Alice did not know how long she had been lost. Her head crowded with strangers
and when Ram came to her, he left in tears. The young doctor, his florid face already
marked by a fine network of red veins across nose and cheeks, ran in every few hours,
ran out again looking undone, stethoscope dangling, twisted on his chest. Alice slept
fourteen hours at a stretch, cried the other ten. In her dreams a woman in a sari sat in the
empty chair in her room, holding her hand in the dark.
The doctor spoke to Ram in the hall, near the bank of phones that the patients hung
onto like lifelines. The sound penetrated the thin drywall partition and the men’s voices
floated above the chorus of desperate, drugged prisoners.
“Has Alice been under any other stresses besides the ones associated with giving
birth?” the doctor asked.
“My mother is visiting us from India. Alice and she are having a power struggle.”
Ram said as carefully as if he was on trial.
“I assumed so, at first. But now it seems they are battling over our little boy.” Ram
stared at the doctor’s tie. It was printed with an M.C. Escher puzzle. “My mother spends
her time teaching my baby to speak in our language. She sings him the same little hymns
she sang to me. One day she told him the story of how Rama’s brother once held a
chipmunk in his hands and the touch of his fingers left the three stripes we now see on the
chipmunks.” Ram smiled and raised his eyes to the doctor’s. “She speaks no English.
These are what she has to offer the boy.” He heard the pleading in his own voice and
The doctor waited. Ram’s breath came in hurried, suffocating bursts. “My
mother taught my son to say Amma before Alice could teach him to say Mommy,” he
admitted. The memory of Alice bending over Sam, saying frantically, “Mommy,
say Mommy,” was still fresh. In the other room, Amma’s voice had cackled into the
phone to relatives, “Little Sam said Amma to me. His first word! He wanted to please
me, the little chamathakutty!”
The doctor said, “Let me understand this. Amma means Mommy in your
Ram looked at the doctor, exasperated. “Of course, of course! What else? What
else?” he said, hugging himself with hands tucked into his armpits.
The doctor pulled himself up in his chair. “But why not teach the child to say
whatever the equivalent for grandma might be?”
“We all say Amma! It’s the name she prefers!” Ram’s rage raised the hairs on his
arms, on the back of his neck.
“Yes. But you are her children. She is your mother. So the name Amma is
appropriate. She is your son’s grandmother. Alice is his only mother. She is Amma.”
The doctor adjusted his glasses over his glowing nose and stared hard at Ram.
“We are getting nowhere,” Ram moaned. “All is quicksand.”