The Day Mamaji Came Home: Dr. Madhushree Ghosh (Dr. Ghosh is a senior molecular scientist in San Diego and actively pursues a literary career in South Asian fiction. Her work has been widely published in The Times of India, The Pioneer, Strategies, Glimmer Train among others. She is currently working on her second novel, "Slurping Chai")
Maternal lioness adopts baby
KENYA: October 9, 2002
NAIROBI – It’s nurture over nature for a lioness
in Kenya who keeps choosing to dote on baby antelope
rather than devour them. Kamuniak, (the blessed
one), a lioness in northern Kenya's Samburu National
Park has adopted her fifth newborn oryx this year, a
Kenya Wildlife Service warden told Reuters this week.
The oryx is a type of African antelope more likely to
be viewed by lions as lunch than a little one to mother.
The wardens think Kamuniak's adoption of the little
calf nicknamed Naisimari ("Taken by Force")
took place at the weekend after they saw the two together
this week morning.
"She must have adopted her yesterday because they
are in harmony," Warden Gabriel Lepariyo said.
Naisimari's natural mother has been seen following her
offspring and its unlikely surrogate parent at a distance.
- Information adapted from www.planetark.org
Ma almost dropped the iddlis from the pressure cooker
onto the kitchen floor when she heard her son screaming
at the top of his lungs at his sister. And then she
heard his howl for her assistance.
“Maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!! Chutki screwed up my computer!”
Bhaiji bellowed in his still babyish, somewhat boyish
seven year old voice, projecting the complete unfairness
of it all to her. Obviously Chutki, being four, had
proceeded to ignore him, as usual, because Ma heard
him screaming again, this time accompanied by thuds,
like bodies were being dragged along the top floor.
Ma removed the steaming iddlis into a serving bowl and
decided to reply to the pleas.
“Who taught you to say ‘screwed up’? Appa! Look, your
kids are speaking your language now.” This of course
had nothing to do with Chutki breaking the computer
or playing with the keyboard or anything at all. She
was just tired of cooking and the kitchen was hot. And
she couldn’t find Appa, who had conveniently disappeared.
Bhaiji peeped into the kitchen and saw that Ma was not
in any mood to be bothered. He decided that he needed
to do something himself. So he strode back up the stairs
right into his room where Chutki was engrossed in the
letter “G” on the keyboard. She held the key down for
a minute and looked up to the monitor with glee to see
the rows and rows of gggggggggggggggggs appear on the
screen in the loopy Comic Sans font. That did it. Bhaiji
bounded straight from the door to her, yanked her by
her stubby pigtails and dragged her kicking and screaming
out of the room. This time Ma heard more bawling and
screaming and the blows sounded serious. She looked
up, almost expecting one of her children to drop through
“Maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa! Bhaiji beat me up!” Chutki bawled.
Ma shook her head, a bit of annoyance and indulgence.
She knew quite well that Chutki was playing the little
girl card very well, and being four, she got away with
a lot of things. Life, according to Chutki was very
sad. She was not allowed to play with Bhaiji, play with
Bhaiji’s toys, or his computer though she did think
that Bhaiji’s computer was the best toy ever. That led
to another bawling session since now Chutki had reached
a stage of “nobody loves me anymore”. Ma wiped her hands
on the kitchen towel and decided it was time to intervene.
Everyone had told her that Bhaiji would become a quieter
kid once Chutki was able to interact with him. That
didn’t happen. Not that Chutki interacted much with
Bhaiji anyway; she was more interested in his toys.
And Bhaiji had his own world filled with books, sketches
on a doodle-pad and his computer. She knew he was different
from the other kids in the neighborhood— different in
a good way. But at seven, with his wild imagination
and leadership attitude, he was a handful. It was good
that her brother was coming home soon. That should be
a fun event for the kids, she decided as she went to
Ma climbed the steps slowly to Bhaiji’s room, toward
the sounds of incessant bawling and body dragging. “Chutki!
Bhaiji!” she said in a low but quite menacing tone.
That voice made both of them look up from their current
activities of actively murdering each other.
In measured tones she said, “I will count till ten.
If you two do not behave, you know what comes next.”
They had no clue what came next but the threat always
worked. Ma picked up the keyboard from the floor and
checked the computer that was actually quite used to
this maltreatment. She hoisted Chutki onto her hip and
wiped her tears, which led to another fresh bawling
spate since Chutki was again overwhelmed with pangs
of self-pity. Ma looked at Bhaiji who had the most indignant
expression on his face since he knew that now he was
in trouble for treating his sister like a cushion. She
watched him hang his head and desperately try to look
apologetic. He failed.
And to his surprise, Ma stood there and then announced,
“You know that Mamaji’s coming home today. You must
be good children now. Behave! No bad language and absolutely
no fighting. Make Mamaji feel at home, he’s coming here
all the way from Chennai. This will be fun….” her voice
It had been four years since she met her brother. He
was still in school and now he was coming to study.
They had been close when they were kids but the years
that they weren’t together yawned loudly before her.
Would he still be angry with her for leaving him behind
in Chennai while she “prospered in the US?” At least
that’s what her father would say every time she called.
But this was a start; at least he emailed her and told
her about his admission in Stanford.
“Time for lunch― let’s go.” The children traipsed downstairs
both clamoring for more news about Mamaji, when was
he coming, was Chennai further than California, would
he stay with them forever, was he taller than Appa,
was he older than Bhaiji, was he a hundred years old….
the computer was forgotten!
It was late afternoon when Mamaji stepped out of the
car. Appa had actually remembered to go to the airport
and pick him up. The kids went running down the driveway
to welcome this new and exciting person from India.
There he was, a thin, bespectacled, young boy, with
a mixed expression of amusement, fright and apprehension.
He hasn’t changed, Ma thought. He still looked like
he needed her help, like he used to when they were children
and he would be getting into trouble. She always took
the blame; it was easier that way. He came running to
her and stopped awkwardly in front of her. Public displays
of affection were not encouraged in their family and
a hug would definitely convey that. She went up and
hugged him. She had waited for a long while. She felt
him relax a bit.
He looked down at the two expectant faces. “Hi you two!”
To which Bhaiji instantly replied, “Hi you three, hi
you four, hi you five...” This was Appa’s standard joke
when he got back every evening from work. The kids laughed
and decided to include Mamaji in their circle of acceptance.
Appa was lugging the two extremely heavy suitcases into
the garage and muttering mock-angrily for the kids’
benefit about how heavy the bags were. Mamaji went to
help him and finally the entire troop was in the house.
“Guess what I have for you Bhaiji and Chutki?” Mamaji
“No, silly, Harry Potter, Mamaji?” asked Bhaiji with
“No, not Harry Potter and call me Soorya.” Mamaji said.
“I got you Amar Chitra Katha comics!” he announced waiting
for the customary squeals of gratitude and happiness.
There was silence.
“What’s that, Bhaiji? Chutki inquired, the more knowledgeable
and curious of the two.
Bhaiji had no idea either but that did not stop him
from guessing. “Silly, they are books about Superman
and Spiderman combined.”
Mamaji laughed. “I guess you could say that, isn’t that
so, Didi? Here! We have Mahabharata, Ramayan, Kalki,
Stories of Krishna, Rani Padmini, and,” he paused for
dramatic effect, “the Vishnu Avatars!” Needless to say,
Mamaji was more impressed with the books than the children.
She smiled at him.
“You haven’t changed a bit, Soorya,’ Ma said quietly,
voicing her thoughts. “How are the parents taking the
exit of their last-born?”
“Amma was busy making laddoos, mysore paak, and avakkai
for me to pack in my suitcase and Appa Senior was concerned
that the American Express traveler’s cheques won’t be
sufficient, so he was running around all over Chennai
trying to get more cash. They are the same, the exit
won’t register for a while I think…Didi, shall we call
them up?” he asked.
The phone rang shrilly on the other end of the receiver.
It was more of a riiiiiiiiiiiiiing, riiiiiiing in a
deep tone that only Indian phone lines have. Ma could
picture Appa Senior completely ignoring the telephone
till Amma got up from her chair before the television
and then rushed to pick up the receiver before he could.
They had been playing these power games for years now;
it was second nature to them.
“Appa, this is me, your son arrived here safely.” She
held onto the phone, waiting for him to talk to her.
“Soorya? How are you? How was your flight? Did the traveler’s
cheques work? Were your bags too heavy? Did they give
you vegetarian food to eat in the plane? The Dubai plane
was leaving at the same time, your mother and I got
confused, we were waiting for you to get your clearance
and come back to see us before you boarded the flight
but we were waiting at the wrong gate. Were you able
to get a window seat?” Appa Senior had many questions.
Soorya got on the other line and said his ‘yes’ and
‘no’ and ‘no problem’ and ‘don’t-worry’ lines at the
Ma looked at him and realized that he had grown up in
his own way. He knew how to handle his parents without
confrontations and problems. They simply let him be
after a while. Not her though, she managed to create
enough trouble by being herself. First it was her insistence
to complete her degree in comparative literature, which
made no sense whatsoever to them.
Her father shook his finger in front of her face and
shouted at her in English, heavily laced with his Tamil
accent, “When you have 98 percent in pheesix/chemistree/matheymaatix,
would you rather not be in the science field? How do
you get a job after that? Who wants a stenographer’s
She smiled at him and infuriated him further.
Then it was her Ph.D. in the US. Her mother insisted,
why would you do that? It was too far away and again,
as Appa shook his head in frustration, who would give
you a job after that?
She came to the US. And she met Abhi, fifteen years
her senior, her support, her friend, her happiness.
It wasn’t easy. She went home to tell her parents. Her
father got very silent which only meant trouble. Her
mother wept at her feet with her pallu spread in front
“Don’t do this to us; he’s too old for you. He is not
even our caste. Think of your brother, please.”
She married him anyway. The parents did not talk to
her for two long years. She went back home again after
that, this time with Abhi. It was not to see her parents
but to introduce her parents to Abhi and Bhaiji―Appa
and Bhaiji actually. They had decided to call each other
Ma and Appa for the sake of Bhaiji.
Bhaiji was very special. They adopted him when he was
two and a half. He was at the South Asian women’s shelter
that Ma volunteered at for six weeks. His mother put
him up for adoption. No reasons asked or given. Maybe
she simply wanted to go back to India away from her
hell here. And maybe she did not want any reminders.
Ma held Bhaiji while his mother signed her name the
only word she knew how to spell in Gurmukhi. She was
deported to India in two days. She didn’t even hold
her child. Or look at him.
Bhaiji fell asleep on Ma’s shoulder. When she called
up Abhi and told him, his response was typical. “Okay.
But I hope he likes being around a South Indian father.”
And then they went ahead to complete the adoption formalities.
Bhaiji was different, and so was Abhi. And Ma was happy
with her two men. They went back to India. The parents
came to the airport. They hoped to see their grandson
as soon as they landed. Bhaiji went straight to Amma,
she looked at him and then at Ma with a questioning
glance. Ma did not have to say anything. They knew.
This was trouble. Soorya as usual worked on the luggage,
loaded it on the roof of the taxi, Appa Senior was silent.
The trip faltered even before it had started.
They went home, and Amma asked tearfully “Why are you
doing this to us? Is this what prosperity is? You go
and pick up kids like alu-baingan! You don’t know who
Bhaiji is or his family. Do you know what you have done?
What about Abhi—?”
“What about him?” Ma could not stop herself from asking
“Arre, is he fine with this? Why would you do this when
you can produce your own?”
Abhi stood there with an ‘I-like-where-this-conversation-is-going-do-go-on’
expression. He told her later that the soap opera was
actually nice, since they were not mad at him, their
mappallai, for marrying their daughter but at her, for
yet another surprise. They stayed for a week.
Appa Senior would not talk to Ma, he did talk politics
with Abhi and a little bit of finance and then back
to his favorite topic, cricket. He ended up liking Abhi
since he had convinced himself that he did not know
his daughter or her son. So it was a good trip somewhat.
At least Ma had tried.
Then Chutki arrived. Ma sent them pictures of her babies.
She called home every weekend. She asked them to visit
the US and see their grandchildren. She tried. For four
years. Her father mentioned prosperity-in-America. Now
Soorya was home.
“OK, Ma, I’ll give half of the vadams and avakkai to
Didi. Can I go now? The bill will be enormous. I’ll
call you later next week from the university. Bye.”
Mamaji hung up while Amma was still talking about all
the other goodies to share.
Ma got up and made some coffee for Appa and Mamaji.
The kids were busy trying to read their Amar Chitra
Katha comics. Actually Bhaiji was and Chutki was trying
to look at the pictures that her brother was desperately
trying to hide from her.
“Would you like to eat soon, Soorya?” she asked.
He nodded. Soorya was always hungry. Which was good
in India since Amma would feed him silly. “What did
you make today, Didi?”
Ma had cooked all the South Indian dishes that she could
think of, from tamarind rice, bisi bele bhaat, coconut
rice, to jeera rasam, vethal kozhumba and onion sambhar.
Soorya looked at all the dishes lined up in the kitchen
“Amma would approve. You aren’t as American as they
think.” He smiled at her.
She wondered if she really would approve. Her mother
had never eaten Ma’s food, attesting to the authenticity
but she tried to bring a little bit of Chennai to California.
Her connection to her family was food, so she tried.
Soorya went to the guestroom and took his clothes out
for a shower. The children trooped into his room and
followed him like puppies. Everything he did was fascinating.
His thick glasses were striking; his Old Spice was novel;
why even his coconut oil that Amma packed for him was
different. It was obvious that the kids enjoyed having
a new person around.
“How long will you stay with us, Suriyaa?” asked Bhaiji.
Who’s Suriyaa?’ asked Soorya, ‘ tch! Just call me Mamaji.”
“How long will you stay here Mamaji?” Chutki asked now.
“Oh! A few days. Is that OK with you?”
“What is ‘uh-huh’?”
“She means yes.” Bhaiji explained impatiently. “Would
you play “search-the-fort” with me on my computer Mamaji?”
“Sure, after we eat.”
Dinner was a wonderful time at their house. Each would
get a chance to play their music. Unfortunately it was
Chutki’s turn this time. She wanted either the Barney
song even though she was too old for it or the “Saathiya”
song from the Hindi movie with the same name. And she
wanted them to repeat. “Not good”, Ma watched Appa shake
his head in disapproval and a bit of resignation. But
this was a fair household, very democratic. So they
listened to Barney and Sonu Nigam at regular intervals
all through dinner.
While Ma passed the rasam to Soorya, he said, “You know,
Bhaiji does remind me of you.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know, when we were kids, always impatient, words
tumbling over one another because the brain is thinking
“How would you know that about me, kiddo?” asked Ma.
“But yes, Bhaiji and I are very similar.”
“And me? Andme? Andme?” Chutki’s voice chimed in from
the high chair, her words merging into one glob.
“And Chutki is most special.” Ma moved her daughter’s
hair from her face as she ate her rice.
Appa kept an eye on Chutki who had proceeded to throw
spoonfuls of rasam at Bhaiji at regular intervals. He
changed the CD track to “Saathiya” again and she resumed
eating. Finally, after Appa helped Ma clean up the dishes,
put the kids to bed protesting and kicking, they sat
down and chatted about their years in India growing
up. Soorya didn’t appear jet lagged at all, but Appa
was waiting for him to fall asleep any minute now. That
always happens. That was his silent game, watching Soorya’s
eyes behind his huge glasses, waiting for the eyelids
to slowly fall while they talked.
“Did you adopt Bhaiji to spite Amma and Appa Senior?”
Soorya asked unexpectedly—“Why did he ask that? Why
There was silence. “Why would we do that Soori?” she
asked her throat suddenly dry. “He came to us when we
least expected him and has filled our lives. Really.”
Her voice changed, as it used to, trying to convince
her family, again.
“No, I mean… because that’s what they say.”
“Let them. Why do you have to echo that? You should
“But scientific data shows that if there is anything
wrong with the family lineage, the adopted child will
have streaks of that. You know that. What about him?
Why did his mother abandon him, you know what I mean…there
has to be a reason.”
“There is nothing wrong with my son. I won’t allow you
to speak of him like that.” Ma realized that she was
shaking as she got up and held on to a corner of a chair.
Bhaiji woke up from his dream of ‘search-the-fort’ with
“Oh, Mamaji must be waiting for me to play with him!
I should have gone to him right after dinner.” He spoke
to himself as he got up and went downstairs. Then he
heard Ma raising her voice. That doesn’t sound good,
he thought, wickedly knowing that this time he wasn’t
in trouble. Maybe Appa was in a soup this time because
he was on the computer for too long and had forgotten
to wear his glasses. No, was that Amma was crying? Just
like Chutki, only more silent. He slowly crept downstairs,
holding his pillow for support. He looked down through
“We’re family, Soorya. And you’re my brother. I thought
you would understand this.” Ma cried soft tears as she
wiped her nose on her pallu..
“What’s there to understand? You’ve pretty much done
whatever you wanted, all your life! Only I face the
consequences. And it’s all because of you!!”
“What do you mean? Please, Soori…”
“Well, did you do it to spite me then? I haven’t been
able to live my life for years now because of you. Any
more shocks would kill them. First you take up creative
writing, did you know how much you hurt them?”
“Come now Soorya, you should stop right there.” Appa
Soorya continued. “Grief stricken, that’s what they
were. Did you ever realize that? Then Ph.D. in the same
no-prospects field…living in your world of ‘I-am-doing-this-for-my-nuclear-family-that-I-love-so-much’!
Did you so much as try to understand how they feel?”
“Fine!” Ma’s eyes blazed through her tears. “I didn’t
and don’t understand them. But you, Soori,’ her voice
broke again, ‘you know I always wanted them to…I’m their
daughter, and you are my brother, come on Soori…”
“Yes, I’m your brother, and don’t think you’re doing
me a favor by keeping me here for a few days. It is
guilt that is pushing you to do the “right” thing.”
After all, adopting that no lineage child or marrying
the way you did …you know that wasn’t right. You know
that. So why pretend now, Didi?”
“But, but…” Ma still couldn’t comprehend these sudden
harsh words from Soorya, her younger brother! I’ve defended
you all my life, I always let you get the better mithai
from Amma…you went to engineering school even when Appa
Senior had to liquidate his assets to do so. Her eyes
swam in her pool of confusion, still unable to comprehend
why Soorya hated her child so much. “I do love you Soorya,
why would you think this way?” She tried again.
Abhi went to her and tried to move her to the bedroom.
As was his nature, Abhi was too calm and collected to
get into confrontations like these. According to him,
confrontations weren’t good, especially when both parties
were not ready to back off from an issue that was already
decided upon. He nudged his wife to move towards the
“I love you too Didi, but that doesn’t mean anything.
You adopted a child without knowing anything about him.
You think by spouting these American “I love you” type
statements, we’ll be fine with all your decisions?”
Bhaiji ran up to Mamaji and pushed him with all his
tiny might. “Leave my Ma alone!” he cried.
Mamaji fell back on the couch; quite surprised by this
attack. Tiny fists pummeled him on his chest and shoulder.
Appa dragged Bhaiji away and up to his bedroom. He watched
him fall sleep before going downstairs. Mamaji was still
sitting on the couch, dazed. Ma was weeping silently
near the kitchen counter. Appa put his arms around Ma
and took her to the bedroom.
She wept on his shoulder quietly as she clung to him
tightly for support, just as Bhaiji had a few moments
ago, in his room. Appa let her cry and smiled to himself
as he watched his wife wipe her nose on his kurta. Like
mother, like son.
“What did I do wrong, Abhi?” she asked in her blocked
nose voice. “Why don’t they like me, he’s my son, he’s
our son after all…” her voice trailed as she looked
through her tears up to his face, and noted the appearance
of tiny wrinkles near his eyes and mouth. She put out
her hand to his face and touched the lines softly. “I
am so sorry if I haven’t been a good wife to you. I
thought they would like me more once they see our children.
I keep thinking only about myself, don’t I?”
“A little…but I can live with that.” Abhi ran his fingers
through her hair and gently nudged her to lie down.
He switched off the light. “You don’t have to fight
this you know. We are happy and so is Bhaiji. What else
is there? You’re not proving anything to them so why
are you trying so hard? You can’t win all the battles,
you know that.”
“Yes, Abhi. But he’s my brother…” fresh tears streaked
down her face.
He waited till she fell asleep.
When he came back, Mamaji got up and said, “Please apologize
to Didi on my behalf. I don’t know what I was thinking.
I hope she can forget this.” He had a sacrificial lamb
expression, as if he had been parroting all these thoughts
he had heard, over and over in Chennai. Abhi raised
his hand to stop him and told him to go to sleep.
Ma woke up with a start, jerking Abhi’s arm from her
body. She knew she heard cries but she had never heard
her son cry so quietly. Walking through the darkness,
she stumbled on the small wooden pony near Bhaiji’s
door, and the cries stopped.
“Betu,’ she called her son, ‘Bhaiji?”
She watched him trying his best to pretend to be asleep,
with tell-tale tears and snot smeared all over his face.
Ma pulled some tissues out of the box on the bedside
table, sat down on his tiny bed, and wiped his face
She hugged his little body as he became a three year
old again, clinging to her fingers as she hugged him.
“I don’t like Mamaji, Mommy.” She deciphered the words
through his tears.
“No, Bhaiji. Don’t say that. He loves you, he just doesn’t
know how to show it. And tomorrow, you have a big job
“I do?” Big black eyes stared back at her, somehow realizing
that he was part of an important mission.
“Yes, Bhaiji. Tomorrow, you’ll show Mamaji that we all
love him. Even if he says things that hurt. You will
go and give him a big hug and wake him up in the morning.”
“No I won’t. No I won’t. No I won’t.”
“OK, betu.” She calmed him down with her hand slowly
caressing his stiff, little body and finally she felt
him relax and let go of her other hand.
The next morning Abhi had already woken up and made
a fresh pot of coffee by the time Ma realized that she
had overslept. She quickly washed her face, brushed
and ran downstairs to see Abhi and Mamaji sitting at
the kitchen counter drinking coffee, as if they did
that every day. They both looked at her as Mamji stopped
in mid-sentence and mid-gulp of his coffee.
“Good morning Abhi….Soori.” She could not get herself
to look at him directly yet. But she could not miss
his eyes trying to say the right thing either. She went
to the coffee pot and concentrated on pouring out the
coffee into her cup very carefully. Abhi continued his
conversation about research assistantships at Stanford
with Mamaji and was rudely interrupted by a loud thump,
thump, thump coming closer to them from upstairs. Abhi
looked at Ma, his eyebrows making perfect question marks,
Bhaiji came down with a paper in hand and Chutki in
tow, both wearing their Halloween king and Cinderella
costumes and shoes. Ma involuntarily said, “Beta, no
shoes in the house.” But she said it quietly so they
did not hear. And they were too engrossed in their costumes
to care anyway. They stomped to Mamaji and Bhaiji ceremoniously
presented him with the paper.
“On behalf of the Iyer kingdom,” his sister giggled
as Bhaiji continued, “you are now welcome to this family.”
“Bhelcome to this famlee.” Chutki echoed and waved her
a stick like a wand at Mamaji.
Not really knowing what to do or think, Mamaji looked
at his sister who was smiling at her children and then
he accepted the paper. The children crowded around him
while he opened the sheet. There was a family of four
with Appa, Ma, Bhaiji and Chutki labeled on top. Then
he noticed Bhaiji’s stick-like arm extended towards
another figure in a corner labeled Mamaji.
“Thank you, Bhaiji.” He extended his hand out that Bhaiji
held on to. Bhaiji watched his mother as he awkwardly
pulled his uncle closer to him and hugged his knees.
Chutki followed her brother as they stood in the middle
of the kitchen encircling Mamaji. Bhaiji looked away
from his mother.
“Chutki made the sun in the other corner and colored
Mamaji looked at his sister as she tried to smile back
at him, her vision blurred through her tears. And she
held out her arms for her children.