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'Chinatown Days' review: How the Indian state betrayed a minority of its people

Makam, the name of Rita Chowdhury’s novel that first appeared in her native Assamese in 2010, means “Golden Horse” in Chinese.

It galloped its way to fame soon after it was published. Chowdhury has channelled the histories of four generations of Chinese-Assamese immigrants who had made themselves a home in the town of Makam in a remote corner of Assam. The narrative is organised inthree parts. We view it through the eyes of Mei Lin, a second-generation Chinese girl married to an Assamese named Palak Barua. At its heart it is also a story of loss and the Indian state’s betrayal of a tiny minority of its people.

Dragon wind

In the first part of the narrative there is a tremendous sense of adventure as the colonial overlord and entrepreneur Robert Bruce and his compatriots set about civilising the jungle and the many warring tribes living within it. The prize is the cup of tea that would make their fortunes, and that of the East India Company back home.

Chowdhury picks up the threads of the lives of the sturdy group of people of Chinese origin, all of them men like Mei Lin’s father Ho Han, who had been brought in slave ships from China that was in the grip of a terrible famine. They find themselves in the jungles of Upper Assam in the early 19th century to make way for the tea plantations.

Chowdhury’s epic saga does not pretend to be as soothing as those first sips of life in a tea garden.

It’s a tale filled with the distant sounds of a war that ended in a rout so extreme that it signalled the end of India’s innocence in its self-determined role as the leader of a newly enfranchised democratic republic.

'Chinatown Days' review: How the Indian state betrayed a minority of its people

India’s doctrine of non-violence, its efforts to create a pan-Asian brotherhood under the umbrella of Panchsheel, the popular slogans of “Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai”, were shredded by the sudden blast of Mao Tse-tung’s dragon wind. With the incursion of his Red Army into a territory that Mao claimed to be “Southern Tibet”, known otherwise as Arunachal Pradesh, India would never be the same again.

Chowdhury reminds us of the climactic moment when the Chinese army is almost at the doorstep of Assam. The quavering voice of Prime Minister Nehru came over the radiowaves: “We shall not accept any terms that they may offer, because they may think we are a little frightened by some setbacks. I want to make clear to all of you, and more especially to our countrymen in Assam, to whom my heart goes out at this moment.”

Idle tears

It was an admission of failure that created deep fissures in the Indian psyche. To the Assamese people it seemed that they were being abandoned to their fate. As we know, the Chinese advance stopped as suddenly as it had started. Chowdhury’s protagonists, however — the people living in Makam, the Chinese community and those with Assamese links — found themselves suddenly viewed as enemies of the state. The dragon’s seed that had been scattered along Assam’s hillsides along with the tea bushes had grown teeth.

The third part of Chowdhury’s account is an almost unbearable account of what can happen when an entire community is banished. Looking through the eyes of Mei Lin, we are witness to the deportations of the once moderately prosperous Chinese families, the loot of their property and belongings, and finally, the degradation in the camp at Deoli in Rajasthan where the heat and uncertainty take their toll.

Their ordeal does not end there. They are repatriated in groups to China, a homeland that does not recognise them as one of their own.

Seven months after the Sino-Indian war of 1962, Lata Mangeshkar sang ‘Ae mere watan ke logon’ (‘Oh, people of my country’) in the presence of Prime Minister Nehru. She is said to have brought tears to his eyes.

Rita Chowdhury reminds us that those who populate her novel are our people too. It’s a powerful suggestion. By acknowledging the injustice done to the Chinese-Assamese people at Makam, can we begin the process of making amends?

The Chennai-based writer is a critic and cultural commentator.

Chinatown Days; Rita Chowdhury, Pan Macmillan, ₹Rs. 599

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Printable version | Nov 20, 2020 5:54:01 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/chinatown-days-by-rita-chowdhury-reviewed-by-geeta-doctor/article22772260.ece

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