Zerky in Search if the Burma Road

Map of Burma

February 11, 1968
Margherita, Assam, India

Dear Zerky, until recently, I never knew there was such a place as Assam. Not long ago during our relentless travels eastward, we began to notice that we were running out of India, but that there was this funny looking place on the map called Assam, which looked like the logical way to get to China. Assam is marginally an Indian State but most of the native peoples here are reluctant or unwilling to concede their identity to their gargantuan next-door neighbor. In some ways, the Assamese appear to have more in common with the Burmese than with the Indians. Assam has the wild smell of Burma about it. Yesterday near Digboi, we passed a wild man walking barefoot and carrying a bow and some arrows while wearing nothing but a colorful loincloth. He is what the English speakers here call “a tribal.” Most of the inhabitants here do not consider themselves to be Indians. In four of the additional troublesome Indian states nearby, the tribal peoples of Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur and Tripura consider themselves to be members of their tribes or, at most, members of the above mentioned ancient kingdoms. These are the “unruly hill people” who have existed for centuries in a world of their own—a world culturally and historically quite different from that of their “flatlander” neighbors, a world that is much feared by the leaders of India’s still budding democracy because it embodies the face of Indian separatism, a force threatening to tear apart the world’s largest democracy. My own opinion is that the hill people don’t give a damn about India—they just want to be left alone. So there is revolution in the air tonight, especially in nearby Nagaland that has been set aside as a tribal reserve for the Nagas and is closed to foreigners. Here in India, the Indian reservations are exclusively for non-Indians. Your mother and I can’t help but wonder what they would do with an American Indian?

In spite of some difficulties, we find ourselves loving Assam, probably because we knew nothing about it beforehand and therefore were without preconceptions. Someday you will go traveling on your own, too, Zerky, so let me suggest to you a paradox: you will derive more pleasures from your travels when you confine them to places you know little or nothing about, for those are the places that will provide you with the most to learn. It is the learning part of traveling that makes your discoveries exciting.

Assam is full of tea estates. Along with its neighboring Darjeeling District in India proper, Assam is responsible for much of the world’s tea production, which is probably why the British glommed onto this remote piece of jungle in the first place. A few days ago, we stopped at a tea plantation to ask for directions, whereupon we were immediately invited into the house by its owner, Bahrid Chattopadhyay. After a little chitchat, Bahrid and his wife invited us to spend the night. We begged off, but promised to come back and stay with them later. The Chatopadhyays have a son named Deep who is a couple of years older than you are, Zerky. The two of you had a good time playing with his toys. I suspect Deep is even lonelier than you are.

Driving eastward into Assam, the countryside becomes less populated and more exotic. Increasingly there is the smell of jungle in the air. Monkeys, elephants, orchids, colorful tropical birds. Near the easternmost point of Assam, at Lekhapani, there is a sign marking the beginning of the Stilwell Road, a lesser-known wartime addition to the famous Burma Road.

JoAnne and Zerky at Beginning  of Stilwell’s Burma Road

JoAnne and Zerky at Beginning of Stilwell’s Burma Road

General “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell and his American troops built this leg of the Burma Road during World War II after having been charged with creating a vital road link connecting India’s rail system with Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist army near Kunming in China. Earlier in the war, the American Army Air Force had been heroically trying to ease Chiang’s desperate straits by means of a cobbled together airlift over the Himalayas, which airlift became known as “flying the hump,” the hump being the Himalayan Mountain Range. The completion of the Stilwell Road obviated that inadequate airlift.

From Lekhapani, it is only a few more miles to the end of the road at Jairampur where we ran into a military roadblock. Jairampur marks the “outer line” of NEFA, an acronym for India’s North-East Frontier Agency where India, the tribal states, Burma and China all meet. Ever since China’s border incursion a few years ago, much of NEFA has been under control of the Indian Army. Their “outer line” has become our outer line, too, unfortunately. For us it is the end of the line. The Stilwell Road is impassible beyond the Burmese border and an Indian army roadblock has thwarted our hopes of driving all the way to China. At the barrier we ran into two Indian families, both of which extended invitations to us to come stay with them on their tea estates. One of the families lives on the Namdang Tea Estate near Margherita, the other on the Moran Tea Estate near Dibrugarh farther west. We took both of them up on their offers.

We are delighted with our beautiful bungalow here in Margherita not far from the end of the Stilwell road near Burma. Our room costs one rupee per night (thirteen cents) plus fifty paisa (seven cents) for the sweeper, plus fifty paisa for kerosene for the lanterns. That adds up to twenty-seven cents total per night for all four of us. Ahhh, this is the life!

We have been meeting lots of people here in Margherita. The other night a friendly neighbor loaned us one of his servants when he discovered that we wanted to drive to the Digboi Club to see an advertised showing of Romeo and Juliet starring John Barrymore, Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer. This is the kind of movie we used to show at The Movie in San Francisco. But in Assam? When we arrived at “the club,” a little late, “our servant” stayed in the car to baby-sit you, while your mother and I went to the movies, only to discover that the show had been cancelled. When we started asking questions, we were quickly referred to the man in charge of the Digboi Club’s weekly film series, Simon Penny, who told us that the film had simply not arrived. Simon had just announced that unhappy fact to his assembled audience, whereupon they all let out a great sigh of relief. So it appears that the peoples of Assam are not all that interested in John Barrymore, Leslie Howard, Norma Shearer, or, for that matter, Shakespeare. Simon’s film showings are popular because they provide people around here with an excuse to get together weekly and socialize. They also provide Simon with an opportunity to indulge himself in his passion for movies. Having just cancelled his showing, to cheers from the audience, he betrayed the pride of a professional when he explained to us that he had given his audience what they had come for—a chance to get together and drink. Now nobody would have to sit through another boring movie and everyone was happy, including Simon.

Simon is a cinema buff in one of the most unlikely places on earth. When we told him we could relate to his problem of not having the film show up on time because we had recently been running an art theatre in San Francisco, we became instant comrades in arms. On and off, we have spent much of the last two days with him, and have found him to be a fascinating man.

Simon Penny has lived here in Margherita for fifteen years, working for the Namdang Tea Company. He loves India and is still a bachelor. He tells us that he left England in his early twenties because of some vague dissatisfaction, but that in a few more years, he fears, he will no longer be able to stay in India because of the deteriorating foreign exchange rate that is beginning to make remittance to Great Britain financially unrewarding. Simon seems lonely and, like so many of the people here, enjoys the opportunity to talk with foreigners.

Both the illegal and all-pervasive Hindu caste system and the supposedly obsolete British Empire system have left their ugly marks on the fabric of India’s extremely complicated society. Once again, as was the case with that rich man at Khajuraho who was prevented from driving his own car, here on the tea plantations caste restrictions and social restrictions similarly prevent the British and upper-caste Indians from fraternizing with their labor force. Although I have not discussed this with India’s poor, most of whom do not speak English, I find it very interesting to see the deleterious impact that these two institutions have had on the rich. I view it as a kind of divine justice, except that we are the ones who have somehow become its beneficiaries. Almost everyone we meet is anxious to talk with us and, I would imagine, with any other new blood that comes wandering down the road. Not very often however does a little blond angel come toddling down the road, nor a stumpy little dachshund on miniature legs. You and Tarzan are taking this place by storm, Zerky.

Perhaps because of his wide-ranging interests, Simon does not appear to be quite so lonesome as most of his compatriots. His closest friends appear to be our young host Raj, who has invited us to stay with him and Roy, a big Christian national from Kerala whom Simon says is unique in that he possesses both “drive” and “a sense of urgency.” So what with all these interesting people, we were easily talked into staying here for another day and into breaking our scheduled appointment with the Chattopadhyays. Everyone assures us that being a couple days late for dinner is totally acceptable in India.

This morning we went to visit Simon at his “bungalow,” where he proudly showed us his magnificent oriental garden on a small hill at the edge of the forest. Then he took us on a jeep ride back into the tea estate. His plantation is currently in the process of expanding as new land is cleared from the forest in order to plant tea on. Simon tells us that there are leopards, tigers and snakes in the uncleared portions of the jungle, and that one of the planters’ biggest problems is with wild elephants. They truly resent the clearing of the land, he says. Then he told us about an elephant that had recently come out of the jungle carrying a log it then used to batter down Simon’s new tea plants in such a systematic way as to leave little doubt as to the elephants’ anger over the clearing of the forest for additional acres of tea plantation. Your mother and I have decided that Simon is secretly on the side of the elephants.

Yesterday we took a short walk with Simon down a trail dense with ferns, creepers and orchids. Along the way, we met several groups of tribals with whom Simon conversed in a primitive local variation of Hindi he speaks fluently. Simon says the tribals come down out of the hills to exchange pan leaves, widely used in India for wrapping betel nuts. He says most tribals carry a long knife and a small grate on which to cook. The ones we saw wore loincloths, cast off shirts and had hanks of bright cloth wrapped around their heads. Simon was positively delighted with them because they are very happy, he says, and because they lead simple lives. Your mother and I suspect that Simon wants to be a tribal too.

On the trail yesterday, we ran into a group of tribals who suggested we walk with them to the river. One of them had a safety pin through one ear that he was using as an earring, and another of them carried a cigarette in a hole in one earlobe and two cigarettes in the hole in the other. Unfortunately Simon had to go to work so we had to decline the invitation. On the way back, he pointed out a village on top of a small ridge about a mile across the valley. Non-tribals are not allowed to go there, he told us, because that village is inside NEFA, the North East Frontier Agency. He, however, has recently managed to obtain special permission to go there during the village’s next festival. Simon is fascinated by the hill country and by its tribal societies. Just last week he watched some tribals smoking opium in one of the nearby villages. He tells us this is very common.

Simon told us he would never visit Benares because, to him, it symbolizes everything that is wrong with India. He is quite pessimistic about India’s future. “Where do you think it will all lead?” I asked. “Probably to a military takeover.” Simon believes democracy is not for India, “not at this time.” He has spent nearly his entire adult life in India but has no legal status here in Assam. We think of him as a man without a country. We told him he should get married.

Simon took us to an Indian friend’s house, for lunch. There we met Ivan, Alfred and Rufus, a Christian from Ghazipur in Uttar Pradesh. They told us stories about World War II. Rufus said there were 200,000 American GIs here spread out between Dibrugarh and Lekhapani during the construction of the Stilwell Road. He said many of the planes that flew the hump took off from a nearby airstrip near Tinsukia. Back then, there were no towns in the area and the towns of Margherita and Ledo were built out of the immense quantity of American junk that was left over after the war ended. Some of the old beat up trucks we have been seeing hauling logs out of the jungle are leftover World War II American Army trucks, Rufus explained. Alfred told us that several of the U.S. Army’s old DC-6s are still in use here and Ivan told us that the amount of material brought in on the railroad to the road head at Lekhapani was “a wonder,” even to the GIs themselves. To the local people, many of whom had never even seen an automobile, this must have been an awesome sight.

Simon told us that he tried driving over the Stilwell Road a few years back but that it is now impassable because the jungle has reclaimed most of the grade. Once the war was over, there was no maintenance. This seems to be the way everything unravels in India, but I also suspect that the Indian government has little interest in making far-flung Assam and its rebellious hill peoples easily accessible to India’s traditional enemies, China, Pakistan and Burma. Simon told us that the last person to go over the Stilwell Road was Peter Townsend who was given VIP treatment and help from the Indian military. Peter Townsend is a large landowner and farmer here in Assam who is said to have benefited very handsomely from U.S. Peace Corps seed. Dashing Group Captain Peter Townsend, you may recall, was the love of Princess Margaret’s life. And for those who don’t keep up on this sort of British royalty stuff, Princess Margaret was Queen Elizabeth’s sister.

Earlier this evening we had dinner at another big tea plantation where we had been invited to stay: the Ledo Tea Estate near the beginning of the Ledo Road, the original name of the Stilwell Road before it was renamed in honor of our dear old Vinegar Joe. We had a chicken tandoori dish that was delicious. The tea people on that estate are very anti-Christian missionary; they blame the missionaries for stirring up trouble with the tribals who, they say, are getting arms from China.

Once again, it is getting late, Zerky, and we shall be heading back in the morning. So I need to turn off the lantern and go to bed. Assam has been an exceptionally memorable experience for your mother and for me, and we are very glad to have come here. Perhaps we shall come back here again someday to visit all the friends we have made.

There was a magnificent sky tonight, with spectacular cloud formations. Raj says there is a tropical storm brewing.

February 13, 1968. Left Margherita and Namdang Tea Estates. Drove back to Moran Tea Estate to visit the Chattdopadhyays who were delighted to see us. Bahrid is a Bengali from Calcutta.

February 14, 1968. Left in the AM and drove back to Kaziranga where Zerk met his friends again. We are out of color film so we had to take black and white pictures of him and the elephants.

Rhaipadu, Zerky & JoAnne  Mahout in the Foreground

Rhaipadu, Zerky & JoAnne Mahout in the Foreground

Yesterday we heard that “khedda” is going on near Lekhapani where the Stilwell Road begins. Khedda is a method of trapping wild elephants by driving them into a pit prior to training them to be used as work elephants, circus elephants, tourist elephants, etc. They are lucky I did not run into any khedda when we were there a few days ago.

Many of the people we have been talking to lately are full of fascinating stories about their experiences with wild elephants, snakes, tigers, leopards, panthers and leeches. A man at Bahrid Chattopodhyay’s told us about the time he tried to honk a tame elephant off the road but it would not move. He found out later that it wasn’t a tame elephant at all but rather a house-tearing-down wild elephant.

Bill thinks Bahrid was nervous about entertaining us. I think he was just tired. They have a one-month-old baby on their hands, one with 6:00-10:00 PM colic. Bill forgets how tired we both were when Zerky was that age and had colic and night feedings.

Bahrid also told us tales about Margherita. He said the last incident of tribal head hunting near there was in 1953. He also told us about a previously unknown eighty-year-old American missionary who was discovered near Margherita, after having worked in the bush for sixty years. Bahrid has studied and worked in both Germany and the UK, and was delighted to learn that we had heard of Tagore, Ravi Shankar, Vivekananda and Satyajit Ray.

Yesterday we heard that “khedda” is going on near Lekhapani where the Stilwell Road begins. Khedda is a method of trapping wild elephants by driving them into a pit prior to training them to be used as work elephants, circus elephants, tourist elephants, etc. They are lucky I didn’t run into any khedda when we were there a few days ago!

Many of the people we have been talking to lately are full of fascinating stories about their experiences with wild elephants, snakes, tigers, leopards, panthers and leeches. A man at Bahrid Chattopodhyay’s told us about the time he tried to honk a tame elephant off the road but it would not move. He found out later that it wasn’t a tame elephant at all but rather a house-tearing-down wild elephant.

Bill thinks Bahrid was nervous about entertaining us. I think he was just tired. They have a one month old baby on their hands, one with 6:00-10:00 PM colic. Bill forgets how tired we both were when Zerky was that age and had colic and night feedings.

Bahrid also told us tales about Margherita. He said the last incident of tribal headhunting near there was in 1953. He also told us about a previously unknown eighty-year-old American missionary who was discovered near Margherita, after having worked in the bush for sixty years. Bahrid has studied and worked in both Germany and the UK, and was delighted to learn that we had heard of Tagore, Ravi Shankar, Vivekananda and Satyajit Ray.

February 15, 1968. Saw another tribal with a bow and arrow today near Digboi. When we were moving into our PWD Inspection Bungalow tonight at Nalbari, we attracted a huge crowd of people standing around staring at us as usual. We tried to get some of the kids to come and play with Zerky but the adults told them not to. I tried handing Zerky’s ball to various children but none of them would touch it even though you could see that they were sorely tempted. I tried hard for you, Zerk, but no go. Caste seems embryonic in kids as young as two years old.

February 16, 1968, Aralen Day. The jackals are howling tonight, sounding like a cross between a dog baying and a cat in love. Yesterday I commented to a mother: “What a beautiful little girl you have.” ”Yes,” she replied, looking at Zerky, “but she is a bit dark, don’t you think?” Where does this come from, the religion, the British, Alexander the Great, or from whom or what? Crossed back into West Bengal where we shared a circuit house with the army at Jalpaiguri.

—Excerpted from Letters to Zerky


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