The Dragon Amid the Tigers

Ever since a weeks-long war in 1962, the influence of Chinese culture on the lives of many Indians hasn’t always been so evident

Illustration by Juan Bernabeu
Illustration by Juan Bernabeu

A fact that confounds me now, when I think back on it, is that for most of my life, China seemed to be a vast, uniform blankness. The huge space that hovered above India on maps might just as well have been marked: “Here be dragons.”

As it happens, I was born in West Bengal, an Indian state that almost touches China, and grew up in a city, Calcutta (now Kolkata), that has a small but significant Chinese community. Yet I had no interest whatsoever in Chinese history, geography, or culture. Nor, despite my lifelong love of travel, did it ever occur to me to visit, say, Yunnan, even though the capital of the province, Kunming, is not much farther from Calcutta than New Delhi, as the crow flies. Somehow Kunming seemed to belong to another world, one that was cut off from mine not just by a towering range of mountains but also by a Himalaya of the mind.

Not until 2004, when I started writing my novel Sea of Poppies, did I think of visiting China for the first time. The novel’s central characters, a couple called Deeti and Kalua, set off on a journey to Mauritius, in 1838, as indentured workers. I knew that the research for the book would take me to Mauritius—and so it did—yet it also led me in another, unexpected direction. As I got deeper into my work, I realized that the story’s background was formed not just by India and Mauritius but also by the stretch of water that separates (and also joins) the two countries: the Indian Ocean.

To write about the sea is not like writing about land. The horizons are larger, and the settings lack the fixity that enables novelists to convey a sense of place. If a ship happens to be the principal location, as the schooner Ibis is in Sea of Poppies, then you become very aware of currents, and winds, and flows of traffic. And the more I explored the background, the clearer it became that the flow of seaborne traffic in the period I was writing about, the first half of the 19th century, was not primarily between India and the West, as I had imagined, but between India and China—or, rather, one particular place in China, a city called Canton.

Tensions exist also between India and Pakistan. Both countries have large numbers of people who are bitterly hostile toward one another. Yet there is no lack of interest and curiosity on either side of the border.

In the past, I had come across this name often, without being quite sure of exactly where the city was. Now, as I began to steep myself in 19th-century nautical writing, I became increasingly curious: What was so special about Canton that the very thought of setting sail for it could induce raptures in 19th-century sailors and travelers?

Had I been at all informed about China and Chinese history, I would have known that Canton was a word Europeans once used, rather loosely, to refer to the province of Guangdong in general, and to the city of Guangzhou in particular. But at that time, my knowledge of China and its geography was so sketchy that I had only a dim idea of where Guangzhou was.

It seems to me now that my blankness in relation to China was not the result of a lack of curiosity, or opportunity, or anything circumstantial. I am convinced that it was the product of an inner barrier that has been implanted in the minds of not just Indians but also Americans, Europeans, and many other people across the world, through certain patterns of global history. And as the years go by and China’s shadow lengthens upon the world, these barriers are clearly hardening, especially in India and the United States.

There is, I think, something important to be learned by taking a closer look at this condition—not only because of its bearing on China but also because of what it tells us about the ways in which the world is perceived and understood.

On the Indian side, the memory that dominates, indeed overwhelms, all others in relation to China is that of the Sino-Indian war of 1962, in which India suffered a resounding defeat.

I was six years old then, but I can still remember my mother tearfully picking out gold bangles to contribute to the war effort; I remember my father collecting blankets and woolens to send to the front; I remember my parents and their friends arguing endlessly about the causes of the war and who was to blame for the debacle.

There is still no consensus on these issues. A 2021 study by the former head of the Historical Division of India’s Ministry of External Affairs, Avtar Singh Bhasin, suggests that misunderstandings and blunders on the part of the country’s prime minister at the time, Jawaharlal Nehru, played a significant role in precipitating the war. “It was Nehru taking liberty with the western border that had invited trouble,” writes Bhasin. “India became a victim of its wrong presumptions.” Nehru was in many ways an admirable man and a visionary statesman, yet he seems to have been peculiarly inept in his handling of this crisis. What is certain, however, is that the 1962 war was to some extent a consequence of the cultural and political shadows cast by the Himalaya—misreadings, misjudgments, and misunderstandings played no small part in triggering the conflict. And the conflict that began in 1962 has continued over decades and is still ongoing, with clashes between Chinese and Indian troops occurring regularly along the border. Nor is there an end in sight to these clashes: China is today an increasingly assertive and bellicose neighbor, and India has no option but to stand its ground as best it can.

There can be no doubt that this ongoing confrontation has added many layers of fear, resentment, and hostility to Indian attitudes toward China. The extreme rancor against China that is now increasingly evident in the United States has existed in India for most of my life. Tensions exist also between India and Pakistan. They have fought several wars, and both countries have large numbers of people who are bitterly hostile toward one another. Yet there is no lack of interest and curiosity on either side of the border. Quite the contrary: India and Pakistan have an obsessive interest in each other’s politics, culture, history, current events, sports, and so on.

This circumstance is by no means unusual: conflict often tends to cause a deepening of cultural and imaginative engagements. In the United States, for example, a surge of enrollments in Arabic language classes followed the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The flow of books, articles, and films on Iraq and Afghanistan has increased steadily ever since. Nothing like that happened in India after 1962. Instead of a spike in interest, there was a spasmodic recoiling, accompanied by an upsurge of shame, suspicion, and fear. After the war, which lasted only a few weeks, India’s small, scattered communities of Chinese-origin migrants became scapegoats for the disaster.

The roots of India’s Chinese communities go back to the late 18th century, when the first Hakka migrants settled near Calcutta. Over time, the community thrived; it ran several schools, temples, and newspapers, and many of its members became successful professionals and entrepreneurs. Many Chinese Indians never visited China and had no connections with that country; a substantial number were anti-Communists. Still, the 1962 war was no sooner over than the Indian government passed a law allowing for the apprehension and detention of any person suspected of being of hostile origin.

Thousands of ethnic Chinese were forced to leave India; many became stateless refugees. Thousands more were interned within India, remaining in camps for years without trial. When they were released, most returned to find that their homes and businesses had been seized or sold off. For years afterward, they had to report monthly to police stations. The atmosphere of suspicion extended even to the few Indian scholars who studied China.

In the years after the war, Calcutta’s ethnic Chinese population fell in number from 20,000 to 10,000. Many of those who remained were forced to relocate from the old Chinatown, in the city center, to Tangra, a swampy marshland on the urban periphery. It is a testament to the community’s resilience and enterprise that this neighborhood has become a vibrant new Chinatown, dotted with factories, workshops, temples, and restaurants.

The scapegoating of the Chinese-Indian community after 1962 is, without a doubt, a very ugly chapter in the history of independent India. But India, too, has paid a price for it, Calcutta most of all. The 1960s and ’70s were exactly the time when diasporic Chinese communities were bringing about an economic transformation in many parts of Southeast Asia by funneling in foreign capital and by creating new businesses and industries. Had the Sino-Indian community not been devastated by the 1962 war, it might have helped revitalize Calcutta, too.

I was forcibly reminded of this in 2010 when my wife and I spent a few days in Coloane, at the southernmost tip of the Macau Peninsula. Our tranquil, sun-bathed hotel stood above a sandy beach, commanding a spectacular view of the sea; its kitchens produced some of the finest Macanese fare in that famously epicurean city. One morning I discovered, to my surprise, that the hotel’s proprietor, a woman in her mid-50s, had grown up in Calcutta: she spoke fluent English, Bengali, and Cantonese (but not Mandarin). Her family had owned restaurants in Calcutta, she told me, and they had always wanted to run a hotel as well. But after 1962, they had been compelled to leave. It had taken many years of struggle before they finally managed to realize their dream—except that their hotel was in Macau, not Calcutta.

What part, then, did the 1962 war play in shaping my view of China? That it played some part I do not doubt—but the most notable thing about my perspective on China, really, was that it scarcely existed. And this was, I think, the result of a certain way of perceiving both China and the world in general: it is an outlook in which the West looms so large that it obscures everything else.

The presence of the West is inescapable across the Indian subcontinent, whether it concerns language, clothing, sports, material objects, or art. It has long been a default assumption, among Indians as well as many westerners, that the transformation of social, cultural, and material life that occurred in the region over the period of colonization was largely due to the process of westernization. Underlying this, in turn, is the assumption that modernity was an exclusively western creation that was transmitted to India, and the rest of the world, through contact, like “a virus that spreads from one place to another,” as the historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam has put it.

Another part of the world that has had a long and visible presence in the Indian subcontinent is the Middle East. Across the region, Middle Eastern influences are apparent everywhere—in art, architecture, food, clothing, and language. The vocabularies of the major subcontinental languages all draw massively on Persian and Arabic. Even as a teenager, I was aware that I used dozens of words of Arabic and Persian origin while speaking Bengali, Hindi, or English. But I would not have been able to name a single word of Chinese origin in any of those languages; indeed, the very idea that I might be using words of Chinese derivation in my everyday life would have seemed bizarre. The same was true also of everyday objects and practices.

Not until I visited China for the first time, in September 2005, did I discover how profoundly mistaken I was.

That first visit to China was revelatory in many ways, even though I spent only a few weeks in the country and almost all of them in Guangzhou. But my epiphany did not occur while I was in China; it happened after I left China for India.

One day, I was sitting in the study of my family home in Calcutta, drinking a cup of tea. This ritual was as much a part of my everyday routine as getting out of bed; I’ve sat at that same desk, in the same chair, with a tea tray in front of me, thousands of times.

That day was somehow different. When I looked into my cup of tea—or cha, as it is called in Bengali—I suddenly remembered a word that I had recently used in Guangzhou: chah. I looked at the cup again and saw that it was made of porcelain—china in English, or chinémati (Chinese clay) in Bengali. It struck me then that this, too, was something that had entered my orbit through Guangzhou, which for centuries had exported vast quantities of chinaware to the world.

Sitting on the tea tray, along with the cup and saucer, was a bowl of white sugar: this is arguably, of all flavorings, the most beloved of the Indian tongue. And what is it called? In Bengal, as in much of India, it goes by the name cheeni—which is but a common word for “Chinese.” I had been using this word all my life, yet it had never occurred to me to wonder about its origins. And then there was the tea tray, a cheap lacquerware object, of a kind that is very commonly seen in India. This, too, was so much of a piece with my surroundings that it had never stood out or raised any questions. But on that day it conjured up visual memories of the collections of lacquerware I had recently seen in Guangzhou: I realized then that the tray might also have Chinese antecedents.

I looked around that room, and suddenly I could see China everywhere: in a jar of peanuts (which are known in Bengali as chinébadam, or “Chinese nuts”), in chrysanthemums in a vase, in goldfish in a bowl, in envelopes and incense sticks. It was as though an invisible hand had appeared in the room, pointing out a whole range of objects that, in their very familiarity, had sunk so deep into my consciousness as to evade notice. These things—tea, sugar, porcelain—had never meant anything to me in themselves: they were just things, inanimate, silent, and devoid of communicative ability.

A few weeks later, on returning to my home in Brooklyn, I had the same experience in my study there. Apart from a similar ensemble of things related to tea, I noticed an old rug, a paperweight, and of course, a plethora of gadgets and devices all Made in China. Everywhere I looked, there was something, old or new, that harked back to China.

What dawned on me then was that certain objects are themselves the material, silent equivalent of words spoken by invisible, spectral forces and agencies that often form our lives without our being aware of it. In a strange reversal, the inanimate articles around me suddenly became my teachers, showing me that my physical existence spoke of a past that was completely different from the histories I had read. In my mental universe, China almost didn’t exist; in my material world, China was everywhere.

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Amitav Ghosh is the author of the Ibis trilogy, comprising Sea of Poppies (shortlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize), River of Smoke, and Flood of Fire. His other books include The Circle of Reason, In an Antique Land, The Glass Palace, and The Great Derangement. This essay is adapted from his new book, Smoke and Ashes: Opium’s Hidden Histories, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.


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