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Sixty years later, a Pune novel revisits the human stories of the Panshet dam disaster

Ashlesha Mahajan weaves a vast tapestry of sociocultural realities using memories of survivors and their descendants.

Written by Dipanita Nath |
July 12, 2021 11:26:33 pm
Ashlesha Mahajan

When Shailee, an architect and Bharatanatyam dancer, comes across an old artefact in Pune’s Juna Bazaar, a marketplace of timeless quirky things, she spends some time checking it out and discovers a hidden love letter. Her curiosity piqued, she sets out to learn more, little expecting that her journey will take her back in time to a fateful day in 1961 when the walls of the Panshet dam breached and caused unparalleled loss of life and devastation to people who lived near the river in the Peth areas.

Shailee is a fictional character but the floods that swept through Pune were only too real, and the two come together in the pages of the book, 12th July 1961, by Ashlesha Mahajan. The book was launched on Monday to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the disaster. “A lot of documentation has been carried out about the events of the day and what followed but I did not find a work of fiction that registered the human emotions of the victims and survivors. What does it mean to a person when their home is destroyed by the gushing flood water? What happened to families affected by the tragedy, to couples whose marriage fell apart and to strangers who fell in love during this time?” says Mahajan, who has written 30 books.

Over 10 years, she gathered stories of the floods from survivors and their descendants. Some of these have inspired events in the book while others have been recounted with names changed. Her father-in-law, who used to live in Kasba Peth, provided her the first deep look into the events. “I found the inspiration for the novel in my own house in Sahakarnagar, one of the colonies set up to accommodate those who had lost their homes in the flood. My neighbours were people whose grandparents used to live near the river and recalled memories of houses damaged or carried away by the flood waters and precious documents and property lost, among others. Terms such as ‘Panshet flood victims’ and ‘flood-affected people’ were common,” says Mahajan.

As Shailee and her friends explore, the realities of the political system, media, judiciary and administration emerge to construct a sociocultural image of the time. The novel has a vast canvas and spreads out in interlocking storylines to record the changes in Pune’s landscape and habits. The wadas and congested interiors of the Peth areas make way for concrete homes, areas such as Kothrud come into being and a small city by a river expands into the modern space we are familiar with today. Not only homes but also families become small. “It is said Panshet changed Pune,” she adds.

Though the central story is about the Panshet disaster, it could be about every type of systemic failure. “With the pandemic, we have witnessed the same kind of chaos as people were at a loss to understand what was happening. In every disaster, we find there are many hidden causes and layers of events. All that a writer can do is remind people how it was before a disaster and what happened after that. That is what I have tried to do,” says Mahajan.

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