Nabaneeta Dev Sen is a highly acclaimed writer in Bengali literary circles, with her prolific writing across various genres like poetry, short stories, novels, essays, memoirs, and travelogues. She is also a very popular children’s author. On A Truck Alone, to McMahon is the translation of Dev Sen’s travelogue of her journey from Jorhat in Assam to the McMahon Line at the Indo-Tibetan border. It is a trip that is taken on an impulse, a journey of a restless soul who feels the entire universe is accessible to those who dare to be reckless.
Sometime in October 1977, Sen was invited to Jorhat for The Assam Women’s Literature Conference. She had agreed to attend the conference on the condition that she would be taken to Kaziranga. The author almost misses the conference when she mistakenly boards the flight to Kolkata instead of Jorhat, so engrossed was she in conversation with Dr. Ashutosh Bhattacharya! They ultimately manage to catch their flight, thanks to their co-passengers. The entire episode is described in a light-hearted vein.
Soon after completing the formalities of being the Chief Guest at the Conference and giving a couple of interviews, the author’s friends take her to the Kamrup Complex in Kaziranga, on the banks of a narrow river, across which lies a forest. Here, she sights wild animals, and catches a streak of yellow that is the tiger that made off with the forest officer’s pet deer. An elephant ride in the forest in the rains followed by a night alone in a hut on the edge of the forest makes her visit to Kaziranga truly magical.
On the return journey by ferry steamer to Tezpur, she meets a gentleman—Jeep Babu, as she refers to him—who is on his way to Bomdila, not far from Tezpur. In the course of their conversation, he mentions how in the sixties, the Chinese had come as far as Bomdila but went back along the Lhasa-Tawang Road, where the border with Tibet lies—the McMahon Line. They left after building a fantastic road, according to the gentleman. On confirming that this was indeed a direct road from Bomdila to the Tawang Monastery, the writer is soon engaged in finding ways to get there.
The free spirit in her finds it difficult to convince her friends that she simply must visit Tawang out of curiosity and not for research. She learns that she needs an ‘Inner Line Permit’, issued by the Arunachal government to visit Tawang which is a restricted, and evidently, a sensitive area. Her hosts try to persuade her against going, citing various reasons such as no prior arrangements, unsuitable clothes for the time of year and the place, health considerations, and above all, alone! However, the wanderlust in her does not give in easily.
Dev Sen manages to find the right official to issue her the coveted Inner Line Permit through sheer ingenuity. Finally, after a quick medical check-up, several prescriptions and a whole lot of borrowed clothing, she is all set to join her co-passenger, the Medical Officer at Tawang camp, on the only vehicle going there that day—‘a huge intimidating lorry’—a ration truck. Sitting in the covered front portion of the truck along with the driver, the assistant, the camp doctor and the ration supplier, she is finally off to Tawang. With a week, she covers the Lhasa-Tawang Road taken by the Chinese and visits the monastery with its magnificent collection of manuscripts.
The trip details her encounters with various individuals, from the driver of the truck, the shy doctor, to the warm-hearted Tibetans as well as simple folk who peopled the wayside tea shops, guest houses and villages. Throughout the narrative, there is a blend of whimsical humour and serious reflection. No one can truly be alone.
This trip was taken in 1977 and the writer only published the account in 1984. This is the story of a restless soul who is, ‘eternally on a journey.’ The book is a joy to read. The writer’s interactions with the people she encounters on the trip and their reactions to this slightly eccentric lady makes one laugh aloud in places, especially those that involve the young doctor. But under it all, the writer’s reflections on the role and place of women in literature that mirror society over the ages give one food for thought.
On a Truck Alone, to McMahon has been translated by Arunava Sinha. The translation is a beautiful piece of work in itself.
Giribala Menon retired as the Principal of the Secondary School in Palakkad, Kerala, where she had taught for 20 years.