On November 22, 1996, my daughter Annie (almost 7) and I left for a two-week visit to India, her country of birth. I was an exchange student in southwest India in 1973-74, and have remained very close to the family that hosted me at the tender age of 16. I spent a month with my Indian sister in 1985, and during that visit I became aware that abandoned babies in India are sometimes placed with American families for adoption. Shortly after that, my husband and I learned that we would need to make adoption our primary choice for family-building. After some in-depth research, we adopted 4-month-old Leo Rajan from an orphanage in Calcutta in 1987. In 1991, we added 13-month-old Anne Shanti to our family. Finally, in 1994, we adopted Peter Ramesh at the age of 6 months. Both Annie and Peter came from a second Calcutta orphanage.
When I decided to make a returning trip to India in 1996, I thought it would be interesting to bring Leo and Annie with me to become more closely acquainted with their birth country. Leo’s reaction was an emphatic “no”. He is a child who loves routine, and at the age of 9 he is far more interested in being the same as everybody else than in focusing on the things that make him different. Annie was another story. She had no clear picture of where we were going or what we were going to do, but she was excited about going on a big airplane with mommy and eating in restaurants and going shopping and wearing bindis (Indian beauty spots) every day if she wanted to. My Indian parents are somewhat elderly now, and I had a strong desire to revisit my “home” village and spend some more time with them. Annie and I spent our first week in India soaking up the details of everyday life in a traditional south Indian brahmin extended family household. With visits to the local primary school, an open-air vegetable market, the Arabian Sea, temples, shops and an orphanage or two, we had an action-packed week and the time passed all too quickly. Soon it was time to say goodbye to grandma and grandpa, aunts, uncles and cousins, and fly to the city of Calcutta on the northeast coast of India.
We have two foster children in Calcutta through an organization called Children International, and visits with these children were a very special part of our Calcutta agenda. More urgently, I wanted to review all of the information we had about each child’s origins, and do what I could to turn up additional details while the trails were still reasonably “fresh”. I made this plan in full knowledge of the fact that almost nothing could or would be found. But I felt the need to search for the tiny tidbits of knowledge that could make a big difference to my children when they were older.
Leo’s case was the hardest, because he was born prematurely in a Calcutta clinic and abandoned shortly thereafter. His birthmom did not leave her name or sign any papers. He was lucky to be picked up within a few hours by his orphanage and nursed very carefully into good health. We first went to visit the orphanage, where we met the woman who probably picked him up at the clinic shortly after he was born. We also saw the van that rushed him and many other high-risk premies to the orphanage for oxygen and antibiotics. We saw a dozen large empty oxygen bottles in a rack in the inside foyer, waiting to be recharged. We visited the premie room where we found the ayah who saved him with her loving touch.
In Calcutta, there are no incubators and life support systems for premature infants of uncertain parentage. For a fortunate few, there are a handful of well-run foundling homes with excellent track records in saving the lives of fragile infants, using what might be viewed as “medium-tech” methods. Leo had the good fortune to be found and brought to his orphanage, where he was held day and night by an ayah who monitored his breathing and other vital signs. He received oxygen by mask, and was tube fed for several weeks. On two occasions, his human baby monitor detected that he had stopped breathing, and shook him to bring him back to life.
I’m sure that the ayahs in the orphanage had a good laugh at the big weepy white lady with the little Indian girl who visited them that day. I tried to explain to Leo’s ayah how much we owed to her loving care, but I couldn’t find the right words. I hope she understood something through all of the blubbering. We next visited the clinic where Leo was born. We photographed the entrance his birthmom would have used to go inside the clinic when she was ready to deliver him. The doctor who delivered him had long since moved on, but the current doctor greeted us and listened to our description of Leo with great interest. He had always wondered what happened to the premies who were placed for adoption in the U.S. I was able to share photos and stories from several children who were born prematurely in the same clinic. This population does have more than its share of ADHD and learning disabilities, but considering the circumstances of their birth, these children are amazingly intact. One question I thought Leo might like an answer to was what kind of a person his birthmom was. Did birthmoms ever come back to enquire about the children they delivered in the clinic? Did they even know that if their babies were born alive? The doctor assured me that Leo’s birthmom would have known that he was born alive, even though he could barely breathe on his own. On the other hand, she probably will never know that he is still alive, because in her mind there is no way he could have survived more than a few hours on his own. That is a sad piece of information to share with Leo. It was also hard to tell him that there was nothing more to find about him, although we pretty much knew that before I left for India. Like so many others, his birthmom left no identifying information in the clinic. Because he was probably born out of wedlock, she would never, ever return to the clinic for fear of having her secret exposed. I left a small photograph of him there anyway, as I promised I would. To round out Leo’s sense of his roots, I took many photographs of his orphanage, and lots more of Calcutta street scenes. I recorded the name of the ayah who saved his life, and photographed the log book entry that is the orphanage’s only record of him. Some day, when he is ready, I will bring him to Calcutta and try to help him understand why his early life unfolded the way it did. In the meantime, he will probably push all of this into the far depths of his consciousness and focus on the here and now, which is pretty appropriate for a child his age.
Annie’s case was a bit easier, as she had been born and abandoned in a tiny clinic in the West Bengal hinterlands. I had her birthmom’s (purported) name, and the name of the caregiver who nursed her for her first month of life. Two Calcutta social workers had visited the clinic to leave information about their orphanage only to discover a tiny baby girl, barely clinging to life. Thanks to their intervention, Annie survived diarrhea, dehydration and lactose intolerance and eventually joined our family as a tiny yet rambunctious 13-month-old.
When I told the orphanage director about my plans to visit Annie’s birth village, she was extremely anxious about the impression we would leave. Allegations of baby-stealing and flesh-peddling surface regularly in countries like India. The director was concerned that the villagers would assume that I had purchased my daughter, or that they would ask me for money or other favors. In the end, she sent a social worker along with us and made us promise not to tell that Annie and I were mother and daughter. This is the price I agreed to pay in order to see the place where Annie had been born.
The social worker who accompanied us had been very close to Annie before she was placed, and had even given her her first name. Although he planned to comply with the director’s request, he took stock of the situation shortly after we arrived and decided that we had nothing to fear from the people associated with the clinic. Our story was soon told, and we were surrounded by a curious group of villagers who gazed at us with huge grins and wonder in their eyes. We soon called the clinic’s doctor out of his bungalow and learned that he had indeed brought my daughter into the world. Although the caregiver I knew about had since died, we had not been in the village more than five minutes before a nurse with the clinic stepped forward and cupped Annie’s chin in her hand. Shivers went down my spine when she said, in English, “I know you. You were born January 23, 1990. Every year I remember.”
We stayed at the clinic for about an hour or so, allowing them to serve us tea and biscuits in the gracious Indian way, and fielding questions about Annie’s adoption and her life in the U.S. We later learned that the very first question the doctor asked our social worker was, “Are you sure she likes living with that big white lady?” Annie answered the question herself by burying her face in my shirt and refusing to make much eye contact for most of the visit. About five minutes of intense scrutiny was as much as she could tolerate. As we left, the clinic staff made us promise to send a framed photograph of our little girl so they could hang it on the wall in her honor. The doctor bid us farewell with the words, “It is India’s shame that we had no place for this child. But it is her good fortune to have found you.”
Since our visit to her birth village, Annie has had very little to say on the subject. She enjoys looking at our photographs but flips through them quickly without a great deal of thought. I have noted how similar she is to the people in our pictures-same hair, same skin tone, same features, same build. I expect that she will become more interested in all of this when she is older. For my part, I was overjoyed to find that she was remembered, and so very glad that I had made the effort to seek out the people who knew her before it was too late. I also suspect that somewhere nearby, her birthmom has heard of the big white lady and the small brown girl who dropped in for a surprise visit. The name she left was a common one in the area, and Annie’s strong resemblance to the local people makes it clear that this woman was not a migrant from some faraway district. I find it comforting to believe that she now knows her baby is safe and well and happy.
And finally, Peter’s roots
Finally, it was time to do a little digging into Peter’s background. During one of our visits to the orphanage, the director pulled out Peter’s file and produced the relinquishment document signed by his birthmom. On this flimsy piece of paper were a number of priceless details, such as his time of birth and his birthmom’s last name, age and marital status. We learned that his birthmom came from a town a few miles upriver from Calcutta, and that she had relinquished him “for fear of social stigma”. Most precious of all is his birthmom’s own signature, a living link with his past. Due to its confidential nature, I did not feel that I could ask to photocopy the document. But I did see it with my own eyes, and recorded each and every fact it contained to share with Peter when he is older.
Throughout our trip, Annie was a wonderful traveler who threw herself into the thick of things and enjoyed each and every activity on our itinerary. I probably would not have had the courage to bring her to India if I had not spent so much time there on my own. But the truth is, with careful eating and drinking, neither of us were sick for as much as a moment. I also found that traveling in India with a child is almost akin to having a magic amulet. Everyone from the lowliest coolie to the most exalted grand poobah stopped us to pat her on the head and ask her her name. She learned enough Hindi to say, “My name is Annie and this is my mother”, and grew to tolerate having her cheeks pinched after the first hundred assaults on her person. I’ve always believed that India is a child-friendly culture, but our recent experiences proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Indian people really do love their children. One of the most important things I learned during my trip is that Indian birthmoms are tremendously fearful of being exposed. Although I am not as familiar with other third world cultures, I would assume that this is typical of birthparents in many other countries. Therefore, while I would encourage other adoptive parents to engage in a search like mine, I would never advise them to seek out birthparents and attempt to make contact with them. Having lived in India, I am probably more aware than most people of the differences between our very open society and those based on a more traditional way of life. We must not impose our western value system on people who are counting on the confidentiality they were promised. But, even without making contact, we can find and record the kind of small details that mean so much to our children. I’m glad I decided to look, because I now have a little something extra to give all three of my children when they ask how and why they came to be mine.