Emotional journey

Date: 2008-02-16
Source: Frontline

DIVYA GANDHI

A meeting of adoptees at a Bangalore children’s home occasions some emotional family reunions.

ARTIST MINDA COX (right) with Kalavati, her birthmother, and Catherine Cox, her adoptive mother.

WHEN 19-year-old Minda Cox boarded a plane for India from Missouri, United States, a few weeks ago, something told her that she was going to meet her biological mother whom she had never seen. In 1988, when Minda was just a day old, her father relinquished her to a hospital in Mangalore, fearing he did not have the means to take care of a child born without limbs.

So convinced was Minda that she would be reunited with her birth mother that she made sure to take with her the watercolour she had painted for her years ago. This was the first journey back for Minda, who lives in the U.S. with her adoptive mother, Catherine Cox, and four other adopted siblings. A student of art, Minda expertly wields the brush she holds firmly between her shoulder and the crook of her neck. And when she is not busy with exhibitions of her artwork, she travels with Catherine on lecture tours where she speaks to children about disability.

Over the last few years, Minda’s desire to meet her biological mother had grown strong. “I want to know what she looks like, who she is. I want her to know I’m doing well. That is why I am here,” she told Frontline at a reunion at the Ashraya Children’s Home in Bangalore. It was here that Catherine first saw the bright-eyed seven-month-old Swapna (as Minda was called then), whom she had come to adopt. Bureaucracy ensured that it was no easy task bringing Minda home, Catherine recalled. The passport application insisted on the baby’s thumb impression! “How was I to get a fingerprint of a child with no arms?” Catherine was left wondering. It would be over a year before she could convince the authorities to make an exception and bring the child back with her to the U.S.

Nearly 20 years later, mother and daughter were back at Ashraya, the place where they first met, this time on the occasion of a reunion of adoptees organised to mark the 25th year of the children’s home. Around 10 children, most of them with their adoptive parents, made it to the reunion from the U.S. and Sweden. There were others, like Minda, who wanted to find their biological families.

“It is not uncommon for adopted children to want to find their biological parents,” said Nomita Chandy, director of Ashraya. “But it is rare to actually find them.” She cannot think of more than six cases over the last 25 years in which children adopted from Ashraya traced their biological parents.

“A ‘parent’ is someone who nurtures and brings up the child – who, in the case of adopted children, would without question be the adoptive parents,” Nomita Chandy said. “But the desire to meet the biological family is about finding the missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle. There is a natural curiosity about who the birth parents are. And there are questions the child wants answers to. ‘Why was I given up?’, ‘Why was I not wanted?’ they wonder. Often, there is a need for affirmation, the desire for reconciliation with a difficult past, or just a wish for closure,” she said.

Minda said she was seeking reassurance: that her family would accept her with her disability. She also wanted to reassure her family that she was well, happy and independent.

But with no records to go by, the chances of finding her birth parents, she realised, were remote. Reconciling herself to the prospect, Minda sat down to write a letter, introducing herself to her birth mother whose name she did not yet know.

Within days, however, Minda and Catherine would be preparing themselves for another extraordinary journey. A report in The Hindu of Minda’s visit to India had reached the village of Kolekebailu in Udupi district, Karnataka, where her biological parents Kalavati and Shankar Shetty are small farmers and owners of a petty shop. The message came back to Bangalore that her parents wanted to meet her too.

* * *

Minda presenting Kalavati the watercolour of a yellow orchid that she painted years ago for her then unknown biological mother.

The roads got narrower with every turn, and soon the van carrying Minda and Catherine could not go any further and stalled at a large well. Just a few metres beyond, but barely visible, was Kalavati and Shankar’s modest tile-roof house. The entire village, it appeared, had gathered outside to meet Minda – the girl they had only ever heard about.

This was the moment Minda had been preparing for, for years. As she craned to locate her mother in the crowd, Kalavati, clad in a green sari, emerged from her home.

“I look just like her!” Minda said to Catherine. A tearful Kalavati embraced her. “Tell her not to cry. I respect what she did. It is because of her courage that I have a good life now,” Minda said, looking at Reshma Baggan, a social worker from Ashraya.

Her father, Shankar, standing by Kalavati, sobbed silently. Later, he made a confession. It was he who had taken the newborn girl to the hospital, a two-hour journey by road. “I had to tell your mother that the baby would be back, that you would be treated at the hospital. She would not have let you go had she known you were not coming back.” Shankar said he knew they did not have the means to take care of the child. “We were poor, we lived in a mud hut those days.”

Two mothers

Now inside the house and away from the crowd, Catherine sat beside Minda’s wheelchair on the red-oxide floor and consoled the couple. Pallavi and Chaitra, their younger daughters, who both bear a striking resemblance to Minda, joined them. “My family has just got bigger,” Catherine said to the girls. “And Minda has two mothers now.”

Kalavati held Catherine close. “I never thought I would see her. I might have given birth to her, but you gave her life,” Kalavati said as Minda handed over her parting gift of the watercolour of a yellow orchid she had painted for her.

* * *

Minda found much more than the affirmation she was hoping for on her visit. But the idea of a journey back to India had an entirely different resonance for sisters Sheela Richer and Asha Bruette. It was something the young women, 32 and 29 years respectively, had been resisting for years. The memories of their childhood still rankled.

Sheela and Asha are successful professionals who live in Michigan, both married with children. They were 12 and nine respectively when they were placed in adoption from Ashraya, the only place in India that truly represents “home” for them. “I did not want to come to India at all. But my husband insisted that I come here. He said I needed closure,” said Sheela, at the Ashraya reunion. They had also come, she said, to visit the grave of their birth mother, Stella.

Revisiting the past

Stella’s red sari is one of the most vivid and cherished memories that Sheela and Asha have of their mother, who died tragically in 1985 at the age of 26, leaving behind four children between the ages of four and nine, Sheela being the oldest.

In 1989, all four siblings were adopted from Ashraya by Alice and Robert Butryn, an American couple.

Sheela (left) and her sister Asha, former inmates of Ashraya, at the recent 25th anniversary celebration of the home in Bangalore.

Revisiting the past was not easy, particularly so for Sheela, who remembers all that she and siblings went through – especially the traumatic years between their mother’s death and their arrival at Ashraya. Angry tears roll down Sheela’s face as she recounts the story of her childhood: she remembers the years of abuse their mother suffered at the hands of their father, and the day their mother died – they learnt later that she had committed suicide. She remembers how their father abandoned them, and of their days moving between children’s homes across the State. And she cannot forget the many months that they worked as domestic help in Bangalore though they were not even 10 years old.

The burden of memory weighing down on them and with nothing more than a 20-year-old address to guide them, Sheela and Asha went in search of their extended family through the streets of Lingarajapuram in Bangalore.

It seemed almost providential to Sheela and Asha that they should find Mary, their mother’s sister: “We walked around, asked people about our aunt Mary and our cousins. No one seemed to recognise the name. I was ready to give up when an elderly woman said she knew their names and took us down the street to Mary’s house,” Sheela said.

“Kavitha [their cousin] and my aunt Mary recognised me right away. My family used to call me Annu, and they ran about calling out my name. It was both shocking and emotional. I couldn’t believe it,” Sheela recounted.

Then, Mary brought out a red sari that the girls recognised instantly. “I can still picture the day my mother came back from Qatar [where she worked] wearing that sari. She had told my aunt to give it to me when I got older. After more than 20 years the sari is as beautiful as it was on my mother. It was the greatest gift that I could have received,” said Sheela. The sisters said they found closure with their visit to the graves of their mother and grandmother, something that had always been their dream.

That night the entire family came to the airport to say goodbye to Sheela and Asha. “I am glad I found them. But no matter what, even though I found my family, it is Ashraya that is still my home and family in India. And I love my life in the U.S. I have two beautiful children, a great husband, awesome parents and friends. I would not trade that for anything. I believe that everything happens for a reason.”

* * *

Mani Elizabeth Winn, a young mother, lives in Seattle, Washington, where she studies and works as a chef in a restaurant. As much as she wanted to, Mani could not make it to the reunion at Ashraya but did come a few weeks later to the children’s home where she and her sister had lived for a year.

Mani was eight and her sister, Selvi, nine when they were adopted by Lauretta and Danny Walsh, an American couple. Now 25 years old, Mani decided that it was time to revisit her past and capture the story of her childhood through the lens of her camera.

Shifting its gaze between Ashraya where she found refuge; the U.S. where she now lives; Whitefield, on the outskirts of Bangalore, where her mother, Jayamma, works as a domestic; and Dharmapuri (in Tamil Nadu) from where her family migrated to the city, the documentary, Mani hopes, will be useful to Indian adoptees looking to come back to meet their birth parents. “I want to post the film on the Internet to let other adoptees know what to expect on their visit, including little details like what to bring, who to call for assistance and issues of language.”

But most of all, Mani’s visit to India is part of “a healing process,” she said. Meeting her mother, whose face she could never forget, felt like a dream come true, she said. “It is good to know that she is doing well for herself.” She also met the extended family she never knew she had, in Dharmapuri.

But there was anger and pain that she needed to let go of too, she said. “I remember the hardship. My father was an abusive man, who scarred me in many ways. My mother raised us as a single mother. I remember how hard she tried. She tried everything possible to give us a good life. But we just had no food. I realised how strong she must have been, and to make the sacrifice to give us a better life.” Mani felt that Jayamma needed to heal too. “I wanted her to know that her daughters are safe and that we are happy, so she can find peace.”

Having located a Tamil translator to help her talk to her mother, Mani spent two weeks with her, “watching her cook, taking her around, buying flowers for her hair. It’s odd how you can love someone you do not really know.” Mani is determined to come back again in five years. “Now I am trying to see how she can come and see my family in the U.S. My mum and dad would be happy to see the woman who gave birth to us.”

Mani will soon be back on the road, camera in hand, searching this time for her father. “I know I have to see my father. I am not looking forward to it, but I need to meet him so I can put it all behind me. I want to forgive him… and to get on with life.”

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