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.”
A day etched in his memory
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 being distributed to the poor. “Devotees often distributed food to the poor in temples and I used to join those children making a dash for the serving every day.”
He wasn’t lucky every time. Several nights he and his sister went to bed hungry when she could not earn enough money to buy them food.
To make matters worse, in a winter with ice-cold winds they slept in the open shelter. Such conditions took their toll on Kisan’s health and he caught a flu that soon became a fever.
His sister tried to look after him, but she couldn’t give him medical attention because she didn’t have any money. His condition soon began to worsen. With nobody at the centre to help, he continued to suffer in silence.
“The shelter was close to the banks of the Bagmati river in Tripureshwor, in Nepal, where bodies were cremated,” says Kisan. “With each passing day, I realised I was getting weaker and very ill and began to wonder when my body would also end up on the river bank. But through it all Maya cared for me like no other. And she was only eight years old at the time.”
When Kisan’s condition started deteriorating, Maya carried her brother to a local hospital where she pleaded with the doctors to admit him and treat him. Taking pity on the children, the doctors took him in.
“I was diagnosed with pneumonia but at the hospital I got a second chance at life thanks to good food and medicine – and most importantly thanks to Maya for taking me there at the time,’’ says Kisan.
The long road to recovery
It took close to six months for him to recover completely and while Maya initially visited him regularly, the frequency soon dropped. And there was a reason: she was reclaimed by her aunt from the home and sent away to work as a maid with a family in another village.
Once Kisan recovered, doctors sent him to Mendies Haven Children’s Home, a charity in Nepal for orphans and abandoned children.
“I didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye to Maya. She came to know of my departure and that I was at the children’s home when she visited the hospital months later,” says Kisan.
Growing up with other children there, Kisan was enrolled in school, where he excelled.
“Of course, I did miss my sister a lot and used to wonder where she was and whether she was happy,’’ he says.
Then one day a couple of years later, Maya arrived at the children’s home and asked the authorities to allow her to take her brother with her. She said her aunt had contacted her and she was willing to take the children back to her home in Kathmandu.
“At first I agreed to go along with my sister, but on second thoughts I changed my mind,” said Kisan. “At the home, I was fed, clothed and educated. I did not want to forsake all this for an uncertain life. Memories of those days when I went without food and slept in the open in the cold kept haunting me.”
Fighting back tears, Kisan watched Maya leave. “I just hoped she would reach my family and bring my father soon to take me home. But it never happened.”
That was the last he saw of her for 40 years.
Kisan would later come to know that his father had remarried and although he tried to find his children a couple of times, he did not succeed and gave them up as lost.
Kisan, meanwhile, graduated in science from Tribhuvan University in Nepal. During his spare time, he worked as a tourist guide and also assisted Dr Dick Marten, a GP at the Mendies home, as a trainee nurse. He even helped out in the home’s kitchen as a cook.
“Those days, I aspired to become a doctor,” he says. However, when the cook at Mendies Home left, Kisan was asked to help out in the kitchen.
“I had cooked on several occasions at Dr Dick’s house so I knew what to do,’’ he says. “Also, what attracted me was the deal I was offered by the home management: If I cooked for a year, I would be sponsored for an education in the US.”
The home authorities kept their word and in 1987 Kisan was sponsored by a loving couple – Dr Frank Starmer and his wife Ellen from North Carolina – to attend college at Durham Tech. “Dr Starmer was a very loving man. He taught me nothing is impossible. He believed life’s struggles are mere challenges that can be overcome with hard work. While their daughter Rachel helped me with my English homework, Mrs Starmer offered to pay for guitar lessons.”
For pocket money he delivered newspapers and tended neighbours’ gardens at weekends.
After the course at Durham Tech, Kisan earned a degree in electronic engineering from Duke University. Today he continues to work there as an assistant engineer.
It was at Duke University that he met Pam Fox, a student there, whom he married in 1995. They adopted Sudheshma, a little girl from Nepal, in 1997. Their son Kevin was born in 1999.
Yet, one thing continued to bother Kisan.
“I wanted to find my father, mother and especially Maya, who loved me and took care of me during life’s dark moments,’’ he says. But he didn’t know where to start. “I contacted several people I knew in Nepal but nobody seemed to have an idea about where Maya was.’’ Attempts to contact his aunt were unsuccessful.
The search gets serious…
“I then decided to go online to see if I could get any clues to my family’s whereabouts,’’ says Kisan. He found the first link in the chain when he came across the Facebook profile of a Nepalese school teacher called Deepak Wagle, who came from the same village as him in Nepal. Kisan sent him a message saying he was desperately searching for his family in Assam and Nepal.
Deepak promptly agreed to help. “Although I’d never met Kisan, I wanted to help him because he appeared to be desperate to find his long-lost family,” says Deepak.
“I put up a post on Facebook detailing Kisan’s story and seeking information about his father, a former police officer in Assam.”
However, the going was not easy. Kisan could not remember if his father’s name was Indra Prasad Upadhaya or Indra Lal Upadhaya. Neither could he remember his mother’s name.
“However, he was sure that his father was a police officer,’’ says Deepak.
After several false starts, Deepak chanced upon the Facebook profile of a man named Pranabjyoti Goswami, the Superintendent of Police in Assam, and asked him to help find Kisan’s family. Pranabjyoti agreed.
Believing somebody in Kisan’s family could still be in Assam, the officer sought the media’s help and approached News Live, a local TV channel in Assam, with Kisan’s story.
The channel broadcast the story along with Kisan’s photographs of his teenage years, which Kisan had sourced from the care home and sent to Deepak.
The breakthrough came after Bal Ram Sharma, Kisan’s paternal uncle, called the studio. He had seen the programme and was keen to reunite the family. He had details of the family: Umoti, he said, had remarried and was now living in a remote village in Nepal, while Maya was married and living with her husband and three children in Tinsukia, Assam. Indra Lal, Kisan’s father, had died several years ago.
News Live arranged a meeting of the trio in the virtual world on August 28, 2011, a date Kisan is unlikely to forget.
“Over Skype from the US, my mother’s face was not clear and I could not talk to her properly due to poor network connection,” remembers Kisan. “But I was so happy to see her – even virtually.’’
Two weeks later, he flew with Pam to India to meet his long-lost family.
“Words cannot describe my emotions on meeting my mother and beloved sister after more than 40 years. We just hugged and cried. It was something I had been waiting for for decades. When I look back, I think of all the years that have gone by that were heart wrenching. I was like an orphan with nobody to call my own.
“While growing up at the charity and later in the US, there wasn’t a day when I didn’t think about my sister. She looked after me like a son, caring for me during the most difficult times.
“I’ve tried to put down all those thoughts in my book The Last Orange. The title says it all – my life changed after I had that orange in our house in Assam 40-odd years ago.
“Although the book is detailed with tragedy, I don’t want readers to feel sorry for me because there are millions of other Kisans and Mayas out there who still are suffering. I hope this book will become an inspiration to many.’’