explanation, Adroja simply laughed.

Ghost Paan demanded long hours, but the lively rhythm of business made the time pass quickly. Selling paan entailed a constant stream of social chatter coupled with careful attention to craft and ingredients. Many might find the work exasperating, but Adroja always seemed at peace amid the hubbub.

Adroja was in good spirits when he closed the shop that evening, pulling the metal grate down over the narrow entrance and securing the lock. It was only a short walk to his house in Mahendrapara (the Mahendra Quarter), where his son, his wife, and a hearty meal of lentils, rice, vegetables, and buttered flatbread awaited. Adroja strode jauntily down Morbi's wide commercial avenues. The shops on either side offered a dazzling array of goods. Every night, Adroja passed storefronts displaying pots and pans, electric water pumps, school supplies, jewelry, colorfully patterned cloth, sacks of grain, radios, and spreads of berries and guava. Other shopkeepers would wave at Adroja as they, too, closed up for the night.

Walking through the immaculately swept streets, which stood in sharp contrast to refuse-strewn public roads all over India, Adroja could clearly see why administrators and citizens alike had long regarded Morbi as a "model city." There were, of course, the grand monuments of the Jadeja dynasty, to which the city owed its moniker—"The Paris of Saurashtra." More important, Morbi possessed a physical and social infrastructure that placed it first among its peers. Power lines supplied houses in even the poorest neighborhoods with reliable electricity. An excellent system of sewers kept waste out of the streets, preventing the water-borne epidemics that plagued many other cities. Since the turn of the century, telephone lines had extended from downtown to even the farthest-flung villages in the area. With time, Morbi had developed an extensive network of free grade schools, an acclaimed high school, and several well-regarded colleges.

Even more important than infrastructure or institutions, however, were the people who populated Morbi. Adroja perceived a distinctive vigor and confident spirit in his customers. Especially of late, he had noticed a discernable optimism in the air. New factories were opening on the city's outskirts at a breathtaking clip, and money was flowing freely.

As Adroja rounded the last bend toward home, he reached up to pat the wad of rupees in his breast pocket, the product of a long day's work. It was a good time to be a shopkeeper in Morbi.

* * *

A sprawling mansion, marked by the subtle signs of slow decline, overlooked a wide avenue in southern Morbi. On the bungalow's first story, a pretty woman swept dust across the kitchen floor. She was dressed in a tunic and baggy trousers. A scarf covered her hair, as per the custom of Muslim women of her high social standing.

Khatijaben Valera belonged to one of Morbi's most illustrious families. Over decades of royal rule, the men of the Valera clan had served the Jadeja kings as official court singers. Their musical wizardry had earned them considerable riches and public esteem. Even three decades after Indian independence, the Valeras remained an intensely proud holdover of the feudal era. After marrying into the family, Khatijaben had come to embrace its heritage as her own.

Khatijaben was a woman of great presence, strong in body and personality. Though not yet thirty, she had already given birth to five children, whom she guarded fiercely. She carried herself with a confidence and boldness that set her apart from other married women of her age. At the same time, as a good wife, she readily obeyed her mother-in-law's directives in domestic matters.

While Khatijaben and her younger sister-in-law scurried about the kitchen, a heartrending melody floated down from the floor above. Everyone said that Shaukatbhai, the youngest of the four Valera brothers, possessed a prodigious talent. From his youngest years, his smooth, strong voice had held audiences' rapt attention. In a family that had built its reputation on singing ability, he had always appeared poised to become his generation's standard-bearer.

As Shaukatbhai's song soared, a raspy quality overcame its gentle tones. Of late, Khatijaben had heard the unwelcome twinge often. Though Shaukatbhai's voice remained perfectly pitched, it had lost its purity to an abrasive edge.

Khatijaben knew the rumors. People around Morbi whispered that someone had poured vermilion in her brother-in-law's drink, permanently searing his vocal chords. No one knew for certain who had done it. Some ventured that a jealous family member might have ruined Shaukatbhai's voice. Valera family pride had proven too strong to permit discussion of the matter, and it remained a subject of speculation for outsiders.

Those who knew Khatijaben's clan realized that the poisoning of its youngest voice might have been more than a vindictive act of envy. It might also have been a shrewd business decision in a rapidly growing household still adjusting to a life unsupported by the beneficence of Morbi's royalty.

A look around the Valera compound told much of the story. The multistory concrete bungalow, whose windows and terraces surrounded a central courtyard, had begun to show the first signs of disrepair. The royal family had built the mansion to house Khatijaben's father-in-law, his older brother, and their children; now, though, the children had begotten children of their own, and nearly seventy people inhabited the increasingly cramped compound. The royal family had leftMorbi, erasing the steady stream of money, gifts, and prestige that had sustained the Valeras for generations. Since Indian independence, the family's men had survived by offering music lessons to the children of Morbi's emerging modern gentry. But all the Valera men were singers, and each faced stiff competition from within the walls of the family compound. It seemed eminently possible that someone, troubled by the exigencies of the postroyal years, might poison a rival family member in order to secure better economic prospects.

Khatijaben enjoyed greater economic security than most of the Valeras. Some years earlier, the clan patriarchs, sensing that drastic changes loomed, had established a trucking company as an alternate source of income; now, Khatijaben's husband Bashirbhai, the oldest of four brothers, played a leading role in Valera Transport. Managing an impressive fleet of vehicles, he ensured that his wife and children would not go hungry. While the Valeras' ways remained rooted in tradition, Khatijaben was reaping the rewards of modernizing change.

In truth, much had changed in and around the clan's bungalow. Gaudy signs advertising vocal lessons by different Valera men hung all around the formerly stately compound, competing for the attention of passers-by, who paid little heed. An exodus of laborers filed past the mansion in the early morning as the poor residents of the surrounding neighborhoods, formerly subsistence farmers and service workers in a traditional economy, commuted to the new factories on the city's outskirts. Although the royal family and its wealth had departed, many in Morbi were becoming quite well-off; more than a few cars now competed for space with the goatherds, bicycles, mopeds, and auto-rickshaws on the street in front of the bungalow. The area's shops, previously limited to groceries, had begun to carry small modern luxuries. Morbi seemed to be growing more vigorous with each passing day. From Khatijaben's vantage point, the bungalow seemed like a decaying nineteenth-century vestige amid a twentieth-century city.

Though she had joined the Valera clan only recently, Khatijaben had heard countless tales of its former glories—private audiences with the Jadeja kings, compliments from high-ranking British administrators, jaunts around western India aboard the royal plane, and the adulation of Morbi's public during crown-sponsored concerts. Her husband's relatives had recounted the stories so many times that she could vividly picture the night of a major function at the royal palace....

Guards in trim uniforms greeted guests as they passed through the gates and began a thousand-foot walk past towering fountains to the palace entrance. The melodic voices of Valera men drifted through the vast interior courtyards, where assorted dignitaries chattered ceaselessly. King Lakhdhirji Jadeja, Morbi's ruler from 1922 until Indian independence, wandered about, shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries with the guests.

Lakhdhirji was the eleventh of the illustrious Jadeja kings. He traced his lineage back to Jiyaji—the man who had wronged the Vaniyan of Morbi—and even further back to Kayaji—the dynasty's founder.

Kayaji did not found Morbi; a chieftain named Mayurdhvaj ("The Peacock Flag") had established it almost two millennia before him. The founder had dubbed his city Mayurdhvajpuri, or "City of the Peacock Flag." Over the centuries, the name had become shortened to "Morbi."

The city had existed for over seventeen centuries before Kayaji Jadeja took the throne, but he and his descendants would determine Morbi's lasting shape. In 1698, Kayaji lost a struggle for the throne of Kutch, a northern Gujarati kingdom. Seizing Morbi, which belonged to the Kutchi crown, he declared independence. Within a few years, his kingdom stretched from Morbi to the Gulf of Kutch, encompassing the city and more than one hundred surrounding villages on the peninsula known as Saurashtra—"The Good Country." Kayaji and his descendants would rule over Morbi for exactly two hundred fifty years, eventually building it into the envy of other princely states.

Although the city became part of a unified India in 1947, the Jadejas had woven themselves into the physical fabric of the city to such an extent that Khatijaben Valera still could not move through the Paris of Saurashtra without thinking of the royals. The royal court, the Mani Mandir complex, the Buffalo Bridge, the Lakhdhirji Engineering College, and the grand clock tower gate at the entrance to the main market—renamed "Nehru Gate" in a postindependence paroxysm of republican spirit—all bore the Jadeja imprimatur. The artifacts of royal beneficence reminded Khatijaben that the kings had acted as loving fathers to Morbi and its people.

By 1979, however, the Jadejas themselves were gone. In 1957, Lakhdhirji, Morbi's last sovereign king, had passed away. That same year, Lakhdhirji's sonMahendrasinh had moved to England with his family. And just eleven months earlier, in August 1978, Mahendrasinh's son Mayurdhvaj—the thirteenth Jadeja of Morbi—had been killed in a bar fight in Europe, leaving no male heirs to the throne. The death of the prince, who shared a name with Morbi's founder, had marked the end of the dynasty that had ruled the City of the Peacock Flag for centuries. His memorial ceremony, one of the finest displays Morbi had ever seen, had drawn thousands of mourners to the royal palace. It was a fitting end to a glorious era.

Khatijaben had paid her respects at the royal palace. A year after the end of the Jadeja lineage, Morbi rushed onward outside the Valera family's bungalow. Inside, time remained slow, the clan of court musicians preserved as a relic of the past. As Shaukatbhai's mournful song drifted down from the upper floor, Khatijaben finished sweeping the kitchen floor.


Excerpted from No One Had a Tongue to Speak by Utpal Sandesara Tom Wooten Copyright © 2011 by Utpal Sandesara and Tom Wooten. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Major Characters xv

Foreword Dr. Paul Farmer xix

Acknowledgments xxvii

A Note to the Reader xxxi

Prologue: "A Vaniyan of Morbi Goes to the Machhu's Waters" 1

Chapter 1 On the Banks of the Machhu River 5

Chapter 2 "The Government Decides, and the Government Builds" 37

Chapter 3 "This Monsoon Descends" 71

Chapter 4 "Something out of the Ordinary" 109

Chapter 5 "Not a Single Brick Will Survive" 115

Chapter 6 "Even the Pests Were Dead" 147

Chapter 7 "They Would Work and Cry, Cry and Work" 177

Chapter 8 "Everyone Was a Beggar" 207

Chapter 9 "But Courage and Strength Remain" 235

Chapter 10 "Justice Was Not Done" 271

Epilogue: "Can Any Page of History Be Forgotten?" 305

Resources 319

Notes 319

Bibliography 371

Newspapers 384

Archives 385

Interviews 386

Index 393

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