"Weren’t we Indians?": A Photo Essay on Yin Marsh's "Doing Time With Nehru"

The Kim Brothers in New Delhi Vidura Jang Bahadur
The Kim Brothers in New Delhi Vidura Jang Bahadur

During the Sino-Indian Border War of 1962, over 2,500 ethnic Chinese Indians were rounded up without trial or due process, and transported to the Deoli internment camp in Rajasthan. Yin Marsh was a thirteen-year-old living in Darjeeling when she and members of her immediate family—including her eight-year-old brother and infirm grandmother—were arrested, incarcerated in the local jail, and sent to Deoli. In this excerpt from her memoir Doing Time With Nehru, Marsh narrates how the police came for her family and her. 

Accompanying the excerpt are images by the photographer Vidura Jang Bahadur, who returned to India in December 2005 after spending three years in China. Bahadur's initial interest in the Chinese community in India came from a personal desire to interact with them, a way to bridge his years in China and subsequent return to India. Even though the Chinese have had a presence in India for over 200 years, they started settling permanently after the communists came to power in in China, in 1949. In 1962, during the Sino- Indian border conflict those suspected of having links with China, were interned in Deoli, Rajasthan. Scarred by the memories of this era and the subsequent struggle for survival, several chose to leave India. Many who chose to remain in India were forced to start life afresh. This period brought with it significant economic and social change within what was once a closed community. Even though they still share a bond with China, India is a part of their lives and identity. To the Chinese here, India is home.

In the end, we had only one friend who still came to see us. She was the same Chinese girl I had met in Mother Dolores’ elocution class during the last year in school. She was the younger of the two sisters I sat with at the back of the classroom. She and I became close when I became a day scholar and even closer after school ended. She dropped by our house frequently when Papa was home and often stayed for dinner. After Papa was taken away she brought us news about the Chinese community, usually bad news.

She told us things like, “You know, Mr. Wang was taken away last night, and a couple of nights before that, Mr Chen disappeared. Do you know what happens? The police come to someone’s house in the middle of the night and knock on the door; the next thing you know, the father, or husband, or uncle, disappears. No one knows where they are taken. The Chinese in the community are getting nervous and dreading the ‘midnight knock’.”

We felt vulnerable as well. Popo started talking about how maybe our turn would come soon. In subsequent days, living in this uncertain, tense atmosphere, we started to suspect our days were numbered.

Mr Lee visited every one or two days. He had been a godsend ever since my father was arrested, almost a month now. He told us glumly that Papa was going to be kept in jail indefinitely. He had also heard rumours that the three of us, Popo, Bobby and me were all on the list to be taken soon. He didn’t know how soon, but he said it could be any day and that we should be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice. After we heard that, we became even more anxious. We knew now, without doubt, we would be taken away soon.

A day or two later, three Indian police officers showed up. They drove right up to Ajit Mansion in their military jeep. Since cars were not allowed into the Chowrasta area, the vehicle drew attention. We heard the commotion and peeked out the window. People crowded excitedly around the jeep to see why it was there. One officer remained with the jeep while the other two came up to our fl at. They were in khaki uniforms and appeared unemotional. They told us they had come to take us away and that we should be prepared to be away for a long time. They didn’t take kindly to our questions and answered brusquely. They didn’t know where we were being taken or how long we would be gone. We needed to take warm clothes, bedding, a few pots and pans, and other essentials needed to exist for many months. We were allowed to take one bag each and then they told us they would be back in an hour.

There were so many things to consider. First and foremost in my mind was Lassie. He was my best friend. I was worried about what would happen to him after we were gone. “What about my dog? Can I please take my dog with us?” I had asked the officer in charge. “Of course not, don’t be ridiculous!” he snapped. What about Sailee? What was going to happen to her? I looked at her and I could tell she couldn’t believe what she was seeing. We hugged and both started crying. With tears streaming down, she told us not to worry, that she would be all right and would take care of Lassie and our house until we returned.

Popo took care of packing Bobby’s and her own personal things and I took care of mine. I was sure she would pack her foot care items so that she could take care of her bound feet while away. She packed our bedding and a few pots and pans and I don’t remember much else. When we were going through our parents’ file cabinet—following Mr. Lee’s instructions to destroy or hide papers—we came across a dozen or so men’s Rolex and Omega watches among other items left over from Papa’s import-export business. I was fascinated by them and wanted one. For some reason, I thought they might come in handy so I picked three of the smallest Omega watches, one for Popo, Bobby and myself, and then I put a Rolex watch in my suitcase to give Papa when we met him again. I don’t remember what items I packed for myself, other than books, pens, pencils and a fork-and-knife set. I remembered to take sanitary napkins since I just had my first period. I only packed one month’s supply since I didn’t think that far into the future. (In fact, I never did use them. It was only later that I realised that my period had stopped for four or five months.) We packed some things for my father because when he was arrested a month before, he had left with just the clothes on his back.

While we were packing, I asked Sailee to go down to the bazaar to look for Mr. Lee and tell him what was happening. Minutes later, she returned with him. It was such a relief to see him. He was apologetic when he realized what was happening and was helpless to do anything to prevent it. We reassured him it was not his fault. He had tried hard to help us. He told Popo that he would take care of things while we were away and make sure that both Sailee and Lassie were taken care of. Many things went through my mind. What have we done? Where are they taking us? Maybe we’ll see our father in jail. I was glad my mother was not there though I missed her terribly.

The officers returned shortly after Mr. Lee arrived. They helped us carry our things down to the waiting jeep. By now there were a few dozen curious people surrounding the jeep. They watched as we got into the vehicle. I don’t know what they were thinking. I had the feeling they were in disbelief and wondering why we were being taken away. My parents had been in India for over twenty years and were a vital part of the community. They ran a successful and popular restaurant, were liked and respected. Both my brother and I were born in India. Weren’t we Indians? Why were we being treated differently? What had we done?

We said goodbye to Mr. Lee and thanked him for everything he had been able to do on our behalf. He looked forlorn standing there as we climbed into the jeep. I looked at our neighbours who were watching us being carted off like common criminals: a grandmother with bound feet, her thirteen-year-old granddaughter and her eighty year-old grandson. They didn’t look at us as old friends and neighbours. It was a different look, one of astonishment. It also seemed to say we were outsiders. A flood of simultaneous emotions overwhelmed me: bewilderment, fear of the unknown, and a feeling of shame: shame for being Chinese.

Excerpted from Doing Time With Nehru by Yin Marsh and published by Zubaan Books. 

Yin Marsh is a journalist. She grew up in Darjeeling and was forcibly incarcerated in an internment camp in Deoli, Rajasthan, as a reaction to the Sino-Indian Border War.
Vidura Jang Bahadur is a photographer. He spent three years traveling in China, where he taught English and studied Chinese.