Sold into prosperity

Date: 2008-08-26

The Australian

IN March 2006, just a few weeks after arriving home from India, I read a newspaper article that left me horrified and frightened. The Hindu, a leading English-language newspaper in India, published a story under the headline "Missing children: two held on kidnap charges".

The story claimed that two senior members from two agencies - one from Tiruvalluvar Gurukulam, a non-government agency whose focus was to obtain jobs for destitute women as domestic helpers, and one from Madras Social Service Guild (MASOS) - had been arrested on charges related to the kidnapping of two children.

I stared at the brief story on my computer screen, somehow hoping I had misunderstood the meaning of the words. I searched through Indian news websites, hoping to find something that might clarify the situation. I felt physically sick as the implications of this scenario slowly sank home. If MASOS had been involved in child trafficking, what might that mean for us?

After reading of another case, I could no longer blindly accept that we had been told the truth, as we had no source of information regarding our children's origins other than what we had received directly from their orphanage: a charity that now had a sullied reputation. But what, if anything, should we do about it? If we searched and uncovered any illegality, what would it mean for us, and for our son and daughter?

Akil and Sabila were happy children. Sabila, in particular, was quite eager to find her birth parents and first family, but at 11 she was still very young. Akil, though less passionate than his little sister, was nonetheless still interested in finding out about the health and welfare of his original mother and father. If we went digging around into their past, we may well end up handing them a whole lot more than any of us bargained for.

I was waking in the middle of the night to thoughts and images that robbed me of any further sleep. I would lie awake in the dark going over and over in my head the possibilities, trying to identify some answer that so far eluded me. I loved my two youngest children with the same soul-deep intensity as the babies my body had borne, and I couldn't bear even to imagine losing them. I remembered my reaction when I first heard that Akil and Sabila would be my new son and daughter.

I had said, "They're perfect!" Now I started to wonder: had they been too perfect? Was it just providence that had brought our children to us, as I liked to believe, or had they been sought for us? I was haunted by the thought that, while our family benefited from having these wonderful children join us, some unknown parents in India may have been exploited, or worse, in our adoption process. I was infuriated that our motivation to care for a needy child might have been misused and corrupted.

Rather than providing a family for children in need, perhaps we had - however innocently - been part of the reason that a family had been torn apart. The possibility filled me with fear and anger.

But what if we searched and discovered our children had been trafficked? What if there was a distraught mother and father, demanding that their missing children be returned to India? I went around and around the possibilities in my mind, finding no peace in any option we faced. We were standing in front of a door that - once opened - could not be shut, and we had absolutely no idea what lay on the other side. Should I open it or walk away?

Eventually, contacts in India seemed to confirm that Akil and Sabila had been sold by their father. Sold! I read and reread that single word: sold. Those four letters that contained so much hurt and horror tore at my heart. My kids had been stolen from their mother and sold. It was a callous act almost beyond comprehension, and for what? Fifty f...ing dollars.

I felt such anger towards MASOS and all the unknown Indian officials involved in our children's adoption. Goddamn them! It had been their job to ensure our children were willingly relinquished for adoption. We did everything by the book, making sure each document we sent was properly filled out. We didn't make any payments other than the standard adoption fee. We had put our trust in the Indian authorities to make sure everything was legal, and they had failed us, they had failed Akil and Sabi, and they had failed Sunama, their birth mother.

I cried for Sunama, for the pain she must have endured. It was nearly 10 years since her son and daughter had been taken from her. As Sabi was practising nursery rhymes and Akil learned to ride his bike, Sunama was left to weep and wonder over her lost children. She missed out on all those moments as they were growing up.

Far worse than that, she had no idea what fate had befallen them. Sunama didn't know whether they were working as child labourers, spending long days knotting carpets in a sweatshop or coughing through toxic fumes in a glass bangle factory. They might have joined the other hundreds of thousands of poor children turning tricks for a few rupees as child prostitutes. Or maybe they were dead. There was no way for Sunama to know anything of her children's fate after they had been taken from her side and sold.

But right now I had to focus my thoughts on Akil and Sabi. We had to decide what should be done with the information we had just received. I have always believed that honesty is the best policy when dealing with children on any issue, even if that honesty involves sharing with them something that is going to hurt.

We carefully chose the right time to talk with Akil and Sabila. It was after school on a Friday. We decided on this time because it gave the children a few days to be able to deal with what we had to share without needing to function in the classroom or dodge their friends' curious questions. When Sabi and Akil came in from school I gave them both a snack, then asked them to come with me down to my bedroom so we could talk without being disturbed.

The kids settled down on the bed with me, our favourite family spot for talking about important things. Akil sat on the side and Sabila curled up next to me under the bedcovers. I told them I had some news from India about their birth family and it would be hard to hear.

Sabila immediately asked, "Are my birth parents dead?" The children knew what we had originally been told by the orphanage, that both their Indian parents had been very sick when they relinquished the children for adoption. Over the past few years we hadoccasionally talked about the possibility that one or both of them may have died from their illness.

I reassured her that they had not died. I said we knew her first mother was alive and well, and she was safe. I then told the children what we had learned, as gently as one can tell this kind of story. There is no soft way to say you were stolen and sold but I had given myself sufficient time to choose the least brutal way of telling it, while still keeping the information truthful and complete.

Akil sat quietly and digested the details. He was interested and asked me a few questions, but he didn't appear overwrought. Maybe on some level he did remember this, even though he consciously retained no memories of India or his early life.

We had already discussed with Akil the memories he had shared when he sat with my friend Vidya (founder of an adoption support group in India) in her home days after he came from the orphanage, so he knew he had once recalled being beaten as a little boy. Akil didn't seem surprised to learn about the extent of his father's brutality. He sat solemnly and said, "That is so sad", but there were no tears from my 13-year-old son. I told him, "The one good thing we know is that you two children are no longer being hurt, and your first mother, Sunama, is safe too. Best of all, she now knows you are both OK."

Sabila didn't speak. I asked her how she felt and she burst into tears. For the better part of an hour I sat with her curled up next to me, her knees held up to her chest as she wept and I held her. I didn't try to comfort my little girl with words. There was nothing I could say that would take this sting away. I sat holding her and stroking her hair, long after her crying had subsided to an occasional whimper. We waited to hear that Sunama had made contact with Vidya. After two months I told the children that this might be all we could find out. At least we had uncovered the truth and we knew Sunama was safe. I told the children that their Indian mother now knew that they were alive and well. No doubt that knowledge had brought her a great deal of comfort. It would be fabulous if she decided to get in touch with us but for now we might have to accept that she wasn't going to make contact.

Over the years there had been many discussions in our home about adoption searches and reunions. All of my children had seen the occasional Oprah-type show where an adult adoptee and a birth mother fell into each others arms in the joyous moment of reconciliation, or a documentary in which an intercountry adoptee met her relatives overseas. The television reunions might make dramatic television viewing but they do not begin to reveal the complexity of human relationships and conflicting emotions.

Before we searched for any of our adopted children's original families, Barry and I had discussed many possible outcomes, so that our children might have realistic expectations before we acted on their requests. We had explained to Akil and Sabila that we would most likely not be able to find out anything atall.

If we did get any leads, we might learn that their first mother and father had died. Alternatively, we might locate their Indian parents but they could refuse to have anything to do with us. If this happened it might be for many reasons of their own, none of them having anything to do with Akil andSabila.

It appeared we would have to accept that Sunama was not going to get in touch with us at the moment. I told the children that I was glad she had learned that her precious children were safe and happy.

I was very sorry that we had not been able to make direct contact or even exchange photos, but at least we had learned she was alive and well. Maybe Sunama would decide to contact us in the future but that was a decision we had to leave with her.

We had opened the door, and it was nowup to Sunama whether she wanted to know any more.

This is an edited extract from Love Our Way by Julia Rollings, which will be published by HarperCollins on September 1 ($32.99).

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