This article is composed of two separate but convergent stories. One is narrated in normal text; the other is in italics.
Past the cemetery at Jairampur, the only reminder of World War II on NH153 aka Stilwell Road was a narrow Hamilton Bridge.
Nampong resembled a market town spilling with activity for the festival. There was a designated spot for traders from Myanmar. Business was brisk and the articles on offer included packaged food items, garments, toiletry, cosmetics and small gadgets. A lot of the stuff was Chinese but some, like the instant tea and coffee, was from Myanmar. A particular attraction were knifes and ceremonial swords. Although there were instances of the same tribe spanning both sides of the border, not everyone there for the festival succeeded in communication. Plenty of gesticulation and intonation sealed a transaction. The currency was always rupees; that’s what the Myanmar traders preferred. Border policing in these parts worked on the principle that people residing in the neighborhood of the international divide be allowed to cross. There were specific dates for visits by either side. Previously a visitor from Myanmar crossing over to the Nampong market was identified by a rattan basket. Then, the basket while still around, was overshadowed by weather beaten 4-stroke step-thru motorcycles. They were allowed to be driven till a small clearing overlooking Nampong, where all vehicles were parked and the visitors walked down. The Stilwell Road was in the process of being widened here. It alternated between very narrow stretches that emphasized the lush green jungle around and bulldozed patches of orange earth betraying the soft terrain that had made work difficult in the 1940s. Past the last Assam Rifles check post, the road deteriorated into a bouncy, mud track. Tucked behind a couple of bends was the real boundary line between India and Myanmar with an old stone marker and alongside, an overgrown path – the old alignment of the Stilwell Road. Few more turns and the first check post on the Myanmar side drew up followed by a cracked building with a derelict Lifan truck parked in front. Ahead, the village of Pangsau in Myanmar was already busy with people who had crossed over as part of the festival. Behind the market place, a steep road ran down to the edge of a beautiful lake – The Lake of No Return. It was associated with the region’s World War II history as a lake into which planes crashed. Its shores were utterly peaceful.
I found Khaing Tun’s diary on the Internet. In an entry in Yangon, dated February 3, 2007, Khaing noted on the upcoming trip she had organized, “ Arun (from Bangalore) has many questions and continued to be so enthusiastic.’’ Unlike in India where there was little tourism in the North East around World War II sites, there were regular trips in Myanmar, usually availed by Second World War veterans who had fought in the region. Arun had got himself on to a similar trip to the Myanmar side of the Stilwell Road. Khaing met Arun on February 16 at his Yangon hotel along with Peter, whose interest in the Burma Campaign of World War II was triggered by Louis Allen’s book `The Longest War.’ The next day, a third person, Ron, arrived. The team hit the road for Pangsau Pass and Myitkyina on February 18. Photos of Arun from the trip show a T-shirt clad, bespectacled young man, busy scribbling on a note book or standing with camera in hand. On February 21, after traversing through a lot of harsh terrain, the team was advised not to proceed towards Pangsau Pass and instead turn back from Nanyun. The main problem had been the three foreigners in the team – an Indian, an Australian and an American. Apparently, permits were only as good as the goodwill of local military officials and to the team’s bad luck they had a newly posted commander put his foot down. They withdrew to Shinbwiyang, which as per the Stilwell Road’s old alignment was 105 kilometers from Pangsau Pass, and from there to Myitkyina, 342 kilometers from the pass according to old estimates. There the team took a plane back to Yangon. However Arun and Peter got off at Mandalay to travel to Kunming in China. Little was known of this trip likely down the Burma Road; when built the Stilwell Road was connected to the old Burma Road at Wandingzhen. Arun was believed to have reached Kunming in typical backpacker fashion with no money and just happiness for the journey done. He eventually found a base at The Hump, a backpackers’ hostel with a colorful bar. It had a lot of World War II memorabilia for theme, especially the aviation part including those flights from Assam to Kunming. Arun loved this place where all sorts of travelers and people with crazy projects washed up; he also became a good friend of the hostel’s owner. According to Pearly, much of the `work’ Arun did subsequently was basically anything to further his stay in China.
What struck me that day in Pangsau was the absence of the Myanmar military. At the first check post I had seen a policeman; at the second I saw one person in olive green surrounded by men who looked like villagers. A senior officer of the Assam Rifles later said that overt military presence had been relaxed on either side for the festival. Nevertheless it felt strange to be in a country ruled by a military dictatorship with no passport or visa on oneself. You worried when the veneer of welcome would crumble. Either side of the border in these parts had experienced insurgency. In Myanmar it was the Kachin rebels. There was reportage on the Internet by the Kachin News Group on the Stilwell Road in Myanmar; about reconstruction, accidents and life along the road. On the Indian side, Dibrugarh from where one proceeded to Ledo, was the home town of Paresh Barua, leader of the ULFA while Jairampur and Nampong fell in Arunachal Pradesh’s Changlang district, which along with neighboring Tirap district, were part of the Greater Nagaland claimed by Naga militant groups. Consequently, Naga rebels had been active in these districts. Further, Indian militant groups have operated from foreign soil and militancy everywhere had links to narcotics. In Dibrugarh, I met Dr Nagen Saikia, former Member of Parliament and former President of the Asam Sahitya Parishad. He wrote in a newspaper article that reopening the road would be a blunder. Dr Saikia felt that the government’s `Look East Policy’ was both an oversimplification of the North East’s cultural roots and a boost to international trade from the region earlier than required given China’s confusing stance towards India. “ Assam also does not have so many products to trade with Myanmar and China,’’ he said.
I did not speak to Arun’s parents, who at the time of writing this article, were still in mourning. It appeared that the variety of work Arun did to stay in Kunming and complete his book, ranged from content development for The Hump and tourism in the area to work with the Yunnan Chamber of Commerce and helping Indian businessmen in Yunnan. He learnt Chinese. Both Rajesh and Manu recalled conversations involving potential business contacts between China and India. In 2008, Arun briefly visited India; then returned to Kunming. Around this time, Pearly who was passing through met Arun in Kunming. He had been her senior in Christ College. In her blog, Pearly captured the emergent core of Arun’s travel philosophy. He had moved on from Lonely Planet-totting backpacker to staying and knowing. Pearly was in Kunming for a month, she then moved to Dali. Arun, who had by now started developing content for a website related to the historic city, initially made periodic visits as part of his assignment and then after Pearly resumed her journey to Mongolia, himself shifted to Dali. On the fateful day in early November, Arun was out on a solo hike in the Changshan Mountains. During descent, he slipped at a dry waterfall and injured himself badly. Having informed his friends in Dali of the accident, Arun who was on a less frequented trail, crawled under a ledge for shelter. By the time rescuers found him, it was too late. He was 28 years old. “ He had told me that traveling and writing was what he wanted to do. After Stilwell Road, he had planned something in Peru and another trip in Europe,’’ Rajesh said. The family was trying to compile Arun’s notes from China.
The road came with a fan following attached to it. At Nampong, I met Professor H.N. Sarma from Digboi, former Principal of the Margherita College and acknowledged locally as an expert on the Stilwell Road. There were a couple of vintage jeeps driven in for symbolism. Teams continued to attempt traversing this link between India, Myanmar and China; some like the Cambridge / Oxford team of 1955, Eric Edis in 1957 and Donavan Webster later, wrote memorable books. Others plotted travel in Internet chat rooms. None of this mattered for local people crossing the border. Quirks of history and accumulated neglect had made their everyday life an adventure for others. The irony of the Stilwell Road was that not long after its completion and the first convoy of Allied supplies reached China by that route in February 1945, the Second World War ended. Hundreds of lives had been sacrificed building the road but its use in entirety for the purpose it was meant for – a transport link between India and China, was hardly tapped. In the years following the war, the forces supported by the Allies shifted to Taiwan and mainland China became a Communist nation. Then in 1962, China invaded India in a war that contributed greatly to the mistrust which came to characterize relations between the two countries. Economic growth only made them competitors. Post World War II, Myanmar enjoyed a brief fling with democracy before slipping to military rule in 1962. Over the last decade, while India initiated steps to work with Myanmar including the opening of trade routes and proposing a sea port at Sittwe, the latter’s proximity to China was arguably more. In recent years, the junction of India, Myanmar and China has been called the setting for a new Great Game of sorts. Sixty eight years old, the Stilwell Road awaits realization of intent.
Arun was a good writer, peppering his observations of China with wry humor. But what got me off my chair and off to the Stilwell Road was an eight point-declaration of intent written in September 2009 at Dali that he subsequently mailed his friends and they in turn, mailed me upon hearing my queries. The eighth point said, “ I stand firmer than ever in my dedication to the avoidance of boredom. This boredom is not the situational one, like when a reputed bore buttonholes you at a boring dinner (well, even there I would try my best to flee to the loo and dodge out the back door). It is a boredom of existence.’’ That last point had visceral connect for it described the state of the world around me. There were those of us who tried to break free from that boredom but never succeeded in getting past its strong gravitational pull. There were those who manufactured a picture of virtue from their daily surrender to boring rat race. Privately they admitted they were bored. But soon after, they constructed a magnificent justification for ignoring the obvious. In fact, it had become one of the challenges of my times – everything becomes boring; how do you avoid pattern susceptible to such entrapment?
Arun seemed aware and he tried. Significantly, he articulated the predicament beautifully and bluntly as a “ boredom of existence.’’
The least I could do to commend his spirit was, be at Pangsau Pass.
(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 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.)