Mr. and Mrs. Tang of Shillong

Mr. and Mrs. Tang are a quiet, elderly couple. When I first arrived at their home, they looked slightly uncomfortable and hesitant. I could tell that they were somewhat wary of what I was going to ask of them. For their sake, I have given them pseudonyms in this narrative.

©Association of India Deoli Camp Internees 1962

10 July 2012

Ying Sheng Ahpak and his wife, Moses Ahpak, the couple and I sit on the couches. Mrs. Tang nervously putters around at first, turning on a light so that I can see my notebook, even though it is still light outside. Ying Sheng Ahpak’s wife speaks with her, relieving us of silence. They had known each other back in Shillong. Ying Sheng Ahpak and Moses Ahpak sit together on the couch and converse. The TV set is still on, with a game show flickering in the background. The contestant on the show is struggling to figure on the key phrase. I glance up at the jumble of letters on the screen and can pick out the key phrase: Worth the risk. How appropriate.

The side conversations come to a hush, and everyone looks at me expectantly. Mrs. Tang’s eyes are round and wide, and I worry that she is afraid of remembering. A part of me feels terrible for doing this to so many people; most have struggled so hard to forget about Deoli Concentration Camp. A larger part of me fears that I will collect these stories only for myself. I am not sure why the board of directors, Fuji, and my father has so much faith in me, and I constantly question what they could possibly see in me. And then I coldly remember that no one wants to help us.

I always hate the first questions of an interview. Besides being mechanical and clinical, these first few questions force me to talk, and I have grown into a habit of only speaking when I absolutely must. But once the first few questions are over, a story forms and I gratefully listen.

Mr. and Mrs. Tang were both born in Calcutta. They don’t mention much about their life before their move as a married couple to Shillong in 1959. They simply mention that they were involved in the shoe business between China and Tibet, but due to fallen relations between China and Tibet, they had to move to Shillong.

The couple was taken to the camp on November 20th of 1962. That evening, they answered a knock at the door at two in the morning. A police officer stood in the dark and instructed Mr. Tang and his parents to prepare to leave. He didn’t give much of an explanation as to why they were being taken or where they would be taken.

Three hours later, the military personnel came to take Mr. Tang and his parents away.   When Mrs. Tang heard the officer mention that only her husband would be taken away, she insisted that she and her children accompany him. The officer at first tried to persuade her to stay behind in Shillong; she spoke with him in Nepali, and so he was convinced that she was a local woman instead of a Chinese, like her husband. Despite the officer’s attempts, Mrs. Tang planned on keeping the family together. Both Mr. and Mrs. Tang and Mr. Tang’s parents were taken with their four children, ranging from a four-year-old child to a mere five-month-old infant. At the time of their arrest, the officer promised that the family would be returned home within a week. He told them not to pack anything. Believing that the man would be true to his word, the family didn’t pack anything except a few sets of clothing.

While most ex-internees remember being taken to a local jail, the Tang family was taken to a penitentiary where other Chinese-Indian families were kept. They stayed there for a week and were not fed well. Though the children were so young and though Mrs. Tang was still nursing a five-month-old infant, each individual was only given one meal per day. Each day, the food would be distributed, but prisoners sometimes had to fight each other to get a decent portion. And even then, the food was very watery and lacked in nutrition. Surviving on only one meal per day, Mrs. Tang’s body was malnourished and began to go dry, and the baby cried with hunger. There was no baby food and milk was very rarely distributed.

Mrs. Tang pauses before continuing with her story. She goes quiet and speaks in Hakka. I don’t completely understand Hakka, but I hear the words ‘seen ku’ and know that the memories are hurting her. Moses Ahpak translates for me, “She doesn’t like talking about all of this.”

When she says this, I don’t have the heart to keep pressing her for the details that might be helpful for my own research and for the paper I hope to write with Fuji.

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I smile and turn to Moses Ahpak. “Don’t worry. I think I have enough details about the camp. I don’t want her to remember if she doesn’t want to. Maybe she can instead tell me about life after the camp instead.” Moses Ahpak agrees. But I already know that whether I ask her about the camp or not, she will later on remember it in the privacy and silence of her home.

She continues. The family was released sometime around October of 1966. They were fortunate in that they were allowed to return to their hometown of Shillong. By this time, the family acquired two new members while living in the camp. Another daughter was born in 1964 and a son was born in 1966. But Mr. Tang’s parents had decided to return to China when China sent three ships to pick up Chinese-Indians who wanted to return to their country of origin.

When the Tang family returned to Shillong, they found that their shoe shop had been confiscated by the Custodian of Enemy Property. The only compensation that the family received was about 500 rupees, which was only a fraction of the thousands that the building and merchandise were actually worth. Nothing else was given back to the family, not even the sewing machines.

It goes without saying that life was hard after returning to Shillong. Mr. and Mrs. Tang had to work hard in order to regain what had been lost. But their story is unlike other internees’ stories in that Mr. and Mrs. Tang were offered help—and they accepted it. Though the couple had struggled to make ends meet, the local Khasi people in Shillong and the missionaries there were extremely kind and generous. Many of the local Shillong people were Christians, as were Mr. and Mrs. Tang. With Christian connections, the family was able to send of all of their children to missionaries’ schools. The family was particularly grateful to their landlord. This landlord had helped them throughout their entire internment. After the Tang family had been taken to Rajasthan, they managed to write a letter to their landlord. The landlord worried about the family and offered to send them supplies, which he did for the next four years of internment. When the Tang family returned to Shillong, he did more than just offer them a rent-free place to stay—he turned the first floor of his house into a home for the family.

The Tangs’ experience with the Christian Khasi community was a unique one. Most of the Hakka people in India identify themselves as Catholic, but for some reason, many of them did not accept help from missionaries and the Christian community. It seems that many Indian Hakkas converted to Christianity for the convenience rather than for their spiritual needs; indeed, many are baptized as Catholics, but continue traditional ancestor veneration practices. Most homes that I have visited still bear the traditional ancestor alter, and families routinely offer prayers. Curious about the Tangs’ religion, I asked them how they converted to Christianity. The woman explained that she had been baptized at a young age. She was four months old when she became very sick. A priest from the Sacred Heart Church of Calcutta cared for her. He was a Belgian priest who could speak twelve languages, including Chinese. After caring for her, he told her she ought to become a Christian, and soon after, the entire family was baptized. The man became a Christian just before being taken to Deoli. Rumor had it that those who converted to Christianity would not be taken away to the camp, and so he converted. It apparently did him no good until after the camp.

During the first few months after their return to Shillong, the Tang family struggled financially. Each day, they had to ask neighbors and friends to borrow money, and by the end of the day, they had to pay it all back. However, it was truly remarkable how generous the community was. The family often went to the same people to ask for money, and the family would always willingly loan them the money.

Not only were the local Khasi people very close-knit and generous toward the ex-internees, but the Chinese-Indian community in Shillong was suddenly united after the 1962 internment. During the internment, the Hakka and Shandong people became particularly close to each other, inviting each other to parties and weddings and other social gatherings. There was also more intermarriage between the Shandong people and Hakka people; in the past, the groups were very exclusive in their marriage selections. Ying Sheng Ahpak adds in for emphasis, “In the past, a Shandong person might walk past a Hakka person’s store and not even say hello to us.”

The Tang family’s income mostly came from making shoes (they were employed by another family) and hand bags, as well as from vending street snacks such as paan and betel nuts. Though the children were fortunate enough to go to school, they had to learn how to barter chicken eggs to buy fresh milk. Mrs. Tang would also grow garden vegetables and mushrooms and sell them in Calcutta.

As Mrs. Tang is explaining the family’s financial struggles, Ying Sheng Ahpak interrupts and points at Mr. Tang. “Ask him about his invention!” I look at Mr. Tang, interested that he hasn’t said much up to this point. He casually says, “Oh, yes. I used to sell bags.” Ying Sheng Ahpak seems more eager to explain. In Shillong, Khasi men and women traditionally love to eat betel nuts. With this in mind, Mr. Tang designed small leather pouches that could be strapped across the body. When he peddled them from door-to-door, many Khasi women found them very quaint and cute and eagerly bought them. While I am not looking, Ying Sheng Ahpak procures a small woman’s shoulder bag from the corner of the room and sports it. “See, it was a little smaller than this, and could hold the nuts. It had a small place for a knife, too, because you need a knife to peel the nut. It was very funny; all the women wanted a bag.” He smiles and pretends he is a lady, daintily taking an imaginary nut from the bag and offering it to us, and we all laugh at his animation.

I always enjoy Ying Sheng Ahpak’s company. He is the most animated, high-spirited and passionate member of AIDCI, in my opinion. He has accompanied me to nearly every interview, and when the interviews go quiet, he is always quick to prompt us with stories that he heard from different regions. During our interview, he brings up the story of Francis Chiang, a story that appeared in Outlook magazine. Recognizing the name, Mr. and Mrs. Tang reveal that Francis Chiang is their son-in-law. Francis was originally from Calcutta, but he had been called to Shillong to care for his aunt, who was very old and sick at the time, and his uncle, who was paralyzed. Mr. and Mrs. Chiang explain that because Francis’ uncle was paralyzed and unable to walk, the police dragged the poor man in the dirt to the hospital without a stretcher or a vehicle in which he could be safely carried. When the government refused to care for the old couple, officials called Francis to come to Shillong and care for them. These two were the only people in all of Shillong who were not taken to the camp.

As life got better for the Tang family, the children grew up and managed to migrate to other countries. One son went to Austria. A few went to Canada. A few stayed behind in India. They all pitched in to help their parents move to Canada in 1997. One of their daughters did particularly well, considering that she had lived in Deoli Camp and at one time didn’t have milk to drink; the girl was able to study in Bangalore and later studied nursing at Michigan University, a feat that was almost unheard of in the ex-internee community. The daughter has been practicing nursing in the US for the past fifteen years.

Since their move to Canada, Mr. and Mrs. Tang have gone back to India twice; once to see an ailing daughter and again to see their grandson’s wedding.

Over an hour has passed by, and I know it’s time to wrap up the interview—the couple looks exhausted. I end the interview with the last question. “Do you still consider India your home?”

Without any hesitation, Mrs. Tang nods. Moses Ahpak doesn’t even have to translate the question. She tells me that she has lived in Shillong altogether for forty-five years. The Khasi people were kind, Christian people. I smile, understanding how kind the people in Shillong had been to her and her family.

A large part of me is relieved and glad that there was a happy ending to this interview. I leave her home, hoping that something good will come with these memories—for her and me both.


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