Interview with Parul Kapur Hinzen ’89SOA

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Columbia Magazine: You were born in Assam, the remote region in India where your story is set, but you only lived there for a short time. What compelled you to revisit it in your fiction?
Parul Hinzen: Yes, I was born in Assam and lived there for the first two years of my life. But setting the story there really had more to do with my father, who was an accountant for the same oil company that I write about. He worked there for four years — two years before I was born, and two more after that. Growing up, he used to tell me stories about his time there, and they were always very pleasant memories. After he died in 2009, I really started to think about him and his life. Then I started to research Assam and the people that he had known there. I went back and saw it and, it was a much more complicated place than he had let on.


CM: I’m a bit surprised, after reading your story, that his memories were pleasant.
PH: Well, like the narrator in my story, he came from a totally different part of India— the Punjab, which is clear across the subcontinent. Before he started working there, his life had been in so much turmoil and India itself had been in so much turmoil. He was originally from the city of Lahore, which used to be a part of India but now is a part of Pakistan. During the partition, his family lost everything and had come essentially as refugees. So he was escaping some of that when he started working as a young man, and went to this place on the other side of the country.


CM: When your narrator arrives in Assam, he says he feels like he migrated to another country. What is Assam like now? Does it still feel very different from the rest of India?
PH: Yes, it does. Because it’s a very remote part of India, it feels like that even to people in India. It’s kind of like Alaska to the US. It’s only connected to the mainland by a very narrow neck of land — about 40 miles wide. This all happened with Partition. Part of Eastern India—Bengal— was carved into East Pakistan, and Assam was the part bordering China and Burma. It those days, I’m surprised by how much people were able to travel back and forth. A plane ride even to Calcutta, the closest major city on the mainland, could be up to seven hours long.


CM: Was it common for people to come from other parts of India to work there?
PH: Yes, it was very common. There was a lot of historic exploitation of the region by the British. It was exploited for tea, exploited for coal. The British accidentally discovered the oil as they were developing the Assam tea plantations and the coal fields. The local people, the Assamese, were seen as being either lazy or unwilling and uncooperative workers, so the British brought in a lot of workers from other parts of India. Then the Assamese people started to feel very cut out of the economy and by the 1980s, a very militant movement had started up in Assam. The Assamese were very resentful that they were getting educated in the decades following Independence, but there weren’t job opportunities because they were historically dominated by the Bengalis, whom the British had brought in to do a lot of the clerical level office work.


CM: Something I found particularly interesting about your story was the generational class distinctions amongst Indians. The younger narrator is relatively independent, and one of the few Indian workers who has a car. But the older Indian employees, even the educated engineers and scientists, were still called assistants. How did British colonialism impact the caste system? And how did it change after Independence?
PH: That’s an accurate observation. The caste system was the Indian system of division of society. But on top of that, what happened during colonial rule was that hierarchies were very conservative and very colonial, especially in a company like this, which was far away from any kind of main center. Before Independence, Indians were never hired on a professional status equivalent to the British, no matter their education. When I was there I even heard of cases of suicide. Let’s say an engineer had been educated in England and was as qualified if not more qualified than the British engineers who came up through the workforce. Often, the British had more of a vocational training than an actual university education. The professional Indians often felt very frustrated because they weren’t recognized for their abilities. With Independence, the company had to change overnight. And they did. The company suddenly started hiring Indians as what was called a Covenant Officer, which was a high professional rank. One of my dad’s friends was one of the first Indian Covenant Officers hired in 1947, the exact year of Independence, so it really all happened very quickly. It wasn’t like anybody forced the company but they knew that if they wanted to survive politically, they had to change their ways.


CM: Was your father recruited? How did he end up in Assam?
PH: A lot of the business enterprises were in the Eastern part of the country because that’s where the British had developed all the mills and quarries to exploit natural resources. His first job was in an even more remote area in the jungle; he was an accountant at a limestone quarry. It was a very small community of professionals and the treatment of labor was barbaric. He really wanted to get out of there. The Calcutta newspapers made it out to the remote areas a few weeks late, and he saw an ad in one of them for the oil company. The company was expanding rapidly. They had entered into an agreement with the government of India to expand their operations, and they got access to a lot of new territories to look for oil. But in order to be able to do that, the government of India wanted a stake in the oil business and no longer have it be a private British enterprise. So, as a concession they were hiring a lot of finance people like my dad for the new operations. This story is actually the first chapter of a novel, and I get much more into how the company expanded in later chapters


CM: Is the company still there?
PH: Yes. The new operations that brought my father to the company was basically a joint venture between the government of India and the Burma Oil Company. When the deal was struck in the early 1960s, the Indians demanded a fifty-fifty share. By 1981, the government had completely taken over. India nationalized the oil industry, so the British had to depart. This era of the late 1950s and early 1960s was the beginning of the government taking back its resources.


CM: Was the story of the cow based on something that your father told you? Or is it purely fiction?
PH: It’s not based on an event that my father told me about, but it is based on a real event that I heard when I was visiting there.


CM: When can we expect your novel?
PH: I’m working on it right now. I’ve had a lot of breaks and unexpected delays, but I very much hope to have it finished by this summer.

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