FOREIGN HANDS – and minds – helped establish three towns in industrial eastern Assam, within 30 km of each other. Crude oiled two of them, tea brewed the third.
If an Italian engineer had Margherita (see earlier post titled Mitali with Italy) named after his queen, British oilmen’s catchphrase – dig-boy-dig, dig-boy-dig – for local laborers to quarry harder sired Digboi.
The Chinese beat the Europeans to naming Makum. They had no choice; British planters had smuggled them in from mainland China in the late 1830s to help sow the seeds of Assam’s Rs 8,000 million tea industry.
Like the Santhals, Oraons and 85 other tribes from Central India – they comprise the tea industry’s labor force – the Chinese were tricked into staying on in Assam. Unlike the former, the latter were an all-male group and had expertise in tea-growing, but that did not help them go back home to their villages in Canton or Macau.
They settled down, married local Assamese, Nepali, Adivasi, Naga, Bodo and other tribal women, raised families, scripted success stories in businesses beyond tea and lived in relative obscurity for 125 years. Many spread out, but the majority settled in Makum – derived from makam, meaning golden horse in Cantonese.
Until Red Peking (Beijing) attacked India in 1962, and some 1,500 Chinese-origin residents of Makum were put behind bars on suspicion of spying for Peking. Some 6,000 more Chinese-origin Indians elsewhere across the country had a similar fate.
“More than fate, the Indian system was cruel to these descendants of Chinese fathers and Indian mothers. Many were deported to China only to be spurned by Peking and left high and dry. Those who remained had their property taken away. My book Makam is a compilation of what these Indians of Chinese origin went through since 1836,” says Rita Choudhury.
Take the case of Ho Kok Men (72). This motor mechanic from Makum was among a handful of males who returned home after the Indian government released them from an internment camp in Rajasthan in 1965.
“Almost all male members of our extended family had been deported in two-three batches. The anti-Chinese wave apparently lost steam when our turn came,” Ho says. He returned to Makum, but by then his house and garage had been seized and auctioned off as enemy property.
Son of an Assamese mother, Ho married an Assamese and started life from scratch in Tinsukia, 10 km from Makum. His son Man Khee now manages his automobile workshop.
Choudhury penned the trauma of Makum’s Chinese-Assamese in her ninth Assamese novel, the 608-page Makam (Price Rs 250). The Sahitya Akademi award winner took four years to write, time enough to “feel the pain” of a community disowned and wronged by both India and China.
Choudhury traveled to Singapore, Hong Kong, Canada, Australia and US to meet the Chinese-Assamese displaced by the 1962 war. Her research helped many Makum residents forced to leave India after the Chinese Aggression reconnect with their roots.
At a get-together prior to the publication of the book, the ‘stateless’ Chinese-Assamese sang the golden oldies (Hindi and Assamese) and danced to Bollywood classics such as Mera naam Chin Chin Choo and Shola jo bhadke, dil mera dhadke… “One of them who couldn’t make it yearned to eat joha (aromatic rice peculiar to Assam). I had a few kilos couriered to him,” says Choudhury.
Closer home, the book brought together friends separated by the war – like Kaushalya Barua and Alaan Wang. Barua retired as the principal of the Assamese medium school (at Makum) she studied in along with Alaan before the latter “disappeared suddenly” in 1962.
Alaan and her kin were lodged in central Assam’s Nagaon Jail. “My mother and I were released but not before the male members of our family were taken away to Rajasthan never to be seen again,” she recounts. “I hope they are all well, somewhere on this earth.”