By C. Fong Hsiung
“Ooh…look at her. She’s beautiful like a fairy.” I angle closer to the comic book and caress the picture with my fingers.
Ai-Lei sticks her head in between the page and my face. “Let me see, let me see. Ooh…Mei-Lan, look at the long hair. I wish my mama would let me grow my hair like that.”
With a huff, I lean back against the wicker lounge chair. “You’re blocking my view.”
Ai-Lei jerks her head up. I give her a withering glance and then resume eyeballing my red and gold kimono-clad princess. “When I grow up, I’m going to look like her.”
Ai-Lei gazes at me with rapturous eyes. “Do you want to be a fairy when you grow up?”
“Don’t be silly. You can’t become a fairy, you have to be born one…don’t you?”
“Umm…maybe, I dunno. I want to look like that too when I grow up.” Ai-Lei curls deep into her wicker chair and a dreamy glaze clouds her eyes.
“Mei-Lan, where are you? It’s bath time.” Mama’s shrill call jolts me upright.
“I’m coming, Ma,” I yell back, wishing Mama would stop treating me like a baby—a six-year-old baby. I sigh and give up chasing the princess in my head. I can almost feel her sash, fluttering gossamer wings, slipping through my fingers like sand. Uncurling my legs, I stretch my arms, rise up and stand at the edge of the balcony. My hands grasp the cold cement railing where, through the gaps, I can see a field of wooden planks across from the dusty path below. My seven-year-old brother is running with a group of boys on the planks while another boy gives chase. “Why can’t We-Shin take his bath first?” I think as resentment wells up in my chest and I watch We-Shin now stop to parry and thrust his hand in imaginary swordplay. He thinks he’s the hero slaying a fiery dragon. Sometimes in his pretend-world he cuts me down with blood-curdling whoops, making me believe his sword has truly felled me.
Over the boys’ boisterous play, I hear the silvery tinkle of cowbells, but I can’t see the cows. Dusk comes early in December. The milkman is heading home, and the calf must be trotting close to its mother, nosing into her milk-heavy bosom, hoping to slake its thirst. It seems to understand already that human’s needs come before its own. The poor thing eats last.
“Mei-Lan, come here this minute or you’re in trouble,” Mama hollers somewhere downstairs.
“Coming, Ma,” I yell and cast another lingering glance at the field that looks like a giant checkered carpet laid on the ground. The raw hides that had been stretched out to dry there were removed several hours ago. Now it is a playground and communal gathering place for storytelling. My kung-kung, grandpa, promised a new story for this evening. He said that he would tell us about his adventures during his travels from China to India where we now live in Calcutta in the leather-tanning community of Tangra. Kung-Kung left China on a boat about forty years ago during the early twenties.
With pleading eyes, Ai-Lei extends an arm toward me. “Can I borrow your book while you take your bath?”
I clutch my comic book to my chest. Mama subscribes to a Hakka merchant who in turn has the books shipped to him from Hong Kong. “Promise you won’t fold or tear it like you did the last one I lent you.”
“I promise. Cross my heart and hope to die.”
Reluctantly I hand the book to Ai-Lei and make my way to the stairs. As I put one foot on the first step, the last couple of tanning machines stop their incessant thrumming, and all is quiet. I continue half-way down to the landing and deep voices float up. Somewhere, mongrel dogs yelp—Mama says there aren’t any pure breeds here in Tangra. Probably fighting over a piece of bone.
I reach the ground floor and see a group of men with serious faces, gathered at the tannery’s front door.
“I received a letter today from Ah-Ping, my brother in Assam,” Uncle Chin-Li says from his rattan stool.
Mr. Wu glances up from one of the concrete benches flanking the entrance. His Adam’s apple wobbles in the wrinkled neck, and he drawls in his boring way, “Chin-Li, what is the latest news there? How many more Chinese families have been rounded up by the police?”
Oh, oh…not more war talk. It’s too scary. I should head to the bathroom right now before I get into trouble. Still, even though adult-talks sometimes make my heart race, I can’t help listening.
Then, We-Shin’s howling reaches my ears. “Ooh…my eye…my eye.”
It looks like his over-zealous fencing partner has jabbed my brother’s eye. In a flash, Mama dashes past me. Her ears are ultra-sensitive to our distress calls. Good, she’s forgotten about my bath.
Uncle Chin-Li continues as if We-Shin’s cries are nothing more than background noise. “Two more families were arrested. My brother doesn’t know where they’ve been taken to. Rumor has it that these people aren’t coming home any time soon.”
Mr. Wu says, “I heard that the Chinese are being interned in Rajasthan.”
“Why Rajasthan?” Mr. Chiu asks beside him, his voice rising higher.
“There’s a concentration camp in Deoli. The police are arresting Chinese people on trumped-up charges of espionage.”
“Bloody government,” Mr. Wong growls from the other bench. “India’s Border War with China is over, but still they arrest whole families.”
I climb up to Uncle Chin-Li’s lap and wiggle my bum until I’m comfortable. He wraps his arms around me and says, “Ah-Ping wrote that it’s only a matter of time before he and his family will be taken away too. He can’t leave as they’re being watched.”
“So, what about us? Are they going to arrest us too?” Mr. Chiu squeaks, one foot nervously bouncing up and down on his toes while his head nods back and forth.
Mr. Wu clears his throat. His wrinkled face looks grave. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to us, but I do know that no Chinese is safe right now.”
“But that’s so unfair. We haven’t done anything. There’s no spy among us.” Mr. Chiu whines.
“Ah-Ping says that the police come and arrest Chinese people with no warning. They won’t let you take anything you can’t carry yourself. The women there are sewing bags just like we are doing here, and stuffing whatever they can into these bags.”
“Yes, it’s the wise thing to do. We all have to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice,” Mr. Wu says.
A queasy sensation seems to churn in my chest and stomach. I look up at Uncle Chin-Li. “Aren’t the police supposed to arrest only bad people?”
“Mei-Lan, why aren’t you out there playing with your brother? You shouldn’t be listening to adults talk,” Uncle Chin-Li musses my hair.
“But Uncle Chin-Li, are we going to jail?”
“Of course not, you silly girl. Now run along and play catch with your brother.”
I slide down from my uncle’s knees just as Mama stops at the door, one hand clutching We-Shin’s upper arm. Mama frowns at me. “Mei-Lan, I’m giving your brother a bath first. You stay right here, and I’ll come back for you.”
Another reprieve from my bath.
I slip back upstairs to the balcony overhanging the front entrance. Ai-Lei has left, and I can make out the outlines of the two wicker loungers’ high backs. I climb up to one of them and watch the occasional lights twinkling in the distance as a car or a scooter drives by on the road, beyond the wooden planks field. Sounds of conversation hum below where Uncle Chin-Li and the other men continue to debate the Chinese people’s fate in India. I wonder what this place, Deoli in Rajasthan is like. The adults mentioned concentration camp. I’m not sure what that means. I wish I hadn’t given my comic book to Ai-Lei. But it’s too dark to see now, so forget the book.
Suddenly I realize that an unusual quiet has settled over the place. I scramble down from my chair and look down through the gaps. A dark and boxy vehicle parks below. The doors open and four men step outside. They disappear underneath the balcony, and I hear someone speak in Hindi. I can’t make out the words.
With my heart somersaulting up to my mouth, I creep downstairs. At the bottom of the steps, I see a terrifying sight. Four men underneath the naked yellow lightbulb, each tapping his palm with a baton. Four policemen in khaki uniform. Uncle Chin-Li and the other men seem nervous. Mr. Wu’s jaws grind and his Adam’s apple wobbles. Shadowy figures emerge outside and form a silent semi-circle beyond the entrance.
One of the policemen now raps the ground with his baton as he clears his throat and barks, “Looking for Mr. Shau-Min Chen. Shau-Min Chen?”
Horror fills every inch of my body. What do they want with Papa?
“Why are you looking for him?” I turn my head toward the tannery when I hear Mama’s quivering voice.
Behind her, scrubbed and fresh-faced, We-Shin gazes at the policemen with curious eyes.
“Where is Mr. Shau-Min Chen? We’re here to take him in,” the leader says with an imperious stare. I can feel the almost palpable disdain oozing from his body.
“He’s not here right now,” Mama says with a hint of defiance.
“It’s okay, Lillian, I’m Shau-Min Chen,” a quiet assertive voice says behind Mama.
Papa walks upright past Mama and stands in front of her like a shield. The officer takes a few steps forward and faces my papa at eye level.
“What am I being charged with?” Papa asks quietly.
“You are under arrest for spying against our country for the Chinese government.” The officer’s gaze wavers.
From my position, I can see Papa’s rigid spine and squared shoulders. He says, “How does a working man like me, born and raised here in Calcutta, with no ties to anyone in the Chinese government become a spy?”
“We have it on good authority recorded on this piece of paper here that you were speaking out against India.” The officer waves a piece of flimsy paper. “There’s a Chinese flag raised on your roof. What other proof do you need?”
“Sir, may I point out that there is an Indian flag right next to the Chinese flag up there? What anti-India words have I spoken? My crime, if you want to call it one, is speaking out against the War. I don’t believe that any war is necessary.”
The officer, his chin jutting forward, isn’t in a mood to debate the merits of the War with Papa. He motions his lackeys to take Papa into custody. “Enough of this talk. You’re coming with us.”
Papa raises his hands to halt them, “Since you’re determined to arrest me for something I haven’t done, please tell me where you’re taking me.”
“You’ll be interned at Deoli in Rajasthan.”
“That’s a long way from Calcutta.” For the first time Papa sounds apprehensive. “Can I have a few minutes to say goodbye to my family and to collect my things, please?”
“Make it quick.” The officer snaps his fingers.
“Wait,” Uncle Chin-Li says with a stoic expression, “please arrest me instead of my brother-in-law. He has a wife and three small children. I’m single and I can take his place.”
The officer’s eyebrows quirk upward like wings in flight. A fleeting disconcerted shadow flickers in his eyes before he says, “I can take you in too if you want, but my orders are to arrest Shau-Min Chen only.”
Papa turns to Uncle Chin-Li and grips his shoulders. “Thank you. That’s foolish and brave. I need you to stay and take good care of your sister and the children when I’m gone.”
My uncle’s mouth trembles and he clenches his jaws. “I’ll be here when you return.”
Papa’s arm circles Mama’s waist and they walk together to our room. A few minutes later the door re-opens. In her arms, Mama holds my little brother, We-Lim still rubbing sleep from his eyes. Papa is carrying two dark blue cotton bags that I had seen Mama fill with clothes and utensils only a few days ago. I had wondered back then why Mama was sewing so many bags. They stop a few paces from the officer.
Suddenly Mama’s wail pierces the charged air. Some of the women among the onlookers wipe their cheeks with their sleeves, sniffing and blowing their nose unabashedly. My hands clutch the banister at the bottom of the stairs. Nobody seems to notice me in the shadows as I watch the entire drama unfolding in front of me. Papa is not a criminal. The police are supposed to arrest thieves and murderers. This is a mistake. They must let Papa go.
Papa drops the bags and embraces Mama and my baby brother. He bends his head and whispers something to her. She becomes quiet, but her shoulders continue to shake as he rubs her back. Papa looks up and sees me. “Come here, Mei-Lan.” He beckons me with his fingers while his other hand reaches for We-Shin who is standing by the side with clenched fists.
I put a tentative foot forward. Papa says encouragingly, “Come here, my princess.”
The short distance gapes like a mile. I want to run and hug my papa, but my legs won’t move. Papa takes a couple of steps and lifts me into his arms. He holds me so tight I feel like my breath would burst through my lungs. Then he puts me down and my legs go wobbly like jelly. I’m glad his hand is gripping my shoulder, or I would surely collapse. Papa goes down on his knees and gathers We-Shin and me. I will never forget how sad he looks as he says, “Papa has to go away. Your mama is going to need all your help now. Can I count on you to be her helpers?”
We-Shin nods, his tears shining in the stark, yellow light. I knuckle my eyes, not quite understanding why Papa has to go. The terrifying sensations tell me this is real, that I will not see Papa for a long time.
Mama’s shoulders shudder violently and she releases an animal-like howl that I can’t bear to hear. Papa straightens up and holds Mama close to him. “Please don’t cry, Lillian. You must stay strong for our kids. I’ll be back soon, just wait and see. The government will come to their senses and realize this is not right,”
His sad gaze sweeps over us again as he turns. “I’m ready to go, Officer.”
I watch Papa through blurry eyes, my tears falling fast and furious. He inclines his head toward us one last time. The expression on his face is seared into my brain. Then he steps forward toward captivity with his head held up high. My papa is not a not a criminal.
My heart weighs like a brick, straining so hard against my rib cage that I think it will break off and shatter into pieces. I wish I could turn the clock back. I wish I’d listened to Mama when she called me to go for my bath. Maybe Papa would not have to go away if I’d done what Mama wanted me to do. I turn and bury my face in Mama’s shirt as I fling my arms around her waist. I hear the car door close with a thud, and I lift my head to look for Papa.
He is gone, swallowed inside by the black van. I glance up at the officer as he lifts his feet off the ground. For a brief moment our eyes lock. I hold his gaze without flinching, willing from the bottom of my soul that he would change his mind. He blinks and closes the door.
With a roar, the engine comes to life. The big black box jolts back and forth a few times. Then its headlights turn away from us. Only the tail lights are now visible. Soon, they twinkle and vanish around the corner. I feel hollow with an emptiness I cannot touch or soothe. With We-Lim still clinging to her, Mama gathers We-Shin and me. She bows her head and sobs. I wish I can wipe her tears away, but I’m too busy wiping my own.