A day etched in his mem­ory

Friday - - Society The Big Story -

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

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