THERE’S NOTHING quite like a wintry Sunday morning in Kolkata’s bustling Chinatown, where, amidst the aroma of soya sauce and sesame oil, India’s magical diversity reaffirms itself. Sun Yat Sen Street, named after the “father of modern China” is where it all happens, where you best get the feel of a “china-para”.
But it is a fragile celebration of diversity for India’s tiniest minority, whose lives were severely disrupted during the 1962 Sino- Indian war. Many Chinese (including those of Indian nationality) were picked up by the police and interned in camps in Deoli, Rajasthan, their property confiscated and auctioned. Others were deported by sea or simply pushed over the borders; the rest awaited the dreaded midnight knock. That is when the first wave of migration began — largely to Canada but also to Europe, Australia, Southeast Asia. Kolkata’s economic decline in later years was another catalyst.
For someone who has been frequenting Sun Yat Sen Street and Chattawalla Gully for close to three decades, there is joy and sorrow during each visit. The joy of meeting the extraordinarily wellread Seu Lan (Stella), who runs a beautifully maintained Chinese provisions store and totes up your bill on an abacus; the 80-year-old Lee Kar Sheong who practises feng shui and still rides a bicycle from Tangra (the other glitzier and more prosperous Chinatown).
The sorrow of learning that the elderly Chinese gentleman selling prawn wafers — eternally framed in the green doorway — is no more; that more families have migrated. These people and others inhabit my documentary The Legend of Fat Mama and now my book. They were anxious and hesitant at first, then warm and welcoming. They wanted to forgive,to forget; be acknowledged as equal citizens.
The experience taught me how complex and many-splendoured identity can be. The people of Chinatown have a Chinese identity, but they also have a Bengali and Indian identity. Stella loves aloo loochi and singharas, and, in Tangra, there is a Chinese Kali temple. In distant Toronto, where most Indian Chinese live, Chinese supermarkets sell tandoori chicken; Indian Chinese marry Indian Chinese; and Hindi film songs are performed at their weddings.
Nobody knows their precise numbers: estimates suggest less than 5,000 live in Kolkata. One Chinese newspaper closed down a few years ago; the other gamely survives with a circulation slightly over 500 and two elderly calligraphers composing the news. The tanneries are languishing — the customised shoe shops on Bentinck Street can’t compete with mass produced footwear.
The local government has supported the building of a Chinese gate at the entrance to Tangra, but beyond the token red gates the lack of civic services remains unchanged in both Tirreti Bazaar and Tangra. Kolkata’s own version of chow mein however, tossed in the air by a Bihari vendor at every street corner, flourishes.