I was looking forward to a meeting long overdue with my Mro friend Rong Rey. I had not seen this slender old man for a long time. His taciturn composure was sometimes very imposing. Without saying a word for long he would loom large on your consciousness with unspoken silence. But you would know what he wants to say. The last time I went to his village, or para as they call it, I had found a mountain eagle owlet lying on the bank of a stream that you have to swim across to reach his village. Rong Rey was so happy to see the baby owl. He stroked its puffy head.
But Rong Rey's village, just like his character, is uncommunicable. Mobiles rarely connect in his village and so you have to leave to chance whether you can make or receive a call.
This time I could not contact him and yet I arrived at Alikadam. An overnight sleep later a journalist friend said we can't go to Rong Rey's village because of sudden security restrictions. My heart sank. I was furiously flipping through alternative plans in my head.
"Well, you can go to this place," the journalist friend told me. "I have heard that there is a wreckage of a Second World War plane lying somewhere in the deep forest. A friend of mine went there once. Here are the pictures."
I looked with disbelief at his mobile phone. Yes, that looks undoubtedly like the engine of an aeroplane.
"I will give it a shot. Arrange the trip."
So began our four-day adventure.
We had to trek deep into the forest, up the stiff hills. And we didn't know the way, so we had to get a guide. We had everything else ready. The water purifying bottles, medicines, walking sticks, tents, sleeping bags and sleeping mats. That's the basics, right? Then we had dry food.
The rented motorbikes were ready for us. For about 40 minutes we puttered along a recently-built road. We were the only animals on the asphalt road that snaked through hills. The air was light and the sun was bright. The sky, an unreal blue. That showed how polluted the Dhaka air is, which makes the sky look dull and grey. We could feel the chill of the north brushing along our faces.
It could have been the best bike ride one could ever have, except that the heavy backpack was pulling me down, especially when the bike went uphill or bounded along some broken parts of the road. I saw two pied hornbills fly into a roadside tree. A rare sight indeed these days, even in the hill tracts, which have lost most of their mother trees – trees that are tall and towering, where birds like hornbills' nest.
The bike stopped before a bend and we got down to take an hour's trek across the hills. It was an easy trail, going around neighbourhoods. Dogs barked. Chickens cackled. Children gawked at us. The hill feather plants (Kash) were in bloom, making an awkward scene for the plain landers who are used to seeing them bloom in post-monsoon time. It is winter, far ahead of Sarat season and these special Kash were in full bloom. By now a white patch of cloud deep as snow had appeared on the blue sky.
After about an hour we hit the road again. Our footsteps rang on the asphalt and echoed to make a hollow clap. It is a strange feeling to be walking on a carpeted road, good for cars but completely barren. Not even a bike appeared. Twenty minutes later, a settlement came into view down below. We left the road and climbed down to a place called Kuruppata.
We were supposed to spend the night here. It is basically a big para and after crossing the bamboo houses you hit a mud road that runs almost to the river Matamuhuri. A few grocery shops, a tailoring shop with a Mro woman sitting with a sewing machine, and a restaurant sat idly. We could have booked into a house in the Para, but it looked too congested and we needed a little bit more freedom.
So we had our lunch of rice, dal and egg and, as curious women and children looked on, pushed off in a boat up the Matamuhuri.
The Matamuhuri at this time of the year is always narrow and calm. Rapids build up only at sharp turns. We lay on our back and watched the hills, peanut cultivation on the banks and the bathing men and women. The Boms or the community forests would appear first, and then the paras around the bends. Saw a man walking his huge Goyal by the river. The hills reflected on the water and quivered in small ripples.
The Matamuhuri and the Sangu are the two rivers that never fail to amaze you. Their charms are endless and mystic. You are always transported to a timeless world where life is primitive and original without the shades of deceit. Sometimes you wonder how simple human existence can be.
Such is the village called Gulkumpara, where the boat journey and a few hours walk took us. The walk over to the village was tiring, with stiff climbs. Vegetation was good here, with a few remaining mother trees standing tall. When we felt we were at our stamina's end, sweating and our thigh muscles trembling from hours of going up and then climbing down, we saw the village Gulkumpara in the distance. Its bamboo leafed brown roofs looked starkly naked on the red earth. Finally, we came to the 'gate' of the para – a six-feet bamboo obstruction to be scaled by climbing up a log carved with precarious steps.
Our camp for the night was at the house of a local teacher cum padre of the local church. Gulkumpara is a Tripura village where the people practise Krama as their religion. The Krama church was just a hundred metre up a slope.
It was Christmas day and the village was in festivity. The houses were decorated with colourful paper cutouts. The young people had their own party inside a house where local drinks flowed freely. Music was put on high volume and girls and boys danced wildly to the beat of party music.
The 'old' people had their more sombre movable celebration. They gathered in each other's houses and sat around on the living room floor. A guy produced dozens of plastic glasses from a bamboo basket, the kind they use to carry produce. Then drinks were poured. But before putting your lips to the glasses, a simple prayer was offered – "The Satan be damned."
Then a woman and a man started a plaintive song in Tripura language in which the woman sang about her loneliness as her children got married off and left home. But the man answered her for her every sorrowful wail and gave her inspiration. This went on for an hour or so and then the whole group left for the next neighbour's house to repeat the show.
When we went to sleep, it was well past midnight.
The next morning our main journey started after a simple breakfast of boiled shak, pork and green chilli paste. We took a guide to lead us to the site of the plane wreck.
A thin mist hung in the air, making the distant hills look blue. White puffs of cloud floated below us. It felt like we were watching the whole show from the window seat of an aeroplane. We climbed down from the hills using a narrow and steep trail and then the path was completely lost in the deep bush. Our guide produced a machete and started hacking a path for our advance.
The last bit was challenging as we had to climb down almost 90 degrees to a now-dry bed of a stream. Our backpacks felt too heavy to carry on any further. So we dumped them by the stream and started again along the stream that had ice-cold water trickling by.
Soon the terrain changed. Solid boulders cropped up everywhere in the stream, some of them slippery and with sharp edges. The loose earth turned into stones. We were soon walking through a gully in the rock. It was narrow and slippery so that we could not stand straight any more. We made our way almost perpendicular to the gully, with our hands and legs pushing on the two opposite walls made by the ancient rocks.
After an hour's ordeal, we came to an opening of small boulders. The stream was wider here. We walked a little and then came upon the black object sitting at an awkward angle in the stream.
It was unmistakably the radial engine of an aeroplane, the propeller blades now missing. We had a closer look at it. It had six cylinders with the exhausts sticking out. The thin cooling fins of the aircooled engine have all rusted away. I peered inside the crankcase and saw the crankshaft that looked rusted. Interestingly, they were made of iron, not aluminium alloys, as are made these days to keep engine weight light.
Where we were standing was surrounded by the sharp sides of the hills. I looked up and saw the wide opening. Had the plane come crashing through that gap? Maybe, maybe not.
We looked around but found no other parts. The guide said there was another engine lying down the stream. But the water there was too deep and we did not have the inclination to swim in the icy water. It proved that the engine had washed down with the monsoon rush of water. The parts and bits of the fuselage might have washed away as well. The guide said locals who discovered the plane had taken away bits and pieces of the metals.
However, we were now sure it was a twin-engine light plane that crashed here. It could be a fighter or a fighter bomber. I searched the web but could not find a twin-engine British plane with six cylinders in each engine. The closest twin-engine aircraft was the Mosquito, but it had 12-cylinder inline engines, not the radial we were witnessing. The Japanese had Kawasaki Ki-96 and again with 12 cylinders. So what could it be?
Whatever it was, it must have played a role in the Imphal (the capital of Manipur state)-Kohima (the capital of Nagaland) war theatre in 1944 when a small group of allied forces were cut off by the Japanese soldiers advancing from Burma. The trapped soldiers were solely dependent on supplies by air. This plane might be one of those airlifting supplies to the soldiers trying to fight the Japanese soldiers coming in "wave after wave, night after night".
The fighting was brutal and the British-Indian forces were confined to a hill overlooking Kohima. At one point the fighting evolved into hand-to-hand combat. It is considered to be the most savage carnage of the war.
But Japan and Britain got embroiled in the war theatre after the Japanese attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbour two years after the Second World War started in 1939.
The Japanese advance in East Asia was rapid and unexpected as the British never thought Japan would invade Burma. But in January 1942, the Japanese generals invaded Burma and after just two months the British lost Rangoon.
As the Japanese troops advanced towards Imphal of India under the leadership of Lt Gen Renya Mutaguchi, a stubborn and fearsome officer who had launched a campaign in China, Malaya and Singapore before, the British army was forced to retreat more and more until the final showdown. Interestingly, the Japanese general had Indian soldiers of the Indian National Army with him raised by Netaji Subash Bose.
On the other hand, the British also had a huge number of Indian soldiers who were trapped when their supply line was cut off by the Japanese.
It was then that aeroplanes, like the one we found in the deep forest, made sorties to drop supplies to the British army as the intense battle raged on the ground.
But today the horrors of the war are gone and here on this winter afternoon, we had this only memento in front of us. The pilot must have gone down with the plane to his death. Why did he crash? It could have been a leaked hydraulic line or an engine going dead in mid-air.
And the pilot's body? No one knows that unknown fallen hero of the Second World War.