by Cheryl Snell
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 cursed it.
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 language?”
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.”