Rita Chowdhury’s novel, Chinatown Days, spans a period of nearly 200 years—from the early1800s till 2010. Most of the action takes place between the early years of the twentieth century and 1970. However, reading it now, in the year 2018, made me marvel at the similarities between the world then and the world now. This fiction is like a reflection of the daily reality of our lives: identity, nationality, otherness, and hatred and intolerance.
There is a country several miles away where immigrant families are being broken up and children of immigrants are being separated from their parents. Back home, women and minorities are being threatened and attacked, crimes are being committed in the guise of patriotism, and several people are being compelled to question their own identities. In several parts of the world, powerful corporate houses are taking control of indigenous natural resources and exploiting the indigenous people for profits.
In Chowdhury’s novel, all of it is there, all of it that happened right here, in India. From colonisers setting up a business around a plant found exclusively in one part of India to a government alienating a group of people just because they belonged to a different ethnicity, from separating children from their parents and spouses from one another to threatening and insulting people walking on the road, Chinatown Days is a moving account of a history of our part of the world. Chinatown Days is the English translation, by the author herself, of her novel, Makum, originally written and published in Assamese in 2010. Makum derived its name from Makum, a place in Upper Assam which had a bustling Chinatown named Cheenapatty till the Sino-Indian War of 1962 destroyed everything.
The author does not miss even mundane details, like, the Chinese men smoking opium and playing mahjong. The chapters are short and easy to follow, so they hold the attention of the reader. And with tales of separation and suffering, this book is quite a tearjerker, especially towards the end.
Though the novel tells the story of the Chinatown in the 1960s, the background to the story starts more than a century ago. At the outset, two stories run in succession: the first one in India, the other in China. In India, in the year 1823, we see the British setting up base in Assam with the help of a chieftain on the banks of the Brahmaputra. The indigenous people of the region drink a beverage made of leaves of a plant called phalap. This phalap is identified as the Indian – or the Assam, rather – variety of tea. The British then set up tea gardens in Assam to compete with the tea from China. The second story takes place in China during the First Opium War.
A severe drought in China forces people to sell off even their children into slavery so that they could get food in return. One such child is sold to a rich businessman and grows up to become a faithful slave. Fate, however, makes this slave travel from Lintin Island in southeastern China via Penang to Calcutta in the year 1841. This slave is one of the many slaves imported by the British from China to work in the tea gardens of Assam. Not only workers, but even experts in the cultivation of tea were brought from China so that they could advise at the tea gardens. The British also took people from Central India – primarily Adivasis from the place that is now known as Chhattisgarh – to work in the tea gardens of Assam.
The Chinese and the Indian Adivasis, taken so far away from home, created a vibrant community in the tea gardens of Assam. They married amongst themselves and their future generations carried on this tradition of harmony. This is the beginning of the novel. The novel then cuts to Makum in the year 1962 just when the Sino-Indian War is about to begin. By this time, the Chinatown of Makum is a place throbbing with life and is called Cheenapatty. The Chinese have married not only Adivasis, but also the Assamese.
These inter-ethnic marriages have given birth to children who are comfortable in all the identities they are endowed with. These children speak and even read and write both Chinese and Assamese and are at home in both Chinese and Assamese cultures. Trouble begins with the Sino-Indian War when the Indians start seeing the Chinese as enemies. The Chinese who were born in India and have never been to China are, all of a sudden, seen by the Indians as Chinese spies.
The government of India arrests all the Chinese and Tibetan people living in Assam, Darjeeling, and nearby areas to deport them to China—not exactly for national security, but under an agreement in which the Chinese government would return Indian PoW to India in exchange for the people of Chinese origin. The lives people had built over decades crumble. The selective arrests see inter-ethnic families breaking up. A family in which the man is an Assamese while the woman is a Chinese sees the woman being arrested. Children who are half-Chinese-half-Assamese are separated from their parents and put on a train to be taken somewhere far away.
Pregnant women deliver babies in these refugee trains. Young children die of heatstroke in internment camps. And although the Chinese are packed off to China, it is revealed that the Chinese government did not take them back out of some benevolence—the Indian Chinese were taken back by China so that they could work as labourers to build a new Communist China during the Cultural Revolution. This powerful novel of nearly 400 pages is full of characters and there is a chance of losing track, but the author skillfully ties them together and, importantly, gives each character a closure. Her understanding and research of the history of both Assam and China is acute and she confidently writes the events in the novel alongside mentioning the years in which those events took place.
The author does not miss even mundane details, like, the Chinese men smoking opium and playing mahjong. The chapters are short and easy to follow, so they hold the attention of the reader. And with tales of separation and suffering, this book is quite a tearjerker, especially towards the end. Rita Chowdhury’s Chinatown Days is an engaging, monumental work that makes one realise that history does repeat itself. With 40 lakh people losing their nationality because of the NRC, one can see that history has been repeated quite soon in Assam.