Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

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Melodramatically Told, But Still a Moving Story of The Travails of Chinese Labourers Who Adopted Assam as Their Home

Chinatown Days by Rita Chowdhury

Published by: Macmillan/Pan Macmillan India

Fiction, 396 pages

Rating: 3.25/5 stars

Book summary

It is the early nineteenth century. The British East India Company has been bringing in Chinese indentured labourers to work in the tea gardens of Assam. Amidst days of misery and toil, they slowly begin to find contentment in their day-to-day lives.

In post Independence Assam, Mei Lin, descended from the slave Ho Han, lives a life of satisfaction with her husband Pulok Barua. But in 1962, as war breaks out in the high Himalayas between India and China, a close family member conspires to have Mei Lin deported to Maoist China. She and thousands of other Chinese Indians will now have to fend for themselves in a land that, despite their origins, is strangely foreign.

From the horror-ridden hardships of the labour pens of Assam to the Sino-Indian war, this searing novel tells the unforgettable story of the Chinese Indians, a community condemned by intolerance to obscurity and untold sorrow.

About the author:

Rita Chowdhury is an award-winning Assamese poet and writer. An important voice in contemporary Assamese literature, Rita has written fifteen novels that portray a vivid picture of her strife-torn state. Chinatown Days (Makam) is one of her best-known works.

My Review

Chinatown Days is an intergenerational story about how indentured Chinese laborers were brought to a remote corner in Assam in India where they painfully and slowly assimilated to a place that they had not even heard of, and adopted it as their home through intermarriages, social relations and economic exchanges. Over time though, when the Indo Sino War breaks out in 1962 with Chinese armed forces attacking certain parts of North East India region, the very safety and roots of the community is rendered fragile with questions on their loyalty and identity.

The historical parts of ‘Chinatown Days’ pay attention to how Chinese origin labourers had a major role to play in the tea plantation industry of India after Robert Bruce a Scottish gentleman introduced it in India while also giving insights into the plight of Indian soldiers engaged in the fight against China. The description of houses that the Indian Chinese community built, the skill sets of the labourers who came to India after enduring terrible hardships add to the pathos of the novel. When the Indo Sino War breaks out, the impact it has on this small community is beyond imagination. Who is Chinese? Who is Indian? These are the questions that are asked of the community at different places but no one cares for the answers.

The device of a novel within a novel is a tad too much to swallow: writer Arunabh Bora from Assam, meets Lailin at a writing workshop where the later takes an immediate dislike to the former because she ‘hates Indians’. The later tries to find out why and through Lailin meets her mother who tells him the story of Chinese origin people in India. That Lailin’s mother would tell the back story to Arunabh a total stranger, which then becomes the later’s novel smacks of appropriation. Why couldn’t it be Lailin writing the story and Arunabh trying to fine out what happened to the relatives and extended family members of the Chinese Indian community left behind in India? The ending came across as too syrupy and like a 80s Hindi film where the entire set of characters comes on to the frame with a ‘happily ever after’.

This books works well if you are only looking for a historical fiction or keen to read something you never knew about in India’s history. But the writing in itself comes across as a never-ending series of anecdotes that are spread across the narrative. There are too many characters whose lives and daily interactions are used as a plot device to carry forward the anecdotes of socio-cultural and emotional assimilation with the Assamese way of life prior to the Indo Sino War and the crisis that befalls them during post the war. Unfortunately, none of the characters are fleshed out well and there are repetitive sentences that make it a weary read. It is a book that could have been extraordinarily special because of the unique setting but in the end, the book remains only good in parts.

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