Barry and Julia Rollings wouldn’t have given the internet news item a second glance had it not been from Chennai. It was from here that the Australian couple had adopted their children, Akil and Sabila, eight years ago. But on that day in March 2006, the couple froze as they looked at their computer screen. The report was about a woman’s complaint against an adoption racket in Chennai and the agency from where they got Akil and Sabila was among the suspects.
After the initial shock, the Rollings knew they had to plan carefully. The couple and their eight children—apart from their two biological daughters, the Rollings had adopted a son each from South Korea and Taiwan, two from Nagpur and then Akil and Sabila—had just come back to Canberra from a vacation in India and now they would have to go back to trace Akil and Sabila’s biological parents. It was a journey that would throw up an extraordinary story of two families and their 16 members, of painful separation and a joyous reunion.
It all began in 1996 when the Rollings—Barry is a sports journalist and Julia a social worker—decided to adopt a pair of siblings from India
“After our two daughters were born, we decided that we should try and help children in other parts of the world who would otherwise be left uncared for in their orphanages,” said Julia, looking perfectly content with her children on a recent rainy day in Chennai.
“We were a big family by then, but all of us felt there was space for more children,” Barry said. And that was how they came to Chennai in 1996 and finally filed an application for adoption.
By mid-1997, MASOS, an adoption agency in Chennai, said the Rollings could adopt a three-year-old boy and his two-year-old sister. The children, the couple was told, were put up for adoption five months earlier, in October 1996, as their ‘terminally ill parents’ were unable to take care of them. But that was all they knew of the children’s parents. “They told us the children were born in Vaniyambadi, a 4-hour drive from Chennai, and that they were brought to the agency for adoption by an agent, who was approached by the children’s parents, Sunama and Imam,” said Julia.
In August 1998, after the paperwork and formalities, Julia finally flew home with Akil and Sabila. But the doubts lingered—of the children’s biological parents and whether they were alive—and the Rollings vowed to find out.
Twist in the tale
Despite several trips to Chennai, the Rollings knew nothing more about Akil and Sabila—till eight years later, in March 2006, when they came across the innocuous-looking internet report on an adoption racket in Chennai.
The report set off a storm in Julia’s mind. Were Akil and Sabila put up for adoption with their parents’ permission, like the adoption agency claimed? And if they weren’t, would they lose their children now? Julia and Barry decided to set these doubts to rest. They had just come back from a trip to India but were now preparing to go back.
“As our agency was also named in the complaint and since it wasn’t very helpful in our search for the children’s parents, we asked our friends in Chennai to find out more about the family. We wanted to know the real story. As a mother, it troubled me that the children might have been taken away from their mother without her permission,” said Julia.
With the names of the parents in hand, in July 2006, the Rollings’ friends located the house in Vaniambadi, where Akil and Sabila’s parents had lived earlier. In a few hours, they confirmed the Rollings’ worst fears: the children’s father Imam, was a drunk who used to beat up the kids and their mother Sunama. Imam had forged his wife’s signature and had given away the children to the adoption agency in exchange for money.
Sunama was married off when she was 12 and a few years later, Akil was born. Sameera, as Sabila was known then, was born later. In 1996, Sunama and Imam left for Chennai looking for a job, but ended up living on the pavements. “One morning when I woke up, my children and husband were not to be seen.”
Sunama then went back to her hometown alone. “I thought someone had kidnapped the children for their kidneys or had pushed them into begging. I had heard stories of that kind,” said Sunama, recalling how helpless she felt.
Imam resurfaced a few days later—completely drunk, wagging some notes and bragging how he had sold the kids. Sunama’s relatives and neighbours beat him him. “I haven’t seen him ever since and I didn’t want to,” she said.
By the time Sunama came to know that her children were alive and well—in July 2006, through the Rollings’ friends—her life had changed. She had married Anwar, had had four children with him and was pregnant with the fifth. “But I could never forget my first two children. It was painful—I knew Imam had sold them to someone but didn’t know whether they were alive or dead,” she said.
So when the Rollings’ friends landed at her doorstep—at a village near Chennai—with a photograph of Akil and Sabila, that was the first time she saw her lost children in nearly 10 years.
“My prayers had been answered. My children were not dead, but instead, were doing well in another country. So when they told me I would get to meet my children, I couldn’t hide my excitement,” she said.
Between the first contact and the eventual reunion, Sunama had given birth to a baby girl, Zeenath, and the families warmed up to each other by sending letters and messages sent through friends. Sunama learned that her son, Akil, was a promising soccer player and that her daughter learnt Bharatnatyam and had two fat mice for pets. “They said they would call me Ammi and call Julia mom.”
The reunion finally took place in March 2007, when the Rollings flew down to India, two months after Sunama gave birth to Zeenath. “I did not know what to tell them. I didn’t understand a word of what they said either. But they are my children,” she said.
Sunama and her children met the second time, earlier this month, at a flat that Julia and Barry rented for the reunion. As Sunama and the Rollings took turns to narrate their stories, the children listened spell-bound. When our conversation veered off to the legal aspects and procedural flaws in adoption, the children turned their attention to each other, hugging and giggling. Their warm hugs seemed to convey emotions and messages that their languages could not.
Meanwhile, Sunama met with another tragedy when her second husband, Anwar, died in June 2007. But with the Rollings’ financial support, Sunama and her children have overcome the tragedy.
One big family
So that’s where the story ends—with two families and their 16 members. “Well, we thought we had room for one or two more members in our family but found out that we had space for many more. So far, Akil and Sabila were the youngest. But that was before Fareeda, Anwar, Zarina, Jaan Basha and little Zeenath came along,” said Barry, as each one of the children looked at him when their names were mentioned.
Ever since they learnt of their children’s biological mother and her family, the Rollings have stopped going on overseas vacations. Instead, they save their holidays and money to come to Chennai, where Akil and Sabila get to spend time with ‘Ammi’ and juniors. Julia has written a book, Love Our Way, on their amazing story and proceeds from the sale of the book will go into supporting her extended family in Chennai.
As the Rollings returned to Australia with Akil and Sabila, they promised to come back soon. Which is why little Fareeda, who bears a striking resemblance to Sabila, is so keen on her English classes. “I am in Class IV. I have started going to an English medium school,” she said.