Remembering an era of dread

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on June 25, 2020 Published on June 25, 2020

Marching on: Students in Madurai protest the Chinese aggression in 1962   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Two recent books that examine the fallout of the 1962 Sino-Indian war — ‘Chinatown Days’ and ‘The Deoliwallahs’ — have important lessons to offer

*Journalists have been reported rising attacks against people from the North-East ever since India went into a nationwide lockdown on March 25

*Joy Ma and Dilip D’Souza’s The Deoliwallahs and Rita Chowdhury’s Chinatown Days chronicle some of the darkest chapters in Indian history

Since India went into lockdown on March 25, journalists in various Indian cities have been reporting a noticeable increase in racially motivated attacks against people from the North-East as well as Chinese Indians.

In March, lawyer Alana Golmei shared images of how a man on a two-wheeler spat on a Manipuri woman, out buying groceries near the North Campus area of Delhi University. He called her “corona” and fled.

Around the same time, a Mysuru supermarket’s staff and manager were arrested after they denied entry to a pair of students from Nagaland.

These are still one-off incidents. But this can take a truly sinister turn when there is active persecution on the State’s part. After the 1962 Sino-Indian war, thousands of Chinese Indians were rounded up and sent to an internment camp in Deoli, Rajasthan, where they lived in horrifying conditions (highly unsanitary premises, constant food shortages and so on) for five long years. Two recent books, Rita Chowdhury’s novel Chinatown Days (translated by the author from her Assamese novel Makam), and Dilip D’Souza and Joy Ma’s non-fiction The Deoliwallahs: The True Story of the 1962 Chinese-Indian Internment, give us an invaluable window to those turbulent times. Together, they give us an idea of the scale of the injustices perpetrated by the Indian government — as well as the kind of mass hysteria/xenophobia that fed this gross governmental overreach.

The Deoliwallahs: The True Story of the 1962 Chinese-Indian Internment; Joy Ma and Dilip D’Souza; Pan Macmillan; Fiction; ₹499


The Deoliwallahs begins with a simple question posed to D’Souza by a friend — did he know that India, in fact, had internment camps of its own, à la America’s infamous World War II-era Japanese-American camps? It soon became clear that there was little to no awareness of this part of Indian history, even among relatively well-informed people. D’Souza writes: “Only the Nazis ‘did’ concentration camps, I thought until then.” This incredulity is a big part of The Deoliwallahs: You can see it in the reactions of a lot of people the author talks to during the course of the book, from civilians to soldiers to politicians and beyond. They just refuse to believe that the Indian government falsely imprisoned thousands of its own citizens. The betrayal they suffered was egregious, to say the least.

Ma, whose memories of her time in Deoli make up the bulk of the narrative, was just a student when it happened. Imagine spending a significant chunk of your youth imprisoned for no fault of your own. Imagine being afraid to talk about it decades after regaining your freedom — because the country that turned its back on you is still home for some of your relatives, and they may suffer a fresh round of atrocities yet. The first-person accounts of Ma and others in the book ought to be required reading for anybody who mouths rosy phrases like “the idea of India”. Ying Sheng, a former Deoli inmate, describes the harrowing train ride from Guwahati to Deoli — at one stop, the train was approached by a bloodthirsty mob, and things might have got out of hand had it not been for the soldiers aboard.

Chinatown Days; Rita Chowdhury; Pan Macmillan; Fiction ; ₹599


Chowdhury’s Chinatown Days is full of stories like Sheng’s — about 1,500 Assamese Chinese people were among those deported to China (never mind the fact that a lot of these people didn’t know a word of Chinese, being second- or third-generation Indians). Publishing the book in Assamese in 2010, the author (currently director of the National Book Trust) came out with the English translation in 2018. The narrative is set in Makum (from the Cantonese ‘makam’, meaning ‘golden horse’), the Assamese town that lends its name to the novel — home to a significant Chinese population as well as generations of mixed-race people. In Chowdhury’s novel, these people are represented by the character of Lailin Tham, a mixed-race novelist.

Through the plot device of Tham telling Arunabh (an Assamese writer) about her ancestors, Chowdhury sets the reader up for some valuable history lessons, starting from the early 19th century when plantation owner Robert Bruce set up the first tea plantations in Assam.

Certain scenes in Chinatown Days read as though they could’ve been describing the unrest of the past year or so in Assam. For example, when the police are about to arrest Tham’s mother, she says she’s Assamese and that her last name is Baruah. The police, no doubt irked by the very sight of a woman standing up for her rights, change track and now insist that she’s a Chinese spy working against the government — in 2010, the discourse around ‘anti-nationals’ (not to mention the question of who is a ‘citizen’ and who isn’t) hadn’t yet burst on the scene, but this scenario would have fit right in, one feels.

Chinatown Days, without question, belongs in the front row of Indian historical novels, not least because of how easily it deconstructs a sequence of events that’s barely acknowledged by the rest of the country. Read it alongside The Deoliwallahs if you want to educate yourself about one of the darkest chapters in Indian history.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer

Published on June 25, 2020
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