Untold tales – From The Hindu
State protects. State can also discard. Well-known Assamese novelist Rita Chowdhury’s recent tome of a book, “Makam”, links the two, hereby questioning the State’s role in “painting a large number of people with the same brush of suspicion in wartime and their lifelong sufferings because of it.”
Rita’s is a one-of-a-kind plot, a political one, but virgin to the reading public. The 600-page novel written in Assamese swings back and forth in 1960s Assam, particularly Makum, a dot of a town in Upper Assam. The time is the Indo-China war, which the author says led “the India Government to round up hundreds of Assamese Chinese to deport as PoWs and spies.”
Rita’s novel begins at this point, sprinkling the pages with an assortment of characters to flesh out the epoch. She has pulled them out of real life and powdered them with the glow of her pen, “most times mixing one character with the other to hide their identities.”
Underlines Rita, “My aim is not political; it is to bring to fore the wrongs done to people by the State and how their lives changed forever because of it.”
In New Delhi, armed with a PowerPoint presentation “to highlight the subject so far hidden”, Sahitya Akademi awardee Rita brings to the conversation a stream of people whom she met during her four-year research for the book. “Like many in Assam, I have also grown up hearing about a lot of Chinese living in Makum once, but no one seemed to know more than that, and no one seemed interested either. I thought of looking at it to write a novel but on dipping deeper, a whole new story of State-sponsored persecution came to the fore,” she says.
Rita — who is also a political science lecturer at Cotton College, Guwahati — then travelled extensively to try and locate the affected people. “It was not easy. Many would not talk fearing persecution. Reaching out to those in China was even more difficult.”
History records that the first Chinese were smuggled into Assam by the British. The group included Chinese artisans and labourers who came with tea seeds to start tea gardens in Assam. “These Chinese were the first to teach not just tea cultivation to the locals but also how to make the things like boxes to cart tea.” The British later brought Chinese labourers to work in the gardens from Crown colonies like Penang, Singapore and Malay. They married local women and began to speak a mix of their native and local languages.
“By and by, they spread out of the tea gardens and settled in nearby towns and began making a livelihood through carpentry and shoe-making.” On seeing their prosperity, “some relatives living in the poor South China side also came to settle down. So there came up in Makum a vibrant Chinatown, complete with restaurants and a club house.”
Polite but firm
The Indo-China war changed everything. “The Indian officers came knocking at their doors, they were polite but firm that nobody should take anything with them. ‘It is for your security, you will be back once the war is over’, they were told. The people were divided arbitrarily — many were not even Chinese. They were assembled under a cowshed and later taken to Nagaon jail where they met detainees from Tezpur. Before they knew it, they were all bundled into a goods train for seven days to reach Deoli refugee camp in Rajasthan.”
Nobody talks about physical torture in the camp but each has a tragic story to share, says Rita. Families were deported in batches and got divided forever; some died in that train journey, some gave birth in the train and in the camp, many languished in Nagaon jail for years. She shares the shocking tale of a nine-year-old girl, Yu Yu. “She fainted due to extreme heat in Deoli and was taken to be dead by the authorities and buried alive. By the time her screams were heard from down below, she died.”
In total, about 1500 Assamese Chinese were deported by India, she says. Rita, though working on her next novel, is determined to continue taking up their cause. “India has matured as a democracy. The Government should apologise to them — they are still looked at as spies. Their property and livelihood were gone for no fault of theirs.” Showing a letter that she has received from the Deoli Refugee Association from Australia, she points out, “They want a memorial made in Makum for what they went through.”