India and the Indian: Watch Fat Mama, Rafeeq Ellias' poignant film on Chinese-Indian émigrés
This is the story of Steven Wan, a Chinese-Indian. It is also the story of several thousand Chinese-Indians who were arbitrarily rounded up in Bengal, Assam and in the hill states of the Northeast and interned in Deoli in the aftermath of the India-China war in 1962.
Rafeeq's film for BBC World in 2003, Legend of Fat Mama, was the beginning of my relationship with one of India’s tiniest minorities, the Chinese community.
Kolkata’s shrinking Chinatown, ‘cheena para’ in Territe Bazar, is possibly Indian nationalism at its beguiling best.
Many Chinese in Kolkata continue to live in limbo as stateless citizens; neither British (who ruled at the time they came) nor Chinese nor Indian; but with a permit that has to be renewed every year at a high cost.
This essay is part of Firstpost’s ‘India and the Indian’ series, which examines the renewed idea of nationalism in vogue today, and what it means.
Read more from this series.
It was 15 August 1962 in Kalimpong.
A parade of schoolboys was marching past the Indian flag. Among them was a little boy, smartly turned out in his uniform, raising his hand in a proud salute. A few months later, at the height of the Himalayan winter, that little boy was taken away along with his family to the local jail in Kalimpong and then on a seven-day road and rail journey to an ex-prisoner of war camp in Deoli, Rajasthan, where they were incarcerated for several years.
His home and his family’s business were seized and auctioned.
This is the story of Steven Wan, a Chinese-Indian. It is also the story of several thousand Chinese-Indians who were arbitrarily rounded up in Bengal, Assam and in the hill states of the Northeast and interned in Deoli in the aftermath of the India-China war in 1962. Men, women, children; the elderly and the pregnant — all found themselves uprooted overnight simply because they were of Chinese origin; jeered and abused as they were taken away.
There are no official records of the specific reasons for their arrest or their subsequent release; the draconian Defence of India rules then in force was invariably the cover. Attempts to access information under RTI have been completely unsuccessful.
Like the Japanese-Americans, who were interned after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, the Chinese-Indians had no part in the war. Unlike the Japanese-Americans however (who received a formal presidential apology in 1988), their story is relatively unknown, entirely unacknowledged by every government since and sadly, without ‘closure’.
My film for BBC World in 2003, Legend of Fat Mama, was the beginning of my relationship with one of India’s tiniest minorities, the Chinese community. Years later, I followed up with a film (Beyond the Barbed Wires: A Distant Dawn) on the prison memories of a group of ex-internees who, on release, had migrated to Canada and the United States.
These films challenged every notion of identity and nationalism that I had grown up with. I realised that nationalism, at its worst, is a hard exclusionary idea with the seeds of prejudice, internecine war, even genocide. At its best, it is an exquisitely textured idea whose edges are soft and feathered, where multiple identities can meet and flourish.
Chinese-Indians are indeed a part of this rich tapestry, some of whose threads had been undone in 1962. As I travelled, met and filmed the Chinese who had migrated to Canada after the tragic war and their incarceration, I was intrigued by the deep emotional links they retained; their desire to be loved, embraced and acknowledged by the country of their birth; their love for Indian food, cinema, music and all things Indian.
Indeed in the suburbs of Toronto, they live in proximity, often marry within the Chinese-Indian community and celebrate their weddings with an evening of Indian-style ‘sangeet’.
Back home in India, Kolkata’s shrinking Chinatown, ‘cheena para’ in Territe Bazar, is possibly Indian nationalism at its beguiling best. Stella, ‘Su Lan’, owner of a Chinese grocery store, who passed away recently, was as Indian as the elderly Bihari water carrier, the traditional ‘bhishti’, who brought water in a goatskin ‘mashk’ every morning to her home just behind ‘Sun Yat Sen Street’! They scolded and bantered with each other in Hindi as she momentarily took her eyes off the last living Chinese newspaper in Kolkata.
Stella was of Chinese origin, a Hakka; but she was also an ‘aloo-luchi’ loving Bengali and a ‘dhishum-dhishum’ Shah Rukh Khan-loving Indian who religiously went to the cinema hall on Sundays after church.
She was entirely Chinese on the lunar new year, waiting for the dragon dancers to come home. She was also solemnly Hindu at the time of Puja at a neighbourhood pandal and happily Muslim when it came to enjoying biryani at the Aminia Restaurant behind New Market.
While Stella had successfully acquired Indian nationality and a passport, many Chinese in Kolkata continue to live in limbo as stateless citizens; neither British (who ruled at the time they came) nor Chinese nor Indian; but with a permit that has to be renewed every year at a high cost. Those Chinese who have successfully acquired Indian nationality had been persuaded by community leaders to come out and vote in the elections this year. But for others, their quest remains unfulfilled.
Michael Cheung, a schoolboy when he was taken away with his family and interned in Deoli, now lives in Charlotte, North Carolina in the US. He comes to Kolkata to pray at his father’s grave, at the Chinese cemetery in Tangra, and ensures its upkeep. His eyes well up as he smiles and shares the irony of how in life his father could never get Indian nationality, but in death, he is firmly a part of India’s soil.
The highest ideals of that soil need to be defended and nourished.
© Rafeeq Ellias. All rights reserved.
Rafeeq Ellias is an award-winning filmmaker. See more of his work here
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