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The Last OrangeA Lost and Found Memoir
By Kisan Upadhaya
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Kisan Upadhaya
All right reserved.
Chapter OneEarly Life: My life as street child after being abandoned by my own family
One hot summer morning in 1965 at 6 a.m. in Assam, India, I was born in a small village called Dergaun, Assam.
Assam is located south of the eastern Himalayas and forges the Brahmaputra and Barak river valleys along with the Karbi Anglong and North Cachar hills. Assam is surrounded by six of the other seven sister states: Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mainpur, Mizoram, Tripura and Meghalaya. These states are connected to the rest of India via a narrow strip in west Bangal called the Silguri Corridor, or in other words, the "Chicken Neck." Assam also shares international borders with Bhutan and Bangaladesh, adding diverse culture and heritage from Southeast Asia. Assam became a part of India after the British occupied the region following the First Anglo-Burmese War of 1824-1826. This state is known for its tea estates, large and old petroleum resources, Assam silk and its rich biodiversity. Many may not know that Assam has successfully conserved the one-horned Indian rhinoceros from near extinction, along with the tiger and numerous species of birds, and it provides one of the last wild habitats for the Asian elephant. The rich wildlife has proved to be a popular destination for tourists wanting to get a glimpse of these rare animals. Once, Assam was known for its Sal tree forests and forest products which have been depleted now. In fact for thousands of years auromere ayurvedic incense has been made by hand rolling each stick of fragrant dough from the fruit of the Manjal tree.
Assam is very green. It receives a lot of rainfall and is full of coconut, palm and banana trees everywhere you look, reminding me of the Garden of Eden. The lush green mountains reflect silver at sunrise and are golden during the sunset. Right beneath the magnificent mountains lay the foothills with all kinds of wild flowers. The landscape of the mountains, foothills and the valley looks as if a smart architect sat down with plans to render this place a paradise.
Yet it was considered a third world country at the time of my birth during the 60s. The harsh and very hot weather and the lack of education contribute to a very primitive lifestyle for so many. Poverty, disease, death, filth, the crippled and sick who lie and beg on the side of the streets display the sorrow of the nation. Less privileged kids beg for food and money, and the looks on their faces reveal that they are seeking Divine deliverance. Little children run among the city dumpsites in search for something to eat. A dog licks the wounds of a restless soul who lies helpless in the streets. Flies lay their eggs in the wounds.
Many children end up in the train station, where some look for jobs and others become vagabonds, crisscrossing the country on its vast and intricate railway network. They live miserably, enduring constant hunger and malnutrition. Their lifestyle exposes them to drug trafficking, organ trade, prostitution and slavery.
The police don't do anything to protect them and many end up getting further abused by the law enforcement. Girls are raped and murdered and these crimes are never reported. Kids go missing never to be found again. If they are lucky enough to endure and survive the phenomenon they find work as rag-pickers, or work in a tea stall as I did later in the chapter. As you can imagine street life can be very unpleasant and risky as these children become vulnerable to drug dealers who coach them to go out and sell drugs on their behalf or else. Some of these kids live in groups among themselves with at least one elder among the bunch who is the strongest and the ring leader. Various different street kids live a gang-style life and other street kids better not cross their paths. Most fights often break out for small bites of food and a few rupees. Yet the bond between or among themselves is very strong and they do share with each other.
My life was straight out of the film Slumdog Millionaire in the slums and streets of Kathmandu during the 60s. I was not born in the streets yet I ended up being one of many unfortunate street kids. When you come from a very poor violent and broken home, where else do you go for refuge? Many are even abducted and pushed into begging and some are even forced into the streets by their own parents who aren't able to feed them. Daughters in some situations are prostituted by their own parents for cash in order for the parents to survive. These girls are especially more prone to the symptoms of AIDS. Life is rough and harsh even today in most parts of India and even in Nepal such practices still exist.
As these kids roam the streets of big cities of India such as Delhi, Mumbi, Calcotta, Chennai, or even Guwahati where I am from, they end up marrying another poor street girl with a similar life and no home to live in. They then become homeless adults, to bear children on street corners and raise them on the sidewalks of major cities. Far too often, the cycle repeats itself with their children as these parents who have nowhere to go nor any place to live. The harsh brutality, the lack of education all lead back to the street and their sad, lonely, neglected lives continue on.
My journey in life began in the foothills of beautiful Kahilipara Guwahati, in a small three room tin-roofed house.
I lived there with my mother and my sister. My mother was a housewife who raised two kids as best she could. Dad was hardly home during weekdays since he worked for the state and would come home during weekends only. Without Dad's help, Mom fulfilled the daily obligations of raising us kids and taking care of the animals and farm.
I remember walking barefoot to school few kilometers away from our house. I managed to go to school all day long, but I do not recall learning anything. My parents did not really care whether I went to school or goofed around elsewhere. My daily activity was not of their concern. I remember sitting on the floor while my teacher stood for hours trying to make sense of something that did not make any sense to me. All he had to teach with was a chalkboard, for there were no books available. Homework was to be done on a slate board I carried around to school. I do not recall doing any homework. During the monsoon (rainy season), the ceiling leaked and all the kids including myself became drenched with the water. Summertime was very hot, while winter was bitterly cold. There were no chairs or student seats; we all sat on the mat on the floor for hours until school was over. Yet no kids complained about the situation for that is all we had and knew nothing better. Although my sister and I walked to school together, we did not attend the same school. We did not bring lunches and no lunches were provided. What little we had to eat before school needed to last until we returned home. Most of the time I went to school hungry.
Nearby was the Assam Police Station Battalion #4 in Kahilipara Guwahati, where my father worked as a police officer until he retired. Right past the police station was a big open field where I used to play football (American soccer) as a child.
Standing just five feet tall, my mother had Mongolian features, long hair, and a golden complexion. She was perfectly rounded and had the sparkling black eyes of a dove. The freckles on her face reminded me of the stars in the night sky. A pair of dimples added extra charm.
My mother was married at 16 to my father, Indra Lal Upadhaya, which was not uncommon in their remote Himalayan village in Nepal. My mother gave birth to my older sister when she was 17 and had me three years later in 1965. As I mentioned before she was a housewife who cooked, cleaned and looked after me and my sister along with our dad.
During the time when Dad was at work and my sister and I were at school, my mother usually took the cows and goats into the woods. A few times I told my mama that I did not feel good and that I did not want to go to school. One day I played sick and she took me with her to the woods to feed the cattle. As I was running around and playing, I ran into a robin's nest: "Mama, Mama, look what I have found!" "A baby robin," she replied. I insisted my mother take the baby robin home so that I would have a pet and she agreed. My mother catered to that robin so well I could hardly believe it. She would chew on some corn and beans and feed the robin with her mouth just as a mama robin would have done. The robin was tiny and it could not fly. Slowly it grew older and started to learn how to fly. I had never dreamt my robin would fly away, leaving me behind, but it did.
My father was a police officer in Guwahati's fourth battalion district and worked along the border. He was hardly ever seen in casual clothes; he always wore his green khaki police uniform. He was a very cheerful person, but his long, thick mustache made him look a little mean. He worked at the border area of Assam, and I hardly ever saw him or got to spend quality time with him as a child. But when he came home, he would pick me up, put me on his shoulder, and carry me into the house. Every payday he would buy candies for me and my sister. What little time he spent with me was enough to make me believe that he loved me dearly and I loved him too.
My sister Sani, three years older than I, always wore a red sari, as was common for girls and women. Like many other young girls, she was self-conscious about how she would look. She would put on a red dot on her forehead to add a little cuteness to her features. She was clever and smart as well as pretty. She and I cared for each other a lot. I was closer to her than to my mom and dad. There was nothing I would have not done for my sister if she needed any help. She was not just my sister, but my best friend.
Being a girl in a poor Asian country left her with no choice but to follow in my mother's footsteps and take care of the household work. Sani went to school until about Grade 3 and then helped out at home. She spent a good deal of time in the kitchen with my mother.
As for me, I was a smiling and joyous little boy who had nothing to worry about, for I was the pet in the family when it came to my mother. (My sister was the pet when it came to my father.) I had thought that I had the best family among all my friends in the neighborhood.
I was about four years old when I started noticing my father coming home drunk and beating our dear mother. One gloomy evening as Sani and I were finishing dinner in the kitchen, my dad came home drunk. My mom and dad went into the bedroom Sani and I shared. We could hear him shouting at my mom and beating her. We ran into the bedroom and watched our dad kick our mom on her bosom, grab her by her hair, and bang her head on the wall. Sani started to cry. Neither of us could stop our father. We just watched helplessly as he tortured my mother. The neighbors could not hear the fighting because our small house was situated at the center of my dad's property. We were alone.
I began to cry. Seeing me cry, Mama came toward me to hold me in her arms, but dad pulled her away from me and slapped her in the face again. The fighting went on and on. It was a one-sided fight. Mama did not fight back. My dad was a police officer and knew how to fight hard without hurting his own hands.
In a rush of fury and confusion, I ran toward my dad as he was about to strike her. I caught his right hand and bit him. I watched his hand bleed. I was young and my teeth were just beginning to get strong and sharp. My father turned and slapped me, leaving five finger marks on my cheek that lasted two days. It was first time that my father ever slapped me, but after I had fallen on the floor, the fight was over. I felt like a man who had stopped a war.
I really thought I had a good and happy family until that fight and all the fights that followed. The joy and happiness I once felt in my small family faded away. Mama was no longer the same cheerful person she had been. Daddy looked hazardous and mean whenever he was home. Sani who had started to bloom as a lotus flower lost her smile and appeared pale as the days went by.
My dad started to live with other women (at least that is what I thought at the time). When he came home to us the physical and emotional abuse was a great burden for my mother. "I can't take this anymore," my mother said. Not just once or twice-it was constant battle every weekend. Should she leave and abandon the children or face ill treatment? Deep in her heart lived a silent wound. Perhaps it was her passion for her kids that kept her going as she weathered the punches.
My mama's life was marked by sadness, sorrow and discontent. She was not educated, could not read or write, was poor, and could not afford to take care of us on her own. My mama knew that Sani and I sensed something was terribly wrong. Domestic violence is very common in Asian countries, even more so than in Western countries. When a man marries a woman in India, he owns her. For some men, a woman is nothing but a toy. Women generally don't fight back. They let the men have their way.
My mama suffered physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Every weekend when Dad came home from being stationed along the border, the first thing he did was start drinking. Drinking led to verbal abuse, verbal abuse escalated to explosive, violent outbursts, and finally he beat, slapped and kicked my mama. Overwhelmed with fear, my mama made up her mind to run away like the street kids do. One weekend when Dad had gone shopping with Sani, my mother asked me to go into the kitchen and eat an orange. She instructed me not to come out of the kitchen until I was done eating. By the time I had peeled off the orange and managed to finish eating it, she was gone.
I never saw her again. I could not comprehend why. Why did she leave without taking us with her? What did we do wrong? Why this? Why that? Only questions lingered in my small head. The sudden departure of my mother left a scar in my heart that has haunted me still to this day. Then I camouflaged my heart to hide my pain and anguish. I could never let it be known what I was feeling deep inside.
Before my mama left us I do not recall the details of who was who in my extended family. At four I only knew my mother, father and my sister. However there was one man who I thought was my uncle. We used to call him Jungay Mama meaning "uncle with big mustache." Later on, we found out Mama married this "uncle."
By the next week my dad sent Sani and me to be with Aunt (name unknown) and other relatives in the mountains of Nepalgunj, Nepal. My dad's younger sister traveled to India and took us to her home in Nepal. I was to find out later in life that the original plan was to take the entire family back to Nepal, including Dad. But because of Dad's work he was not able to go with us.
The trip involved almost three days of train rides and lots of walking. We stayed with her for three to four months. During our time with her, I took cattle to graze in the fields, and sometimes I would ride on the back of a water buffalo while it grazed in the field.
After several months we moved again to a remote mountain at Parbat district in Nepal near Kathmandu, where more of my dad's relatives, my grandparents and "uncle" lived. My aunt had been instructed to care for me and my sister until our father could come and get us. She was supposed to take us directly to our grandparents' place in Parbat district of Dhawalagiri Zone. Instead, we ended up at her house in Nepalgunj, Nepal.
Nepal is a country of soaring mountains, beautiful valleys and subtropical jungle. Its steep terrain, lack of natural resources and inaccessibility had meant that it had remained one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world in the 1960s.
Parbat district is one of the 75 districts of Nepal in the western mountainous area. At that time, it was the least developed districts in Nepal, about 114 km west of Kathmandu. Since the district is hilly, the land is not very fertile and it yields very little. The district is very mountainous and not very easily accessible by cars during that time. Sani and I walked up and down the rugged mountains for what seemed like days. The journey was very hard for me. I had sandals on, definitely the wrong shoes to climb the mountains of the Himalayas. My feet were sore, and I was very tired.
Excerpted from The Last Orange by Kisan Upadhaya Copyright © 2012 by Kisan Upadhaya. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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