This article is composed of two separate but convergent stories. One is narrated in normal text; the other is in italics.
Assam Rifles camp at Jairampur, Arunachal Pradesh.
The wooden table, covered in clean white cloth and moved by smartly dressed soldiers to a sunlit spot for photography, resembled the typical setting to display captured arms. It appears often on television – rocket launchers, AK-47s, rounds of ammunition, all stacked, labeled and kept on a clean, white tablecloth. That day however, as I got my small camera ready, the soldiers brought forth rotting pieces of weaponry. Two machineguns of World War II vintage, rusted to golden brown with yellow streaks, several parts missing. They kept it reverently on the table and as soldiers do, faded to the backdrop. Some days before, just behind the camp’s administrative block where I stood, men were tilling a patch of land to cultivate plantains and papaya, when the foot-deep blade of the tiller struck metal.
Welcome to Stilwell Road.
Officially it was National Highway 153 running in from Assam. Earlier, past the dusty, coal-smeared roads of Ledo and opposite another military camp, a large board with an overgrown path nearby and a long forgotten railway track leading to a long gone bridge had announced start of the Stilwell Road. Across the river, the old track now partially covered by earth, led to the Lekhapani station with its plaque reminding us that it used to be the eastern most tip of the Indian Railways. The last train to the erstwhile coal loading station was in February 1997. On the road nearby, a truck lay overturned on the road, its load of coal being shoveled into gunny bags by workers. It must have begun its trip at Ledo, a coal town with an open cast mine operated by Eastern Coalfields; long stretch of road bordered by heaps of excavated earth and a stream colored yellow with effluent. For those in search of Stilwell Road, this was the Ledo of World War II, from where General Joseph Stilwell of the US Army built a road into Myanmar to connect with the famous Burma Road leading to China. It was a Herculean task involving the Americans, the British, the Chinese and Indians; a road that cut across high mountains and dense jungles, best captured in an oft published black and white picture – one snake of a road slithering down a mountain.
At an outdoor camp in the Himalaya in 2007, I met Pearly Jacob. She was from Mizoram in North East India, working in Bengaluru (Bangalore), the South Indian city made famous by the IT industry. Despite my desire to visit the North East, I had never made it anywhere that side. Courage, especially the courage to travel alone, was in short supply. Much of my so called adventures had been with others. It usually embraced conquest of something – a peak or a pass – as objective, while real adventure lay already lost through sticking to familiar group. Perhaps she would travel with me? Pearly laughed off the suggestion, asking why I would need company. Instead she cited a friend – Malayali, brought up in India’s IT capital – who had gone exploring in Myanmar. I didn’t seek details, for the person’s whereabouts appeared hazy and more important, somebody taking off just like that made me feel like an abject coward. Couple of years later, Pearly herself reached Thailand. In a remarkable journey, this former radio jockey at World Space, cycled through a few countries in South East Asia into China and then traveled right across to Mongolia. Late November 2009, after a long gap, I checked Pearly’s travel blog and saw a remorseful entry on Arun’s demise in Dali, Yunnan. That’s how I found the name of the man who went off to Myanmar, obsessed by the Stilwell Road. An Internet search then threw up Arun Veembur’s obituary from The Hindu: Young Writer and Intrepid Traveler Dies in China.
The Stilwell Road’s construction and the preceding airlift, flying in supplies from Assam to Yunnan in China across mountains exceeding 10,000ft in elevation, was considered one of the most remarkable chapters of World War II. It was necessitated following the Japanese invasion of China and the consequent inability of Allied Forces to supply China by sea. To make matters worse, the Japanese land thrust towards India from South East Asia, cut off access to the Burma Road once Myanmar fell. The airlift from Assam – called `Flying the Hump – became a legend in aviation history. Flown by American and Chinese pilots, several aircraft were lost on this route at a mountainous knot on the planet where the combination of altitude, rain bearing clouds and powerful winds made flying terribly difficult. The jungles below were called an aluminum trail for the aircraft debris strewn around. Needless to say, the terrain made rescue operations difficult. Yet rescues were carried out. The planes transported items ranging from ammunition to fuel and even currency notes, often making for a combustible mix when kicked around by turbulent weather. There were two flight paths across The Hump, the dangerous upper one from Assam and an easier lower one from Calcutta. In 2010 the lower one was being used by China Eastern airlines for flights linking Kolkata and Kunming. Some of the air strips associated with the Second World War airlift had since come under Indian Air Force charge and were still functional at Dibrugarh. As were the tea estates which lent their names to the air strips, provided accommodation for the airmen and whose personnel – through the Indian Tea Association – were associated with building railways and roads in these parts, not to mention, taking care of the refugees that poured into India when Myanmar fell to the Japanese. The 3727ft-high Pangsau Pass in the Patkai Hills was where they had crossed into India; that’s where the Stilwell Road was headed.
The Stilwell Road’s construction and the preceding airlift, flying in supplies from Assam to Yunnan in China across mountains exceeding 10,000ft in elevation, was considered one of the most remarkable chapters of World War II.
Several years ago, a civil contractor was intrigued by the bricks he was being supplied. They were old and unlike the regular ones. Investigations exposed theft from a local cemetery. That’s how state authorities and the Assam Rifles stumbled upon what is now an official World War II cemetery, with almost 1000 graves, many of them Chinese. I sat before the grave of Major Hsiao Chu Ching of the “ Independent Engineers of Chinese Army stationed in India,’’ born July 1913 in Hapeh Province and died, December 1943. Less than 100 feet away was the newly erected memorial and a row of Assam Rifles soldiers gearing up for the arrival of Pallam Raju, the then Minister of State for Defence. He was on his way to the 2010 Pangsau Pass Winter Festival at Nampong, last settlement on the Stilwell Road before it crossed the pass into Myanmar. The festival had built a buzz around the road, a buzz that highlighted its potential place in trade. This one was compelling, running as it did from Assam through Arunchal Pradesh to Myanmar and eventually, Kunming in China’s Yunnan Province. No other road did this. At the festival’s inaugural ceremony attended by Arunachal Pradesh’s then Chief Minister, the late Dorjee Khandu, speakers welcomed the tribal artistes from both sides of the border and hoped that the road would be opened for trade.
You know that a person born in the noisy 1980s is different, if he likes Buster Keaton, Hollywood actor from the era of silent movies. Unusual tastes, often dismissed as eccentric, are typically the product of investing in a fascination. It betrays curiosity. Arun was unusual, often entertaining friends with a Keaton or Charlie Chaplin act. He was an only child. His father worked with the DRDO in Bengaluru. His mother was related to E.M.S. Namboodiripad, Kerala’s most famous Communist leader. The parents moved to Thrishur in Kerala. As a young man shifting from engineering to a course in journalism, Arun displayed a craving to know. He was an avid reader, a keen quizzer and passionate biker owning a RD 350 and a Yamaha Crux, but had a penchant for trouble. “ With him around, the darnedest things used to happen,’’ Darshan Manakkal, who along with Robin Browne, had been Arun’s seniors at Christ College in Bengaluru, said. It all started with holidays in Assam, where Robin’s parents lived. The first visit was to Tezpur; the second was to Dibrugarh with forays to Margherita and Ledo. That was how Arun came to know of the Stilwell Road. On return to Dibrugarh, he found books on the subject in the personal library of Robin’s father, who had an interest in the World War II history of the region. It probably began focusing his life for the Stilwell Road began to grow as an objective. In appearance he was a scrawny individual, possessing many of the habits of the contemporary urban youngster. “ But he had this urge to show that he was capable of what seemed difficult,’’ Arun’s uncle, Rajesh P, said. According to friends and family, he also had another under-estimated virtue. Arun could make people feel special and he never hesitated to strike a conversation with anyone, rich or poor, big or small. Not long after he stumbled across the Stilwell Road, he did his basic mountaineering course from the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute and made a third visit to Assam, this time traveling down the Stilwell Road with a view to hit the Pangsau Pass. Manu Neelakandhan, Arun’s cousin, believed that he was turned back just before the border by the guards. Arun had worked with Deccan Herald. After returning to Bengaluru from this third trip to Assam, the young journalist took up jobs – he worked at Silicon India and Mid Day – purely to fund what he realized he should do next, go to Myanmar. In his mind, a book on the Stilwell Road was taking shape. It became an obsession and for a brief period the bug bit Rajesh as well. One day he called up Arun from the Blossom book store on Church Street and said there was a copy of General Joseph Stilwell’s autobiography available. “ Pick it up,’’ Arun said, thrilled. By now it was official to family and friends that Arun would head off on his little project.
Lobbying to reopen the Stilwell Road had been on for some time. A news report from Kolkata dated August 4, 2004, said that the Eastern Region Chairman of the Federation of Indian Export Organizations had pitched for reconstructing the road. In November 20, 2008, a report quoted the Chairman of the China Council for Promotion of International Trade, saying in Kolkata that reopening the road could be a vital trade link. Another report cited then Minister of State for Commerce, Jayaram Ramesh, symbolically handing over a sack of salt to a Myanmar army officer at Pangsau Pass. He said the Commerce Ministry wanted to reopen the route by 2010. Then a June 18, 2009, report from Guwahati quoting B.K. Handique, then Minister for Development of North Eastern Region, said that plans to reopen had been shelved following Myanmar’s objection on security grounds. At Nampong, I asked Pallam Raju what the government’s official position was on reopening the road. He declined comment and referred me to S. Sharma, Secretary of the Border Roads Development Board who said, the Border Roads Organization had nothing yet to do with the Stilwell Road. Reconstructing the road was probably important for Arunachal Pradesh. The state with China to the north and west had only Myanmar to probe for international trade route. Setong Sena, then Finance Minister of Arunachal Pradesh, had been among those who visited the Prime Minister’s Office to seek the reopening of the Stilwell Road. According to him, the government had put the Stilwell Road as a third priority after routes opened in Mizoram and Manipur. Now in retrospect, it appeared that the Myanmar authorities having seen India build a Friendship Road into Myanmar from Manipur were possibly wanting similar work this side. Indeed, much of the Stilwell Road in its World War II form reportedly lay on the Myanmar side. That was great history but it raised the question – how can there be trade if the road was too bad for modern transportation?
(…TO BE CONTINUED)
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. He would like to acknowledge the assistance provided by Ripunjoy Das and Pranab Phukon while doing this story. An abbreviated version of this article – ie part one and two – was published in The Hindu newspaper. That article has a photo of Arun. This is the link to the article in The Hindu http://www.hindu.com/mag/2010/05/02/stories/2010050250140400.htm A bit more elaborate version was published in Man’s World (MW) magazine.)