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The Aftermath Of Morbi Flood

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When and how did this idea strike you?
We decided to write this book after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, when we were first year roommates at Harvard College. Utpal’s mother was watching coverage of the tsunami and started crying. She told us that the images reminded her of a deadly 1979 dam collapse that wiped out Morbi, the eastern Gujarat city where she and her family were living. Curious, we looked for more information, but apart from newspaper coverage and a Guinness Book of World Records entry that called the Morbi flood the “deadliest dam collapse in history,” we found no written accounts of the disaster. We decided that this was a story that needed telling.

 
Why should a reader pick up this book?
The story of the Machhu Dam Disaster is gripping and multifaceted. There are twists and turns, high stakes, and compelling characters. The book tells the story of how government engineers created a ticking time bomb, designing the dam using outdated methods that doomed it to fail. It narrates the flood in harrowing detail, following the 30-foot wall of water that tears down the river valley while highlighting stories of survival and heroism as downstream residents fight for their lives. Finally it tells the story of the disaster’s aftermath. Morbi quickly rebuilds with the indefatigable help of Chief Minister Babubhai Jashbhai Patel, but the state government hides the cause of the disaster and rebuilds the dam over the vehement objections of those downstream. This is a must-read for the thousands of people across India whose lives were touched by this flood. And given its novel-like narration and deeply human characters, we believe that even someone with no connection to the disaster will find our book gripping.
 
What does this book mean to you?
It is immensely gratifying to see this book in print. Of course, Utpal has a close family connection to this disaster, but over six years of work, we have both grown quite personally invested in bringing this story to light. We have always said that our primary duty is to tell this story in India. Even though the book was published a year ago in the US, we kept pushing to make sure that it was published in here, and we are grateful to our friends at Rupa for making the Indian edition a reality. We also have a Gujarati edition in the works that should be ready by next summer.
 
One of the most satisfying moments was when a flood survivor, who is also an engineer, wrote us the following message after reading the book:
…I want to say that as Morbiwallah and Honarat victim I am not aware of so much details about the disaster. Only after reading the book I know the facts about the entire tragedy and how it happen(sic). I have to say that smallest details about dam construction and flaws in it's design, circumstances and happenings around the dam failure, Inquiry commission after the disaster etc. are the facts that I only know after reading the book… Characters you have taken in this book are really fitting the narrative. …Description of rising flood water and people's struggle to save their lives are so real that I sometime doubt that you yourself seen this all!... There is ample information about post disaster work in this book…
 
To receive this type of response from someone who actually lived through the flood helps us to feel that the work does its intended job.
 
How difficult was it to put book together?
There were many phases to our research and writing, each with its own challenges. First, we had to win support and funding for the project at Harvard, then we had to fly to India and conduct our research, then we had to turn hundreds of interviews and thousands of documents into a compelling book, and then we had to find a publisher. At each step, we felt that the odds were stacked against us. It was much easier to tackle this process as a team. Our combined strengths allowed us to overcome problems that neither of us would have been able to solve alone, and our friendship helped us to buck each other up when the going got tough. Although we were not familiar with the quote at the time, we realize in retrospect that our approach to the project closely followed the words of E.L. Doctorow: “Writing a book is like driving a car in the fog at night — you can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
 
No One Had a Tongue to Speak: The Untold Story of One of History's Deadliest Floods
By Utpal Sandesara and Tom Wooten
Rupa Publications
Pages: 211
Price: Rs 495
Where all did this book take you? Where all did you travel, whom did you meet?
Our work on the book began with a frantic summer of research in 2006. We set out to write a book that did justice to the human story of the flood while also bringing its technical causes to light for the first time. To capture the experiences of survivors, we interviewed over a hundred people in Morbi and its surrounding towns and villages. To unveil the disaster’s technical causes, we walked in the footsteps of a judicial Commission of Inquiry set up to investigate the disaster, a commission that was quashed by the government before it could release its findings. A meeting with Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi — who himself went to Morbi in the flood’s wake as a young RSS volunteer — gained us access to the commission’s previously classified documents. Interviews with commission lawyers, state engineers, and dam workers gave us additional insight, allowing us to confidently conclude that design failures precipitated the dam’s collapse.
 
When and where did you write?
With the exception of a few weeks during the summers of 2008 and 2010, we wrote this book during snippets of spare time. We wrote separately, splitting each chapter into sections to divide our labour and then sending one another the rough drafts for revision. Eventually, after many drafts and changes, we were able to merge the sections, creating chapters that read with a unified writing style. We would not have been able to write this book side-by-side, as some pairs of coauthors do. Tom prefers to work for a few hours early each morning, whereas Utpal works best during long kicks at night.
 
What’s your energy drink?
Utpal drinks classic Indian chai without sugar. Tom likes tea as well, but prefers his black, also with no sugar.
 
What makes a book a good read or a best seller?
Our favorite narrative non-fiction books have interesting plots and vivid characters. We like these books even more if they are about topics of great human and historical significance. We would like to think that No One Had a Tongue to Speak checks both boxes.
 
What is the hardest thing about being a writer?
As a writer, it often takes a very long time to see the fruits of one’s labour, and there is never a guarantee of success. Sitting down to the daily grind is an act of will and an act of faith.
 
What are you reading now?
Utpal is reading Maktub, a series of philosophical meditations by the Brazilian author Paolo Coelho. Tom is reading Uncommon Carriers, one of dozens of breathtaking narrative nonfiction books by the American author John McPhee.
 
So, what’s next?
Tom is gearing up to celebrate the American release of his second book, an account of post-Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts in New Orleans entitled We Shall Not Be Moved. In the fall, he will begin a PhD programme in sociology at Harvard.
 
Utpal is entering the second year of PhD studies in a combined MD-PhD (medicine and social anthropology) programme at the University of Pennsylvania. He is currently exploring potential dissertation topics in Gujarat.
 
Compiled by Jinoy Jose P.


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