By Nikita Aggarwal (Supervisor: Vinita Bhargava)
Picture credit: Picture meant for representation only, open source www
All masters’ students of our Department must complete a research dissertation as part of their coursework. Adoption was my area of interest, I was curious about the different voices regarding this issue, the different perspectives. Given the prevalence of adoptions within the family that derives from traditions of multiple caregiving and shared responsibility, I was curious about prevailing beliefs and practices related to adoption. At the beginning of the study I must acknowledge that I assumed that adoptees were a homogenous group of people, with similar characteristics and shared experiences. As I got deeper into their stories, I realised that I had a romantic view about adoption, and I believed that my research would uncover this story. I realised as I advanced with my research, that the reality was profoundly different.
My research was limited to within-country adoption. On account of the sensitive nature of the topic it was hard to find volunteers for the study and participants were limited to a handful of cases whom I contacted through family and friends, and of these, the ones who were willing to speak with me. I got in touch with 10 adult adoptees. All were residing in India and had Indian adoptive parents. There were 9 females and 1 male participant living in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Indore. Their ages ranged between 19 and 63 years, 6 of them had post-graduate degrees, 1 was a graduate and 1 was enrolled in an undergraduate course. Regarding marital status, 6 of the adoptees were unmarried, 2 were married and 2 were divorced. In the study, there were 7 instances of extra familial adoptions i.e. adoption had taken place without any contact with the biological family. In three families, adoptions were intra-familial i.e. where adoption had taken place within the extended family.
Despite standard guidelines for adoption, laws and implementation procedures, the experience of each person were far from similar. I spoke to adult adoptees about their experiences as children who had, in the course of their lives, been adopted. Predominantly, I heard happy stories about crafting new identities, with little evidence of the search for birth parents. I was a bit surprised by that since I had heard how important this search was for some people, highlighted in personal stories and news reports. Coincidentally at the time of this study, the film Lion had come out. And one adoptee brought it up and said it was such a romanticised version of adoption. She had apprehensions that people will now start to come up and ask her questions about her biological search (when she clearly had mentioned earlier in the interview that she just had a mild curiosity at one point about her biological parents). There was some evidence of lingering resentment at being abandoned as a child and secrecy shrouding the act of adoption. Some studies have looked at parenting adopted children and the challenges faced by parents, but research on this issue has been sparse in our country with a few important exceptions. I wanted to examine personal stories of adult adoptees and their versions of their own journey. It’s quite possible that these two cases present only a small fraction of the story of the limited sample of participants. Yet I am hoping they trigger some questions.
Childhood memories are hard to construct and remembering most often happens through the words of others around us. Speaking about one’s life, revisiting childhood years and remembering the past is fraught with subjectivity and sentiment. What we choose to recount and how we represent episodes in our lives are indicators of our position on any subject, even if the narrative may be biased. We can gather a sense of self through the words, both explicit and implicit. While formulating the interview questions I addressed to the participants, I decided to adopt a flexible approach to allow them the choice to select what events they wanted to highlight. As a consequence, the emphases were different in the different stories. Some participants spoke about their adoption while many did not talk about it at all. Some unresolved issues came up in the narratives of a few people that seemed somewhat hurtful in retrospect. These were related to the act of abandonment and secrecy created anger and grief. Each story of adoption was vastly different due to the multitude of familial and individual factors. My naïve understanding of the experience of adoption was radically altered during the course of my study.
Perceptions of people (who were not adopted) towards adoptees were also explored during the study. These findings (as well as my own misconceptions) highlighted the importance of reliable information about the phenomenon in public spaces. We do not have access to authentic dialogues on adoption, and in the absence of this, the public relies on media stories and cinema to fill in the empty spaces. Discussions about alternate family structures are too few and representations are important to generate a notion of normalcy and acceptance in the minds of young children. Children need to accept and understand that differences are to be celebrated, respected and not feared or ‘tolerated’. Adoption is as old as the system of family, and yet the public knowledge about the phenomenon is shrouded in mystery. I felt strongly that in the absence of reasonable discussions, stereotypes about adoption can and do result in attitudes that are potentially hostile and prejudiced. There is a great need for support systems for adoptees to help with the circumstances in case the need arises. Adoption needs to come out into the open for the adoptees as well as the public.
I would like to share two (brief) life stories from the study that have stayed with me. Their names have been changed to protect their identities.
Shalini (Name changed)
Shalini is a college student who was adopted at the age of 9 and has distinct memories about her childhood. Her biological parents lived in a village in central India. As a child, she was transferred to the care of her father’s friend. A chance meeting with a social worker brought her into the fold of an institution where she was adopted. Her adoptive mother enrolled her in a boarding school where her life circumstances changed significantly. She made friends and got on well with teachers. She has a large circle of people whom she considers family. She regrets that her biological mother did not have the education to support her as a child. She missed having siblings and, in the future, she would like to adopt children and be a good mother for them.
Garima (Name changed)
Garima’s adoption took place within the family. As an older person 54 years of age, she looks back at her life as person who was adopted from a close relative. At around the age of 5, her adoptive mother informed her about the fact that she had been adopted and they kept a life-long association with her birth mother. She is comfortable with the idea and her identity. When they used to lie down together to rest, her mother used to tell her about how she couldn’t have babies and had been informed by God that a baby would soon arrive. For Garima, being adopted was something she grew up knowing about. Her school years were sometimes confusing as she looked different from her parents, but she soon got over that phase and stopped caring what people said about her.
Motherhood was an exciting time for Garima and she loved being with children. She believes that her experiences have made her more sensitive to people around her and is at peace with herself. She mentioned she was lucky as she had two mothers – one who could give away a child and one who accepted her.
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Remembering the past
As mentioned in the essay, childhood memories are likely to be built on our memories of other people’s stories about our childhood. The mediation of significant others in our lives if crucial to our remembering. Eminent activist in the field of adoption Arun Dohle cautions us that “studying adoptee narratives is very difficult. Adoptees narratives can change significantly over time. Social pressure adds another layer of complication. I had heard that Indian adoptees are different and don´t want to search for their birth parents. It´s not true. In my interaction with in-country adoptees, they (naturally) feel pretty much the same. They are just even more alone and under pressure than intercountry adoptees.” Dohle has himself been through a personal journey to search for his biological mother in the 90’s and is now a well-known activist in the field. Regarding research on adoption in India, he laments that there are very few research studies about adoption and agrees with the phenomenon being shrouded in mystery. The few projects related to the issue are spearheaded by funding agencies, either directly or through closed units like psychiatric wards that are filtered for the study of individual cases. Through the years of engagement with the issue, he finds that sadly, the biological parents of children given up for adoption are never approached for their perspectives on the matter. He is happy to read about the fact that University Departments are engaging with the issue and hopes that their efforts will reach the larger society.
The above post is drawn from a small study with a handpicked group of people through personal contact. At the outset, it is important to point-out that these are stories of within country adoption, and no comments are made about international adoptions. Inter-country adoption raises a whole range of additional issues and is a hotly contested field. Some organisations are in fact campaigning against inter-country adoption as a form of child-trafficking. The argument against inter-country adoption are that it is a demand driven market and tends to treat children as commodities. They argue that it is much more favourable to assist children within the cultural setting in which they are born, this support favours existing social support. More can be read about ACT by following this link: http://www.againstchildtrafficking.org/.
Within country adoption
Adoption within the country is also fraught with several procedural problems, whereas children await being adopted, the queue of prospective parents is very long. For instance, in a recent news item, the average waiting period for adopting a child stands at around two years. “At any given point of time, the number of prospective parents are ten times the number of children available for adoption,” said Srivastava, underlining that currently there are 20,000 prospective parents awaiting children for adoption, some of the delay is related to the fact that 4000 institutions are still awaiting registration by the State.
Within family adoption:
In the case of Garima, we find that her adoption within the family, has facilitated a smooth and open relationship between the two families and Garima has had life-long contact with her biological parents. Although we cannot generalise from this case to other adoptions by relatives, there is a recognition of the phenomenon even in guidelines for adoption by CARA, the Central Adoption Research Authority of the Government of India. Adoption by relatives is recognised for both within country and international applications, but these adoptions have to be registered and formalised.
Adoption stories in the public space
By and large, stories of adoption in the media have been dramatic and sensational. Chance separations and miraculous reunions have long sustained Bollywood story writers. The fear of a child getting lost in a crowd has been every parent’s worst nightmare, and storytellers build on this emotion. Mythical tales of Krishna’s adoption to save his life and his antics with his adoptive mother Yashoda as are popular stories, told and retold, especially during the time of Janamashtami.
The recent film Lion is a case in point. A biographical account of the boy Saroo Brierley who seeks to find his biological parents after 25 years of being separated through an unfortunate incident, tugs at the heartstrings. Saroo has a chance separation from his brother at the age of 5, and gets lost in the crowd. After boarding a train he thinks his brother is on, the child finds himself in the heart of Kolkata. Saroo tries to return to his hometown but he is unable to remember how to get back, the name of his village evades him. He starts his life on the street with other children like him. Soon he is brought to an orphanage by the police where an Australian couple adopts him and he travels to Tasmania to join his new family. At college, he befriends an American student and makes friends with several others among whom are some Indians. Eating jalebis at an evening party, Saroo comes face to face with his memories and confides in his friend. Using technology, he is able to successfully map his home, and he embarks on a search for his family, and is encouraged by his adoptive parents. Saroo is successful in finding her and the reunion is a real tear-jerker.
There are several debates around adoption and we have only highlighted a handful of them, we hope to continue working with this theme in the future and searching for more information about this subject. Efforts have built up to ensure that birth records are better maintained by agencies and the children are allowed access to birth families as they grow. This is argued as being favourable for the developing person’s sense of identity. From two academics in the field, several recommendations are given regarding the process of adoption, one of them being that the child must have access to information about birth parents if and when they need to know. Unfortunately, as Dohle pointed out to us, the birth parents are rarely part of any research study. The recommendations made by Professors Featherstone and Gupta are available here:
 Human Development and Childhood Studies at the Lady Irwin College, University of Delhi
 Aggarwal, N. (2017). Experiences of Adult Adoptees: Growing up in adopted families. Unpublished master’s thesis. University of Delhi. Delhi. Supervisor, Dr. Vinita Bhargava