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Doing Time With Nehru: The Story of an Indian-Chinese Family by Yin Marsh

Published by Zubaan (2015)

Available on Amazon

About the book

The midnight knock on the door and the disappearance of a loved one into the hands of authorities is a 20th-century horror story familiar to many destined to “live in interesting times.” Yet, some stories remain untold. Such is the account of the internment
of ethnic Chinese who had settled for many years in northern India. When the Sino-Indian Border War of 1962 broke out, over 2,000 Chinese-Indians were rounded up, placed in local jails, then transported over a thousand miles away to the Deoli internment camp in the Rajasthan Desert.

Born in Calcutta, India, in 1949, and raised in Darjeeling, Yin Marsh was just thirteen years old when first her father was arrested, and then she, her grandmother and her eight-year-old brother were all taken to the Darjeeling Jail, then sent to Deoli. Ironically, Nehru – India’s first Prime Minister and the one who had authorized the mass arrests – had once “done time” in Deoli during India’s war for independence. Yin and her family were assigned to the same bungalow where Nehru had also been unjustly held. Eventually released, Marsh emigrated to America with her mother, attended college, married and raised her own family, even as the emotional trauma remained buried. When her own college-age daughter began to ask questions and when a friend’s wedding would require a return to her homeland, Yin was finally ready to face what had happened to her family.

Extract from the book:

Chapter 24: Doing time with Nehru

It was the middle of the night when our group was directed to Camp Four, listed as “Darjeeling camp” because we were all from the Darjeeling district. It was a long walk in the dark from the inspection headquarters. When we got there, each family was instructed to choose a bungalow among thirteen or fourteen similar buildings. All of a sudden, there was a mad dash to pick the best one. At first we had no idea what was happening, but then we realized what others were doing. In the midst of the frenzy, we chose Bungalow No. 2 because it was closest to the gate. Popo was extremely exhausted and could hardly take another step on her little bound feet. All she wanted to do was to sit and put up her poor tired feet. We later learned that Bungalow No. 2 was where Prime Minister Nehru lived when he was interned by the British years before, so we felt very privileged. It felt like we were “doing time with Nehru.”

In the days that followed, my father was chosen to be the liaison between Camp Four and the commandant. From his frequent meetings with the commandant he learned that we had been sent to an internment camp located in the desert outside the small town of Deoli, in the State of Rajasthan in Western India. We called it “the Camp,” and to this day my brother and I still refer to it as “the Camp.” The British had constructed it at the turn of the twentieth century as an internment camp for civilians. Insurgents and rebels, or anyone the British deemed troublemakers, were interned here. Nehru had been the most famous “guest” of the British. Ironically, Nehru was Prime Minister when the 1962 Sino-Indian War broke out, and the order to intern Chinese was issued.

The camp in Deoli was perfectly suited as a place to hold Chinese prisoners since it was already an established internment camp. Located in the Rajasthan Desert, Deoli was hours from civilization and any attempt to escape was futile because of the hostile landscape. Since it was situated far from any town, no attention was drawn to it. Most Indians who lived in or around the Deoli area were unaware that the camp existed because prisoners were always transported at night. If they did know anything about the camp, they didn’t talk about it.

Well-fortified, the camp had been designed as a high-security detention center. It had three sets of barbed wire. The outer fence was about twenty-feet high; the middle fence consisted of a continuous roll of barbed-wire about five feet in diameter; and the inner fence was about ten- to fifteen-feet high. Guard towers were located every hundred feet around the perimeter of the grounds. We learned from the camp officers, that the guards were instructed to shoot anyone attempting to escape.

Camp Four, or Darjeeling Camp, was small compared to the other sub-camps. It was at one end of the grounds. It had a number of self-contained bungalows. Camps One, Two and Three were large, with a series of large barrack-type buildings in each one. They were on the opposite side of the grounds from Camp Four, at least a mile away, or so it seemed. Internees arrested from other parts of the border regions, like Assam, were housed in these other camps. When I went exploring with the kids from Camp Four, I noticed that the barracks appeared to be segregated by gender although young children — both boys and girls — were allowed to be with their mothers.

The housing units in the Darjeeling Camp were rectangular buildings constructed out of concrete blocks. Each had two or three units that could house two or three families in relative privacy. For instance, our unit had two bungalows separated by a thick wall about twelve-feet high. It didn’t go all the way up to the ceiling, but stopped about a foot below. It made it a perfect place for roosting pigeons!

We were in Bungalow No. 2 and another family next door was in Bungalow No. 1, a mirror image of ours. As you came through the door into our bungalow, you entered a small dirt yard. At the left end, there was a shower stall that accommodated a squatting-style toilet. At the other end, in the right-hand corner, opposite the entrance, there was a wood-burning mud stove. From this little yard you entered through an inner doorway into our sleeping quarters, a large room on a mud floor. There were four single military cots in the room with a small table and two chairs. The family in the adjacent bungalow was also a family of four: a father, mother, and their two sons. We discovered in subsequent days that it was the same family that had joined our truck on the convoy from Darjeeling to Siliguri, the family that came with many provisions.

Two windows in our sleeping quarters looked out onto the bleak compound where barbed-wire fencing was visible around the perimeter. The windows had wooden shutters to keep the extreme heat out during summer months, and the cold wind during the winter. Since the camp was located in the desert, the climate was extreme: very hot during the day, very cold at night. We had arrived at the beginning of December so the weather was still pleasant, mid-sixties to mid-seventies during the day and mid-forties to mid-fifties at night. The cold nights didn’t bother us since we came from a cold climate. My father later told us the summers were unbearable as the temperature rose to 118° F during the day and dropped only to the mid-seventies at night.

That first night, we slept soundly since we were totally exhausted. The following morning we were wakened by gentle coos. For the first time, we became aware of our living conditions. The bungalow had not been used for some time. Everything was covered with dust. Worst of all, the concrete floor was covered with pigeon droppings. Popo was horrified and immediately set us to cleaning the place. It took us most of the morning to make it livable and we discovered, to our delight, that we had cold running water in the shower stall although we had to use buckets or tin cans to flush the toilet.

Bungalow 2

Later that morning we received word that food was being served at either Camp One or Camp Two. Both were a long distance from our camp. Bobby and I ran to Camp Two to look for the food since it was a little closer. It still took us about fifteen minutes to get there. We were quite hungry as we hadn’t had a proper meal since we had been taken from our home six days prior. By the time we arrived, there was a long line of internees still waiting for food, which had already run out. We were told to return later. Disappointed, we walked back empty-handed to our bungalow. The next time Papa went with us and we were able to bring Popo a ration of chapatti and undercooked dhal. In the beginning, the Indian camp cooks didn’t know how to gauge the amount of food to cook and the supply always ran out. Also, because they were under pressure to feed hundreds of people still waiting in line, the cooks never allowed enough time for the lentils to become fully cooked. We were fed undercooked dhal for the first several meals. Papa also decided we needed to go much earlier in order not to miss out on meals. In the first two weeks after we had settled, Popo sent us out to look for firewood for the mud stove. She was tired of trying to eat the undercooked dhal and hoped to re-cook it to a softer consistency. The hard lentils always got stuck between her false teeth and gums and caused great irritation. (I remember when I used to come home from school for the holidays, Bobby and I would often take turns to purposely annoy our grandmother; when she got mad at us, she would crunch down on her false teeth and they would chatter against each other. We delighted in hearing the sound of her chattering teeth and would scream with laughter, which made her even madder.) When we first started looking for firewood, there was an abundance of sticks and dead branches on the grounds outside our bungalow and there was no problem collecting wood. But, as people from the other houses also started collecting wood, within days there was not a stick to be found.

Our living quarters

By the fourth day, the camp kitchen finally figured out the right amount of food and the right length of time to prepare it. We also got our first ration of meat curry! We were all very excited and rushed back with it as fast as we could. We had not eaten meat since we left home and when Popo dished out the food that evening we couldn’t wait to dig in. What a disappointment! The curry was more like thin gruel than stew. We noticed all sorts of stringy and tube-like things floating in it. It seemed that the entire beast, innards and all, were thrown into large vats and cooked. The bits that looked like real meat were so tough, it was like chewing on old leather. We asked Papa what the tube-like things were and he couldn’t say. It was a shock when we found out later that we were being served old camel meat.

After a few meals of this camel meat, people in the camp rebelled. They were incensed. “What is the Indian authority thinking?” they asked each other. “It’s bad enough that Chinese don’t eat camel meat, but to serve us the entire carcass, innards and all?” It caused quite an uproar and the camp authority became nervous. Apparently, there had been a dilemma in the camp kitchen. The Hindu cooks were vegetarian and did not handle any type of meat at all; the Muslim cooks, of course, refused to handle pork, which was the favorite meat of the Chinese. The camp officials thought camel meat would be a good compromise; besides, camels were large beasts and could feed many hundreds of hungry people. They had not anticipated the Chinese reaction.

Someone in the camp found out that my father spoke English and had previous dealings with the Indian bureaucracy, so a group of people appointed him as our spokesman. “Tell them we will go on hunger strike if we are served camel meat again.” Initially, my father resisted being the spokesman but in the end he accepted the role and asked permission to speak to the Commandant of the camp. He turned out to be the same man who had welcomed us the first day. After the meeting, things got straightened out and the kitchen stopped serving camel meat. His role of spokesman, my father told me later, was the beginning of a great friendship between him and the Commandant.

Shortly after the near hunger strike, my father ran into a man who used to be his chief chef at the “Lighthouse Restaurant,” a second Chinese restaurant my parents had opened — this one in Calcutta — shortly after Pu-Chin left for America. They had it only for two or three years and I was never told why they closed it. Running into Chef Liu was a surprise. Liu had sought out my father after he had heard that my family was also interned. It was like a family reunion. He had been a superb chef when he worked for the Lighthouse but my father had to let him go because he had a short and fiery temper. After we closed the Lighthouse Restaurant, we learned that Chef Liu had moved to the State of Assam and our family completely lost touch with him. He was arrested with thousands of others from that region and when we arrived at the camp he had been assigned to Camp Three. He begged my father to help him get transferred to Darjeeling Camp and told us that his life had been threatened. I don’t know what the reasons were; Papa speculated that his temper might have gotten Liu into trouble again, and this time with a group who threatened his life. Liu insisted that he needed to be transferred right away. Papa promised to help.

My father spoke with the other families in our camp and came up with a plan whereby the Darjeeling Camp could be in control of its own meals instead of relying on food from the main kitchen served at the other camp sites. He introduced Chef Liu to the group and explained Liu’s situation, that Liu had once worked for him and was an excellent chef. If they agreed, he would ask permission from the Commandant to have Liu transferred to Darjeeling Camp and we would have our own cook. He would also ask the Commandant to have our food rations supplied directly to our camp and we would take responsibility for our own meals. There were about thirteen families in our camp as compared to hundreds in the other camps. He pointed out that it would be advantageous to us since we would no longer have to queue up in long lines for meals every day. Most importantly, he said, we would be eating better. By this time, my father already had had a number of meetings with the Commandant, and he told the group that he found the man to be reasonable. There were some misgivings among a few of the families but in the end they were all convinced it was a good idea. The Commandant granted permission and Chef Liu was transferred.

Immediately, our meals improved. Popo was so pleased. To this day, I still remember Chef Liu’s eggplant curry. It was the best!

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