SHANGRILA This is the story of Assam Valley, the easternmost region of India, as it was during the 1930s. Amrit Baruah tells of growing up in an idyllic place—a remote land of tea plantations, ancient temples, and the Brahmaputra River, perhaps the least known of the seven longest rivers of the world. And he describes how World War II opened up the isolat ed eastern portion of the valley to soldiers from outside, followed by construction of the legendary Burma Road. Today, sadly, Assam Valley has acquired such ills as politi cal turmoil and even terrorism. But its vanished past and unique character, and promise for the future, come alive in this brief but evocative memoir.
Copyright © 2008 by Amrit Baruah
Valley of Tea and Temples
A Personal Story by
firstname.lastname@example.org Amrit Baruah was born and raised in the eastern part of Assam Valley, in the heart of the teagrowing region. He left at the age of sixteen to attend Presidency College in Calcutta (now Kolkata), where he stayed on after gradua tion for employment with jute industry laborers during the last few days of the British Raj in India. In 1952 Amrit left for Boston, to study at Boston Univer sity and Harvard. He has been in the U.S. since then, one of the earliest immigrants from India. He has worked in the ﬁelds of mental health and community organization (in precivilrightsera South Philadelphia), and has taught at universities. Currently he is a parttime writer, psychotherapist, and organization consultant located in Maryland.
The Dim Past—British India—1930s
The Dim Past—British India—1930s
World War II Comes Home
Recent Past—New Independent India
Uniqueness of Assam Valley
Life Today—The New Millennium
Cheuni Ali was an important road of that valley. Mostly, it just lay there with its dusty surface. After a rain, it would turn to mud. Occasionally, a bullock cart would pass on it carrying a family or hay. On special hut (fair) days, a small crowd would traverse it carrying baskets on their heads. Then there would be the two hanging baskets supported by a rod across their backs. These contained vegetables, eggs, bananas, or pigeons that would later make the puro curry which was a delicacy unique to the valley. From time to time, a car would pass, either a black Ford or a creamcol ored Chevrolet, the two cars that were usually seen in those days. If the road was muddy, then the car tyres would have chains. If there was a heavy rain, plastic windows were hooked onto the car doors. Although cars rarely traveled on the road, there were bicycles. Either the PWD clerk or the fat Daroga would come along on a bike. The Daroga was a junior police ofﬁ cial and he was always fat, dressed in khaki with a leather belt across his chest. Rarely would one see a Daroga who was thin or who smiled. Just as rarely would one see a child that was fat or who did not smile. Sometimes a clerk called mohori would walk on the road carrying an aluminum tifﬁn carrier with its four compart ments that had been ﬁlled that morning by his wife—one for rice, one for dal (lentils), one for ﬁsh curry and the last for a vegetable dish called dulna. Unlike the formidable highways, freeways, and beltways of America that make a deliberate attempt to bypass human habitations, Cheuni Ali went right through the daily lives and dramas of village people. Rice ﬁelds with that necessary stagnant water were only ten feet away; the family pond of the villager was only some yards from the road. Distinct from other parts of that vast country, the fami 1
ly pond in this valley was placed right in front of the house. It was as though to assure the guest that, during his visit, he is sure to get a fresh ﬁsh—a magur, a kaoi, a barali and if he is lucky, may be a pabho. Cheuni Ali was a witness to a variety of daily scenes. Maybe someone taking a bath in his pond, rubbing his body with the shell of a gourd (bhol)—the same shell that is today a luxury item in American bathrooms, with the fashionable name “earth therapeutic”; or maybe someone stopping at the roadside stand to buy a bidi (a native ciga rette of simple rolled tobacco). He may not have had the extra two paysas to buy a matchbox but it did not matter. He can light his bidi at the lighted end of a rope that hangs on the side of that shop—a shop that has on its top a blue metal sign saying in the local language “Good tea is avail able here.” Sometimes a riceplanting woman would straight en her back to look curiously at the only passing car of the day. These were the scenes during the day. The evening brought others. Evening arrived in the rural valley differ ently from evenings in America. Here, they arrive with their own busy lengthy agendas. In the villages around Cheuni Ali, the evening had only one agenda—a silent night. The mosquitoes would come out but also the ﬁreﬂies. Sometimes the children would catch some of these bright dancing dots. One of the children would collect a few and hold them securely in his ﬁst, while another would hold the stem of the papaya tree (amita), shutting one end with his hand. The ﬁrst child then very carefully empties his ﬁst of ﬁreﬂies into the transparent stem of the papaya, immedi ately shutting the other end with his hand. Thus appeared the early native ﬂuorescent tube light. There were other scenes that came with the evening. In some houses, someone would blow on the conch shell for religious reasons; the dhuna (burnt smoke from crystals) would drive out the mosquitoes. Its smell was much more appealing than the smell of the Flit mosquito spray used by some modern people in town. In some houses, a small earth
lamp ﬁlled with mustard oil with a liqueﬁed wick dipped in it would be placed in front of a plant considered auspi cious—the Tulasi plant. On some mornings, the wife would light a similar lamp (saki) if her anxious husband was going to town or important business. The lighted lamp was sup posed to protect him. But overwhelming all of the scenes of the valley—day or night—exploding with songs and dances, were two Bihu festivals that were held in the valley every year. These were joyous occasions, pastoral, social beyond all religious or eth nic considerations. During each of the four seasons, life and scenes around Cheuni Ali changed. But the old man road Cheuni Ali, the road for all seasons—knowing all and seeing all (the tall Ahot tree and the tiny Manimuni plant, the elephant and the ant); sharing the one fabric of life—kept moving at its own pace, neither hurried nor slow. It kept going east and farther east through the silent good earth of that valley in the early 1930s until it ran out of miles and lost itself in the dense teak woods of “Borma,” as Burma (now Myanmar) was then called by the local people. But “Borma” to the people of the valley was not so much a place as an idea. No one had gone there—dense forests made that impossible. It was not a border that one could just walk over. The only time that “Borma” became real, and then in a frightening way, was when people talked about the muun. These were hordes of attackers who had poured into the valley from Burma two centuries earlier and who had savaged the valley in a manner reminiscent of Genghis Khan. Otherwise Burma just quietly remained inside the geography book, ruled by the British and not ter rorized by a thuggish military junta as is the case today. This valley of which Cheuni Ali was the backbone was the Assam Valley, named after the easternmost state (then called a province) of the vast undivided subcontinent of British India. Assam Valley was so remote from the rest of the world, and even from the rest of India, that it was never in the
news. The world just did not pass it by; most of the time the world even did not know that it existed because the world is only aware of places that make noise. And Assam Valley was a silent valley. And it had to be treated carefully. The legendary Indian Railways—the longest railway line in the world—shrunk into narrow gauge to enter the valley and even then after a while, it was interrupted if it wanted to enter deep inside the valley. It was interrupted by the least known of the seven longest rivers in the world (least known even today): the river Brahmaputra. Passengers would get off the train, cross the river in a steamer, and then pick up another narrow gauge train on the other bank. That is where proper Cheuni Ali started. As it proceed ed eastward, Cheuni Ali would pass long stretches of green shrubs. These shrubs were so carefully trimmed that from a distance when the sun shone on them, they looked like a green ﬁeld. And in these ﬁelds here and there were sariclad women—the blue one, the red one, and the yellow one. These were the female workers, with wicker baskets strapped around their heads. They would pick the leaves from those green shrubs and put them inside that basket— preferably two leaves and a bud. During the last one hundred years, wherever people have gathered for a warm social occasion, the hot, black liquid that made the gathering possible—the elixir called Assam tea—could be ultimately traced back to those wicker bas kets on the backs of those women in blue, purple, yellow saris. In Jorhat, the main town of this region, I was born about four in the morning on the ﬁrst day of spring in 1924. My mother had talked about the nurse who was present in her bedroom when I was born. The nurse was from southern India; and that was enough for me to know—I could envision her clothes, color, smile, and walk. In the vast subcontinent of India, with its supposed chaos and confusion, one’s native location determines, in actual fact or
in one’s impressions, how one would eat, talk, dress, cele brate, or mourn. And so I envisioned this nurse dressed in a white sari with an orange border, her face of bold, dark color topped by long black hair with a red hibiscus ﬂower tucked on the left side. I saw her earnest eyes and dazzling white teeth and heard her laughter that ﬁlled my mother’s bedroom once I was born. Her hands, the ﬁrst hands, held me up in the air. At the same time, she must have shouted those words, which are triumphant ones in that boyexalting Indian cul ture: “It is a boy.” Some years after that night, I was impressed by the long road that this nurse had taken to get to our town and traced her route in my mind. She left her town and somehow arrived in the city of Madras; there in the train station, she hurriedly followed the porter who carried her bedroll and suitcase on his head while she walked shy but focused with an aluminum tifﬁn carrier in one hand and a ﬂask of tea in the other. After twentyfour hours, the train reached Calcutta. She got out and repeated the activity of following a porter, who settled her either in a hackney carriage or a rickshaw. In this con veyance, she went through the big city on Harrison Road, through the gold merchants’ area, and took a train for the east on the other side of Calcutta in Sealdah station. She changed to a narrow gauge train after ten hours and head ed towards my Assam Valley. After another eighteen hours, she arrived in our hometown of Jorhat. If she had gone on for another seven hours, she would have left India. By the time the nurse arrived in our hometown, she had been traveling nonstop for almost three days. This was in the early 1920s and she must have traveled alone, perhaps the only woman so traveling along the entire route. I was intrigued by the fact that she was not in our town as a part of a Christian mission, although that was her reli gion. She represented no organization. My mother had also said that she had no friend or relative in that town. I was intrigued wondering what had brought to my town those
hands that held me so softly as I arrived on this earth. Much later, as I became aware of the different ways in which some people run away from hurts, heartbreaks, and cruelties, I asked myself if this nurse was doing the same. I felt deprived that I never met her. My mother ended her story by saying that the nurse suddenly died. She was buried in the one, small Christian cemetery in that town. I heard that the nurse’s dog used to visit her grave and sit there for hours. I had wondered what had happened to that lost dog. Not all of my mother’s breakfast stories were sad like this one. Occasionally, she talked about her dreams of the pre vious night, which she remembered vividly. As I look back on our childhood with our mother, I recall that dreams and the dream world were a steady part of our conversations. Sometimes, mother would get up to go to the garden while we patiently waited for the next story. She would return with some fragrant, white kharikajai ﬂowers, which she would put in her cup of hot tea. We three then smelled her tea, which had the fragrance of the ﬂowers. In that unique way of children, although they would ﬁnd the right words to describe it only years later, we felt that our moth er, Kanchan Lata Baruah, similarly spread her fragrance throughout our lives. And it was soft like the fragrance of the white kharikajai ﬂowers and not overpowering like the smell of the yellow keteki ﬂower inside the folds of clothes. Where did my father ﬁt into this magical world of white kharikajai ﬂowers? My father lived a life of discipline and decorum. We respected and loved him but in a different way. With our father, we smiled. With our mother we laughed. He got up at 5:30 in the morning when the but ler brought a tray of tea and Huntley Palmer biscuits. My father then mixed his tea. By 6:30 he is in his home ofﬁce. This was the room where we children seldom went. We were not forbidden to enter it but it was a forbidding room. Rows of leatherbound law books, black teakwood table with matching chairs, every pen, every pencil in its allotted place, the cases for the day on the table, and with rows of
ﬁles on another side table all standing in a straight line alphabetically arranged. Order, system, and rules. At 7:00 Barada Babu would arrive. He was one of the two stenographers in town (the other being assigned to the British Deputy Commissioner). At 9:00 father would have his bath, then sit down for the morning meal. That was when my mother would join him—not for the meal but for conversation. This was followed by him getting dressed in courtroom attire. At 10:30, the driver brought the car, stop ping near the front steps and holding the rear door open. My father walked in, the door closed, and the car proceed ed towards the courthouse. Usually around that time, four Gurkha soldiers in starched khaki uniforms would be escorting the prisoners of the day from the Barbheta jail about ﬁve miles away. When they passed my father’s car, they would abruptly turn right and shout in unison “Eyes right!” Our driver told us that when the car stopped in front of the courthouse, a relay of Assamese words would pass from mouth to mouth: “Ahiley” “Ahiley” (he has just arrived). When I was in high school, I had heard from numerous people that my father was respected all over the valley. His name “Iswar Prasad Baruah” meant justice, integrity, and acute legal knowledge. He was that judge about whom a prisoner who was just sentenced for a long prison sentence would say, “If Iswarjoj sentenced me, I know I deserved it.” He returned all the wedding gifts that were given for my elder sister by different merchants in town because one of them might appear later in his court either as a plaintiff or as a defendant. Almost all of those gifts were jewelry of high quality diamond. But the ultimate glory came in 1938 when an Englishman appeared in his courtroom as a defendant. What? An Englishman in the courtroom of an Indian judge? After all, this was the mighty British Empire with the Englishman as the ruler and the Indian as the ruled. It was the mighty British Empire upon which the sun never set. The Englishman had a secret mistress—a young Indian
female worker in the tea plantation where he was the young bachelor Assistant Manager. He really loved her but one night, the night of his return from England where he had gone on vacation, he learned that she had been unfaithful to him during his absence—an occasion forced on her by another Englishman, a planter in a neighboring tea planta tion. But not knowing that her inﬁdelity was forced on her and not bothering to get the facts, he whipped her to death. The British community in the valley fought to have the case transferred to the court of a British judge because they were shocked that one of them would appear as a defendant in the courtroom of an Indian judge; but they failed because it was impractical, the nearest British judge being far away. We were told that there was a sensation on that day—in the courtroom and amongst the crowd that had gathered outside the courtroom—when it became known that twelve British jury members had stood up in a straight line when the Indian judge had entered the courtroom and had remained standing until he had sat down. This was a very ordinary event that had very extraordinary importance, because during the previous generations in that valley, almost always in public, it was the Indian who stood while the Englishman remained sitting. One evening the town was thrilled to hear that the Englishman had been sent to prison from an Indian court. People felt that at least that evening, the sun did set on the mighty British Empire. Then there was the Dibrugarh Circuit House incident. The Circuit House was the place where the British Governor and top ofﬁcials stayed when they went on tour. My father was going on tour to the eastern town of Dibrugarh and had reserved his favorite room. It was the secondstory—the best and largest room there, overlooking the river. So far all was routine but soon it would not be so. The British Commissioner, Mr. Walker, in charge of the entire valley—a powerful ofﬁcial with no respect for Indians—arrived before my father did, with no prior reser vation. He tore off the paper on the door with my father’s
name on it and occupied the room. Then later on that day, my father arrived and the drama started. My father could have easily moved to one of the few vacant rooms in the Circuit House that day, and he would have if an Indian had occupied his favorite room. But it was Mr. Walker and so suddenly the simple matter became an issue of national honor. My father stood his ground, and got an apology from Mr. Walker and not just a casual, verbal apology but an ofﬁcial, written one. Mr. Walker learned that there was one Indian whom he could not push around. Gardening was one of our father’s hobbies. Once our gar den was the best in town, setting a record as more attractive than those of the British ofﬁcials. Sometimes, father would escort a visitor through his garden with the gardener quiet ly following him. Names of ﬂowers from the western por tion of the garden would ﬂoat in the air—dahlias, phlox, petunia, and cannahas—as the visitor followed in admira tion. Then the names from the Indian portion of the gar den—narji, champa, juthi, and kharikajai. We had the only Eucalyptus tree of Jorhat in our garden. That is when I learned that it is the tallest tree in the world, and that there are many in Australia. That sent me to the letter A of the Book of Knowledge set, to read the entry on Australia. My mother, on the other hand, spent time in the garden, walking slowly and stopping by different ﬂowers. She picked up the white kharikajai for her morning tea or the marigold for her meditation and pujah. Again, in that spe cial way that children know, I realized that my father’s joy was in creating the perfect garden and my mother’s in smelling its ﬂowers. My father’s roots were in the western part of the valley. While my mother came from the eastern aristocracy of tea plantation wealth, my father came from the western valley aristocracy of learning and power. His uncle Anandaram Borooah belonged to the pinnacle of power in the late 1800s, early 1900s, as a member of the stellar Indian Civil Service, which was made up almost exclusively of British graduates of Oxford and Cambridge. He was a barrister
educated in England and was the ﬁrst Indian District Magistrate. He was also a renowned Sanskrit scholar and author of books on ancient Sanskrit texts. My father rose to be a superior judge, the highest position at that time for an Indian in the valley. Mother had to work out her own place between these two wellknown circles in the valley. She did not let her own world claim her fully; and although some in my father’s family welcomed her affectionately, a few others, though traditionally religious, lacked the real spiritual vision and depth needed to value the essence of a person like my moth er. To them, she was merely a daughter of a wealthy Upper Assam tea planter, although a highly respected one. (My maternal grandfather was also an attorney and in the early 1900s, a member of the Indian Central Assembly in Delhi. This was the forerunner of today’s central Indian Parliament in New Delhi. Currently, there is a Women’s College in Jorhat named after him.) But the opinion of my mother held by a few of my pater nal relatives did not matter in the least because my mother possessed her own brand of aristocracy—the best brand. It is the brand so nicely summed up by E.M. Forester: “the aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky.” In the town of Jorhat where I was a high school student, a male high school student had two fathers: his biological father and the caring, very strict headmaster Zahiruddin Ahmed, who ran his school like a commander running an army and whose mission in life was to produce students who could hold their own anywhere. These male students were delighted by looking at the waves of black, white, and gold that ﬂowed over the streets at ten in the morning on weekdays. These waves were the combination of black hair, white blouses, and golden skirts (mekhela) worn by female students going to their high school. Each male student had his own favorite black, white, and gold combination, which he would search for in that wave with the black pigtails swinging in unison like the marching batons of American high school girls.
At other times, three of us inseparables (my elder broth er Pona, my younger sister Punu, and myself, each separat ed by one year) would go for a walk. As soon as we got out of the front gate, Pona took charge. He had to keep a strict eye on me because I liked to scare the two of them by embracing the electric poles on the road. Pona kept up this affectionate guardian role as long as he lived. Sometimes there was tennis on the front lawn with Pona and close friends Anil, Shaﬁqul, and Inam. And then bik ing in the neighboring villages with another close friend, Bhabani. Ah! Jorhat High School summer vacations. At night, I went to bed with books and I woke up with them. I laughed at the tales of Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse, and marveled at my ﬁrst sonnet by Keats. Books were mostly hardcover books then, the ﬁrst Penguin paperback having appeared in the valley only a few years earlier. But these books were heavy also in other ways. They were heavy with the stories and sorrows of the ages. That is when I ﬁrst read about the 19yearold Joan of Arc and learned what those knights and religious leaders did to her. Nearly twenty years later as I stood at the spot in Rouen, France, where she was burnt to death, my mind went back to that distant Jorhat bedroom. That was the bedroom where I ﬁrst met the illfated Tess in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy. I was a little too young then to know that Tesses came in different colors, with sim ilar hopes but all ending up with the same ill fate because they trust so much. My father encouraged my reading passion. He ordered through mail the complete set of Charles Dickens novels, George Bernard Shaw plays, novels of Jane Austin and Hardy, volumes of short stories by different authors, poems of Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, and that volume of Shake speare. All were leather bound and smelling important. If I am grateful to my mother for her reverence for life, I am grateful to my father for his reverence for learning. This is the town where, once upon a time, I had parted
with the early magical chapter of my life. That was sixty ﬁve years ago and the season was summer. It was just before those heavy rains that sometimes brought white hailstones in the front yard. It was also just after that big, fat kathal (jackfruit) had ripened in the backyard. The last scene of the morning that remains with me happened as I was leav ing for the train station. I looked back through the rear win dow of the car. My neighbor and friend Bhaitok was stand ing looking very sad and tearyeyed as the car moved on. I would never see him again. I have heard that about thirty years later, he was in a fatal train accident. That was summer for the world; but for my life at age six teen, it was the spring season with all of my life stretched ahead of me like a road that was so long that I doubted if it ended. And that life’s spring had the green color of my Neem toothpaste. Green was also the color of the Assam Valley countryside. That fresh morning years ago, I kept looking at its ﬁelds, forests, and the small ponds with tall betel nut trees and the allpurpose banana trees in the front yards of village thatched houses, which expressed the simple contentment of a people who had little and yet quite a lot. It was in the front yard of one of those thatched houses that the woman dressed in her golden skirt was sweeping the yard, perhaps sweeping away sewali ﬂowers. This was the soft small white ﬂower with a light pink center that cre ated those fragrant early mornings in the valley, sometimes carpeting the yards. She was that universal morning woman all over the world in different dresses, speaking different languages, arising out of different dreams, who get many millions of homes started every morning for a new day. Later on during that morning, some barebodied chil dren came running towards the train and then, with the conﬁdence of children, began to run by the train hoping to overtake it. As that narrow gauge train kept going, I thought it was taking me only to Calcutta’s Presidency College. I did not know that the train had some secret plans about my life
because it kept taking me away, away, and away. As I looked at the sunwashed green Assam Valley, I did not know that starting with the next morning, as a broad gauge train passed through East Bengal carrying me, I would turn into a permanent visitor to Assam Valley. That I would never live there again.
It was the end of November, 1941. That was the pleas ant season in Calcutta. The Pujah season had just ended, leaving happy memories; the heat had subsided two months earlier, and everyone was enjoying the Diwali, or festival of lights. Calcutta would now ready herself for the Raj part of the year. Britishers, AngloIndians and West ernized Indians began to look forward to Christmas. The season had a political layer to it; Christmas in Calcutta also meant that the mighty British Viceroy would come to the city for his annual stay. The horse races would go on. Esplanade and Chowringhee and the New Market area became festive, and even traditional Indians looked forward to eating cakes on Christmas day. Ferrazini's near the New Market did brisk business in cakes during the season. So, as December was about to arrive, Calcutta became special ly enjoyable. I was a sophomore and was coming home one evening in early December when some students said that Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor. We did not know where that was until someone said Hawaii. It meant America was at war with Japan. I realized that this bombing brought the war from the west to the east, but Japan was so far away, the Paciﬁc was on the other side of the world. The war was still far away. All that changed within three months. We could not believe what we read every morning in the newspapers. It was a tidal wave of disciplined, machinelike soldiers. The Philippines fell, then the Dutch East Indies, then the Malay
World War II Comes Home
Peninsula, then the mighty British base of Singapore. The Japanese army was approaching Burma, which was next door to the Assam Valley. Suddenly, the remote, hidden, quiet, almost primitive Assam Valley was at the center of news and planning. Assam Valley became like the sudden ly exposed hidden cottage in the forest that was torn down for a superhighway. Till then, war meant the faraway London blitz. We wondered how the Britishers in Calcutta felt about all of it, whether they were petriﬁed that England would fall— there was no way to know. While some Indians felt that it was “their war,” there was admiration for the way Londoners were standing up to the constant bombing. Although Indians knew about the imperialist views of Churchill, there was appreciation of the fact that he was “taking the English language to war.” After all that was said and done, it was still “their war” to the nationalist Indians. Now it became “our war” by becoming “their war” because we were linked with them. Indians were as suc cessful in keeping both contradictions together as most people. Some Indians were ﬁghting in the Middle East and other frontiers with the British, just as some Indians were ﬁghting against the British and were for boycotting the war effort. But that was when the war was being fought in the trenches of France and Italy and the deserts in North Africa; now the war was here and, like it or not, support it or not, there was no choice. It was here and it was entering into many of the aspects of life. Until 1939, the word “war” appeared only in history books. War meant the Great War. That was the name of that war until September, 1939, after which it came to be called World War I. But the Great War was history. It smelled of mustard gas, brought up images of trenches and, for book lovers, the classic All Quiet on the Western Front or the poetry of Rupert Brooke, “Wherever there was a dead soldier, would be a part of England.” It was even romantic and we thought of it at 11 a.m. on every November 11th, which was called Armistice Day.
We went with our father, who dressed in a black suit, to the Judge's ﬁeld for a ceremony. We sat in the front row; the only Indians in that section of the crowd. At exactly eleven, we stood up, the guns were ﬁred and we were silent. War meant peace for a minute. That was the extent of the mean ing of war. War now meant many things in daily life. It meant trains crowded with soldiers when I returned home during college vacations. It meant a shining car for someone in town who was thought of as a loser for years. This man paid ten rupees when one rupee would have done; he was the one with new money. He was a military contractor who got the contracts for building quarters for soldiers that were need ed almost overnight. War meant taking out that old bicy cle because petrol was rationed and the car had to be put away. It meant not being able to move freely at night because of blackouts; it meant rations, and soon censorship of letters that went from or to people near the frontier which was part of the Assam Valley. Now war was not a remote and sometimes romantic concept; it spread into every area of life. Soon we felt that there was one strain that went through all of these new trends—that a way of life was shaken to its roots. The chief casualty was predictability. In India, and especially in the Assam Valley, life in all of its aspects was predictable. Shoe meant Bata, ink meant Quink, butter meant Polson, books were hardcover items to carry, neck ties meant hard and uncomfortable collars. The few color ful people who had cameras carried black boxes called Brownies. Magazines meant the Illustrated Weekly of India, or for a very few, Punch. If Assam Valley was a faraway hidden outpost for India, the valley’s easternmost portion, where it touched Burma, did not even arise in people’s minds. It was a blur on the map as well as in people’s imagination. What appeared was a vague impression—mountain range, dense forests, bamboo, teakwood, jungle—a world on parts of which human footprints had not fallen.
Then came Pearl Harbor and its effects: the soldiers; the trucks, bigger than what people had seen; a new vehicle called the jeep. And then the jungles really came down, makeshift airstrips appeared and planes looking like the “raths” or sky chariots (which the scriptures talked about when describing the war between some gods) and which local people had not seen till 1942, began to ﬂy in and land. At the same time, a phenomenal work of building a road started. It started beyond the towns of Lido and Marghareta —remote towns with Italian names because the British had brought in an Italian architect to take care of a daunting construction job. American equipment, the kind not seen before—big tractors, tall cranes looking like birds that went up to the skies, and tools that were models of efﬁciency, before which the forest did not have a chance—soon brought to life two roads, the famous Burma Road and the Stilwell Road. A massive war effort of men, material, supplies and trucks began to climb up these roads towards the enemy. It was an amazing feat. All the building materials had to come from outside the state from whichever port was con venient for the landing of these materials. From the port it came by train and towards the end of the journey, it was a narrowgauge train. And then GIs continued to arrive. The GI was not part of India’s history. The British tommy, even that 21yearold who arrived for the ﬁrst time in India from a small town in England, automatically became part of the Raj. Somewhere in his past, it was like ly that he had a connection with India. His nephew, his granduncle, the brother of his brotherinlaw may have served in India in any of the civilian or military operations. Or at least a neighbor was similarly connected. Now comes the GI. To the common man in India, he is a soldier but he is not to be feared. A white man who was friendly, in spite of the language barrier, he seemed to want to talk more than just ordering a drink or a taxi— the extent of the British tommy's verbal connection with this Indian. If there was keeping of a distance with the GI it was more
from the Indian’s side because the latter was not used to social conversational giveandtake with a white man. Soon the ways of this new white man, the American, were noticed and talked about. If the GI wanted a taxi, he did not mind crossing the street to get into the taxi, unlike the British tommy who demanded that the taxi driver come around, cross the street and stop where he was and open the door. If the only way to go in that hot sun was a human pulled rickshaw, the GI was privately uncomfortable sitting on the rickshaw being pulled by a sweating human being, and a frail one at that. His way of handling it, perhaps even without any psychological analysis, was to get the rickshaw driver to sit and be pulled by the GI for a short distance, thus making the situation a comfortable one. Now he could sit and be pulled. Occasionally there would be some humorous story that circulated in the city. A GI reluctantly stood up at the end of a movie in Metro when “God Save the King” was played and it was compulsory that the audience stand. It seems that he said under his breath, “God won’t save their king, we Americans will.” The Indians loved it. Indians commented that these are good guys, not haughty like British soldiers who thought it was beneath their standard to be seen in Indian neighborhoods. Some GIs visited the Bengali artist Jamini Roy in his studio, and bought his art creations exquisite small pieces to send home as Calcutta souvenirs. Like Americans at home, the young GI knew practically nothing about India. Back home most of his countrymen did not have the direct experience of India the dust, heat, spicy food, comfort of servants, the customary “koi hai” British brand of power and prestige. India, for most Americans, was a poor but exotic place, which gave Hollywood Elephant Boy, with Sabu in the lead role. It also gave Hollywood a few other movies; with the Taj Mahal, tigers and turbans. It was a playful connection that America had with India just as for the Indian, America meant Hollywood.
In some quarters, the connection was more serious. It was known that while Churchill and Roosevelt agreed on most matters, one of their major differences was indepen dence for India, which Roosevelt used to argue for. That was a matter that used to evoke from Churchill “over my dead body,” or something in more digniﬁed language. But there was one thing about India which this young GI had known from his parents. India had Gandhi and whatever Gandhi was doing was great. As a soldier he was apolitical and he did not know the details; but instinctive ly he was for Gandhi’s movement. He had occasionally heard about it from his parents. Considering the comforts of home from which this boy, hardly out of high school, had been plucked, to be put in the jungles of remote Assam, his adjustment was remark able. It was not easy, what with heavy monsoon rains, leeches crawling up their trousers, malaria, dysentery, and Japanese bayonets. When not involved in marches and action, his refuge was the soldiers’ camps, behind mosqui tonetted verandahs, to his Life and Time and Lucky Strikes and Philip Morris and listening to bigband music from home over the shortwave radio, courtesy of the USO, and “pinup girl” Betty Grable. There was a third refuge but that could happen only dur ing his R and R trip to Calcutta. He was prized by the AngloIndian girls who loved not just his generosity but his outgoingness and cordiality, contrasted with that of the British soldier; and he had something which the British tommy could not give these girls —as one of them worded it, the GI could give her “those Clark Gable accents” com ing out of the dark when the two of them were together. They were thrilled by that. The war brought America with a human face. This country that was associated with glamour and celluloid suddenly appeared in ﬂesh and blood and a vulnerability that England had not shown all during her two hundred years in India. There are two scenes remaining from that period that illustrate this human face.
It was the spring of 1943; there was a large GI base out side of my home town Jorhat where an airport had sprung up within a few months. In the blackedout town, I was returning with a couple of friends from a late night movie. We were walking on the Trunk Road. It had begun to rain and suddenly there was a streak of lightning. At that moment, we saw a young GI, apparently drunk, unsteady on his feet, crying and shouting, “Guys, don't leave me.” We did not know what to do; feeling helpless and sorry for him, we kept walking. The other scene was during the day and in the hot sun of summer when the temperature went up to 120 degrees. A group of GIs were constructing an extension of a road near their camp and they had nothing on but their short shorts. That was the ﬁrst time anyone in the town had seen a white man with his body almost bare. In that one noon time, those guys shattered a westerner’s heritage of always appearing in public fully dressed—the men in suits and ties, the women in long dresses, and always dressing for din ner while being waited upon by the “native help.” Through the GI, the American image—shiny, informal, comfortable and convenient—began to spread. The big wrench; suit carrier garment bag instead of the bulky suit case in which the suits had to be carefully folded; the Ronson cigarette lighter instead of matches; the leather toi letkit bag; the shoulder bag, out of which the shiny Life magazine came; the long cartons of Philip Morris cigarettes, the pack opening in a different way than the English and Indian cigarettes did; sunglasses with green lenses, whereas the lenses that Indians had seen until then were always black. An entire mystique grew up around this young American. It seemed to people that war could be hell but Americans knew how to make the road to hell at least com fortable. The incessant movement of supplies, trucks, people, jeeps on the famous road, as well as in another front some what to the south of the road, ﬁnally stopped the steam rolling march of the Japanese before which countries in the
Paciﬁc and Southeast Asia had fallen. Slowly it became clear that Japan was heading for defeat. Action was slowing down in the Assam front—the “India BurmaChina” front as it was called, started becoming quiet. As time went on, when people talked about the Second World War, they would bring up names of famous battle ﬁelds, invasions, fronts. Once in a while, the mention of the “IndiaChinaBurma” front would come up but not as often as the other names. And yet, this was the front, which included an area south of the famous road known then as the Naga Hills, where the steamrolling Japanese army that swept over countries, some in a few days, was ﬁnally stopped and the tide turned. The British felt it specially because they were afraid that the Japanese army might enter India, which was their “jewel in the crown.” The fact that the “IndiaChina Burma” front seemed to take a back seat in World War II conversations made some people refer to it as the “forgotten frontier.” The happygolucky noncolonial mood that the GI con veyed to the Indians in contrast with his fellow white sol dier, the British tommy, had a coveredup ugly fact for which of course the individual GI was not responsible. That was segregation—not only in the American South, which we had read about in high school, but in the U.S. armed services as well. For one thing there were no black soldiers in India and certainly not in my corner of Assam Valley. It was not until nearly 65 years later, while reading through the Washington Post of June 4, 2008, that I learned not only that racial seg regation was alive and well even in my remote IndiaBurma frontier, but that there had been an ugly episode in my own backyard. Here is the gist of the story as reported in the Post of June 4, 2008—at times in the words of Will Haygood, Washing ton Post staff writer: “He was a smoothie and a cad, walking and swaying up
and down U street as if he owned the town. Young women swooned over Herman Perry in those preWorld War II days. He liked silk suits and white shirts, soul food and dancing at night. The war, as it had done to so many oth ers, caught him up in in midstride.” He was shipped out to the IndoBurma theater. The 849th Engineer Aviation Battalion (750 black soldiers, Herman Perry among them, and 50 white ofﬁcers) headed towards that frontier from Staten Island in July of 1943. None of the black soldiers were told their destination. That destination was a massive building project—the building of the Stilwell Road to connect with the future Burma Road, to ferry supplies to aid the Chinese. For all these years Perry’s family—a surviving sister— had been bewildered about his death. His remains never came home. And now the story is out due to the zeal of a 33yearold ﬁrsttime author: Yale graduate Brendan Koerner, whose book on this story, Now the Hell will Start: One Soldier’s Flight from the Greatest Manhunt of World War II, has just been published. Some critics refer to it as a “Heart of Darkness,” “Apocalypse Now” type of story. To make it par ticularly arresting, Koerner’s book utilizes army documents and records that he obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. He became obsessed with the case, and left his Manhattan apartment for the Burmese jungles— where he became ill—looking for traces of Perry’s past. Here is what he has put together: Like many of the black soldiers in the unit—men who swung shovels and pickaxes and broke rock all day—Perry complained of mistreatment. In his case, it was quite spe ciﬁc. He had already served two weeks beyond his original 90 days in the stockade without any explanation. So one morning he just walked out to the jungle. Within hours Perry was confronted on the road by Lt. Harold Cody, who was unarmed and intended to arrest Perry. Sweating and sobbing, Perry kept shouting at Cody, “Get back, get back!” But Cody was inching towards him.
It was then that it happened—the incident that would seal Perry’s fate. He took his riﬂe and shot Cody in the chest and then the stomach and immediately ran towards the jungle, which he seemed to know quite well. What came after that is even more unreal. Perry arrived in a village of Naga tribesmen—headhunters who were at ﬁrst puzzled and soon charmed by him. Perry stayed on, married a young woman of the Naga tribe, and fathered a child. “I intended to spend the remaining years of my life in the jungle,” Perry later confessed, “and live with the Naga girl whom I claim as my wife.” The manhunt that had been given up was resumed once word spread about a black man in a Naga tribal village. Cornered and bleeding from a gunshot wound inﬂicted by U.S. soldiers, he was taken to a makeshift army hospital, where he was given blood. It was blood from the black sol diers; the army would not allow blood from a white soldier to be given to a black. Now the story shifts to the sleepy town in my own child hood backyard that played a crucial role in the story—the town of Ledo. Perry’s court martial began in early September, 1944, at a tea plantation there. His military lawyer, Clayton Oberholtzer, had been a smalltown attor ney in Ohio. It was his ﬁrst murder case. The verdict: guilty; the sentence: death by hanging. Perry awaited his fateful day in the Lado stockade, shack led to a log “like a chastised dog,” according to Koerner. The weeks rolled by because an appeal was automatic. In December Perry escaped, thanks to a pair of pliers someone had slipped to him. The Assam Police Gazette had an arti cle titled “A colored Houdini from the USA, aided by a few Naga tricks, is sure playing ‘hobs’ with the traps that have been set for him.” Days later, sitting at a campﬁre and surrounded yet again, Perry was out of energy. “You got me” was all that he had to say to his captors. On the morning of March 15, 1945, Perry was driven in the dark to his date with the gallows. Cullum, the 89year
old military police ofﬁcer who ﬁnally had charge of this manhunt, received a letter from Perry’s halfbrother, who was trying to ﬁnd out what had happened to him. Cullum replied: “If he had used the right attitude and if the army had used his abilities, he could have been an excellent jun gle scout. But in the 1940s he was a road builder.” Edna Wilson, 83, is the sole survivor of the Perry sib lings. A retired nurse’s assistant, she says that she knew her brother had been disappointed with his treatment in the military. “It was tough for him all along. Going overseas in the bottom of that ship like that. The colored soldiers were treated like a bunch of animals.” The family knew nothing about her brother’s precarious emotional state or ineffective legal counsel, she added. Then she said: “He didn’t have nobody on his side.” The family came to know of Perry’s resting place in a mil itary cemetery in Hawaii. Wilson scrounged up a thousand dollars to have her brother’s body dug up and cremated. Just seven months ago, there was a knock at the door at Wilson’s home in Washington, D.C. The mailman had delivered a box containing her brother’s ashes. “He is home now,” she says of the Jungle King, who used to glide up and down U Street. By autumn 1945, the busy airstrips, the makeshift open air giant movie screens, the mosquitonetted camps, the jungle hospitals, the mess halls gradually became deserted. Buffalos literally came to roam the region once again. All that was left in that area that associated it with the Second World War was a cemetery for fallen soldiers. Nearly ﬁfty years later, I visited this immaculately main tained spot of green that I entered through a gateway. As I was walking slowly, stopping every ﬁve feet or so, the caretaker mentioned, politely and hesitantly, that it would be dusk in another half an hour and that the gate would close. I thanked him and noticed a small metal eagle on one of the graves. I realized that the grave was not for a British or an Indian soldier.
assam, india I stopped and read. 31115894 Sergeant A. S. Oja United States Army Air Corps 7th August 1944 Age 23. Recent Past—New Independent India Within a mere two years, India became independent and the country was divided into India and Pakistan. The com munal carnage, savagery that had overwhelmed all of North India, had not spilled out to the valley. There was no com munal outbreak in Assam Valley during that prepartition period. Assam Valley remained as it was—a remote part of India. But now an ominous sound ﬁlled the air in the val ley. It was the sound of endless footsteps crossing the bor der between the valley and East Pakistan. These were footsteps ﬁrst of Hindu refugees and later many poor people, illegal entries from the overcrowded impoverished East Pakistan and later from Bangladesh to the more spacious, green Assam Valley. The locals, the Assamese, have always been a simple, trusting people and it was not until they found that in many respects—small business, housing, and ordinary employment—the self described refugees have overtaken them that they rose up. When a steady stream of foreigners crosses a country’s border at will, it is a national problem. When Mexicans ille gally cross the border, Washington does not look the other way, say that it is a Texas problem, and blame Texans for being inhospitable to those illegally crossing the country’s border. But that essentially is what happened to Assam. The people in power in New Delhi explained it away as mainly an Assamese “Bangal Khedda,” “Drive out those Bengalis,” issue. To set the record straight in this unfortunate saga, I have to state this in spite of my long endearing communion with that soft precious Bengali soul. 24
When the Assamese people ﬁnally woke up to their con dition and cried out in terror, that terror was confused with terrorism. This happened because people heady with power had not learned how to hear the voice that is inside most cries nor touch the pain that is inside most angers. These were the advisers, the courtjesters of Indira Gandhi. All of this could have been avoided. There was a moment that was not seized; there was a “road that was not taken”; there was a boldness that did not appear because of the degree of rashness. Both sides bungled the matter and lost valuable time. One side did not read the big picture and seize the opportunity, however limited; the other side played tough and rough. By treating and labeling a peaceful, civil movement as terrorism, the authorities gradually turned it into one. The movement that had mobilized hopes in a civilized manner became contaminated. It gradually turned into terrorism, and then to extortionism. Uniqueness of Assam Valley After I left the valley to study and then kept moving, I would look back at it from a distance. And I would be sur prised how so few people outside the valley knew about it, despite its rich and lengthy history. This valley had the potential to become a unique bridge; for it is one of the few places in the world that joins two of the three basic and great civilizations. With its left hand, it touches the Caucasoid, which stretches all the way to the banks of the Baltic Sea. With the right hand it touches the Mongoloid, which reaches all the way to the sea of Korea. And yet, despite this great geography, it became powerless. The doors became walls, closing off the valley. That happened because the present after pushing away the past, went elsewhere. The dead end was intensiﬁed by the impenetrable eastern frontier with Burma (Myanmar). Assam Valley became the exception to the rule that says 25
“morning shows the day.” Actually, its decline started with the British arrival. Location has worked splendidly in the case of Calcutta (Kolkata), which in a mere four hundred years out of three combined villages has become the delightful place of today. But it acted against Assam Valley. Calcutta grew up fast because it was fed a wellbalanced diet which Assam Valley did not fully get—a diet which, amongst other things, con sisted of an active port, commerce, and the seat of British intellectual and political life. The city being the capital of India until it was replaced by Delhi, Calcutta got both Shakespeare and ships. In those days, the valley could neither thrive as an exposed port city, nor display to the world its jewels, capi talizing on its remoteness. It did not take people on tours starting at the scenic base where the big river entered the Valley, or take them to the oil ﬁelds that preceded those in Texas and Oklahoma, or show them the Ranghar, the oldest openair amphitheater in Asia, or show them the ruins of the Ahom kingdom. The onehorned rhino did not prove to be enough. Assam Valley remained too shy to appear before the world holding its trophies. It did not realize its potential to be the Nile Valley of India—with relics underground from the conﬂuence of two civilizations, the artifacts of the Ahom and preAhom dynasties, which had ruled the valley and had had early contacts with China. It did not try to invite the ecotourist to see the twenty different Assamese medic inal edible greens—natural products in search of which ecotourists go to the rainforests of the Amazons or to remote islands. In addition to its geographical stories, the valley is spe cial also in sociocultural matters. Assam Valley has avoid ed one of the social cancers of India—the dowry. Families with daughters have felt a chill every time they heard that evil word. They have fallen beneath the weight of this curse, and either never recovered from the ﬁnancial burden caused by dowry or had to wait for two more generations
before they could recover from ruin. Girls in India have become doomed to an unwanted status; in some extreme cases, orphaned girls have been sold into prostitution or the sex trade by greedy relatives (so much for Indian family loy alty). Assam Valley has no such oppressive dowry system. There is another important matter where the valley shines —weaving. Mahatma Gandhi, who had made spinning and weaving a central concept in raising India’s selfesteem and selfreliance in the British days, remarked when he landed in Assam Valley for the ﬁrst time: “You people have been ahead of me.” Unlike in some other parts of India where weaving is rel egated to certain lower castes (like the tantis of neighboring Bengal), weaving was a badge of honor in every family in Assam Valley, from the regal to the ragged. During my early years, after the children had left for schools and the husbands for their ofﬁces, a unique Assam Valley sound began to be heard in different houses. It was the constant sound of the wooden mako, the spin dle in the family loom that raced back and forth with every foot movement. And it happened in every family. During my high school years, I heard that mako sound coming from my mother’s backyard loom. Those bunga lows had huge grounds so our British neighbors in that British island of Jorhat missed out on that authentic and unique Assamese sound. It was comparable in its tradition to the hissing sound of all those teakettles—ﬁlled with Assam tea leaves—from one end of England to another at four o’clock every afternoon. My mother went to extremes with her weaving. Once she decided to give me a shirt of pure silk—in her own way. She reared some silk worms in the back yard; in due time, through a long process, she spun thread out of those silk worms; then she arranged those threads in the right weav ing wheel, and the threads were put in the loom. In time the shirt was stitched from a golden cloth. Any merchant in town would have gladly come over with
samples of such pure silk shirts if called and she could have easily bought two such shirts. But it would not be that spe cial shirt. Every Assamese woman achieved a special kind of self esteem from her ability to pull together one of those bright designs over white cloth in the backyard handloom. Yes, it was the gamocha, the Assamese towel. There was a time when everyone in the valley started his or her day washing the sleepy eyes and drying them with a gamocha—no matter what religion, or whether one lived in the hills or the Valley. You could never go away from the Assamese gamocha of red designs on a white cloth. Towels were for the Britishers and for the westernized Indians. The Bengali world also has a similar item—the gamcha; but that is a mere towel. By putting the letter O precisely in the middle of those six letters—by making the gamcha a gamocha—you instantly give it history and tradition. It is no longer just an Assamese towel. Instantly, it becomes also a banner. The gamocha is a regular presence in the ceremonies in Assamese prayer halls known as Namghars. Amongst the simplest prayer halls in the world, often without walls, com pletely bare except for a certain spirit that you can touch if you are open to it, these halls dot the rural Assam Valley. Sometimes a Namghar appears right in the middle of a wet rice ﬁeld; a family drama may be going all around it— the husband dragging the plow, the wife following him planting the rice seeds, the children dragging a wooden bas ket (jakai) where they have put the miniﬁsh they have picked up on those streams. Such a setting is apt for this type of prayer hall because it symbolizes a solid spirituality grounded in the rice, mud, toil, sweat, and hopes of farm people. All of these spiritualculturalartisticmusical expressions can be traced to a phenomenal Vaishnava saint of the 15th century: Sri Sankardev.
amrit baruah Temples The temples of the valley are not aweinspiring like the majestic temples of South India that soar towards the heav ens. Here one experiences not awe but affection, along with reverence. The Kamakhya Temple to the goddess Durga has an important role in Indian scriptures. Yet even this temple, like the valley itself, has an offbeat, offthebeatenpath feel about it. During my childhood, we would climb the hill to this temple, to be greeted by a priest, or panda. Most fam ilies in the region were connected with a special family of panda, who had taken care of the pilgrimage needs of these families for generations. Our panda was named Somhu. I still remember—I was probably twelveyearsold at the time—Somhu Panda hov ering over us for the entire day as he shepherded us through the temples. He would tell us when to bow down, or where to place the ﬂower, or bel leaf, which was supposed to have an auspicious meaning. Then, after a few hours, he would guide us to his home where the entire family was waiting for us with a special lunch, the fragrance of which ﬁlled the house. I don’t recall what we did after a heavy lunch and a rest—most probably, we simply climbed back down the hill, completing a day of pilgrimage. Then there was the Nobograha, or “Nine Planets,” Temple—perhaps the only temple in India that is dedicat ed to the zodiac. And yet it is almost unknown outside of the valley. That is another example of how remoteness has been a disadvantage for the bucolic valley, whether for pub licity, industry, or economic growth. (Since I left the valley, though, more oil has been discovered and extracted. But otherwise, the famous Assam tea, with its ups and downs in the export market, has remained the dominant agribusi ness.) But perhaps the most unique temple of the valley is Umananda. Dedicated to the god Shiva, it is the only river island temple in the world. This temple in the midst of the 29
river Brahmaputra has always been peaceful. Even today when the rest of the valley has become part of the noisy, urbanized, populous India, the island is a place for quiet retreat—except for one day of the year. That is the day of Shivaratri, the most prominent day dedicated to the god Shiva. On that day this island is crowded with young maid ens, dressed in yellow, who converge on the temple to pray for good husbands. Of course, sometimes their prayers are answered; sometimes, not. Continuing through the valley, one sees small roadside temples. These are structures where people come to pray and place ﬂowers, often under the supervision of a priest who lives in the nearby village. And when one arrives in the eastern part of the valley at the small historic town of Sibsagar, one sees the large tem ple to the god Shiva called ShivaDol—Shiva Temple—sit uated on the bank of a massive pond. Assam Valley is also called the Brahmaputra Valley, named after the mighty river that created it. The Brahma putra is perhaps the least known of the seven longest rivers of the world. It is a river of 1300 miles that changes its name, although not its water, as it enters different coun tries. It is Tsangpo in Tibet where it originates. Then it ﬂows east, suddenly changes its mind and takes a sharp curve, enters India, and becomes Brahmaputra and ﬁnally Padma as it enters Bangladesh before emptying itself into the Bay of Bengal. And with each new name, it becomes both a source and an element in the folklores and culture of the region through which it is ﬂowing. As a child, I had become familiar with this river, with the washermen beating their clothes on a huge stone near the river and then spreading these clothes on the sand under the strong sun; the ﬁsherman with his bare body and dhoti wrapped around his waist, dragging a big ﬁsh behind him; the boatmen singing their songs. It is a friendly river except during the ﬂood seasons. It was only recently that people learned that my home town river has a history. The National Geographic Society
announced in late 1998 that an expedition to a remote, pre viously unseen mountain area in Tibet by an American explorer named Ian Baker, had discovered a longrumored but never documented major waterfall that is the source of my river. The National Geographic Society raved: “Long after Victoria Falls, the source of the Nile River, had been discovered, the great falls of the Brahmaputra had remained an obsession, a fabled but unseen wonder.” Every river has “the other bank” and in this case, the other bank is North Guwahati. That label is divided into a few different names—Rajaduar is one of these. That is where my paternal family tree sprouted and began to spread. And that tree belonged to the garden called Majindar Barua group. Every person in Assam Valley—at least until my genera tion—had a favorite spot where, as a child, he or she chased butterﬂies. Although it is difﬁcult to picture my late father as a child, because of his personality, he must have been a child once. And Rajaduar is where, as that child, he chased his butterﬂies.
During my childhood, Assam Valley primarily was a tale of two towns—Jorhat, the last capital of the Ahom kings, the “hasbeen town,” and Gauhati, “the wasandwillbe town.” Gauhati (now Guwahati) has lived up to its promise, as I discovered during my recent visit. The striking aspect of the city today is that there is always motion. Cars, autos, buses—vehicular movement is every where. Even pedestrians seem to be moving at top speed. It is hard to ﬁnd someone standing idle in a corner. The only time people seem to be still is when they are waiting for the bus. The leisure to stand around and chat seems to be com pletely absent from life. Everyone, it seems, is moving to something “productive.” Time, that unforgiving master, has at last arrived in the
Life Today—The New Millennium
valley of the lahe lahe (slowly, slowly) spirit. I had seen time’s hand at work in Bangalore, Hyderabad, and Cal cutta, but in my hometown? The city has all the hallmarks of modernity—computers, email, carryout food, cell phones, people recovering from heart bypass surgery, and even irritation if a visitor sudden ly arrives when one is about to start viewing a favorite tele vision program. Yes, Guwahati has arrived. One day my youngest brother Ishan, who is a talented actor and ﬁlm director, and I drove from one end of the city to another. After a while I felt that the compressed energy of the val ley, where there are no big industries or factories, had burst out making this road a tribute to small industries. Not even in America have I seen 20 miles of continuous small shops. A few thousand stores, at times in a four or ﬁvestoried building, a different store on every ﬂoor and several on one ﬂoor with colorful sign boards—red, yellow, purple. From a distance the façade looks like a huge artgallery wall. Tea stalls, wine stores, small pharmacies, s.t.d./xerox, clothing stores, tea stalls, barber shops, s.t.d./xerox, stores selling books and newspapers and magazines, tea stalls, more clothing stores, toy stores, s.t.d./xerox, still more clothing stores, sweetmeat stores, fried garbanzobean stands, s.t.d./xerox, tea stalls. My mind got dazed. And I felt the energy even though there was a frantic quality about it. It was almost the energy of shocktherapy.
This valley is a tapestry of different minicultures that are actually indigenous cultures in their completeness. And during my childhood this situation manifest itself in spe cial dress wear, songs, dances, and social customs. This sociocultural tapestry has been woven out of both the hill and plains populations. Different hills have been known for their tribal populations that have been there for genera
tions. Actually these cultures have been more complete than what the term “tribe” implies. In recent years, the cultural uniqueness of some of these regions has been given political legitimacy by giving them a political identity. Some of them are now selfgoverning states within the Indian union. The new term that accurately reﬂects this new arrange ment is “Assam Valley and the Seven Sisters”—sometimes described simply as the Northeast. This is the metaphorical meaning of “tapestry.” But also the valley literally produces tapestries of creative design. Three years ago I ran into an American female fashion designer at a cocktail party, who said to me after discover ing that I was born in the valley: “I have just returned from Sualkuchi.” And to think that I have never visited Sual kuchi, hardly a hundred miles from where I went to high school. Always I had heard about the exquisite Muga cloth (pulled out of a special, locallygrown silkworm) that Sualkuchi was famous for. Back in those days before the uniformity of globalization and industrialization had ﬂowed over the valley, the typical female dress was not the onepiece sari but a threepiece col orful dress—the blouse, a skirtlike long piece, and a shawl like upper piece covering the body. All three were of differ ent colors and usually of handloom cloth made by women in their backyards. “What, you bought it?” connoted “What a lazy woman.” This female dress further shows how the valley connects India with Southeast Asia—especially Thailand—not only geographically (which someday will have signiﬁcance) but also culturally. The Ahom kings who ruled the valley for several hundred years and who assimilated with the locals traced their origins to Thailand. Recently some intellectuals and activists who reside in the valley joined with similar people aboard who have formed a think tank (FASS—Friends of Assam and the Seven Sisters—friendsofassam.com). These people are eager to bring new ideas to the valley, followed by action
that will take the valley to fuller realization of its potential ities. Their range is wide—from new forms of rice cultivation to programs for encouraging young writers to the adoption of more effective methods of conﬂict resolution. These and other likeminded people want to see the valley become a more progressive and developed region in the 21st century, after the last century of quiet isolation—and some would go so far as to say benign neglect.