Given up for adoption at birth, a young woman reclaims her life

She was given up for adoption at birth. At 20, she stopped being a misfit in a white man’s land and decided to find her way back home. An Indian woman writes about reclaiming her life.

Published:October 26, 2014 1:00 am
Monisha in Goa earlier this year Monisha in Goa earlier this year

By Monisha

My name is Monisha. I’m 29 years old and I was brought up in the Netherlands. I was born in a government hospital in Sawantwadi, Maharashtra, in May 1985. My mother was raped when she was young, and as it often happens, she was blamed for bringing it on herself. To avoid the stigma of being an unwed mother, she had to leave her village and stay in a government shelter before she delivered me. A month after I was born, she left me and went back to her village and her family, to never talk of me again.

Together with some other children, I was brought from Sawantwadi to Bal Anand Children’s Home in Mumbai that is run by Sulochana Kalro. At seven months, I was adopted by a couple from the Netherlands. I arrived at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport where my new family was waiting for me with my sister, three years older than me, also adopted from Sawantwadi. My final adoption would happen two years later, but till then, the Bombay High Court had granted them my guardianship.

We lived in Harde, a small village in the Dutch province of Gelderland. Three years later, my adoptive mother left us because she figured out that she was a lesbian. Before that, in October 1988, I had been officially adopted. My sister and I remained behind with our father, and saw our mother every fortnight for the weekends. My father hired a help to assist him in running the house and to look after us. Soon, they fell in love and got married. My step-sister was born in January 1989.

Monisha celebrating her birthday in Goa in 2014; with social worker Anjali Pawar in 2009 after her first meeting with her mother (inset) Monisha celebrating her birthday in Goa in 2014; with social worker Anjali Pawar in 2009 after her first meeting with her mother (inset)

That was when my life started unravelling. My step-mother would take her frustrations out on me. How I wished they had sent me back to Wereldkinderen (foreign adoption agency) or even to India, where, perhaps, I would have had a chance to be adopted by an Indian family. I had no security or love at home and no connection with my roots. By the age of four, I was in a deep identity crisis. I was a dark-skinned girl in a white world and knew I didn’t belong there. I desperately wanted to go back to my real mother.

I was told I should consider myself lucky to have escaped the poverty of India, but no one understood that I had lost my roots, and that material comforts don’t make up for a real family. My adoptive father worked hard all week and my stepmother abused me all the time, calling me ugly, stupid and fat. At 10, Child Protection in Holland took me away from my adoptive father because the mental abuse at home had left me in emotional shock. I was not growing any more, not enjoying life as a child my age should do. I could not concentrate on my studies. I lost contact with my elder sister as my father’s family moved out of town soon after. It was heartbreaking, because she was the only connection I had with India. I was now in the custody of my adoptive mother.

I tried to do my best in primary school, but realised that I wasn’t good at studies or in friendships. I was jealous of my friends. All I wanted was to be given a nice home like theirs where there was safety, happiness and love. Life with my adoptive mother lacked the warmth and the love I craved. Both of us came with emotional baggage and we couldn’t forge a connection. By the time I moved to high school, I had started experimenting with cigarettes and alcohol to escape the pain, and in no time I was drunk every single day.

At 14, I started living on the streets. I was hospitalised at 15 for about a year and treated for my identity crisis, but it didn’t help. It took me out of the streets though. I was put in a government-owned childcare home where I lived till I was 19. There, I learned that my adoptive father had gotten divorced again and was being treated for his fragile mental health at the same hospital where I had been admitted. I went to meet him and he was full of guilt at how my step-mother had wrecked my life. For the first time, I felt a bond with him. He was suffering from depression and I tried to be there for him.

In February 2005, when I was 20, I finally came to India. The trip was organised by Wereldkinderen and Sulochana, and was meant to be a return-to-the-roots trip. We were a group of around 20 people, including Indian adoptees and their adoptive parents. My adoptive mother didn’t come with me because she did not support my search for my biological mother. Besides, we had been out of touch for a couple of years already. A schoolfriend’s mother accompanied me instead.

In the first week, we visited the children’s home where we had lived before adoption, the hospitals where we were born and the government shelters where we had stayed with our mothers after delivery. It was liberating for me to be there, but I yearned to see my birth mother. No one seemed keen on making that happen. They told me I should be happy with where I was and to not confuse myself further. But I needed to know about my mother. I needed to know if she missed me or had ever loved me.

In the summer of 2008, I went back to India and signed up as a volunteer at Bal Anand for a month, to work with disabled children. While there, I tried hard to get information about my mother. I spoke to Sulochana and her lawyer who had handled my adoption in 1985. But I was refused all records of my birth. Later, I went to the Wereldkinderen and at the insistence of the roots manager, Pauline Hillen, I was given my mother’s name and the name of her taluka. The details would come in handy later to undo my adoption back in Netherlands.

In October 2008, my adoption was finally undone. It was good to be on my own, though it was a hard life. I felt I finally had the opportunity to fight for myself and to find my mom. In my heart, she was always my only family.

And then, in January 2009, I finally met her.

I had quit school and had been living in Thailand for three months, all the time hoping for that one phone call that would tell me that my mother had been found. When the call finally came, I rushed to Delhi. I went shopping so I could look pretty at the reunion. I was terribly excited. It was as if my breath was caught in my throat. Hillen introduced me to Arun Dohle from Against Child Trafficking (ACT) and Anjali Pawar of Sakhee, who was a consultant with ACT. Both of them had worked tirelessly to trace my biological mother. Anjali wanted to show me the blueprint of the search on her laptop. Suddenly, I was overwhelmed. It would be the first time I would see my mother’s face. Would I be able to recognise her? Would I recognise myself in her? I was told to calm down and afterwards, when I was comfortable, she switched the computer on.

I saw the surroundings I come from — it was green and beautiful, like a forest. Soon after, the picture of a beautiful woman appeared on screen — an Indian woman working on the fields near her house — my mother! I do not really have the words to explain it, but there was no doubt in my mind that she was my mother. There was a picture of her with my eldest half-sister, a girl who looked a lot like me. It was such a wonderful picture, but at the same time, it pained me. My sister along with my other siblings live with my mom, and I was nowhere. I would have given up my whole world to be with them.

The entire search had been almost impossible, but Anjali and Arun had soldiered on. When they were close to giving up, they happened to visit the area where her taluka was. A chance clue about her community led them to her. When they first told her about me, my mother was scared, but later, after she saw my picture, she began to cry. She was eager to meet me, but didn’t want to do so in the village. Anjali arranged for her to come to a friend’s house on the pretext of a daily wage job, when it would be time for us to meet.

The night before we were to meet, I couldn’t sleep for excitement and fear. I kept wondering what my mom would think of me. Would she like me the way I had become? Please let her like me, I kept repeating through the night.

The next morning we flew to Goa, and then took a car to Sawantwadi. We stopped at the house where my mother was waiting for me. I was nervous and apprehensive that she would reject me and I would lose her again. I wasn’t sure I was strong enough to handle that.

When we entered the room, my mom was standing in the middle. She was dressed in a white blouse and a green sari and had a red bindi on her forehead. She wore gold earrings and a gold nose ring. She looked beautiful. It seemed that, like me, she too had tried hard to look her best. All my fears melted away in that instant. This woman was my mother. Finally, we were reunited. I wanted to hug her, but my mother didn’t respond.

The entire time that we were together, it felt like things were fine for the first time in my life. This mother-daughter bond felt so natural. How did I land up outside this country, I wondered.

Anjali told me later that my mother didn’t want to hug me because it would have been difficult for her to let go of me. Instead, she blessed me and said, “Wherever you are, god will take care of you.” She told me of the time she was pregnant with me. Her health had been fine, but she had been suffering from emotional trauma. She had stayed on with me for a month and breastfed me before putting me up for adoption. It made me happy to hear this. I felt that she had done everything she could for me given her circumstances, and that she loved me even though she knew she had to relinquish me.

I met her next in May last year. This meeting was very different from the first one. I was much less scared. Since my first meeting with her, I had been to therapy and tried hard to work on improving my sense of identity. It was somehow easier after meeting her, though I was still living out a secret. I had so much love and affection for my half-siblings — I was the eldest child in a way — I yearned to be with them. I did spend a few hours with them, and though they did not know who I was, I had a wonderful time. If my first meeting was emotional, the second one was to show my mother the woman I have managed to become. As I undid my adoption, I dropped my Dutch surname. I had asked my mother to give me a name and she named me Monisha. It is an Indian name, similar to my eldest half-sister’s name and that’s what I want to be known as now. A name is such an important part of your identity, I felt I had to do this to be able to connect with my mother emotionally, to feel that I belong to her.

At the moment, I live in the Netherlands, in a city called Hilversum. It’s a 30 minutes train ride away from Amsterdam. Last November, I got diagnosed with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (an inherited connective tissue disorder), so I am in therapy now. I would love to live in India in future, be close to my family in my home country. I know I need India, otherwise, depression is just a step away from me. It’s a frightening thought.

Looking back, life was hard on me because I lacked any knowledge about my mother and my birth family. I understand that the difficulties in the early years of my adoption made my yearning for my mother even deeper. I was a misfit in their family, but I was also just a little girl missing her mother, wondering how life would be in India with her. Now that I know my mother and know where I come from, I have overcome my identity crisis. I can finally start living my life. I am enjoying discovering India. I recently applied for my birth certificate and have got it too. It makes me so happy, this document that stamps my existence in this world and the fact that I belong here. It has my family name and it feels indescribably good.

But it still makes me sad that my mother and I can’t meet in public. I don’t want to disturb her married life and I have been told that things will not change till she tells her family about me. But she might never be able to do that in this life for fear of the social stigma. Even today, in 2014, Indian society doesn’t accept unwed mothers. How can India do this to her own girls?

I met my mother last earlier this year and I am now saving up money for another trip to India. I also celebrated my birthday twice this year. I have not celebrated it in Holland in the last 12 years because it reminded me of the fact that I was abandoned. But now, everything feels different. I survived, and succeeded in coming back home. I am strong now. I deserve a little celebration.

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