We are excited to bring you an excerpt from Yin Marsh’s incredible memoir about her time in Indian internment camps during the Sino-Indian war. When the war broke out in 1962, Marsh was one of the over 2,000 Chinese-Indians rounded up, jailed, and transported over a thousand miles away to the Deoli internment camp in the Rajasthan desert. Ironically, Nehru – India’s first Prime Minister and the one who had authorised the mass arrests of ethnic Chinese who had
settled in India for years – 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, Yin 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.
In this excerpt, 13-year-old Yin, her grandmother and eight-year-old brother are rounded up and sent to jail in Darjeeling.
* * *
We were driven down the very road we had walked on every day for the past month. The jeep arrived at Darjeeling jail. This time we were hustled in instead of having to wait outside while our food was delivered to our father. We were surprised to see dozens of other Chinese people already there, waiting in long lines, including entire families: parents, grandparents and children. As I watched, I noticed that once the families were checked in at the table, the men and the women were separated, men through a door on the left, and women through the door on the right. It suddenly dawned on me that because of my short hair and somewhat unfeminine attire, I was probably going to be sent through the men’s door. I was horrified and started panicking, “Popo, Popo, you must tell them I’m a girl, tell them I’m a girl!” At first she had no idea what overcame me but then she looked in the direction I was looking and realized why.
There is an explanation for my fear. As I mentioned before, I had become a big fan of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series. George was my heroine and I wanted to be just like her. Just before my mother left town, two years prior to our arrest, I asked her if she would cut my hair really short, like a boy’s. I also asked if she would have trousers made for me. She was curious about this sudden request so I merely told her it was the new style. After that, I wore pants all the time and was always pleased when people mistook me for a boy. Now, it seemed possible this could backfire and my mistaken identity would get me sent to the men’s side of the jail.
As we stood in front of the check-in table, the man in charge, predictably, started to send me through the men’s door. I held on to Popo’s arm tightly. In her mixture of Chinese and Hindi, mostly Chinese, she said, “She’s not a boy, she’s a girl. You must not send her in there.” The man looked at me skeptically but still tried to make me go through the men’s door. Still holding on to Popo’s arm very tightly, I shouted in Hindi, “I’m not a boy!”
Several women and girls, who had already been checked through and were waiting nearby, had been observing the commotion. When they heard me shout they realized that I was a girl so they backed us up and all started shouting in Hindi, “She’s a girl! She’s a girl!”
Finally, after several minutes of shouting and crying, pushing and pulling, the man relented and motioned for me to go with my grandmother. Since Bobby was only eight he was automatically allowed to go in with us. There were many other little boys there as well. If the boys looked to be adolescents or teenagers, they were sent to the men’s side. I did not leave my grandmother’s side for the rest of the evening.
* * *
There were about fifty or sixty women and children in one large room. We were each given army blankets and told to sleep on the concrete floor. We didn’t get any food or water but no one seemed to care. It had been a long and trying day and we were all emotionally and physically exhausted. All we wanted to do was to lie down on the floor and go to sleep. I fell asleep quickly.
The next day after the sun came up, we were herded into an open courtyard. It was good to see the daylight but when we looked around we realized that we were indeed in a prison. The compound was surrounded by high walls. In one corner, there was a watchtower and a guard on duty. Only by standing in the middle of the courtyard could one see the boundary of the botanical gardens on the hill outside the walls. I thought I saw Sailee coming down to see us with Lassie. Maybe she came hoping to get a glimpse of us. I waved frantically and got Bobby to wave as well. We thought she waved back, but it was probably my imagination; after all, I believed that she did not know where we had been taken.
Bobby and I went looking for a bathroom and found two, filthy, Indian squat-style toilets. I had always been squeamish about Indian toilets and these were particularly grungy. We hadn’t had anything to eat or drink since leaving home, so, luckily, we didn’t have need to use them often. Shortly after we were all outside, there was a big commotion at the centre of the compound. We saw dozens of men and women lining up to get breakfast. They turned out to be the same group that had been arrested the day before. Families that were separated the night before were reunited in the courtyard. Popo told us that we should get something to eat. We got in line, and when we finally reached the tables where food was being dished out, we saw three men plopping ladlefuls of some awful-looking, bad-smelling gruel from a huge cauldron into whatever container we could get our hands on. We had nothing with us so a man who had finished eating gave us his large tin can lid. The jail attendant plopped some gruel onto it and we carried it back to Popo. Bobby was enthusiastic about trying it. I looked at him in disgust and couldn’t believe he liked it. I refused to eat. It smelled and looked so awful, it made me want to puke.
“Kuai Kuai, you should eat a little,” Popo tried to coax me again, using the Chinese term of endearment. “You don’t know when our next meal will be.”
“I would rather starve to death than eat that stuff !” I told her with indignation. “That looks like slop for pigs.”
To set an example, she put on a brave front and tried eating the gruel. She could barely eat it. Only Bobby didn’t seem to mind. After he filled his tummy, he went off to explore the rest of the jail grounds.
When he returned he told me, “I visited a couple of prisoners and I think they are mad, especially this one woman. She stares at people with such crazy eyes, and acts just like a wild animal. I was near her cell when some of the big boys started teasing her and making fun of her.”
“That was mean, why did they do that?” I asked him.
“I guess just to see her get angry. When she got angry she pounced on her window bars like a wild animal and started throwing her poo at the boys. Th is made them laugh and tease her even more. After a while they got bored and left her alone so I went up to her and sat quietly outside her cell.”
“You sat outside her cell? Weren’t you afraid she’d throw poo at you too?”
“No. By the time I came up to her cell she looked exhausted and had calmed down so I just sat outside her window and looked at her. I felt sorry for her. After a while she started talking to me. We talked for several minutes. It seemed like she just wanted someone to listen to her and so I listened.”
Papa told us afterwards that many of the inmates were mentally ill and should have been in a hospital rather than in jail. He told us the story about his cellmate, a Bengali tailor, put in jail because he was accused of stealing the clothes he had made for a client. One of his customers had ordered a suit and given him a little money to get started. After completing it, he took the suit back to his customer who refused to pay him the balance and, instead, accused him of taking too long. The tailor became enraged; he needed the money to feed his family. He took the suit back again and sold it to someone else. Then, his customer reported him to the police; the tailor was arrested and thrown in jail.
By the time Papa was imprisoned, the tailor had been there for three years without hope of ever being released. He was becoming crazy. Papa told us that when he was first locked up, the tailor picked grass and white flowers from the yard and offered them to my father. Another time he poured cold water on Papa’s head. Papa reacted angrily at first, but after the prison guard told him his story he felt sorry for him. The guard also explained that the tailor had never seen a Chinese person before and so he thought my father was some sort of god; that was why, in his own mind, he was making an offering. Papa shook his head and said the government was just hopeless. The tailor was one of the cellmates with whom my father had shared the food we had brought to him.
After breakfast we heard conflicting reports that circled among the people mulling about the courtyard. One suggested that the prison authorities were getting ready to relocate us to another prison; another was that we were going to remain in Darjeeling jail indefinitely; still another rumour was that those of us who had relatives taken away weeks earlier would soon be reunited. About mid-afternoon there was a different kind of buzz in the air. People were excited about something. As we tried to find out the cause, we saw new people among us. Then, there he was, standing in front us: Papa had been released out to the courtyard and had found us.
“The prison guard informed me and others already in jail this morning that there were many new prisoners brought in last night. He told me that members of my family might be among them and that’s why I came looking for you. I hoped I would not find you all. I’m sorry you decided not to follow your Mummy’s instructions and now you are in jail too.”
“Papa, we really wanted to go to Mummy but we felt we just couldn’t go to Nepal and leave you here and Popo by herself at home. Don’t feel bad. We are happy now that we are finally together again.” He was moved by our decision even though he felt it was the wrong one.
He gave us big hugs. For the first few moments the three of us forgot we were in jail, we were so happy to be reunited. We suddenly remembered Popo and immediately went to look for her. Amid the confusion and excitement, we found her sitting calmly meditating on a bench in the shade. She was so relieved to see Papa and I also felt a great relief as if a heavy weight had been lifted off my shoulders. He was now there to make the decisions and I could go off and play. Well, not exactly play, but at least I could join Bobby in investigating the jail. He was anxious to show me all that he had discovered that morning, including the mad woman.
The rest of that day, we told our father everything that had happened since his arrest. Again he expressed his regret that we had missed the opportunity to leave India to join our mother, but we could see how moved he was that we had given it up to stay with Popo and protect him. I told him how helpful Mr. Lee had been—the only person to come to our aid. Papa then told us the latest rumour he heard from the prison guards the previous evening: it was that all the Chinese people in jail would be relocated that very day. No one knew where we would be taken.
Doing Time with Nehru: The Story of an Indian-Chinese Family, by Yin Marsh, Zubaan Books. Rs 495.
Yin Marsh (wearing a cap and muffler in the photo) was born in Calcutta in 1949, lived in India until the age of thirteen, and then emigrated to the United States. She received a Bachelor of Arts Degree in East Asian Studies with a minor in Mandarin Chinese from American University, Washington, D.C., in 1971. She taught Korean and Chinese post-doctorate visiting scholars at the University of California, Berkeley, and has worked as a visual artist. She lives in Berkeley, California, with her husband, a retired foreign service officer. Marsh is a part of the Association of India Deoli Camp Internees 1962, and has travelled to India to raise awareness about the injustices that took place within and beyond the walls of the Deoli concentration camp.