How do you write a book about loss—a loss that’s so propulsive as to ravage the notion of home, country and identity? What do you put in it, and what do you leave out? What message will this work deliver and how does it answer the questions of the moment?
In “The Deoliwallahs—The True story of the 1962 Chinese-Indian Internment,” co-authors Dilip D’Souza and Joy Ma unpack these questions while chronicling the disturbing and fragmentary experiences of Camp Deoli survivors—people of Chinese-Indian heritage who were interned in a desert prison camp in Deoli, Rajasthan after relations between India and China deteriorated.
The book is brilliantly braided together with analyses, personal stories and commentaries, with journalist D’Souza providing the political backdrop and events leading up to the Chinese-Indian incarceration, and Bay Area writer Ma—who was born in the camp—delivering the human stories.
The term “deoliwallah” then becomes a reflexive term enveloping remembrance, endurance and an indictment against the prevailing perspectives of the time.
It began with a dispute over the border between the two countries, as it inevitably does. D’Souza’s research revealed that in 1958, a Chinese map appropriated 1,00,000 square kilometers (38,000 square miles) that India thought of as its own. China claimed that India had “gradually extend[ed] its control over territory in the east.” The Indian view, on the contrary, was that “the border has been in existence and observed for 3,000 years,” with several treaties and conferences affirming its existence.
This finger-pointing rapidly escalated to border skirmishes. Then the tenor of the dispute changed on October 12, 1962, when India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru told the press that he had given instructions to “free the country,” and the press reported this as “Nehru’s famous call to ‘throw out the Chinese.’”
Chairman Mao Zedong framed his response to this rhetoric with “a massive, pre-planned Chinese attack” against India on October 20, 1962. “Within two days, an entire Chinese division, having crossed the border and torn the Indian defense to shreds,” continued to advance aggressively, wrote D’Souza. Indian soldiers, ill-prepared for the weather and poorly equipped with weapons, lost handily to the Chinese. In a month and a day, the war was won by China, and China made the decision to withdraw its troops to “their original pre-war positions,” leaving India to “lick its wounds.”
This bruising defeat, however, needed some reprisal and India found it in the passing of the Foreigners Law Act and the Foreigner’s (Restricted Areas) Order in India, which targeted people of Chinese ethnicity in India. D’Souza wrote that “taken together, these acts formed the legal fig leaf for the Deoli incarceration.”
“When you have war situations, odd things happen, perverse things happen,” remarked D’Souza, explaining the ways that we tend to simplify the rationale behind sweeping actions taken when countries are in conflict, drawing a comparison to the US detention of people of Japanese origin in 1942, an event that occurred twenty years before Deoli, at an even bigger scale.
And as we have seen in America and Germany, memories of detention and confinement doggedly pursue survivors serving as signposts of trauma and loss.
Joy Ma excavated personal accounts of this trauma and its aftermath, tracing the journeys of Chinese-Indians who were rounded up and detained “by peeling away the layers of repressed memories,” and tracking the legacy of injustice.
An inflection point in this terrain of recollections occurred when Ma interviewed Yeeva Cheng, the daughter of Michael Cheng, who was a teenager when he was incarcerated in Deoli. With eloquence and insight Cheng described how she absorbed the emotional ordeals of her father. One particular incident stood out in her mind. Cheng’s high school class was reading a book about a group of girls going to a foster home. For the school assignment, the students were asked to come up with five things they would pack if they had to leave suddenly. When Cheng told her father about the assignment, she said that she might want to pack a book. Her father laughed and said, “We didn’t even have a knife to cut our meat or to cook our food.”
It’s perhaps interesting to note that every Deoli survivor interviewed by Ma remembered what he or she carried to the camp, even six decades later.
Ying Sheng Wong recalled how a group of soldiers knocked on his house in Shillong on 20 November in 1962, when he was 16 years old, and told the family to take “only a few belongings.”
Andy Hsieh, also a teenager, was pulled out of his boarding school in Shillong, and “packed everything they thought they needed for a journey with no certain duration,” including his football shoes.
When Stephen Wan’s family was picked up, they were told to take “a few clothes,” with them.
Effa and Jack Ma, Joy Ma’s parents, were allowed to carry Rs. 500 and one bag of personal belongings per person as well as some New Year cookies.
Keiw Pow Chen, on the other hand, remembers how the guards “rushed them out of their home in such a hurry that they ‘didn’t carry anything.’”
Many others, too, were not given time to pack, and some were still in their nightclothes when they were picked up, ill prepared for what was to come.
The meager belongings of the detainees were testimony to how confused, surprised and hopeful most of them were, tending to believe that the situation was temporary at best, since many of them had been born in India and for generations had considered India as their nation and home. They were of Chinese origin but nationally and culturally Indian. That’s why the internment became an unfathomable betrayal to many.
When I sat down with the authors, I probed the question of who has the right to tell this story. D’Souza said that when they decided that the book required talking to the survivors, it was clear that Ma, who was born in Deoli, had a personal connection to the narrative. She had that right. So, while D’Souza worked on the political details leading up to the Chinese-Indian detention, even traveling to Deoli to record his observations, Ma approached community members. People from the camp remembered her as “that little girl,” the baby in the camp, Ma said, so it was easier for her to ask the tough, often painful questions of others from the camp.
In addition to Joy Ma, there were four others born in the camp. Ma said that their stories are not included in the book, as also the stories of several others who were not yet ready to share what they have spent a lifetime trying to forget. It’s taken a long time for Deoli survivors to be willing to tell their stories, Ma disclosed. As a result, the events surrounding the detention assumed an “epic, iconic status in their minds,” she said. When Ma first started conducting interviews, she described an outpouring of “despair and hopelessness” from having kept the stories to themselves for such a long time.
At a packed book reading at the India Community Center recently, the authors asked the audience to raise their hands if they’d heard of the internment camp in Deoli, Rajasthan, and a mere handful had their hands up. In “The Deoliwallahs,” D’Souza describes how astonished he himself was in March 2012 when he was first told about ordinary people, “totally innocent people,” being sent to a prison camp in India.
Why is the Chinese-Indian incarceration not well known, I asked Ma and D’Souza? Fear of retaliation against family members in India has kept the story under wraps for years, the authors explained, leading to a conspiracy of secrecy around the event.
Both Ma and D’Souza hope that this book will lead to better awareness of the Chinese-Indian internment, and like the United States, the Indian government will come to acknowledge the wrongs of the past and begin the dialog necessary to evolving into a more compassionate and responsible nation.
Jaya Padmanabhan is a journalist, essayist, and fiction writer. She writes an immigration column for the San Francisco Examiner and her columns and articles can be found in Forbes, Next Avenue, The Bold Italic/Medium, Elemental and India Currents.
THE DEOLIWALLAHS—The True Story of the 1962 Chinese-Indian Internment by Joy Ma and Dilip D’Souza. MacMillan, 2020. Amazon: 198 pages. Hard Copy: $12.41. EBook: $9.99 License to image in the article can be found here.