A day etched in his memory
Kisan Upadhaya was sobbing. Overcome with emotion to see his mother Umoti Devi and sister Maya Devi after more than four decades, tears were rolling down his face. “Didi, [sister in Assamese],’’ he kept saying, hugging the sister he last saw when he was six years old.
His mother too was sobbing, using the corner of her sari to dab at her tears. “I can’t believe I’m seeing my son after so many years. Never did I imagine, not even in my dreams, that I would get to see him again,’’ she said.
It was a reunion made possible by Facebook, emails, a TV station, several friends, and one man’s determination to find his family at whatever cost.
“For some reason, I was sure I would meet them some day,’’ says Kisan, 48, a computer engineer in the US. He has written a book titled The Last Orange about how he traced his family.
“It is absolutely amazing to get a hug from my mother after so many years. All this is yet to sink in. I can’t believe it.” Kisan Upadhaya still remembers the day it all began. He and his family – which included his father Indra Lal Upadhaya, mother and sister – were living in Guwahati, in the northeastern Indian state of Assam. It was the summer of 1969 and he was four years old. His father and his then eight-year-old sister Maya had gone to the market while he was at home with his mother, playing in the yard. “I’ve kept an orange for you in the kitchen,’’ she told him. “Go and eat it and don’t come out until you finish.”
Overjoyed at getting a treat, Kisan ran in to eat the fruit. A few minutes later, he popped his head out of the kitchen to tell his mother he had finished, but he couldn’t find her.
“Ma,’’ he called out. Not getting a reply, he shouted for her. He searched their modest house but couldn’t find her. Panic setting in, Kisan started to cry. Hearing him, neighbours joined the search but Umoti could not be found anywhere. After his father, a police officer, returned home, he too launched a hunt for his wife but she had just vanished.
A grief-stricken Kisan could not fathom why his mother had abandoned them. “I remember thinking I hadn’t done anything wrong; I hadn’t been up to mischief, I had always listened to her, then why did she leave us?’’ he says. Much later Kisan would learn that his mother had abandoned them, unable to live in what she said was an abusive relationship.
Although the search continued for Umoti, she could not be found. A week later, his father sent Kisan and Maya to stay with his sister in Nepalgunj, Nepal. As his police job involved travelling to different parts of the state, sometimes for days at a stretch, he felt the children wouldn’t be safe alone at home.
But the children’s aunt, unwilling to shoulder the burden of looking after two small children but reluctant to say no to her brother, left them in a care home in Kathmandu. It was a very basic place that offered only shelter. The children had to find work to earn money for their food.
“Maya worked as a domestic help in houses, and in the evenings she sat on a pavement selling flower garlands to devotees visiting a nearby temple,’’ recalls Kisan. “Although only eight, she would collect firewood from the nearby forest and carry it back to town to sell it to get some money to buy food for both of us.’’
Kisan, just four, found a job in a roadside tea stall washing dishes. “I earned around Rs16 (in today’s terms about Dh2) a month,’’ he says. It was a paltry sum but together with the money Maya earned, it got them two meals a day.
Life was tough and there was always the threat of abuse by older street children. “It was a struggle,’’ says Kisan. “We lived in constant fear of the bigger children or ruffians ill-treating us.’’
One day Kisan accidentally broke a glass while washing the dishes and the incensed stall owner threw him out. With no place to go Kisan followed a group of street kids and lined up in front of a shrine where food was