Rita Choudhury took four years to write Makam, meaning ‘golden horse’ in Cantonese.
These four years helped the characters of her 608-page book – descendants of tea specialists British planters had smuggled in from China in 1836 – reunite with some 3,000 Chinese settlers ‘de-Indianized’ after the Sino-Indian war of 1962.
The reason why Sahitya Akademi award winner Choudhury did not gallop to see her ninth Assamese novel in print was to “feel the pain” of a community disowned and wronged by both India and China.
“The British had surreptitiously brought tea cultivators, all males, from areas around Canton and Macau to help establish the tea industry in eastern Assam. Unable to return to their homeland, they married local women and settled down. Yet, the descendants of Chinese fathers and Indian mothers were accused of being Chinese agents in 1962 and jailed. Many were deported to China only to be spurned by Peking (Beijing) and left high and dry. Those who remained had their property taken away. This book is a compilation of what these Indians of Chinese origin went through for close to five decades,” said Choudhury.
Take the case of Ho Kok Men (72). This motor mechanic from Makum – the name of this town in eastern Assam’s Tinsukia district is derived from ‘makam’ – 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 told Hindustan Times. 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 manages his automobile workshop in Tinsukia.
Choudhury traveled to Singapore, Hong Kong, Canada, Australia and US to meet the Chinese-Assamese displaced by the 1962 war. During her research, some 1,500 Makum residents forced to leave India reconnected with their roots.
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 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 all the male members of our family were taken away to Rajasthan never to be seen again,” she recounted. “I hope they are all well, somewhere on this earth.”