The drive to her neighborhood is quick. It feels too quick; I’m unprepared. I thought I might have time, 15 minutes at least, to gather my thoughts. I realize, during our 3 minute ride, that I really haven’t thought much about what I would say if we do find this woman, and if she acknowledges me. I’ve thought about what this trip is supposed to mean to me. I’ve thought about whether or not I needed to come. I’ve thought about what me coming will mean for her. I’ve thought about how going will change how I think about my adoption. I’ve thought about the harm that could be caused by going. The harm to her, to her family and less frequently, the harm to me. I’ve thought about how difficult communicating will be. I’ve thought about the language barrier, the cultural barriers and the barrier of time. I’ve thought about how time and distance distort relationships, creating different experiences for each person, on either side of the connection. I’ve thought about whether or not this person will be able to see me, to understand what is happening.
I’ve thought about these things, and more.
I haven’t thought so much about what we would say to each other, or what I would say. It makes me grin. I feel foolish. I knew it was not possible to prepare for all outcomes but this omission seems almost comical. It’s possible this oversight was motivated by self-protective tendencies. Allowing myself to dig into the details of how a face-to-face reunion would go down implicitly means I’m considering it enough of a possibility that it is worth preparing for. That level of commitment, to a specific outcome, felt dangerous at all stages of preparation, dangerous enough that it allowed me to travel 8,000 miles without thinking about what in god’s name I would say to a woman I’ve wondered about for 28 years.
I’m jolted out of my bubble of self-reflection as Amitabh pulls the car off the side of the road and parks in a small patch of shade. This trip, perhaps the entire journey, has been characterized by prolonged periods of waiting, swirling uncertainty, punctuated by intense moments, where decisions need to be quickly made with limited information. The transitions to and from our destinations become the spaces I feel most comfortable within. I get attached to the expectation of arrival, at the same time reluctant to arrive, knowing it will require some action on my part, action I feel ill-equipped to take.
Sitting in the backseat of our Zoom Car, I scan our surroundings, foolishly looking for some indication of familiarity, something I can connect to in this new place. Although this may be where Sarai lives, it is not where I was purported to have been born. Legend has it I was born in a smallish city roughly an hour south of Trichy. Visiting this place was not meant to be, nor would it feel like, visiting my home. Out of my window I see a small concrete bridge, likely too small for our vehicle to traverse, spanning a ravine that, although quite shallow in this area, serves as a geophysical barrier, splitting the village in two.
Prior to returning to Sarai’s house, Anjali wanted to do her due diligence and inquire at the village post office if there were any other villagers of the right age and relation to Gangai, Sarai’s father, my grandfather. In this search I’ve been overwhelmed by the potential outcomes and the challenges of determining the right first step. Whether or not Anjali possesses the same hesitation I’m unable to determine; her actions are swift, her intent clear. I am appreciative of the tact, thoughtfulness and methodology that Arun and Anjali employ in their searches. I feel glad that they pursued other leads and are not just following the breadcrumbs. I’m impressed with the logic of going to the post office to inquire about who lives in the village. Once pointed out it seems like an obvious first step. What other local institution is charged with knowing who lives where?
In general, Amitabh does most of the talking during our excursions, and the trip to the post office was no different. Anjali sat to his left, sharing careful instructions on how to ask questions in a way that would not reveal our purpose, yet push the case forward. It felt like a delicate process, a constant negotiation. Amitabh would repeat back the details and wait for Anjali to correct him, before exiting the vehicle. He spoke with three of four people standing around the post office. It was hard for me to gather how many of them were postal workers; they did not wear navy blue uniforms with a white eagle patch. We waited patiently in the car for what felt like an excruciating amount of time as Amitabh talked with others, venturing up and down the street following instructions about who to talk to from one of the older, slender men dressed in a dhoti. After a while, Anjali stepped out of the car, perhaps becoming impatient herself, and once she was satisfied with the new leads they both returned to the car. We drove two minutes down the road to a three story building where the men at the post office indicated a woman named Francisca lived who was said to be a daughter of Gangai.
This second stop turned out to be unfruitful. Once it was revealed that Francisca was in fact the granddaughter of Gangai, not the daughter, Amitabh and Anjali retreated, informing the three of us it could not be her and while it was a good lead to follow, it was now time to return to Sarai’s house. I was grateful for their persistence, not just taking the easiest path, but working to leave no stone unturned. It was comforting and made me feel somewhat coddled. I am not accustomed to having my needs so directly and transparently centered.
Amitabh turned the vehicle around and we returned to the post office. Muthuraman was waiting for us, sitting atop his motorcycle. Amitabh hopped out and they exchanged a warm familial greeting, more physical than most public interactions I’ve witnessed. With Muthuraman added to the entourage, we were now six deep. I was not entirely sure what value he brought aside from another perspective, but I thought maybe he could help legitimize our presence if we were to seek police assistance.
Muthuraman is a police officer in another town. He is round faced, smiles and makes me feel comfortable. He and Amitabh undeniably share a common ancestor. They both wear the same dab of red in the middle of their foreheads. He boasts a thicker head of hair and leather shoes, clearly communicating his status and officialness to those who understand the signals.
Muthuraman, who has been following us on his motorcycle, pulls off and parks in the shade. It is decided that Arun and Max will stay in the car so as not to draw attention. It feels good that they are aware of these dynamics, which may be somewhat obvious, but the whole idea of visiting her house in broad daylight with an entourage seems risky. I don’t quite understand what story it is that they will tell people who see us, how they will explain why we are there and who we are looking for. These thoughts and more race through my head as I open the car door, immediately aware of the noontime sun beating down on us, embarrassed that I haven’t put on sunscreen or brought a hat. I feel ill prepared.
By the time I am scanning my surroundings, wondering what direction we are headed and what our next step is, Amitabh has already gotten the attention of a group of elderly men huddled under a nearby tree to ask them for directions. I learned, quickly, that Indians do not seem to harbor the same obstinance in asking for help or directions as their western counterparts. The men, without much effort gesture across the paved road we had traveled on to get here, to the other side of the ravine, indicating we would need to head that direction.
It feels clear as we cross the paved road and traverse the concrete bridge that we are in Sarkarpalayam for a reason. This is not the place tourists would end up, not because it isn’t beautiful, but because it is ordinary, one of dozens or hundreds of villages dotting the banks of the mighty Kaveri as it stretches almost the full width of Southern India, from the Kodagu Hills to the Bay of Bengal. This village would seem forgettable, a novelty perhaps during a first visit but easily a bore with nothing connecting a drifting traveler.
As we cross the concrete slab laid across the ravine, a clearly intentional bridge, yet still somehow oddly misshapen, a couple on a motorcycle approach us. As we step down onto the other side of the ravine, the motorcycle driver effortlessly guides the front wheel of the bike into a central section of the bridge that has crumbled, no doubt from this happening thousands of times, and up onto the bridge. They pay us little to no attention, unaware of our intent, the intrusion upon their quiet neighborhood.
It feels somewhat surreal, walking down a street that she walks down every day, seeing the people she likely greets on her way to work or to the store. The neighborhood is quiet, a few folks out, one woman asleep on the concrete slab on her front porch, likely cooler than napping in her home at that time of day. We pass by a three story building, much larger than all the other homes, that looks to be under construction, although no crews are around. I like walking in the neighborhood. The streets are narrow, the houses low and small and close together. It feels intimate and comfortable, not confining. I find myself wanting to just walk. We pass a few streets and I long to see the houses, feel the rough pebbly dirt under my feet. I want to know this place, it feels important to look around, appreciate and take in the surroundings.
The first street we walk down turns into a dead end, with two tributary roads splitting off like tree roots searching for water in the depths below. We veer left and I would later regret not being able to see what was around the bend to the right. The road straightens back out and we pass one light green house, larger and nicer than the ones we’d passed by at the beginning, a similar, but white version sitting across the dirt road. It’s clear this is another dead end, but then I see it, beyond a small thatch-roofed shack .
There sits a house. A house I had only seen in pictures before. A house I had hoped I would get to see in person, a house that is the home of a woman who does not call me her son.
Either the picture was deceiving or my perception distorted. In person, the house is small, squat, low roofed and much closer to the street than I had imagined. The flowering shrubs from the picture are scattered haphazardly throughout the small front yard, the clothesline wrapped around one of the bamboo posts. The front door, tiny and wooden with a metal handle, is shut and locked tightly. It looks so small, so shabby. Not pink the way I thought it was, but blueish, faded.
I’m glad to be here, standing in her neighborhood, in front of her house. We linger for only a few minutes, Anjali acutely aware of not wanting to make a scene or arouse any more suspicion than we already have. She takes a quick picture of me in front of Sarai’s house. In this moment I’m terrified but also immensely proud. Terrified of meeting this woman, of ruining her life, of ruining others’ lives, terrified of not knowing what to do, how to act, how to communicate with her. Terrified that coming all this way may be the wrong decision for her, an intrusion, against her will. Proud that I’ve done something for myself, done something I decided I needed to help me heal, to help me live my life better. I’m proud I listened to myself in spite of the deafening fear of my needs negatively impacting another.
The moment passes quickly, I feel rushed. I want to linger and at the same time I want to run and hide. I want to know this place, particularly if I cannot know this woman. I want to traverse it to be able to see this path in my mind the same way I do the gravel lane to my home in Ohio. I want to know the sounds, the sounds of morning, the sounds of routine. I want to know the smells, the smell of spring rain, the smell the blossoming flowe bushes, the smell of a kerosene stove or cooking fire. I want to be in this place again, if only in my mind. I’m not done with it, I’m not done knowing it, I’ve just begun.
The desire to stay, to see more of the village is overpowered by intense anxiety and Anjali’s sense that it is time to go. Without Sarai around we have no purpose, no belonging, and remaining just increases the likelihood our purpose will be discovered. On our way out Amitabh converses with a few of the neighbors, asking what seem like benign questions about Sarai, if she still lives here, if she is away at work, explaining we are with an organization that used to work with her and needs to do follow-up. One older woman with strikingly white hair and a red sari is particularly animated and keeps our attention for a while. I like listening to her, admiring her dark skin, contrasting with her deep red sari and white hair. I feel close to her, if for no other reason than that I am looking for pieces of this place to take with me, unsure of what will come next.
We return to the car, Max and Arun awaiting our return, hopeful of good news. We report we did not see her. I climb back in to escape the heat, while Amitabh, Muthuraman and Anjali all head for the shade and huddle around Muthuraman’s motorcycle to make a few calls. While we wait, we watch a healthy looking cow tear away at a coconut tree, eating its leaves methodically, using its tongue with the dexterity of a magician. It is satisfying to watch it plod along, untended to, only concerned with sustenance. The cow is various shades of brown, fading to white. It looks well fed, thick, with a moist nose. As it gets closer to us, it peels off a massive leaf, making me feel sorry for the coconut tree, wishing it had developed an evolutionary response to hungry untethered cows. After a few minutes the cow moves on, slowing walking by our little red car, across the paved road and onto the other side and out of sight. Max tries to capture a picture through the window, but the angle is terrible.
After a bit Anjali and Amitabh return. Under the tree they had continued working, calling the number that Sarai had given them during their first visit . This time she answered and said it was the wrong number, unwilling to engage. On the ride back there is much talk about asking the police for assistance since she is unwilling to engage. It is discussed whether or not the police could at least compel her to take a DNA test. I feel uncomfortable engaging the police at all but come around to the idea of bringing our case to them, but not to coercing her to take a DNA test. This is left vague. We drive back to Trichy, stopping to enjoy a delicious lunch platter and lime water. We decide to meet back up at 5:30 that evening to drive to a police outpost in a neighboring village to seek help.
Photo Credit – Max Shannon