excerpt from "Assam - valley of tea and temples" by amrit baruah - a story of his life in 1930s assam.
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 convenient
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 likely
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 humanpulled
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 independence
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 instinctively
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 remarkable.
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 mosquitonetted
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 during
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” coming
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 outside
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 noontime,
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 dinner
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 suitcase
in which the suits had to be carefully folded; the Ronson cigarette lighter instead of matches; the leather toiletkit
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 comfortable.