Book review

This novel is the untold tragic history of Chinese settlers in Assam (and of love and separation)

Rita Chowdhury’s novel ‘Chinatown Days’ recounts the toll of a war on people whom neither China nor India wanted.

I spent the early years of my childhood with my aunt Mari and her husband Patrick, an engineer in Oil India, Duliajan, upper Assam. Rita Chowdhury’s expansive novel, Chinatown Days – published as Makam in Assamese in 2010 and translated into English by the author took me back in time to those childhood days in Upper Assam. The place names – Digboi, Naharkatiya, Tinsukia, and, of course, Makum, where it all begins – brought back many memories of the little townships in the 1960s that we would go past by car or train to reach our destination, usually Duliajan or the oil town of Moran. We spent a few months living at the work-site at Makum. Hence the nostalgia the book brings out in me.

Chowdhury as a storyteller brings the threads of many lives together and admirably weaves what Amitav Ghosh has called “a moving saga”. It is a story of human beings pulled apart by history, racial hatred and politics – a sad tale but one that offers deep human lessons for another generation to heed and avoid repeating. The history of the mixed population of Makum and the history of tea in Assam and its Chinese origins are parallel stories that Chowdhury narrates with great sensitivity and scholarship. The author makes the transition between the different timeframes almost effortlessly.

Chowdhury has a lovely method of introducing the story to us. She uses Arunabh Bora, the fictional writer whose book Lailin reads to slowly unravel the history of her people to us, the readers. The book offers a sweeping history of the first arrivals in the tea gardens of Assam. The different threads that Chowdhury brings together include the story of Ho Han, the ancestor of Lailin, and the incredible tale of starvation and slavery under the Qing dynasty that launches him on a search for a better life in a faraway land, and eventually brings him to India to make his home in the nascent tea gardens.

Written in tea leaves

Chowdhury states, “I learned that the story of the tea industry in Assam was inseparable from that of its migrant labourers.” The parallel story of tea describes how the Englishman Robert Bruce died before fulfilling his dream of becoming a tea trader in India. It was a dream to be fulfilled by his younger brother, Charles Alexander Bruce, who became the “Superintendent of Tea Culture for the Assam Company established by the East India Company especially for the tea trade.”

Robert Bruce’s discovery of the native tea trees known to the Singpho as phalap broke up China’s monopoly over the tea market, in a manner of speaking. Chowdhury’s firm grip on such historical information makes this book a valuable read. She writes that by 1838, the East India Company had taken over Upper Assam and Charles Alexander Bruce now headed the experimental tea gardens Keheng, Tingrai and Naoholia. This was also the destination that fate finally led Ho Han to, via a circuitous route that included his being sold to a tin-mine owner in Penang and being put to gruelling work in the mines. When Ho Han and his friend Ho Yen and other Chinese workers were brought to Calcutta and from their to Assam, their skills at wood, iron and leather work made them indispensable.

The Chinese were joined by bonded labourers from Central India on tea gardens. Eventually the two groups, working side by side, intermarried even as they tried to forget their sad lives of indentured labour. Love sprang up between the members of the two communities, whose lives now revolved around the tea gardens. The narratives of slavery and suffering passed into happier times for the survivors when the Chinese put down roots in Upper Assam with their wives of Adivasi descent.

They spoke a mixed language and also learned the local Assamese language. The passing years saw the Chinese becoming a part of Assamese life, and Makum’s Chinatown growing into the biggest Chinatown in Assam. The Chinese contributed to the economy by working as dentists, carpenters, canister-makers, lead-sheet makers and taking on trades and businesses in the town. Many people of Chinese origin owned food shops and shops that sold Chinese goods. Intermarriages between Chinese and Assamese took place in course of time.

Chowdhury brings the flavour of this life home by inserting phrases and nouns used by this mixed population. The Marwari shops were called “keya golas”, while the “burra golas” were the big shops located at each tea garden for selling rations. In Chowdhury’s novel, a wife threatens a former opium addict husband: “I’ll play the Nagaa drum on your back.” It is a mix of tea garden jargon and a throwback to the languages that the labourers brought from their homes.

Love, marriage, family, and rejection

Even when Chowdhury makes the transition to 1962 and the war between India and China, the same tea garden societies with their quaint way of speaking alive and well. But by then, Chinatowns had grown in every township. In Makum town it was called Cheenapatti. The action is now centered around the inhabitants of Cheenapatti and their Assamese neighbours. Many years on, the Chinese have not only survived the hard times, but they are also a visible part of the community now. Their children have grown up with their Assamese counterparts without any thoughts about racial differences.

The Chinese New Year, with its elaborate celebrations, introduces the chapter on the Makum of 1962. It is a very congenial scene where the Chinese population is observing its festivals and customs and include their Assamese neighbours in their celebrations. It is almost natural that the younger members of the two communities fall in love and eventually marry. Mei Lin and Pulok Baruah are one such couple, even though their marriage is opposed fiercely by Pulok’s father.

In the beginning, the harmonious life of the Chinese and Assamese is not disturbed even when news of China’s aggression comes via Robin, a soldier and a childhood friend of Pulok’s. Robin’s leave home is cut short because of the growing unrest between the two nations. That there is no pro-Chinese feeling in Cheenapatti is made apparent in the short description of the man who came from Calcutta with Red China passports but had no success in enrolling candidates.

The Chinese in Assam are very confident that their long years in India, which have Indianised them to a great extent, will offer them protection. In a humorous exchange, their unconcern is revealed in Ho Wang the butcher’s statement: “I don’t know how to read and write. I don’t even know where exactly China is. I sell pork in Makum market. Ask me the price of pork.” Little do they suspect that they will soon become victims in the Indo-Chinese theatre of war and politics. The Indian government’s directives come one after another, starting with the order for the Chinese to renew their residential permits.

The bright picture of Cheenapatti celebrating the Chinese New Year halfway into the novel beautifully depicts the members of the community and their sense of belonging. The chapter ends with a description of Thakur Prasad trampling on the lanterns and tearing down the red posters. Already the snake in the garden is showing itself.

Chowdhury describes what Makum was to the Chinese who had made it their home for many years, even centuries. “Here, one did not feel like an outsider…the bones of their ancestors were buried in this soil.” But by the next chapter the tension enters the township and words like CID begin to appear in the exchanges between people. The growing tension from the government’s action becomes visible. The men’s meetings grow more frequent as they realise the border conflict is no longer distant, but might affect all of them drastically.

One leader says: “The McMahon line is controversial. That’s why it is not correct to say outright that China has encroached upon Indian soil.” The authoritarian manner in which British mapping interfered with the ancient landmarks is clearly a source of conflict between neighbouring nations. But it is not only that: the border conflict has managed to cause a rift between the Chinese and the Indians, and even between Indians and Indians.

Leaving home

Chowdhury convincingly paints the life of the town with its football matches, young love, and the growing unease with China that forces its unwanted presence on Makum. There are always individuals in any peaceful town who believe the worst of their neighbours, Pulok’s father and Thakur Prasad being among them. Pulok marries his beloved Mei Lin despite his father’s disapproval.

Soon, almost every action becomes suspect. The presence of Chinese books at the club library draws suspicion, the Chinese learn that they are under surveillance, and the Chinese children report that Thakur Prasad has threatened them. Even the celebration of Pulok’s wedding to Mei Lin is marred by his father’s refusal to participate in some of the rituals. Mei Lin’s story is not the only thread that Chowdhury weaves – there are many other interesting lives that she follows, such as the story of Ho Fuk, Yiu Yi, Ananta and Ah Lin. But Mei Lin and Pulok are the lovers who carry the book forward as their story engages the readers’ interest the most.

The idyll of their lives is destroyed in the most ugly manner, by politics and the pettiness of human nature, leading to the punishment of the innocent. The rift comes rapidly, affecting everyone. Even letters for young Chinese boarders from their parents are opened by the government. Suspicion about the Chinese in Makum grows even as the Chinese army easily makes inroads though the NEFA frontier. Unprepared and ill-equipped Indian troops prove to be no match for the Chinese soldiers kitted out for the snow and cold of the northern regions. In addition to Chinese bullets, Indian soldiers suffer from chilblains and frostbite.

The inclusion of news reports in subsequent chapters firmly root the unfolding saga in historical developments. It is a sad history of a people who had grown to consider Assam, and Makum, as home, only to be uprooted completely by the actions of both the Chinese government under Chow En Lai and the Indian government under Jawaharlal Nehru, so many miles away from them.

When Cheenapatti in Makum is suddenly attacked by the Indian police, it happens overnight. The Chinese members in the family are separated from their Assamese partners and even mothers with newborns are arrested and deported, along with children of Chinese descent who do not even know a word of Chinese. The human tragedy is complete as the separation of the Assamese from the Chinese includes Mei Lin’s being arrested from her husband’s house. Pulok is beaten up when he tries to enter the area where his wife is confined. “Everyone had lost someone. Every family had been divided.”

Amidst beatings, humiliation, stone-pelting and the deaths of weaker members, the Chinese are taken away by train to undisclosed destinations. Sadly, they come to the realisation: “Even if we lived here for a thousand years, we would still remain Chinese!”

A foreign land

In prison the news came that the Chinese government is willing to take all the prisoners. For the Indian Chinese, “it was as though a ball of fire had suddenly dropped down from the moonlit sky into the courtyard.” That they are to be uprooted from the country that many regarded as home and deported to China is incomprehensible. Yet, having suffered all that they had at the hands of the Indian police, the prisoners are divided, with half of them deciding that, in the light of the treatment they had endured, they have no future in India. In seven days the deportation begins.

Their new life in communist China is a great shock. Put to work on farms, the people who led prosperous lives as skilled workers in Assam have to come to terms with the tough ways of the Chinese government. In China, they find more harshness as the local people hate them and consider them Indians, calling them land-grabbers. The great human tragedy is compounded by the fact that the Assamese spouses of Chinese men have accompanied their families on this journey. Chowdhury puts names and faces to the faceless people deported from India.

In China, people are labelled Chinese Indian and Chinese Pakistani. It is difficult not to feel alienated in their new surroundings as the hostility of the local people breaks out in the form of open confrontation more than once in Maoist China. Both groups – the refugees and the locals – hate each other. The older ones die, one by one. But death is brought on by more than old age, it is brought on by the grief of being torn from loved ones whom they have no chance of ever seeing again.

It is difficult to read the book dry-eyed because of the awareness that these are real people in real situations in an Assam from not so long ago. What Chowdhury calls their “incredible ordeal” is framed by insensitivity, racial hatred and misplaced nationalistic feeling, within which unscrupulous characters play a vicious role. This is untold history and Rita Chowdhury proves more than equal to the task of telling it.

Chinatown Days, Rita Chowdhury, Pan Macmillan.

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