Rita Chowdhury’s novel Chinatown Days — published as Makam in Assamese in 2010 and translated recently into English by the author — spans several generations of a Chinese community that was brought to Assam in northeast India at the behest of the British East India Company for the purpose of establishing a tea industry. Chowdhury’s book, writes noted author Amitav Ghosh in a review on his online blog, “tells a story that ought to be better known.” The question is, does the telling do justice to the tale?
Chowdhury begins by tracing the journey of Ho Han, who was sold as a slave under the Qing dynasty, to introduce the first generation of Chinese workers in Assam. Inspired by one Robert Bruce, the business of the Assam tea estates began as a way to reduce dependence on Chinese tea in the early 1800s. A complex and traumatic series of events brings Ho Han and others from China to Calcutta, and from there to Assam’s tea gardens. As large numbers of labourers from different parts of the Indian subcontinent converge, their shared experiences of pain and trauma begin to forge lasting connections.
This glimpse into a hitherto largely unknown history is undoubtedly both fascinating and disturbing. We are given graphic details about the individuals who have come to the tea gardens having lived through poverty, famine and abject powerlessness. Yet Chowdhury’s narrative style shifts from dry reportage to melodrama, with little in between. How the different people are brought to the tea gardens, too, is handled summarily and unevenly. A rather pivotal character’s backstory is presented thus: “One day, our Jagnu uncle came and told me, ‘Let’s go to the fair.’ Ma said, go! Who could think this would happen? Had I not gone out with my uncle, nothing like this would have happened to me. Jagnu mama sold me to the trafficker Arkathia. And then everything went downhill…”
A “story that ought to be better known” could have been far better told
Descriptions of developing relationships in the tea gardens are also dealt with impatiently and simplistically: one moment a character is grief-stricken to the point of suicide, the next she is ‘happily’ married. Thus, the character quoted above “cried her heart out” after sharing her story, and a marriage proposal swiftly followed a short paragraph later, which we assume she accepted. Perhaps this portion of the story is set so far back in obscured history that a more relatable depiction was not possible, or maybe there was not enough material for Chowdhury to work with — yet that is highly unlikely given that there is ample room in fiction to aim for greater impact. Whatever the reason, these broad brushstrokes do not make this generation of characters come alive for readers, especially those unfamiliar with Assam, nor do they do much for the landscape which is described as “Green. Green everywhere.”
The next part of the novel takes us to 1962. Chowdhury introduces us to a new set of people, mainly members of the Chinese community of the Makam region’s Chinatown (Cheenapatti), and those of Indian ancestry who reside alongside. By this time the community has linguistically, economically and socially assimilated while retaining certain distinct cultural expressions. The author takes great pains to explore perspectives and debates about the Sino-Indian war of 1962 without expressing a particular bias. When news of the war reaches Cheenapatti, the community members’ Indian identity generally takes precedence over their Chinese ancestral origins, with most believing that their many years in India will serve as protection in these troubled times.
Chowdhury explores critical issues of identity, citizenship, roots and belonging; however, much of it comes across as stilted dialogue expressed by cardboard characters that consistently remain indistinguishable. Those who do stand out, lack dimension — whether it is the excessively saccharine Yiu Yi or the thoroughly evil Thakur Prasad. Central characters in this section are Mei Lin and Pulok, the latter of Indian ancestry, whose relationship is cemented as events around the war become dire. The harmonious community is suddenly and irreparably sundered as nationalistic sentiments take hold at the close of war. Mei Lin is uprooted along with the rest of those of Chinese descent, and what follows is the painful story of imprisonment in Deoli, Rajasthan, the deportation of many and attempts to rebuild their lives thereafter. The final section of the novel brings us to the present, to a new generation that is reconciling with the past while trying to set the record straight.
The lives and experiences in the novel are worth knowing, of that there is no doubt. The chapters of history that Chowdhury brings to light — the 1800s as well as the 1960s — might also otherwise have faded and disappeared with time. Yet the narrative style which becomes almost excruciating on occasion, characters rendered such that there is nothing memorable to set them apart as individuals, and the erratic pace at which events unfold, do much to deter the reader. The original novel in Assamese received high accolades, so perhaps the fault lies in its translation.
The times and places Chowdhury writes about might be seen as a nostalgic journey for those who remember them; familiarity has a way of overshadowing what others might see as flaws. Readers with strong views about the Sino-Indian war might also choose to focus on the debate and opinions around it, which Chowdhury has discussed in some detail. However, on the whole, for a “story that ought to be better known,” Chinatown Days could certainly have been far better told.
The reviewer is a writer, editor and educationist with a doctorate in curriculum and instruction
By Rita Chowdhury
Pan Macmillan, India