Part II

When the officials opened the coffin, a new, overpowering stench permeated through the air.  The girl’s face was tear-stained and distorted, as if she had been crying.  She had not originally been buried that way.  They all suddenly realized what had happened.  The girl had not died in the infirmary, but had been mistakenly declared dead.  After her body had been buried, she must have woken up inside the coffin and panicked, realizing that she had been buried.  She must have spent the night screaming and pleading for help before she suffocated to death.

The camp guard explained all of this to Maggie.  I never asked Maggie how he had told her all of this.  Was he apologetic?  Guilt-ridden?  Indifferent?

Regardless of how he felt, the camp guard went unpunished for his negligence.  Other camp internees heard and attested to the horror story of the little girl that had been buried alive, but no one seems to remember her name or who her family was or what happened to her aggrieved father.

Maggie ended her story with quietly telling me, “You don’t want to remember…life was so miserable.  We thought we would die there.”  For some, it is easier and less painful to just forget what had happened.  For others, it is a daily goal to forget—yet memory is a plague.

When I finally asked Maggie if she believed that a formal apology from the Indian government would mean anything to her, she thoughtfully answered, “The scar will always be there no matter what.  The Indian government put us through emotional, financial stress.  But, yes, it would be nice to at least have the Indian government recognize what happened.”

The story of the girl who had been buried alive continues to haunt me—but then I realize how much more it must have haunted Maggie and the other children in the camp.  Part of me wants to just believe that it was a rumor or mere camp gossip.  But a larger part of me knows that Maggie faced something truly traumatic as a child and had to live with such an ugly truth all her life.

“And then he heard the screams traveling from beneath the grave.”

When I open my eyes, I am finally greeted by daylight streaming through the curtains in my cousin’s room.  Though my body could use more sleep, I’m relieved that it is no longer night, no longer dark in every corner of the room.  I of course had a nightmare, which usually wouldn’t affect me too much. 

 

But I always believed that the worst nightmares are about the people you love the most.  While growing up, my mother told my sister and me a superstition: never repeat a nightmare aloud, especially when the nightmare is about someone else.  If you say it out loud, it might come true. But this nightmare had already come true.

 

It certainly didn’t alleviate my nerves when I woke up from the dream in the wee hours of the morning, while the room was dark and the rest of my uncle’s house was dead silent.  I’ve always been a bit afraid of the dark, but far away from home, I felt even more disoriented and vulnerable to my imagination and to the thoughts funneling through my head. 

 

No matter how much I tried to think of happy thoughts and fall back asleep, Maggie’s story kept pulsating at the back of my mind. 

I had been in Toronto for only one week by the time I had interviewed Maggie.  I had just started the summer’s round of interviews, and by this point, I had only interviewed Ying Sheng Ahpak, Andy Ahpak, and two of my father’s siblings.  We needed more.

Moses Ahpak and Ying Sheng Ahpak introduced me to Maggie.  While interviewing them, they had mentioned her sister—Maggie’s youngest sister was the one who was born on the train to Rajasthan.

While taking notes as Maggie told her story and occasionally fell into conversation with the others, I waited for any trademark details that would make this story uniquely Maggie’s story.  Not surprisingly, I end up recording many of the same details among all the ex-internee stories, and understandably, many ex-internees are hesitant about disclosing their memories and emotions.  In many other cases, bad memories have already been blocked out.

But in Maggie’s case, even the worst memories remained.

Maggie had been about 12 years old when she was taken to the camp with her parents and two sisters.  As an adolescent growing up in the camp, she remembered a lot of the people in the camp—and in particular, she remembered another 12-year-old girl with whom she used to play.  The girl had been brought to the camp with her father; it was assumed that her mother had either died or had not been incarcerated.

It wasn’t long before Maggie’s friend had fallen sick.  Maggie remembers that it was something minor—a cold or a fever—yet the girl was taken to the infirmary for treatment.

It was known around the camp that the infirmary had two doctors—one was fairly qualified while the other was regarded as “questionable” by many internees.  Regardless of qualifications though, the two doctors were not allowed to provide prescription medication or antibiotics and only had access to over-the-counter medication.

It so happened that the girl was given over to the care of the “questionable” doctor.  Her condition did not improve, and within a matter of days, the doctor announced that the girl had died.  Her body was laid in a coffin and the coffin was buried.  No one told Maggie what had happened to her friend.  She asked around, and finally, a camp guard came forth and told her that the girl had died and had been buried.

It was traumatic enough for a young twelve-year-old girl to learn that her playmate had died so silently and suddenly, without proper mourning or ceremony.  But the camp guard continued to tell Maggie what else he knew of the little girl.  The night that the girl had been buried, the guard had been on duty within sight of the grave plot.

And then he heard the screams traveling from beneath the grave.

The camp guard was faced with two possible scenarios.  It was possible that the girl was dead and that his imagination was getting the best of him.  And then it was also possible that the girl was indeed alive and screaming, for her life depended on it.

Faced with two possible scenarios, he figured he had two choices.  He could either assume that it was just his imagination and go on and remain at his post, or he could have run to get someone else and ask if they heard the screams as well.

Human nature would perhaps urge one to imagine the worst case scenario—that the girl had been buried alive—and act upon it.  But what happens when there is no accountability for such deaths?  What happens when an individual is given power over another individual?

The camp guard had a conscience, but he neither ignored the girl nor ran to help her.  Instead, he waited until the morning to tell camp officials of what he had possibly witnessed.  Camp officials immediately went to the grave plot and dug up the coffin.

To be continued

Back in the Swing of Things

Not even a year has passed, yet it feels like it’s been forever since last summer when I began this blog.  A few updates for my readers:

1.  I was in Shanghai last semester from August to December.  What I found out?  Despite the use of a VPN, the Great Fire Wall was difficult to navigate around.

2.  After a week of anxiety of trying to get a residency permit in Shanghai so that I could re-enter the country and after spending a night sleeping on an airport bench, I made it to Toronto for the 50th Anniversary Commemoration Ceremony on November 18th (most memorable birthday ever!)

3.  I realize I didn’t do the greatest job keeping up with writing in The Deoli Diaries and maintaining AIDCI’s website (just updated it).  That will change!

question-mark-faceThe newest story that I’m working on piecing together right now is one of the most memorable and shocking stories that I’ve heard and retold as part of AIDCI’s presentation at the Toronto Hakka Conference.  Keep your eyes out…I’ll be posting it in the next few days!