Elika Assumi locates the novel ChinaTown Days in the present moment of India’s border conflict with China and ongoing racist attacks on people from India’s North East. She writes of the eerie reminder of a conflict torn Nagaland and the history that we seem doomed to repeat.
How do I review a book about displaced Chinese-Indians in the climate of today? I think it was a providential turn that my first go-to book as soon as the lockdown started in Nagaland, on that fateful 18th of March, 2020, was Chinatown Days by Rita Chowdhury. This book was recommended by Monalisa Changkija, the acclaimed poet and journalist from Nagaland. She had only one statement to make while recommending the book- “Elika, you have to read this one.” A few days later, national lockdown was imposed and citizens and denizens of big cities and small towns alike, including my beloved Dimapur, uncertain but compliant of the law, huddled indoors while the virus ‘raged outside.’ Everywhere resembled the proverbial ghost town but this did not stop the village council and its exuberant youth volunteers from setting up bamboo blockades at entry and exit points, and soon, many colonies and bastis took wholeheartedly to these protectionist measures, questioning the movements of ‘outsiders’, stopping newspaper hawkers and milkmen who are non-Nagas. The calm neurotic voice of a village council official could be heard one such evening-“Don’t go outside after 2 pm.” And soon every evening, with increasing belligerence-“Stay indoors”, “wash your hands”, “village council will take action against offenders”-these were chanted along the stretch of the village in-roads. I never saw the man but I imagined him being driven around at the back of an open gypsy with a mic and loudspeaker. This was a similar scene in the early 1990s when Nagaland was under the control of the army and violence as well as curfews were all too prevalent-no young man dared to step out of the home when evening came. In this context of the pandemic, the latent prejudices awaiting emergence found expression in the racial prejudice against the oft-targeted Northeasterners in the cities of India-this time it was a series of spit-attacks and slurs being hurled, again due to the ignorance of racial profiling-and this has segued into the growing hostility against anything Chinese, and continued to be the undercurrent as I read Chinatown Days. I considered the on-going military stand-offs and violence at the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the phantasmic area of contention in the India and China border, along with the surge of nationalistic rhetoric plastered across the screens of the popular news media channels in our country. It did not matter how hard I tried for a better sense to prevail; couldn’t help but find my mind turn to more vexing thoughts and wonder at the foreshadowing that a sustained border conflict may have on the Northeasterners in India.
The disquiet remained with me as I read through Rita Chowdhury’s interwoven narrative of different lives which captures the experiences of people caught in the fractured history of slavery, violence, suffering and aspirations traversing from China to India and then back to China-the home that no longer was. Telling a story about displaced people is never easy, and even though Chinatown Days is a fictional work, the memories of a people caught in a tragic turn of history is a haunting reminder of the unsettled status of citizenship in India. The book begins with the saga of Ho Han, the Chinese labourer brought to India to work in the tea gardens of Assam, his many travails and how he finds an unlikely love in Phulmati-a fellow Adivasi bonded labour, who was then “part of the new chapter of the coolie supply to Assam from different parts of British India.” The story is interwoven around post-independence Assam, in the small town of Makum, where the Chinese-Indian community lives in Cheenapatti. Pulok Baruah and Mei Lin are separated when Mei Lin is taken to the internment camps in Deoli, Rajasthan, despite being married to an Indian. In the aftermath of the India-China war in 1962, the Chinese community who lived in parts of the North-East for generations were rounded up, arrested and sent to the internment camps in Deoli. The story traces the harrowing experiences of the families, loved ones, and lovers separated after their deportment to China. Here were the lives of a community caught in the larger history of enmity between nations, dislocated by the cartographical imaginaries of what constitutes India, or more importantly, who is an Indian. Even this was not enough for the dispossessed and forcibly displaced Chinese-Indian people at the time. As I read, the sections that struck me had me pause in reflection. In the ensuing circumstances of the ‘Wuhan-virus,’ Northeasterners and other ‘outsider’ communities in the cities of India also faced dispossession and displacement, evicted from rented homes and suddenly without employment, and tens of thousands returned and continue to return home. As the number of positive cases in the quarantine centres increases, the same local returnees face discrimination, seemingly out of fear of the contagion and for bringing the virus to the clean slate that Nagaland was. The quarantine centres mimic tribal affinities based on the area where it is located and cliques abound accordingly – the pandemic crisis seems to have exacerbated the deep seated divisions along tribal differences in the Naga society. As I read Chinatown Days, the news of Chinese incursions and heavy military presence along the LAC kept playing on the television channels, and I asked my father if he remembered anything about the 1962 war. He mentioned that he was thirteen years old and the Chinese had come up to Bomdila, about 150 kms away from Tezpur. He recalled a family friend, Mr. G. W. Lee, who was married to an Ao lady. I had never spoken to Mr. Lee but I happened to know his daughter, and I knew I wanted to hear his account too. I am deeply obliged to him for sharing his story and giving me further context to the kind of experiences faced by this little-known community in our country. He is now a retired government official and lives in Kohima. He spoke about his father who was a contract mechanic foreman in the tea gardens in Tinsukia. His mother was Assamese and in 1962, Mr. Lee’s father along with almost 3000 Chinese-Indians in the North-East were arrested and sent to the internment camps in Deoli. That was the last Mr Lee, then sixteen years old, saw of his father. The father was deported to China and Mr. Lee along with his four siblings stayed back in India with his Assamese mother’s family. He recalls his father writing letters from mainland Yunnan even after his deportation but they soon fell out of touch as lives changed. I also recalled stories of a Sumi Naga who had crossed over to Burma after the war and had gone to the training camps of the underground movement. It is believed he now lives in a small town in China and that he would often send word of the going-ons in his town, while reminiscing about the memories of his village in Nagaland. Home is, or should be, a fond memory, but we find this is sometimes not the case.
Stories like Chinatown Days are the ones worth telling, the many similar stories like Mr. Lee – lives that are caught in the intricacies of history that contest our dilettante lives. This book was not easy to read without recalling the many lives whose history is interwoven in the pages of the nation – a nation that often sees phases of jingoistic surges that leaves behind a trail of broken communities. This perception is neatly summed up in Ananta Baruah’s letter to Ahlin seeking her forgiveness, “War is like a dust storm. It makes the surroundings blurry. Nothing can be seen. Nothing can be understood. It was too late when I realized this.”
Elika Assumi is an Assistant Professor and Dean at Tetso College, Dimapur. She can be reached at eliassumi @gmail.com.