Doing Time With Nehru
Doing Time With Nehru
It was a historic moment; after all, it had been forty years since I had left India. I pulled out my camera and was one of the first off the plane. I wanted photos of my family as they disembarked. As the passengers came off the plane, we were told to queue up on the tarmac and wait for an escort into the terminal. Suddenly, a man appeared in front of me. Middle-aged, mustached, and wearing a light khaki uniform, He approached with such authority, I was sure he was an airport official but his manner was overtly aggressive and far from welcoming.
“What is your name?” He asked. “Your camera,” he gestured while reaching out for my camera. “Give me your camera. I want you to give me your camera!”
“What? Why do you want my camera?” I resisted, holding onto it tightly.
“Don’t you know that it is forbidden to take any photos at the airport? Now, give me your camera!”I was astounded.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “but I didn’t know that it was forbidden. I only took two photos of my family as they came off the plane. All the other photos in the camera were taken in other places, not here in India.”
He insisted that I hand it over, but I held on to it. We argued. Finally, realizing that I wasn’t going to give up my camera easily, he looked at me sternly and asked: “Your name, what is your name?” I reluctantly gave it to him. “I will be waiting for you inside the terminal.” Then he disappeared just as quickly as he had appeared.
I suddenly began shaking, then sobbing, completely out of character to any one who knows me. Why did I have to come back to India? What a stupid thing to have done. Why is it that I was the only one that was targeted? (At the time, it did not occur to me that perhaps it was because I was the only one to whip out my camera and start taking pictures at the airport.) Thank goodness I had my children around me. I held my daughter’s hand tightly as the line of people made its way into the terminal. Slowly, I stopped shaking, gathered myself, and prepared for a hard battle with the official – but he never came back.
Chapter 6 — Loreto Convent
My school was called Loreto Convent Darjeeling. It was run by the Loreto order of nuns, originally sent to India from Ireland and England in the mid-19 century. Established 1847, it was one of the first Loreto schools for girls in India and in the intervening years it earned a reputation for being one of the best in the region for its excellent instruction in English. In spite of its remoteness, girls from prominent families all over India and neighboring countries, including Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, Burma and Thailand, were sent to Darjeeling to attend school. We called our school “LCD” for short, which many of us jokingly referred to as “Lunatic Cows Department” or “Lowest Common Denominator.” There were around three hundred girls enrolled at school from kindergarten through class eleven. Loreto was primarily a boarding school since two-thirds of the girls were from out of town. “Boarders” arrived early in March and returned home the last week in November after final exams. We had a three-month winter break to allow boarders who had traveled far to return home for longer holidays, but it was also because the winters in Darjeeling were very cold and the school had no central heating. Since I lived in Loreto for nine months of the year, it became my second home…
Chapter 12 — Bengali Class
On an early October morning, 1962, in Ms. Banerjee’s Bengali class, she was trying to calm a classroom full of hysterical girls. We had just learned that India and China were on the brink of war over a border dispute. There were rumors that the Indian government might close the borders, which would have serious implications for the school since many girls came from neighboring countries. If the borders closed, these girls would not be able to return home for winter holidays. I still remember Ms. Banerjee’s voice when she tried to talk to us above the nervous chatter.
“I just can’t believe you girls,” she said. “Here you are worried about whether the Indian government is going to close the borders when you should be worried about whether there might be a Third World War!”
Most of us had no clue as to what she was saying. We were in one of the remotest parts of the world, secluded in the Himalayan Mountains. How could we know what was going on beyond our small world of Darjeeling?
“Ms. Banerjee,” someone asked, “what do you mean? What are you talking about? What ‘Third World War’?”
“You girls are so ignorant, don’t you read the newspapers or listen to the radio?” She sounded exasperated. We were only twelve and thirteen-years old. Who had radios in boarding school, let alone newspapers? She must have been really upset to forget that most of us did not have access to such things.
“Ms. Banerjee, please tell us what’s happening! What are you talking about? We want to know what’s going on.”
She finally realized how truly uninformed we were about what went on beyond the walls of Loreto Convent. She tried to explain in terms that we could understand…
Chapter 20 — Darjeeling Jail
At dusk, the Chinese prisoners were assembled in the courtyard. The head jailor made an announcement that we would be leaving shortly in several army trucks and taken to Siliguri Train Station. He instructed all families to stay together. We queued up for a long time and it was already dark when the prisoners were assigned to various trucks. When our turn came, we were loaded onto a covered military truck along with a couple of other families. I was thankful that Papa was with us. It would have been difficult for my brother and me to load our belongings onto the truck by ourselves. It was dark when the signal was given to get the convoy moving. There must have been fifteen or twenty trucks, but due to the darkness it was difficult to be certain. There was much confusion because I don’t think the Darjeeling prison authority had ever undertaken this kind of mass transfer. The convoy started up the hill from the jail through the bazaar, and onto the road to Siliguri…
Chapter 22 — Camp Deoli
By late afternoon of the fourth day, the train came to a final stop. It sat on the platform for hours. It was already dusk before we were ordered to get off the train and onto trucks again and night had long fallen before our convoy arrived at our destination. We were ordered off the trucks and told to wait again. We disembarked. It felt good to be on firm ground. I looked around and saw that we were inside a large enclosure, like a military compound. It was surrounded by high barbed-wire fence. We looked at one another, then at those who traveled with us in the same compartment, and finally at those further away. It was the same expression on everyone’s face, one of amazement and disbelief. Hundreds of people were standing around looking bewildered and dazed. Eventually we learned that we were among 2,500 people who had been picked up from India’s border regions and brought to this camp…