Yes, I agree that is something many a person dreams of doing, and we enjoyed it last week. In a slightly different fashion, I must say, more as a New Yorker…The intention was to drop our younger son off at NYU Medical School, where he will spend his next few years.
The SUV was all loaded up and primed for the long drive to the big apple, and we set out in the wee hours of the morning, driving through the scenic North Carolinian roads through to Virginia and then through the choked roads of Washington DC and Baltimore to Delaware, sidestepping Philadelphia and into New Jersey before the final push to Manhattan. Until then it was just like any other drive, occasionally stopping at roadside rest places and marveling at the overall efficient set up in this country. The weather held up, no rains to speak of and it was not terribly hot.
The toll booths opened up with a vengeance once we reached New Jersey and remained so till we crossed Lincoln tunnel and got into Manhattan New York, it was one following the other, exhorting people to cough up dollars to keep up the infrastructure in better shape. Finally we were in Manhattan, the land of skyscrapers. Well, Manhattan New York, perhaps the wealthiest and most densely populated areas of US is home to some 1.6million people (used to be 2.3 million in 1910!), and I could not help but think of another city that would rival it in population density and be so far off in scale, Istanbul which has over 14 million people (officially – but many more million unofficially). It appears that in the morning hours the population here swells to 4 million!!
Driving in Manhattan requires all your skills and is guaranteed to ensure that all your systems are tested to their limits, be it your sense of movement, sight, sixth sense, reflexes or patience, or for that matter your vocabulary of expletives. Driving in New York is an art and I managed to get through it for three days before I parked the car for good, till our return morning. The cab drivers of New York use their horns at will, cut in and out in front of you, and are mostly from India, Pakistan or Bangladesh. Perhaps many of them were auto rickshaw drivers back home, they handle cars like the autos of India, driving you, the person trying to stick to the rules purely out of fear of getting caught by a traffic cop, mad. I am sure I lost a few thousand hairs from my thinning and receding hairline after these two days, when we drove around to buy a few things for my son’s room and stay. But it gave me a good jerk out of our sedate life here, for New York is fast, and gets your adrenaline going, be it the people, the advertisement signs, the huge buildings or action on and off the streets….or those beautiful legs you see so often crossing the street and eliciting from the tired driver a jolt of realization, widening of eyes, opening of the lips to take in a deep breath and finally as it is already late, a hard jamming of the brakes..
Strange, isn’t it that the entire area belonged to the Dutch East India Company, once upon a time, who purchased it from the Indians for $24, and named the place New Amsterdam. Some 40 years later the British took it over from the Dutch, and named it New York, but the Dutch regained it 10 years later and renamed it as New Orange, but could hold it only for a year, before it permanently became British property. Now people will wonder - how did a city named new orange become the big apple? Contradicting answers come up, one stating that it was synonymous with horse races where the prizes were called apples and the prize at New York was very big, hence the big apple. Another reason is related to music & show business, whose proprietors and enthusiasts mentioned that the best was in New York. Quoting Cross, An old saying in show business was "There are many apples on the tree, but only one Big Apple." New York City being the premier place to perform was referred to as the Big Apple. And finally apples were used to lure visitors and the red apple provided a cheery image of the city. A detailed explanation can be seen in Heather Cross’s article linked here. But then again, the orange was forgotten and as you see, we were now going around the big apple, no, not really, but literally cris-crossing the streets and avenues, which after some getting used to is pretty straight forward.
I have been to New York many times, but this was the first time as a tourist, after the terrible 9/11 tragedy. The people looked as busy as they always did and the hope and enthusiasm was clear on their faces. This time we stayed with my cousin at the upper West side just off central park, off the beaten tourist track so to say, and saw the city in a different light. After a busy couple of days where my eyes were the happiest seeing all those lovely women in short skirts and gorgeous legs, I parked the car for the next few days to see them again from ground level. After that the metro card was our means to enter the bowels of the city, going back and forth and to start the sightseeing part on the hop on hop off bus and the ferries to the islands like the Liberty Island. One would be amused to see the hundreds of halal sandwich wagons serving kebabs for lunch competing with hotdog vans and the such to feed the thousands who descend from the many tall buildings to terra firma for lunch (seems there are close to 4,000 such vendors!). And that brings a question, how come this small island of 23 sq km supports the many million tons of steel and concrete of the many hundred sky scrapers that dot its skyline? It seems that the entire island has a hard bedrock foundation and this helps.
And so we went back and forth, seeing NYC, Brooklyn, Bronx and traversing the three parts of Manhattan namely downtown, uptown and mid town. It would not be nice to get into those in too much detail or this will look like a tourist brochure, so I will desist.
For a upwardly mobile New Yorker, the upper Westside has much to offer, great restaurants, exercise places and of course the meticulously man made and magnificent green central park where you enjoy some peace and quiet in the middle of the hustle bustle and the geometric vertical architectural lines and bright lights of the city. To enjoy it all you have to walk and walk till you burn your soles off your feet, and it is when you do it that you understand how all those NY girls maintain their great shape. Not to forget the many hundred or more yoga and fitness places…. The place is full of mainstream clothing and luxury goods shops, but in between them is the usual grocer and the baker sustaining normal life. You would of course miss the bigger shops you see in other US towns like Target or Walmart and they can be accessed only in the farther neighborhoods. By and far, most depend on the subway or the bus service and people shirk driving, not because of the risk, but due to the absolute lack of parking space. It took me ages to understand what some parking signs meant with their cryptic lettering.
You see a lot of our brethren in New York, walking around purposefully, and often at the eating joints such as Saravana Bhava (though our visit to the establishment at the Westside was disappointing, both the food and the high and mighty attitude the Indian staff), or the many others at Curry Hill at Lexington Ave. We did try many other cuisines, and the Moroccan Shale Lounge was fascinating and can be termed as the darkest ambience I have ever dined in, having to really put my eyes to test to figure out what was going on. The Indian places have finally got on the right formula, they have all got hold of Kosher certificates and advertise so, to get the Jewish community to sample their fares, and from what I saw, they seem to have succeeded eminently. It was fun seeing the avuncular Jewish retiree eating a dosa with his fingers, followed by sambar rice.
As many would agree, it is indeed a fascinating place and if you have the money, is the right place to buy an apartment and spend the summer. Watching people can be so much fun, you would see any nationality, creed, color and religion mind their business without a care. Our people seem settled in well, we even saw a petite desi girl in the elevator with a small dog in her hand, who remarked that she was having a tough time ensuring that she (the dog) did not pick up bad manners from the other dogs of the building.. yeah!...looks like they have adapted and settled.
The big apple is indeed a great place to visit, a place that was once briefly the capital of USA, where if it can be believed, the reserve bank has a vault 80 feet below which holds close to 25% of the words gold bullion, a place where five million people ride over 800 odd miles of subway tracks, and a city which has over 36% non US born people!! Another fun fact - The musicians who perform in the NYC Subway system go through a competitive audition process. Some of the subway musicians have also played at Carnegie Hall…Well, I heard some, and I can say they are good, but I am not too sure about the statement above, though. Finally as it is said, New York's Yellow Cabs are yellow (NY has close to 13,000 cabs, not to mention increasing numbers of cycle rickshaws and horse carts near the tourist attractions!!) because John Hertz, the company's founder, learned from a study that yellow was the easiest color for the eye to spot. Well, it is certainly an interesting place if 50 million international visitors visit it to spend 30 billion dollars while there!!
Like many others, we went up the Empire state building and had a chance to see the Olympics triple gold medalist Alyson Felix up there on ‘top of the world’. We passed by the freedom tower which is rising up to eminence, near ground zero and we passed by Brooklyn where Barbara Streisand was born. But close to where we lived was the hallowed place (Dakota Bdg) where the still alive but imprisoned Chapman shot to death the Beatles legend John Lennon. And we went by the Wall street a few times not to mention seeing a trapeze school on atop a building.
It was soon time for the long drive back, but that was after attending our son’s white coat ceremony at NYU and listening to the Dean Bob Grossman and other speakers like David Oshinsky at the event. It was fascinating to listen to the story of NYU’s Jonas Salk, his field trials for the polio vaccine and his hostile relationship with the other polio vaccine inventor Albert Sabin. Perhaps I will write some day about that..
Back home, and the usual routines, but with those fond memories of the big apple…
Click Link for the story..and Thank you Cris, for that…
P.S Some people asked us what a white coat ceremony is all about. Here is how the NYU defines it
The White Coat Ceremony signifies the end of Orientation and the beginning of your career as a medical student. This ceremony creates a psychological, intellectual, and ethical contract for the profession and promotes empathy in the practice of medicine from the very start of medical training. During the ceremony, you will be brought to the stage and “cloaked” in your first white coat by one of eight specially selected faculty members, in the presence of family, friends, and colleagues. Together as a class, you will take an oath similar to the Hippocratic oath, which stresses the primacy of the doctor-patient relationship and the importance of compassion in medicine
Assam today is relatively sedate, with its tea fields and oil refineries, though there is much separatism and unrest in a land which Vivekananda stated to be most beautiful after Kashmir. Tigers and Rhinoceros still roam in the jungles though the Naga tribal’s have come far into the mainstream of development. Mischief is often fomented by the adjoining countries today, and is a reason for a lot of the unrest. Sadly, Bhupen Hazarika, a personal favorite of mine and a great Assamese singer with a sonorous voice, is no more. The adjoining land of Burma, perhaps wasted over the last few decades, is slowly coming out of its seclusion and entering the world, many a westerner is headed out to rediscover Burma or Myanmar and Aung San Suu Kyi will perhaps one day herald a new era for them remembering her days in India and the camaraderie she enjoyed in Delhi, as a student. But there was a time when bulldozers pounded the Assam hills, when thousands of Americans toiled on the land, when soldiers marched and trained, when planes took off and landed, when bombs and gunfire rattled the peace and when thousands of refugees marched through its roads to peace and tranquility in the rest of India.
Some years ago I introduced this subject briefly, covered a couple of aspects and left the topic. A few months ago, I reentered that forgotten era once more, to get a deeper understanding. It was certainly fascinating and I hope to cover some of the interesting Indian related subjects of that period in succeeding articles. I am not sure how many of you will find this interesting from a cursory look at the subject line, but I can assure you that it is very engaging. It is a subject that has not been covered by Indian historians, and I would presume it is due to lack of Indian writing on it and a few other reasons that we will get into. But do allow me a little indulgence as I get into the topic and soon I will uncover some very interesting stories of that time, stories with an Indian angle to it. But before that I have to set the scene, I have to provide a somber monotone on the background and get the drumbeat going. For you see, it was the period many chose to forget as it was another exercise of futility, a forgotten theater of World War II.
The CBI stories were forgotten by the world (one of them will hit the Hollywood screen soon though) since then for a few very specific reasons. The Americans who were the ones behind it forgot it for it was a failed cause and a strategically less important one as time went by. The Chinese forgot it because it was related to the passing whim of their Generalissimo Chiang Ke Sheik. The British did not talk too much about it because it was not to their liking even though it was in their backyard. The Burmese were more interested in working with the Japanese, and were small players, more interested in getting the Indian Chettiars out of Burma and their loans conveniently forgotten. The Japanese wanted it forgotten for it was a bad episode of their past and humiliating in the end. The Indians were suitable confused, some led on by Bose to support the Japanese, while others were at the same time fighting for the British or fleeing from Burma. The Indian Congress was largely in the dark; trying to figure out the events post war, while the British war office and the Americans just roughshod over them during the war melee. That was the irony of the situation at the CBI. And now somebody might perk up and ask. What is this all about? Can you start from the very beginning? What is CBI?
It was the period in which the movie Hum Dono was set. It was the period when generals like Manekshaw and Cariappa earned their stars and it was the period when India starved, in the grips of a great famine. It was the period 1942-1945, just before independence, it was just before the Hindus and Muslims in that region went against each other’s throats. It was the period when the Chinese fought the Japanese, it was the time when Americans, Indians and English fought the Japanese and it was the time when the Burmese and some others chose the wrong side. Yes, that was the time when the Indians fled Burma…It was also the time when Singapore fell ignominiously to the Axis powers in just a day and it was the time covered in fictional works such as ‘the Bridge over river Kwai’ and ‘Town like Alice’. But some people may like to get to the real stories of that war, especially the Indian involvement. I will try to do that.
It all started in Europe around 1939, though some would say Japan was already at war with China since 1937. The Nazis were making inroads and had control over much of Europe and by 1941 were knocking on the doors of the Soviet Union, but were bogged down there. Japan joined the axis and after the attack at Pearl Harbor, had started taking control over the Pacific region. 1942 was when the war started to turn around. Germany lost the Stalingrad battle and Japan started to have naval reverses in the Pacific.
But before that let us find out what actually happened in China before these events, for it is key to our discussions here. In 1937, Japan Invaded China after a troublesome period and soon China had to request a strategic alliance with Russia to bolster their position. But Chiang Kai-Shek could not quite defend Shanghai and soon Japan had taken control of Nanking as well as the whole of the Chinese coastline. Chiang retreated to Chongqing, governing literally from exile. But Chongqing did not even have a railway to service it, and so Chiang had a 700 mile road built by conscripts, to Burma terminating in Lashio. The Japanese were by then entrenching themselves in the coastal parts of China and subjected the Chinese to brutal assault and mass rape based on a ‘3 all’ principle of burn all, loot all and kill all. The Japanese belief was that they were divinely commanded to rule over Asia (Perhaps Bose never understood the details!) and create the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity sphere. While the war with China was dragging on, Japan chose to attack the Russians but was defeated during the assault on Mongolia. Japan now chose to focus on other western held bastions in the SE Asian area. The plan was to create a defensive perimeter in the central pacific and to acquire resources from the natural resource rich SE Asian countries. To jumpstart the campaign, they attacked Pearl Harbor and took over Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and Hong Kong in 1941. To get the oil they needed, they annexed Burma which had the oil wells. They also needed to take Burma to cut off Allied access to China.
Burma then again, was a mess, with tribes and factions fighting each other all the time. The British ruled it with an iron hand, using Indians to police the area. The impoverished people were indebted to the Indian money lenders. The Burmese wanted to have a change and actually looked forward to Japanese liberating them. It was a time when there were millions of Indians living and working in Burma.
The two countries in between the western Allies and the eastern Axis were British India and China. Great Britain were hell bent on securing their life line, the imperial jewel called India and concentrated on holding fort in India, while focusing on activities supporting western campaigns. China was strategically important in this activity, for if Japan took full control over China, it would be knocking the Indian doors from the East and the North. Divisive INA forces were in the meantime marshaling support for Imperial Japan. China in the meantime was in the throes of internal rife, with Mao tse Tung and his rebels challenging the dictator Chiang Kai-Shek. As regards India, the quit India movement and the fight for independence was gearing up and the people were divided in their support for British and a few in support of the INA. Japan by then captured Burma in order to cut the Allies off and also to cordon China. The intention was to ensure that China got no supplies. However the speed and fury with which the Japanese overran American & British defenses in the Far East had alarmed everybody and it was even feared that Chiang and China might surrender and make peace with Japan providing them a huge base to further operations. So what was to be done with China?
The question was soon answered by the involvement of the US in the fight against Japan. President Roosevelt decided in 1941 that China was strategically important and had to be supported in their fight against the Japanese army. But how could they be supported? They needed supplies, equipment and training. How could that need be addressed effectively? USA was far removed from China. So the intermediate stocking and holding area was decided to be the NE British Indian border. China would then be supplied with airlifts over the Himalayan hump on the Eastern borders and perhaps by road. But there was no road and the terrain was a high altitude and inhospitable jungle. There were no airbases up in the NE for planes to land, fuel and take off towards China. The answer was provided by what we know today as the CBI Theater of the China Burma India Theater of the WW-II. The US flying tigers were given the responsibility to fly the hump, the 1st commando group was given the responsibility to build a road to China (road connecting with the Burma road to China) from Assam and the 5307 Galahad unit a.k.a. Merrill’s marauders, the responsibility to keep the Japanese army in Burma at bay. Over the course of the next few articles, I will cover each of them and their involvement in India.
What was all this for? As is stated majestically- The United States conjured up visions of millions of Chinese soldiers who would hold the Japanese then throw them back, while providing close-in airbases for a systematic firebombing of Japanese cities. The overland supply route from India to China had to go through Burma. Four persons now come into play. Joe Stillwell or Vinegar Joe, the crafty twosome of Chiang Kei Shek - Madame Chaing or Soong May Ling and finally US President Roosevelt. Their joint involvement in the corner of India, Burma and China created the so called CBI Theater in WW-II. The game they played was calculated but unpredictable, cat and mouse in approach but protracted, indecisive at times and a waste to ordinary person and of little understanding to the people on the ground. But then it was a war and in war, sentiment and reason sometimes stand no chance.
1941 was a time to reflect, plan and organize the CBI Theater. To ensure that Chiang did not surrender to the Japanese, Roosevelt and the US Congress provided the Chinese general, billions in aid. It was not just to ensure Chinese support, but to ensure that China would be a large democratic swath of Asia in the future. Chiang was not a benevolent leader anyway, and he would not have done any of that for he was a corrupt thug at best. He was a shrewd negotiator and utilized the situation to his benefit, playing his cards carefully, orchestrating each maneuver and playing to US sentiments with a lot of melodrama. He used various means to secure American aid and support such as his anti communist stance, subtle blackmail (such as surrendering to the Japanese if his demands were not met) and his main weapon – his wife Soong May Ling.
FDR or Roosevelt was firm in his wish to support China even though he may have held a private distaste for the dictator’ish Chiang; it was because of his family connections with China. His grandfather was a big-time opium trader in China who had amassed his fortune in China. He was also taken down the China lane by a number of his American advisors who were blinded by Chiang’s wining, dining and other hugely persuasive methods which we will get into some other day.
Soong May Ling was a different character altogether. A sister in law of Sun Yatsen, she was a daughter of a Methodist minister and educated in the USA at New Jersey, Macon GA and Boston while her brother was studying in Harvard. She married Chiang in 1920 after he promised to convert to Christianity. They rose up together in politics with Madama Chiang taking over as Chiang’s secretary and translator. She had plans of getting America involved from the outset, for it was in 1940 that her oft reported midnight tryst with republican Wendell Willkie took place. She was later involved in a number of fund raisers and events in the US and drew large audiences. As is said, She seemed to many Americans to be the very symbol of the modern, educated, pro-American China they yearned to see emerge – even as many Chinese dismissed her as a corrupt, power-hungry symbol of the past they wanted to escape. Madame Chiang cultivated a close and enduring relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt and they met in 1942. FDR was in a quandary, for he was being pressured by Churchill and Stalin into using his funds to defeat Germany, not support China. Interestingly Soong stayed as a guest in the white house when visiting Washington and at times even walked into the Oval study to try and pressurize the president.
And now we come to Vinegar Joe – Gen Joseph Stilwell - His trademarks were a battered Army campaign hat, GI shoes, and a plain service uniform with no insignia of rank; he frequently carried a .30 Springfield rifle in preference to a sidearm. When Stillwell received his orders to head the CBI Theater as chief of staff under Generalissimo Chiang, it was much to his dismay, for he was originally to be deputed into North Africa. His previous tenure in China as military attaché was the reason for him being sent back in 1942 by FDR. He was not too keen to be overseeing the American monetary support for the dictator or to help the Limey’s get back into control in Burma. Nevertheless, it was March 1942 that Stillwell found himself in command of the Chinese expeditionary forces in Burma who were also under the contradicting command of the dictator himself and the Burmese Lt Gen Harold Alexander. His plan was to launch a counteroffensive against the Japanese. The Chinese were in the meantime receiving supplies through Rangoon which were trucked to Chine over the Burma Road. The Japanese planned to cut that route off and Stillwell wanted to use his forces to fight the Japanese, which Chiang did not permit whole heartedly. As this wrangling was going on between Joe and Chiang, the British/Indian army’s defenses collapsed in April and Harold Alexander ordered the evacuation of the allies from Burma.
British, Indian, Burmese and Chinese troops were by then engaged in a chaotic scramble along escape routes to India and China. I will cover this topic separately, but Stilwell personally led his staff of 117 men and women out of Burma into Assam, India on foot, marching at what his men called the 'Stilwell stride' at 105 paces per minute. He reached Calcutta in May and later his hazardous march out of Burma and his bluntly honest assessment of the disaster captured the imagination of the American public: At the press conference, he stated roughly "I claim we got a hell of a beating. We got run out of Burma and it is humiliating as hell. I think we ought to find out what caused it, go back and retake it."It was this desire to retake Burma that later got Vinegar Joe into a pickle as we shall soon see.
Joe Stillwell was thus in charge of the CBI theater. And so the Americans reached and found itself headquartered in the NE of India. By the end of the war some 6,500 from the 350,000 soldiers of the CBI had lost their life, not to count the civilians and the lot that did not in that accounting deserve any counting, the Indians, Burmese and perhaps some Chinese. It was difficult beyond imagination and many doubted if the purpose would ever be met - as some military personnel were to explain the acronym – CBI meant confused beyond imagination. This then was the other end of the longest supply line in the world all of 12,000 miles, through sea, road, rail and involving a multitude of nationalities and organizations.
Put simply, his goal and the goal of the Allies in the CBI Theater was to supply and reinforce the Chinese forces in their fight against the Japanese invaders. Japan occupation of China's seaports had cut off the normal supply route. Therefore, the Allies moved equipment, personnel and supplies to China through India (by flying the "Hump Route" over the Himalayas) and Burma (through construction of roads and pipelines). It was a tall task, one that even the resolute and resourceful Stilwell found difficult to complete. The road was called the Stillwell road or the Ledo road.
Lt. Col. Joseph B. Shupe explains - From the outset, transportation loomed as a major problem in order to keep China in the war (the main mission). Indian ports were limited and were unable to handle greatly expanded traffic. Also, the highway system (except on the northwest frontier) was undeveloped; ports were served mainly by rail, coastline shipping, and river transportation. When Assam became the scene of airfield construction and combat forces moved into Burma, transportation in that area was very deficient. It was first necessary to use ports on the west coast of India because those in the east were blocked by the Japanese. As a result, supplies had to be moved 2,100 to 3,000 miles to Assam; first by rail, then by air to Kunming. Within China they had to be moved to Chungking and to advanced bases by rail, highway, river, and coolie or animal transport. The Indian railway system was ill-prepared to handle additional traffic. The worst bottleneck was the meter-gauge railway on the eastern frontier; it was limited in capacity and the Brahmaputra River was unbridged. By the time CBI was split into two separate theaters in October 1944. major transportation problems had been overcome in the India-Burma Theater. The once congested Calcutta port was now one of the world's best U.S. Army ports.
But it was also the time when Bengal, the South of India and the North East had a terrible famine when two to four million Indians died. While some 60-70 million died during the war, these civilians died with nobody to care about them. The rice that came to Bengal (over 15% of India’s rice supplies came from Burma until 1940) until then came from Burma. With the collapse of the British defenses there, Bengal suffered. What little was produced was sent away to meet the demands of the British army. Then again there was hoarding and the closing of the shipping lanes to Bengal as well as some appropriation of rail for military transport.
It was to be the most demanding period of his career and a period when life in Assam and Calcutta became vastly different. It was a time when a whole bunch of yanks mingled with a number of Chinese army men in the midst of the Nagas and the placid British tea planters, their Bengali Babus and their teeming lot of workers or coolies. Was it a menu fraught with problems, headed to disaster? What did the Americans think of the three or four years that followed? What did the Nagas think? How did the British react? What happened in Calcutta? How about the Chinese who followed Stillwell? What happened to Burma? How about the Japanese? What were INA and Bose doing in this mess? What kind of American was involved in this affair? Was it fun? All these interesting questions have interesting answers which I will outline in the next few months, if you will patiently follow me in my quest to unearth all these aspects. So let us head to the area…