We are glad to present you another article written by Janice Pariat. For those who do not know, Janice is a writer and her work has been published in many reputed magazines. And being a native of Northeast India, her love for the region can easily be seen in her writings. You can find more of her work in her blog Words On A Windowpane. She also manages a very interesting online journal Pyrta (A word used by the Khasi Tribe of Meghalaya which means ‘to call out’). She has allowed us to publish this article; which deals with the people of Shillong and their historic passion for jeeps. About how jeeps became a metaphor for horses in the wild east of India.
Vienna, 1978. My uncle Jimmy and his wife Marion are on holiday and dancing at a club when an elderly American gentleman, mid-waltz, taps him on the shoulder. He points to Marion’s dhara (Khasi silk costume) and asks “Are you from Shillong?”
“Yes,” replies Jimmy.
My uncle almost keels over.
Wahingdoh, is Uncle Jimmy’s family neighborhood. Turns out, the American gentleman, a veteran soldier, had attended a number of raucous parties in Jimmy’s grandmother’s house, which then, in the parlance of our times, was “party central”. He was one of thousands of troops who visited Shilling during the Second World War years.
From the spring of 1942, when Japan attacked Burma and ousted the British, this sleepy little town was transformed into a bustling convalescence base for soldiers on the Burma front. The then capital of Assam (which included Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland), Shillong was chosen for its mild weather, general prettiness and its relative accessibility from Guwahati. It was also not without any military standing, being the headquarters of some Gurkha units as well as the Assam Regiment (famous for stalling the Japanese army at Kharasom and Jessami in March 1944, giving the Allies vital time to reinforce their defences at Kohima, which led to the first major defeat of the Japanese army in the war). Until this time, however, the region was untouched by war, that dreadful catastrophe was taking place faraway, elsewhere in the world. Yet unlike the ravages that Nagaland suffered, the war came to Shillong in a strange and hedonistic form – as a time of incessant fun and dawn-break revelry. Shillong, people say, was the only place on earth sad to see the war end. Soldiers headed there for much-needed rest and relaxation, to recover from months at the front or bouts of malaria and black water fever; the seriously wounded were treated at Dimapur and Jorhat. The British set up make-shift camps near Nongrim Hills while the Americans (far more well-paid than their Allies) hired bungalows all over town. There was plenty to keep them busy – dances at Shillong Club, Kelsalls, and Pine Wood, movies at Kelvin and Garrison cinema halls, swimming at Crinoline Falls, among other things. Singer Dame Vera Lynn, fondly known as the “Forces Sweetheart” visited in 1944, while English football and cricketing legend Dennis Compton played with the troops at Polo Ground. More special, however, was the interaction between the troops and the locals. Bah Harvey Diengdoh, an eighty-eight-year-old writer and musician, sits in his sun-drenched living room speaking to me of his elder brother, Osborne, a member of the Royal Army Medical Corp. “He had two Scottish soldier friends. They’d all get merry in the evenings and sing Bonny Banks of Loch Lomond.” And for good measure he belts out the chorus:
O ye’ll tak’ the high road, and I’ll tak’ the low road
And I’ll be in Scotland afore ye
For me and my true love will ne-er meet again
On the bonnie, bonnie banks o’ Loch Lomon’
George Richmond, a retired tea planter, remembers how he’d hitch rides with American soldiers on his way home from school. “They’d drop us right to our doorstep and give us candy. They were very generous.” Ruth Pariat Mehta, Uncle Jimmy’s sister, recalls sitting outside their house in Wahingdoh and cheekily calling out to soldiers on the road – “Ei chico, gimme one pie.” My late grandfather, a keen sportsperson himself, used to tell of how a Khasi football player, tired of always acceding headers to the taller Tommys, took his revenge by pulling down his opponent’s shorts while they both jumped for the ball. (He was subsequently chased around the field.)
Despite this taking place over sixty years ago, the legacy of the war lingers on in Shillong in the most unusual ways. In the nar aeroplane (metal used to create landing strips in theNortheast jungles) that lines the footpaths of houses, the helmets used as flower pots, the
ghost stories that haunt the corridors of Loreto Convent and St Edmund’s (schools used as military hospitals), the children that carry traces of “foreign” blood in their blue eyes and freckled faces, in faded photographs that hang above fireplaces, and stories that people cradle and pass on. The war years still resound in Shillong. And none louder than in the drone of a Willy’s engine.
In 1942, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour and America’s subsequent entry into the war, the US Army’s Quarter Master Corp. sanctioned the order for a “field” car, a light, 4-wheel-drive, multi-purpose, all-terrain vehicle that could traverse rough, unpaved territory. Combining elements from various pre-war prototypes, a standard vehicle was designed by Willy’s Overland, which only Ford was capable of manufacturing in the thousands. General Purpose Willy’s (GPWs) were shipped across the world to all the arenas of war – Africa, Europe, the Pacific and Burma. My quest to understand the appeal behind these vehicles first takes me to Kolkata, fitting perhaps as this was the place from where jeeps were sent to the Northeast. Mr Uday Bhan Singh is co-founder of “Jeep Thrills”, a group that brings together jeep-lovers from across the country and the world. He lives in a rambling old place in Howrah, which has half a jeep installed in the first floor wall of his house. It hangs over his porch like a surreal yet proud trophy. He has designed his life, he tells me, around doing what he loves – restoring Second World War jeeps. “I was brought up amongst cars. We had a bus transport company. My father and uncle owned ’45-model GPWs. But of all the cars we had – Rolls Royce, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Chrysler – I always fancied the jeeps. Of course,” he adds with a smile, “there was a ban on the others. We weren’t allowed to touch them but jeeps were rough, tough. You could jump and play in them.” He uses the word “freedom” and I think we may have brushed the core of why these vehicles are loved.
If Mr Singh’s house is surrounded by “a graveyard of rusted automobiles” (to quote ArloGuthrie), then Shillong is an actual burial ground. After the war ended in 1945, jeeps, along with other military equipment (often even livestock), were buried in various places in the outskirts of town. The DC gave permission for locals to “cannibalise” this buried treasure and reuse the metal; yet whole vehicles survived, some given away by the troops as gratuity or payment for debts owed. Although there are plenty of post-war and Mahindra jeeps in Shillong, some four original restored GPWs survive in town today. I visit Ashok Lyngdoh, the proud owner of a pristine 1942 model. “Even the siren works,” he tells me, joyfully cranking it up. His house is a veritable museum. On the table lies an American Army plate and meat skewer, on my lap is the helmet of an unknown British soldier. Yes, our love of jeeps is about “freedom”, he says, but not only in the Easy Rider, open road kind of way. It wasn’t even, as I’d believed, so much about masculinity. “What the horse was to the Wild West, the jeep was to the Northeast,” he says. “If you look at connectivity throughout this region up to the war and early 50s, you had no roads. You had one road from Shillong to Guwahati, one up to Mawphlang, and it was jeeps that paved new dirt tracks that eventually became roads.” Apart from providing geographical links, the jeep also served to bring people together in other ways. “It was used as a bus, an ambulance, a taxi. It was used to carry plane sheets, farm produce, and livestock,” explains Ashok. “It’s ironic how an instrument of war, actually became an instrument of peace. It became something that brought about the development of this entire area. And this is perhaps the reason why people here have this strong emotional attachment to the jeep.” There’s a lady, he continues, who, a few days after she was born, was taken in a jeep from Shillong to Nongkrem (where there were no roads). She was named? Jeepsy.
Bah Wendell Passah, who Ashok calls his mentor, elaborates – “The jeeps would travel to and from various marketplaces in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills, bazaars were held every week. Shillong was the centre from where the vehicles would go to Jowai, Dowki, Umroi, Laitlyngkot, Thadlaskein.” It was also fortunate, he says, that there was a dedicated group of civilians who’d trained as mechanics during the war years – “The people of the hills were quick to learn and good with their hands. They later turned drivers and also tended to the jeeps. We have workshops in Shillong with families of mechanics for two-three generations. Not only were jeeps used by our grandparents to travel, they provided us with a livelihood; naturally we feel strongly about them.” And this fondness still runs in their veins. No matter how far away they are from home. Sujan Deb, for example, who lives and works in Aberdeen, Scotland, shops for vehicle parts from junkyards in Shrewsbury, Shropshire and Derbyshire and mails them to Shillong, so he can restore the jeep he owns when he makes his annual two-week visit home. He has a long way to go, considering it has taken Ashok, Wendell and the others almost a decade to restore their GPWs.
It’s easy to see why it would take that long and require this kind of dedication. The GPWs are beautiful, intricate machines that infuse the term “multi-purpose” with new meaning – the tyre rims are specially built to be towed on railway tracks, a shovel and axe fit neatly beside the driver’s seat, the head lights can be inverted to illuminate the engine, in case of a flat, the tire tubes could be stuffed with skum (straw) and run for another thirty miles, the dashboard lights are carefully diffused so snipers wouldn’t spot them, the brake wires are carefully enclosed to save them from wear and tear, the Gerricans carried not just petrol but soup and stew, the tires could be lifted and hooked to a rubber belt that would help saw wood or churn laundry. “More than all that,” says Ashok, “they became extensions of the soldiers who slept, shaved, drank, ate and died in these vehicles. My jeep is a memorial to all of them.”
As a special treat, I’m taken on a ride to Jowai, a town two hours away from Shillong, in Daman Bhan’s 1942-model Willy’s. As we hit a traffic-free road winding down the hillside, warm winter sunshine on my back, I realize that sometimes there’s nothing like the wind in your face to lift the weight of history.