Makum is a lost town on the map of Upper Assam with a Cantonese name that means ‘golden horse’. It got its name from a group of Chinese who were settled there by the British colonial authorities to start tea gardens with the seeds and the expertise that they brought with them. Some were slaves and escaped from cruel masters in search of a better life. They found love with local women and began to speak a language that was part Chinese, part Assamese, and invited their less fortunate relatives over from the Chinese mainland. Gradually a small settlement became a regular Chinatown.
Against the background of Makum, Rita Chowdhury sets her novel Chinatown Days—originally written in Assamese and named after the town—in the days of the Indo-China War when, unable to tackle the threatened Chinese incursions, India turned on the Chinese within their grasp, rather in the same way the Americans did to the resident Japanese during the Second World War. Many of them were rounded up, accused of spying, and deported.
Chowdhury tells her tale through the mask of the writer, Arunabh Bora, who meets a Chinese writer, Lailin. She defies him to tell her story of suffering. From there begins the tale of the Assamese-Chinese, past and present. Robert Bruce’s unearthing of tea in Assam and the arrival of Lailin’s ancestor. One thread goes forward, one goes back through Bora’s book, though both are united by the plight and confusion of the Chinese who are first smuggled into Assam and then thrust out.
Chowdhury describes the customs and traditions of the Assamese-Chinese minutely with Chinese rituals, like preparing opium and the lives of the ‘tea tribes’ as they were called. It is a vast canvas of a secure lifestyle that suddenly shattered.
Over one hundred interviews went into the book and Chowdhury found that few people were willing to talk about their experiences for fear of bringing the state’s wrath down on their heads all over again. As to those who had moved to China, that was even more difficult. Some 150 Assamese-Chinese had been arbitrarily deported. Abrupt knocks came on doors at all hours and smooth talking officers told the residents that they were being moved for their own safety—Leilin’s mother, Mei Lin, was separated from her husband protesting that his surname was Baruah and she was Assamese only to be told that she was accused of conspiring against the government. The Assamese-Chinese were not allowed to take any possessions with them since they were told they could return after the war.
Groups of people from across Upper Assam, some of them not even Chinese, were bundled into a goods train and sent to a refugee camp in Deoli, Rajasthan. The journey took a week. People suffered from heat and extreme conditions. Babies were born and families separated, some forever. In Deoli, a nine-year-old child named Yu Yu collapsed from the heat and people thought she was dead and buried her. Her screams could be heard from underground but when they dug her up again, it was too late.
One would imagine there was enough here for non-fiction, but Chowdhury has turned her research into a harrowing novel. Many of the characters do come from real life, but they have been merged in several cases. This arises out of a need to protect the innocent from further depredations since a whole generation of embittered senior citizens has survived that troubled time. Chowdhury’s language is direct and colloquial and the story flows through the lives of different people, highlighting the public and private aspects of Assamese history.
For Chowdhury the book, as she says through her protagonist Bora, was a challenge. She took the Makum story to heart, exposing the confusion, betrayal and aggression against India that still haunt those Chinese with Assamese roots regardless of wherever in the world they may be.
Anjana Basu is the author of six novels. She has had a book of short stories published by Orient Longman; the BBC has broadcast one of her short stories, and her poems have featured in an anthology brought out by Penguin India. She has appeared in The Antigonish Review. The Edinburgh Review and The Saltzburg Review have also featured her work. In 2003, Harper Collins India brought out her novel Curses in Ivory. In 2004, she was awarded a Hawthornden Fellowship in Scotland where she worked on her second novel, Black Tongue, published by Roli in 2007.