Our family traipse – not unlike Viking forbears who once sailed the Volga and traded wares on the Silk Road – began long ago in a Minnesota winter, with ports of call like Shanghai, Hong Kong, Penang, Rangoon and Chittagong, mostly aboard plucky freighters. In time, we came to live on the verge of the Subansiri (‘ladder of gold’) River that cascades off the slopes of the Himalayas through a cathedral-like gorge, and spills into the sacred Brahmaputra before losing itself in the Bay of Bengal.
In that exquisite valley, now the proposed scene of India’s largest hydro-electric project, there once stood midst the thatch and bamboo villages a rest house built of timbers from the surrounding forests. On the evening of August 15, 1950 everything changed. A cataclysmic earthquake (8.6 on the Richter scale), still ranked among the strongest ever recorded, shattered the valley and the hills. It triggered soil liquefaction, the disappearance of river islands, and land slips in the mountains. Even rivers shifted course. Pilots overflying the scene later said the topography no longer corresponded to their air charts.
But what most puzzled the survivors in the aftermath was what had become of the Subansiri. Its ample water dried up. Soon people were wading across what had once only been passable by boat. Government helicopters dispatched into the upper reaches of the river found that half a mountain had slid into the river’s course creating a dam. Behind that barrage the roiling water was piling up. An alarm was raised for downstream residents to flee. Columns of refugees soon abandoned the valley on foot, by ox cart, bicycle and the occasional lorry (truck). And then people waited.
The days slipped by without event. Rumors began to fly that the alarm was only a ruse and that mischievous neighbors were now looting abandoned homes. People swarmed back into the valley to defend what was theirs. No sooner had the villages filled up with anxious returnees than the mountains groaned from the weight of the accumulated water, the landslide gave way, and a 20-foot wall of water rushed out of the mountains engulfing everything in its path, sweeping away nearly every recognizable landmark. Except that small rest house – where a few lucky souls, clinging to its rafters, were spared.
The timbers of that house were later dismantled and re-erected on safer ground. It was then our family came to live in that stout, but modest, dwelling whose rafters whispered of life snatched from nature’s wrath. My only clue to its singular history came when older neighbors, survivors of that terrible day, came to sit in the shade of the house, head in hands, there to shed silent tears of remembrance. Of survivor’s guilt. Of loss and deliverance. Of bitterness and gratitude.
And sometimes, when the summer monsoons had called forth the valley’s sea of tall grasses, the roof of our house, barely floating above their flowered plume, seemed like the legendary vessel of old which became a means of deliverance from the waters.