A writer can always entertain hopes of influencing readers in a positive way. Rarer though is the writer who gets to affect the subjects of his or her literary creation in a life-changing manner. Dr Rita Choudhury belongs firmly to this group. In particular, her monumental novel ‘Makam’ continues to reverberate and grow yet more relevant to this age, even as members of the tiny Chinese-Assamese community she wrote so poigntly about, grope for whatever shards of shattered identity left to get some sense of closure . Recently, Leong Linchi aka Pramila Das from Tinsukia district set off for Chi to see her parents. The last time she saw them was over half a century back, in the painful aftermath of the 1962 war. Smarting from the Chinese aggression, the Indian government had taken the decision to uproot the small Chinese community in this part of the country and deport its members to Chi. Six years old at the time, Pramila remembers the police rounding up her parents along with other Chinese origin people and lodge them in makeshift jails. Families were torn apart, their members scattered and herded onto trains steaming off to an internment camp at Deoli in Rajasthan, then onwards to Cheni and from there shipped off to Chi. Quite a few did not survive this nightmare journey; many of those who did were condemned to live in shadows ever after. The land of their forefathers was unknown to them, adjustment was painful and their new existence mostly margil. Some of the interned Chinese origin people were later allowed to return by the Indian government, but they faced a vacuum here. Their houses and lands, their entire belongings had been auctioned off as enemy property, so they had no base at all to make a new beginning. No government support was forthcoming; the society from which they had been surgically removed had turned indifferent if not hostile.
For Pramila Das, it was nothing short of a miracle that she maged to re-establish contact with her parents after three decades. A 59-year-old grandmother now, she fervently wishes to see her parents one last time before it is too late. Her story at least has a happy ending in store, but others have not been so fortute. Of the 1,500 odd Chinese-Assamese born in India, most never got to see their deported family members ever again. Some of those so rudely scattered have also been coming to Assam in the past few years to revive memories of their motherland. Theirs would have remained an untold story had not Rita Choudhury brought it to gut-wrenching life on an epic canvas. Spanning three centuries, ‘Makam’ traces the British discovery of tea bushes growing in the wild in Assam, the bringing in of Chinese workers fleeing poverty in their homeland to help set up the tea industry here, their gradual assimilation in this land and overnight dispossession. Large, impersol flows brought these individuals in, callous government policy threw out their descendents for no fault of theirs. The small Chinese quarters in towns across Assam are but buried memories. The lessons from this dark chapter should not however be forgotten. It takes little to label some people as ‘The Other’, demonise them, refuse to see anything human in them. Violating their human rights follows inevitably. A jagged hole is thereby blown into the collective human mind, the poison continues to rankle in society and the destructive pattern repeated ad infinitum. Assam, like many other parts of India, is home to diverse peoples. Even more than at any time in the past, the bonds between them can be torn asunder by the politics of intolerance, bigotry and hatred. The greater Assamese society needs to introspect on what it lost with the uprooting of its Chinese-origin community, and look sympathetically at its surviving members searching for their roots.