On “The Deoliwallahs”

Before I write anything about “The Deoliwallahs”, I should mention that one of the co-authors of the book, Dilip D’Souza is a good friend of mine. I have read a lot of his writing, right from his reddif.com days.

“The Deoliwallahs” is a book about how 3000 Chinese Indians were locked up in an internment camp in Deoli, in 1962, during the Sino-Indian war. It is a collection of stories about how the lives of these Indian citizens were uprooted and could never get back to normal. These stories have never been told before, for reasons that we come to know in the book.

I first came to know about the Deoli internment camp back in 2012, when Dilip wrote about it for The Caravan magazine. I remember reading the longform article in a single go, on a cab ride through Bangalore. So, when I started reading this book, I had some idea about what lay ahead and how difficult read it may turn out to be.

Through the memoirs of the survivors who have now chosen to speak out about the camp, one gets a first hand account of how the Indian state failed its citizens. These are stories about how families were broken, kept years apart, childhoods lost and lives uprooted. The Chinese Indians were Indian citizens, many of them for three or four generations and were mostly doing well in their lives. Many accounts talk about how the police one day knocked on their doors, gave them a few minutes to pack their belongings and sent to the local jails for a few days. From there, they were then sent on a four day long train journey into the desert, at Deoli, where many spent the next four-five years of their lives. The war lasted 31 days.

There are stories about the train journey. The train had to stop in middle of nowhere to cook food, because it could not stop in towns and villages as people hurled stones on the Chinese Indian passengers. How did the villagers know that this train was carrying Chinese Indians? Someone had written “Enemy train” outside the compartments of the train. Meanwhile, a woman gave birth to a child during the four day train journey.

The stories do not start with the camp or end there. These families who spent many years at the camp were left to pick the pieces of their shattered lives. They went back to their towns and villages to find their property looted, assets stolen and facing humiliation. Many of them never spoke about what happened because they felt maybe it was too dangerous and did not want any more trouble. Decades later, they spent their lives in the fear that there may be ‘that’ knock again until many of them eventually migrated to countries like Canada or The United States.

While reading this book, I kept wondering about what made these people speak now. I mean, it has been 50 years since this happened. Why now? I did try to get some answers but the one that stayed with me was Yeeva Cheng’s heartfelt story. In the book, Yeeva is mentioned as a 19 year old. She is the daughter of one of the survivors of the camp. Yeeva was raised in the US, so her western-eastern upbringing must have added to her perspectives. Here’s a little excerpt from the book, in her voice:

I started thinking more about why these people stayed silent for so long. It made me confront my own silence. I started to rethink how I carried myself in college or for that matter anywhere else I went, especially growing up in a small town in North Carolina. We carried ourselves very quietly, and if people pushed and bullied us in school, we didn’t say anything. It made me see that you have a choice, you can either stay silent and there are good reasons that you might do so, or you can choose to say something and push back

It made me aware that there’s this delicate balance, of Western values, of speaking up and being vocal, and Eastern ones, of being reflective, of recentring yourself.

So, there is no right and wrong answer here. There can’t be one. But this above is a perspective that we could do with. I started to think more on the lines that these people, they have been carrying this personal grief, these remenants of a personal tragedy and they should be simply allowed to do whatever they want with it.

Towards the end of the book is an essay by Dilip that only he could write. It is a chapter on the Citizenship Amendment Bill of 2016 that finds parallels with what happened with the Chinese Indian citizens in 1962. It is a scathing commentary on the how India continues to fail its own citizens on the basis of race, religion, looks, language, caste and what not.

I would end this writeup saying that this book is surely not an easy read but is yet an essential read. It is that part of Indian history that people should know about. Because this is not just a story that is 50 years old. The same hate that shaped us in 1962 is the hate that is shaping us now. And as Dilip says, this is the legacy of 1962 that we are left with.