The Lu family was a big part of the thriving business community in our very small town. Everyone went to AVVA. The food was comforting, and the place was always packed on cold winter days. College students would stand outside the restaurant and take out all the little change they had in their pockets to see if they had enough to share a plate of noodles.
Families came in order to get away from home, and couples came so they could be away from prying eyes, sitting in their quiet booths, the light shining through the folding screens colouring their faces a jade green as they shared a bowl of soup.
Tommy was always there to greet them all. He and his family stayed in Mawkhar, which was then mostly populated by Khasis. Chinese migrants in Shillong, unlike some of the other communities, were spread across the city.
Some stayed in Mawkhar, some in Dhanketi and others in Laitumkhrah, Khasi/Jaiñtia neighbourhoods that would have rarely allowed outsiders like Bengalis, Biharis, Nepalis and other migrants. Families like the Lus had integrated well with the Khasi/Jaiñtias in the past, many marrying and starting families with Khasis.
I was told that some Chinese families had only left Shillong during the Indo-China War of 1962.
My grandmother related to me, “I went to see the commotion in the square in Mawkhar during that time. They were all being rounded up there so they could be interned and deported. Many Khasis were crying because they did not want to see them go. People tried to discourage me from taking Victor because he was always mistaken for Chinese,” she laughed and said referring to my uncle, her son.
Although welcomed too, Chinese migrants were often still seen as outsiders in Shillong. They worked the typical kind of immigrant jobs: in the food industry, selling apparel and shoes, primping patrons at beauty salons. Some of them like Tommy became successful, while others made enough just to get by. At that time, insurgent groups, such as the “Saw Dak”, saw these thriving, prosperous outsiders as someone they could exploit. They were known to collect a “tax” from outsiders, and the Chinese were not exempt.
This became clear when they began to target Tommy and his family. I heard about what had happened by catching snippets of conversations between members of my family.
“They went to his house and asked for money te pha,” my grandmother told my aunt.
“Yes I heard kein, ni jing nuid! Any idea how much they asked for?”
“Heard it was a crore but I’m not sure.”
“Will he pay?”
“I don’t know. Ni ka pyrthei kam long shuh kum mynshwa,” my grandmother said, lamenting that the world was no longer what it had once been. My aunt nodded, and they both sighed heavily as they shook their heads in disbelief.
Another time, I listened as my father and Tommy talked outside a store in Police Bazaar. We had bumped into him, and when my father asked him how he was, Tommy almost burst into tears. “We have to sell everything and leave. We cannot afford to pay.”
I watched my father listen to Tommy and try to comfort him. I was young at that time and, although I did not know enough about the people who were exploiting Tommy, I knew that he was a nice honest man. At home, I tried to listen in on conversations about him and what was going to happen to his family as much as I could until the grownups noticed and sent me to another room. They did not like me listening in on their conversations.
Sometimes when they turned me out I pretended to leave and stood by the door, trying to hear what they were saying. They would speak then of the Saw Dak, the powerful group in Shillong who claimed to be fighting for the freedom of the state, for the good of the tribal people. They hoped to secede from India.
“Khynnah dakaid bam don kam don jam,” my grandmother would hiss.
“Ia ki Khasi! As if! They all want to make money,” my aunt added as they spoke of how these men were only looking out for their own selfish interests.
By the time I was old enough to understand their politics, the Saw Dak group became defunct. Bi, my grandmother’s helper, was patient enough in those early days to explain to me that the group claimed that they were fighting for the good of the Khasi people.
But in the name of doing good, they kidnapped people, shot them point blank, set their property on fire. They went to the houses of those they considered “outsiders” and demanded money.
On one occasion they shot Mr Arora, the car parts shop owner, who lived down the road from my grandmother. One evening as he was locking up at the end of the day, he was shot at close range just outside his shop. He died instantly. He left behind a wife and a young son.
I overheard my family discussing that he had been killed because he had failed to pay the weekly “fees” Saw Dak demanded of him. But a week later it was found that he had in fact paid them, and there had been a mix up. The group had shot a man who had paid for his safety. I always wondered if they felt any remorse.
Mr Arora’s shooting was not a one-off incident. From what I was told and what I remember, shootings were very common in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Everyone was scared, and no one dared speak up. Those who could afford to pay did so. Many packed up and left. On days like Independence Day and Republic Day there would be curfews and bandhs.
Cars were set on fire when the group was unhappy with a policy decision the government took.
If a minister visited from New Delhi there would be a bandh to protest his coming. In my young mind, I only understood the Saw Dak by the graffiti I saw scrawled across the walls in the city: “Khasi by blood, Indian by accident.” The group made as little sense to me as the strange writing on the wall.
In school my friends and I were thrilled at getting a day off school whenever a bandh was announced. We prayed for them whenever we had a test coming up.
But for the adults news of a bandh always resulted in panic. On these days I remember my mother scrambling to get to the market to buy food supplies. “We don’t have milk and bread,” she kept telling my father over the phone.
“Mom it’s just for one day,” my sister and I reassured her, but she remained stressed.
When it came to him and his family, Tommy wasted no time. He could not predict the behaviour of those men and decided to act quickly. He sold his businesses, packed up his things and went to Kolkata with his family.
He sold the restaurant to a Jaiñtia man who would perhaps never have to worry about being hounded or extorted. The police could do little to help because they feared the Saw Dak too. And so Tommy was left on his own.
Before he left we went one last time to his restaurant. It did not feel the same. Everyone was there to see him off rather than eat a meal. My father went to him and shook his hand. “Good luck, Tommy. Maybe you can come back when this has died down,” he said trying to sound hopeful.
“I would love that,” Tommy replied, his voice quiet. I felt like I was intruding as I stood there holding my father’s hand while he patted Mr Lu on the back.
One by one, everyone shook Tommy’s hand before they left. In earlier times it would be him who would go out of his way to speak to his patrons, but this time all of us stopped by the counter to speak to him.
Before he left, Tommy wrote a heartwrenching open letter that was published in the local papers. He spoke of his love for the town and its people. How he never felt like an outsider and what a pleasure it was to serve its people. He prayed that he had not offended anyone and said that he would miss this town terribly.
People still talk about him. Just like when Chinese families leaving during the 1962 war caused many a heartbreak and sadness, Tommy’s family leaving now was a blow to many in the town. He had been a part of our town, known to people, woven into the fabric of our society.
Excerpted with permission from Name Place Animal Thing, Daribha Lyndem, Zubaan.