On Friday, October 9th, Yin Marsh – author of the upcoming Zubaan book Doing Time With Nehru – visited the Zubaan office with her friend Joy Ma. Yin and Joy are part of a community of Chinese immigrants who had settled in India. Starting in 1962, about 2,000 members of this community were incarcerated in an internment camp in Deoli, Rajasthan, as a State reaction to the Sino-Indian Border War. Though the conflict only lasted one month, many internees were kept in the camp for up to four and a half years after they were first interned. Doing Time With Nehru is about Marsh’s experience of being incarcerated in Deoli when she was a young child.
In the camp, they had minimal access to basic amenities like electricity, food, etc. There was no schooling. Many people were separated from their families in the camp and after being released. Some families were new immigrants, with only a couple of generations settled in India; however, some had come as early as 1780, and a community of labourers arrived in the 1800s to work on tea plantations. So when many Chinese-Indians were forcibly deported to China, it was a land some had never even seen. Some Chinese Indians were citizens; they had their citizenships taken away. A community that, as Payal Banerjee says in her Introduction, had a “long and enmeshed socio-cultural belonging” in India, was almost overnight cast as foreign, “alien”, and dangerous in the national imagination.
After the internees were released, they found that their property and land had been confiscated by the State; they were forced to go and make a home in unknown parts of the country, starting with nothing. However, in their new homes, things did not go back to how they were before. Social and institutional discrimination against the Chinese-Indians was now rampant.
Many members of this community eventually left India, finding life too difficult in the country they had once called home to continue living there. This is also the case for Marsh and Ma. Both of them now live in the U.S.
They are back now – along with two other ex-internees, Steven Wen and Michael Cheng – “to seek closure, to ask for an apology from the Indian government, to talk about a history that has gone unacknowledged for so long” (scroll.in). They call themselves “The Deoliwallahs” and recently got a campaign partially funded on Indiegogo, called “Voices of Deoli”. They wanted to raise financial support for travel to India, and also for a new documentary film being made by a supporter of the community – Rafeeq Ellias – in order to spread awareness of a story that was systematically suppressed from Indian national memory, and therefore, one that very few (especially in the new generation) had heard. The documentary eventually did get made, and was recently screened at the IIC in Delhi. It is called Beyond Barbed Wires: A Distant Dawn.
I ask Marsh and Ma how they found the ex-internee community. Marsh says that for her, she completely lost touch for a while – until 2012. She didn’t really engage with the past before that. She was so angry at India that she completely rejected that part of her history. Marsh’s daughter, Nicole Marsh, writes in the Foreword to the memoir that although occasionally her mother would talk of her past, there was no real exploration of those memories within her family. However, when she was in college, she studied oral history, and that made curious about her own family’s history – specifically her mother’s history. Eventually, the conversations between Nicole and Yin led to the idea for a memoir.
The memoir kickstarted things. When it was published, members of the community started reaching out to Marsh. She says that once Nikki (as Nicole is fondly called) met a travel agent. She told her mother that the travel agent made her think of her. When Marsh asked why, Nicole said that the man grew up in Darjeeling and his uncle was interned. Nicole invited him to the book launch, where he bought a book and sent it to his uncle. It turned out that the uncle was someone Yin Marsh knew – a man named Ming Tung Hsueh. The travel agent was also in touch with a writer named Kwai Li, who wasn’t an internee but had written about life in Calcutta, and told her about Marsh’s memoir. Li got in touch with Marsh and asked her if they could meet. When they met, she gave Marsh Joy Ma’s business card, who Li was supposed to meet on her trip to San Francisco but couldn’t. And that was how Ma and Marsh ended up meeting.
For Ma, her family always talked about that part of their history. As a result, they were in touch with many of the ex-internees, and they knew a lot of people. However, everyone was busy with work and their own lives. Marsh’s book, though, “really led to the resurgence of something – everybody was ready to do something more.” This was the chain of events that led to the Voices of Deoli movement.
Joy Ma is a very interesting ex-internee, because she was born in the camp. Her mother was pregnant when the family got arrested. Therefore, she is the youngest member of that community. Marsh, too, was young when she was interned – she was thirteen, just transitioning into adolescence. What was it like, being that young and being incarcerated by the State?
“As a teenager, I was just so angry,” remembers Marsh. “I was really mad when I got away from it. I had lost everything, I had lost my identity. All of a sudden I wasn’t Indian anymore, I didn’t know what I was.” Her parents never emphasised their Chinese identity that much – and besides, she was in boarding school most of the time. She didn’t feel Chinese. But, according to the government, nor was she Indian.
Her brother – Bobby – who was around eight at the time, loved the camp, strangely enough. He had a “grand old time,” says Marsh, smiling. He thought they were on a camping trip. He would have stayed there another two months.
Joy Ma reflects, “When you’re a teen so many things are going on. One thing I think made them so angry was being treated like prisoners. In the beginning they weren’t angry. Anger came later. In the beginning there was guilt, and shame, and humiliation.” And fear, Marsh adds. What had they done wrong?
The anger was after they were released. They weren’t allowed to go home, they lost everything, their families were split up. At an age when identity and a sense of belonging was paramount, these very things were stripped away from Marsh. “For years I didn’t want anything to do with India, with the food, or anything,” Marsh reminisces. “It was just a total rejection [of India],” adds Ma.
Ma’s parents tried to shelter their new baby from the fear and the deprivation of the camp, and showered her with love and warmth. Her brothers – one a teen, and one eight – had lived a comfortable life before the camp, but at Deoli they were made to do chores – not only to help out their mother, but also to keep them busy. There were no schools in Deoli.
Catching up to school was hard after they were released. Ma, who joined Class One then, didn’t have much to catch up on, but her brothers had great difficulty getting admission to school. Not only was post-war society now xenophobic towards Chinese-Indians, but they had also missed a significant amount of schooling. There was one volunteer who tried to teach children in Deoli, and parents tried to homeschool their kids, but it wasn’t the same as going to school. Ma’s mother went around begging priests at missionary schools to take her sons. They finally got into St. Xaviers, which the Ma family was very grateful for. But it took “some clawing” for Ma’s brothers to get back to the standard. Michael Cheng, one of their fellow Deoliwallahs, has a “real stigma” because he was never able to catch up. He lost three really important years in the camp.
Both Ma and Marsh feel like the schools, except for a handful, were not at all sympathetic to them. “Missionary schools, for all their preaching and saying come to me whenever you have trouble, and then when you had trouble, they turned away,” says Marsh. She has very negative memories of her Loreto Convent years. Ma adds that her mother never sent her to Chinese school after the camp. It was just too hard, trying to catch up at regular school; and also, the released families simply couldn’t afford any extras.
It was just hard to resettle after the camp. Ma’s original home was in Alipurduar in North Bengal, but her family was released into Calcutta. “My dad, he just loved everything in his old home and he tried his best for us to go back. All the time we were staying in Calcutta, he was trying to figure out to go back, but we were never allowed to go back – and he was questioning, why? And never got an answer.” Her mother would have nightmares of the barbed wire and wake up crying.
Before the war, Ma says, “It was a Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai time.” Indian people felt warmly towards the Chinese; diplomatic relations were great. “But the change after the war – it was almost…overnight.” After her family’s release, she ended up going to Delhi University. Although the level of sexualised racism towards women who look Chinese, or Tibetan, or Northeastern, were not even close to what they are today, she says, she remembers getting racial slurs yelled at her by boys on the streets when she was in high school. That’s why she started thinking that India was not a permanent home for her – she did not want to live in a place where people were allowed to say such things to her face. She went to New York for her Master’s (she’s a journalist). “But you know, they say that in the United States too…”
“United States is racist too,” affirms Marsh.
The Deoliwallahs are back to ask the Indian State for an acknowledgment and an apology for what happened to them. Marsh outlines their reasons for why they want an official, public apology: “If the Indian government does apologise it would significantly begin the process of healing and closure…the Chinese community will begin to trust the government again, and that at the same time, the local Indian community will start looking at Chinese Indians, not as enemies, but as fellow citizens who were wrongly treated.”
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