Book Review: Chinatown Days By Rita Chowdhury

The author describes the customs and traditions of the Assamese Chinese, and the lives of the so-called ‘tea tribes’ minutely

Book Review: Chinatown Days By Rita Chowdhury

Makam is a lost town on the map of Upper Assam. Its name, meaning ‘golden horse’ in Chinese, comes from the settlers brought here by the British to start tea gardens with the seeds and the expertise they brought with them from China. Some were slaves escaping cruel masters in search of a better life. They found love with local women, began to speak a lingo that was part Chinese, part Assamese, and invited their less fortunate relatives over from the Chinese mainland. Slowly, the small settlement became a regular Chinatown.

Chinatown Days, originally written in Assamese and called Makam after the town, is set against this background, in the days of the Sino-Indian war. Unable to tackle the threat of Chinese incursions, India turned on the Chinese within their grasp—rather in the same way America reacted to the resident Japanese during World War II.

Chowdhury tells her tale through the mask of the writer Arunabh Bora, who meets another writer Lailin Tham, of mixed Chinese and Assamese descent. She defies him to tell her story of suffering. From that begins the tale of the Assamese Chinese, past and present. From Robert Bruce’s unearthing of tea in Assam and the arrival of Lailin’s ancestor, one thread goes forward, another back through Bora’s book, united by the plight and confusion of the Chinese who were first smuggled into Assam and then thrust out.

Chowdhury describes the customs and traditions of the Assamese Chinese, and the lives of the so-called ‘tea tribes’ minutely. It is a vast canvas of a secure lifestyle that was suddenly shattered. Over 100 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.

About 1,500 Assamese Chinese were arbitrarily deported. Officers turned up at all hours, telling residents that they were being moved for their own safety. Mei Lin, Leilin’s mother, was separated from her husband. On protesting that her surname was Barua and she was Assamese, she was accused of conspiring against the government. Told that they could return after the war, the displaced residents were not allowed to take any possessions with them. 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 week-long journey, in extreme heat and dire conditions, saw babies born and families separated, some forever. In Deoli, Yu Yu, a nine-year-old, collapsed from the heat. Thinking her dead, people buried her. Then, hearing her screams from underground, they dug her up again. But it was too late.

This could well have been non-fiction, but Chowdhury chose to turn her research into a harrowing novel. Many of the characters are based on real people, though they have been merged in several cases—to protect the innocent from further depredations. Chowdhury’s language is direct and colloquial, and the story flows through the lives of her characters.

The book, as Chowdhury says through her protagonist Bora, was a challenge. In it, she exposes the confusion, betrayal and aggression against India that still haunt the Chinese with Assamese roots, regardless of where