Sitting opposite me, her eyes well up with tears and her voice chokes as she gets to the point in the story when she first saw her mother. Till now Vidya-Liselotte Sundberg had been quite in control of her emotions as she took me through her journey from Sweden to Pune to Nashik, detailing her search for her biological mother. It was a search that had consumed the 39- year-old singer for the better part of her life, till it ended in May this year when she finally found her, after years of effort.
Looking at her long black wavy hair, her easy smile and expressive eyes, now slightly red and covered with a thin film of water, my heart went out to the girl who, for no fault of hers, carried this emotional baggage from birth. One that must have ravaged her and been responsible for a thousand unasked, unanswered questions all through her growing years and adulthood. But then that is the harsh truth of every adoptee’s life.
I remembered another story I was following about two years ago about another adoptee who had just been reunited with her birth mother. The case was remarkable for two reasons. One, because here it was the mother who had initiated a search for her daughter whom she had abandoned — in most cases, it’s the child who looks for his/her biological parent.
And second, because the mother had embarked on this journey at the behest of her son — a legitimate son who encouraged her to find her illegitimate child. The reunion between mother, son and daughter, who had flown down from Norway (where she had been taken away after adoption) was thick with a thousand emotions.
The common thread in both searches, other than the immense emotional turmoil involved, was the fatigue and defeat all the characters had experienced hundreds of times in their search in terms of bureaucratic delays, hurdles and apathy.
Every year, thousands of adopted people from all over the world look for their biological parents. For a large number of them, the destination is Pune and/or other cities of Maharashtra that have traditionally been adoption hubs of the country. Adoption centres like to promote happy stories of reunions that warm the cockles of the heart of all readers. But between the lines is another story that often remains untold. Of the innumerable hurdles and problems that beset such endeavours. Problems, that unlike the emotional toll, could have been avoided or at least lessened.
For the longest time, the main problem was an outright denial of information to the adopted individuals as per law. In 2011, following a spirited and tumultuous battle fought by many adoptees like Arun Dolhe, the law was modified and this right was granted to the adoptees by way of instructing the adoption homes to facilitate root searches. But soon a rider followed – no third party was allowed to do the search and navigate their way through the complicated path on their behalf.
The rule may have been borne of noble intentions but given that most of these adoptees live abroad, it put severe restrictions on their efforts. For one, it meant that they would personally have to come down every time to follow up every link that surfaced. Add to that the inevitable insensitivity of the system, reluctance of many adoption homes to further the search given that some adoptions may have not been strictly by the book and red tapism endemic to government institutions in this country, really amounted to deterring rather than encouraging root searches.
Anjali Pawar, a consultant with Against Child Trafficking, a Dutch organisation that conducts root searches for adopted children and who has had over 40 successes in the last eight years, says denying third-party help to adoptees is one of the most debilitating measures put in place. Most of these children, who are invariably raised abroad, don’t know the language or the culture, and can’t even read their files that they are given after a Herculean effort to obtain them, says Pawar. She often conducts these searches on behalf of the adoptees now after obtaining their Power of Attorneys.
“So what the law has done is just increased the paperwork,” Pawar points out, adding that allowing third-party searches with strictures in place and the active involvement of lawyers and NGOs is probably the way ahead if any government is serious about making roots searches easier.
Instead, what India has are regular announcements and rules that far from helping the hapless adoptees, compound their struggles and complications. Ten days ago, the Women and Child Development Ministry announced that it will set up cradles at police stations, hospitals and orphanages across the country to encourage parents who cannot bring up their children to leave them there instead of abandoning them in garbage bins, railway tracks and river sides. The “humane’’ move, added the Ministry, would also help bridge the gap between 14,000 adoption requests and the availability of a mere 600 children.
The move, according to adoption experts all across the country, is a legal way of telling parents that it’s alright to give up unwanted children for adoption when researches all over the world have emphasized that nothing can be worse for a child, whose parents are alive, than to grow up in an adopted family. Every research on emotional well-being of children has agreed that a poverty-stricken and issue-laden biological family is far better for a child than a wealthy, educated but adopted one. The thousands of searches launched every year by adopted children only reiterate this view.
I look at Vidya who has returned to Pune from Sweden within a mere one month of first meeting her mother and cannot help but agree. It’s time not to look at the gap between the number of requests for adoption vis-à-vis children abandoned and make laws that may end up encouraging abandonments, but work to reducing abandonments altogether.
And when this is not possible we need to adopt a more sensitive approach to the other side of the spectrum – extend every possible bureaucratic, financial and emotional assistance to those who decide to travel from halfway round the world to India to look for their roots – and through that their mental peace.
Years ago Indian societal constraints may have denied them their birthright of living with their parents. Now the least that a (hopefully) more evolved society and government can do to make up is to minimise hurdles and maximise support to help the adopted individuals connect with the broken links to make their lives whole again.