SOC SEAD Today and Yesterday

I barely slept our first night in the SRM Hotel, exhausted from the almost two days of travels, I crashed hard. I awoke disoriented and decidedly unrested at 11:30pm, I’d slept for maybe 3 hours and quickly realized I was back, I was in India. That first night in the hotel was a long and lonely one. My inability to sleep, despite my clear exhaustion, reminded me of my trip to Himachal Pradesh the prior year. During that trip I managed to go three and a half weeks without getting more than 2 hours of sleep any given night, many nights not falling asleep at all. The thought left me with a sense of dread of the long nights to come, sitting alone in a home away from home, surrounded by the innately familiar and conditioned unfamiliarity.

That first night Max slept stoically in the twin bed, two feet away from mine. I lay there, the large beige curtains drawn, trying to fall asleep while simultaneously chastising myself for not meditating or practicing mindfulness enough. As the night wore on I reluctantly acknowledged any hope of sleep was lost. I surrendered to my travel-induced insomnia and transitioned instead to berating myself for coming back to India in the first place. What the hell was I even thinking? I had no idea what I was doing and barely knew the people I was trusting, and paying, to lead me on this journey. At one point I was transported back to my 17 year old self walking off a plane in Buenos Aires to begin a year long cultural immersion program. I felt the same sense of panic realizing that I couldn’t speak a lick of Spanish as I did lying in bed playing out all the possible terrible outcomes that could result from my searching. That sense of panic, of regret and self-critique, came rushing back to me, sloshing around in my thoughts for hours.

At some point in the night I was able to make out the edge of the curtain that had been hastily pulled against the wall, slowly light began to creep through, cautious at first, undemanding. It was 5:30am by the time Max made any movement indicating he would wake. Once awake and showered, we ventured out of our hotel room and into the hotel’s corridor with its white concrete walls and elegantly tiled floors. We descended the three flights of stairs to the lobby and entered the air conditioned dining room and acquainted ourselves with the breakfast buffet spread. I was pleased with how quiet the stairs were and felt immediate frustration at all of the preventable squeaky staircases of my past. During this first breakfast I discovered pongal, southern Indian boiled rice sweetened with Jaggery and cashews, after a small initial portion went back and heaped my plate full. Unfamiliar with most of the food at the buffet at first I tried small portions of almost everything, except the meat and the idli. I avoided the meat entirely. One of only a few details I recall my parents telling about what they knew about me as a baby in India was that I liked idli. When offered, I eagerly ordered a chai, only to be severely disappointed with its lukewarm temperature, lack of cardamom taste and clear lack of sugar.

Arun and Anjali joined us shortly after the chai arrived. Over breakfast we discussed the day’s itinerary; the visit to SOC SEAD and then our first trip to Sarkapalyam, the residence of my birth mother, to pick up where Arun and Anjali halted their search just under a year prior. The thought of returning to the orphanage did not appeal to me, initially. When brought up, I bristled at the notion. Returning felt unnecessary, superfluous even. I was surprised and annoyed they thought it was worth our time to visit, had they not already gotten my entire file? What more could be gained from returning? I hadn’t prepared emotionally for visiting and it felt like a waste of time. Time felt precious and scarce, I wanted all of our actions to count. Anjali, in her pragmatic and caring way, explained, clearly and delicately, that it was important to return, that we weren’t returning for my benefit but for the benefit of others who will come after me. Returning to the orphanage to thank them for providing the original documents and to demonstrate to them how important it was for me to be able to do this roots search would aid the field/movement overall. 

After breakfast, Arun and Anjali waited for Amitabh to return with the Zoom Car. I packed a day bag; water bottles, mic, cash, passport, and sunglasses. We waited for Amitabh in the hotel courtyard, it was grand, fit for guests far more esteemed than ourselves. Later in the week an elegant wedding party would take up residence in the hotel, more appropriate guests for the grandeur of the hosts. We situated ourselves against a sturdy looking marble retaining wall just as Amitabh pulled up in an orange sedan with Zoom Car written in white letters along the side. The fact that we had hired a driver who didn’t own a car, made me smile, it felt indicative of my complete and total lack of understanding of how things would work on this trip.

We piled in the Zoom Car, the five of us and a skinny young man from the car rental place who had apparently escorted the car to its destination but now needed a ride back somewhere. We crammed into the backseat, Arun, Max, the skinny rental car man and I. About 5 minutes into the trip, as we sped towards the City center, Amitabh dropped him at what felt like a random corner, we were relieved to have our leg room back. 

I had looked up the location of SOC SEAD on Google maps before leaving and could not recognize the building or the compound that popped up as the same place we visited in 2004. I assumed I just didn’t remember it correctly or that it had undergone changes. As we rounded the corner on our final approach the street and neighborhood felt unfamiliar. There was a towering multi-story department store across the street from the building we eventually stopped in front of, which I did not remember. Furthermore, there was no new orphanage building, no impressive statue of the Virgin Mary encircled by a dirt driveway ringed with a tall metal fence welcoming us. When Arun and Anjali had said we would be returning to SOC SEAD, I had taken it for granted that we would visit the same complex that LilaRose and I visited in 2004. At first, even with the glaring dissimilarities and the mismatched Google images, I tried to turn this new place into the one we visited in 2004, where I had spent 11 months as a baby, but it quickly became clear it was not. 

Nearly 15 years ago, December 26, 2004, I returned to India with my older sister. The trip’s impetus, a dying wish of my father, would mark the first time I would return to India, let alone the orphanage, in over 13 years. At 15, I harbored fantasies and delusions about what returning to India, and more specifically to the orphanage, for the first time would be like. I invested all the solutions to my insecurities in a trip back to India, it would serve as my panacea. I blamed my circumstances, being in a white culture surrounded by a language that was only mine by adoption, for my shortcomings and low self-esteem. I reasoned that if I were back in India, only then would I truly be able to be myself. I would be around people who looked like me. Maybe I would even remember the language; people always told me that I would pick it up quickly since I had been there as a child. The more I blamed my insecurities on being in the U.S. the easier it was to feel like living in the U.S. was the primary constraint against my flourishing. The easier it was to turn India into a fantasy capable of curing my wounds and unlocking my true potential.

The first few days of the trip were rough. I was frustrated, angry. I had high expectations for what this trip would do for me, what it would mean. I wanted the return to India to be easy, I wanted it to be healing. I felt awkward and out-of-place. I felt like an impostor almost immediately. The people in the streets were not like me. Their skin looked different. I didn’t belong here. Nothing came back to me. I couldn’t understand what people were saying to me. They expected me to understand. People wanted me to know their gods, to follow their customs, but I didn’t. I knew nothing. I could barely stomach the food and the sweets sickened me. I clearly did not belong in this place, how could I have come from it?

The impetus for the trip was, in my father’s mind, to get me to return to the orphanage, to give me the opportunity to connect with a part of my identity I’d buried deep inside a hole in the middle of a lush deciduous forest in rural Ohio. My parents felt it was important for me to maintain, if not develop, a connection with India. They tried early on to expose me to Indian culture by taking me to shows, concerts and restaurants. Over the years my initial intrigue turned to reluctance and eventually complete rejection of any aspect of my heritage. It felt threatening, exposing perhaps. I didn’t want others to associate me with a culture I had come to believe was weak. The intellectual conflict of suppressing and rejecting any association with my birth culture while simultaneously fantasizing about taking refuge within it remains an active battle.

Once in Tiruchirappalli, Tamil Nadu, my purported home state and the location of the orphanage we spent most of our time within SOC SEAD’s orbit. My parents loaded us up with a generous cashier’s check for the orphanage and an abundance of plastic toys for the children. Secretly, I was terrified of this portion of the trip. I was scared of being in India, scared of being Indian and not Indian at the same time. Scared others would reveal to me and to others that I was not who I was, which was something I did not even know. Deep down I built a reservoir of fragility. A story of immense trauma, of pain suffered at an incomparable level. I created a story that through articulation made reunion with my birth culture or relatives an Achilles heel. I feared returning to the orphanage would trigger a mental breakdown or, as absurd as it sounds, my entire disappearance. 

I feigned nonchalance at the prospect of returning to the orphanage, so much so that by the time we pulled into the driveway, a statue of the Virgin Mary welcoming us from the middle of the entrance, I was caught off-guard by how little thought I’d given to how this place would look or feel. I had totally forgotten the orphanage was run by Catholic nuns, or maybe I’d never really accepted that fact. It was funny thinking that I had lived for the last 13-years without any semblance of organized spiritual or religious affiliation and here I was staring at what I assumed to be my origins and it was defined piety. Momentarily, it made me wonder if I should be Catholic, if Catholicism was somehow part of my denied heritage.

The director, Sister Karla, was waiting for us as Lawrence, her driver, helped us out of the silver Mercedes SUV. Sister Karla had sent her car to fetch us and insisted that Lawrence shepherd us around the City for the entirety of our stay. At the time it did not occur to me how odd, or perhaps suspicious, it was for the head of an alleged social services organization to be driving one of the nicest vehicles in the City. Sister Karla welcomed us and ushered us inside while making it clear she was glad to have us as guests. She wore a deep orange sari that blended with the dirty yellow walls of the orphanage building. She took the time to explain many of the functions that her organization, Sisters of Cross Society for Education Development (SOC SEAD), had been working on in the prior years. I assumed the orphanage was a small independent low-resourced operation and was amazed how large the organization was. Sister Karla explained that since my days it had blossomed; now operating women’s entrepreneurship groups, a primary and secondary school, worker’s training programs and a program for young homeless boys.

Upon entering the main administrative building my heart kicked up a notch. We were immediately led to a staircase that took us to the administrative offices on the second floor. Sister Karla told us that there was one caretaker, a very elderly woman, who said she remembered me and that we would visit her first. I wondered how much she would remember, and naively, if she knew anything about my birth relatives, or perhaps more realistically if she could tell me what I was like as a child. Unsurprisingly, this 70 or 80 year old woman could not speak English and I hadn’t the faintest clue what she was saying to me. We exchanged, via an interpreter, a few kind words and shared a hug. I was disappointed by the nonchalance of our interaction and felt the weight of my lack of preparation in that moment and today as well.

Once in the office we sat down at Sister Karla’s desk. She picked up her recitation of the organization’s success, expansion and credentials as I sat there distracted. It was difficult to concentrate on her words. My mind was off, off in another place, or maybe here in that room but not with her words. In fact, that was probably the first time I’d ever felt present in my past, trying to make meaning of being in that place, sharing space with a place from as far back in my past as I knew existed. I couldn’t believe I was there, I had so many questions…didn’t I? At that moment Sister Karla startled me, perhaps aware she had lost me as her audience, by asking, “Would you like to see your file?”

“You still have it?” I responded, hesitantly, unsure, almost incredulous, that they still had any information on me. It had been 13-years, I figured this place barely had running water, let alone a record of the children who had been in their care. Sister Karla pulled a folder out of her desk, she was prepared, perhaps this was the performance of an interaction she rehearsed before. It occurred to me that I likely wasn’t the first person to come knocking about my past. She handed a surprisingly thick envelope to me with a smile on her face, her large brown eyes beaming at me never flinching or straying from my gaze. I lowered my eyes to the folder as I took it from her. Suddenly, felt an intense wave of vulnerability at opening the file, looking at its contents in the presence of others. I felt embarrassed, embarrassed that someone knew more about me than I did. I was protective of details about myself that I didn’t even know, details this woman across from me knew, and had known for as long as she had been at the orphanage. This is it, I thought to myself. This folder contained information and secrets I had been deprived for years.

Equal parts scared of the information and scared of damaging the physical contents, I opened the folder hesitantly. To my disappointment, the contents were largely the same as what I had found a few years ago in a blue folder labeled “Kumar” in my parents filing cabinet. It was evident how eager I was to immerse myself in the folder’s contents. Every once-in-a-while I would catch Sister Karla watching my face as I flipped each page over, reading them front to back, scanning for anything that could serve as a clue or key to my origin. Eventually, Sister Karla beckoned us over to her new Dell computer. It was evident the computer was a source of pride to her and perhaps the entire organization. The monitor was massive, black and took up a good portion of the workspace. Sister Karla, continuing in her assertive presence took the primary desk chair while LilaRose and I pulled up chairs next to her. She opened folders and, to my surprise, began scrolling through pictures of me. 

Fifteen years later and perhaps only a few kilometers away, I sat in a similar building, run by the same organization who had also surprised us, a year prior, with sharing the complete versions of the files Sister Karla let me explore in 2004. I had known at the time that the files I was looking at were somehow incomplete, but I hadn’t realized that the rest of the documents likely existed in that office and weren’t being shared with us, intentionally. 

We waited for 15 minutes in the office of the orphanage director, a handsome slender man who looked to be in his mid-thirties. Anjali, Max, Ambitabh, Arun and myself attempted to make small talk while Sister Josephine, Sister Karla’s predecessor, took her time before calling us into her office. Once we were finally called in to meet with Sister Josephine we stood up in a group and marched our way into the hallway, down a short flight of steps and into a room that reminded me of the room where we ate lunch one afternoon with Sister Karla.

To my disappointment we only spent one day at the orphanage in 2004. After reviewing my file, Sister Karla led us downstairs and paraded us through a nearly finished two story peach colored concrete building with bright red accents that she boasted would be the new childrens’ home, orphanage. It looked nice, white walls, a substantial porch, new metal swinging cribs and lots of light. It was empty. The children, and the nuns that cared for them were in the original building, a cage like brown and yellow structure with metal fences from floor to roof. The building was noticeably dirtier with green brown mold stains growing up the exterior walls. 

I don’t remember ever seeing or having pictures of the building where I had lived for 11 months. From a distance the building did not inspire confidence, it made me feel sorry for those who called it home, momentarily forgetting I was included within that category, if only temporarily. I was nervous approaching the building, nervous I might violate some custom and offend the nuns, nervous about seeing the children there, alone, nervous I might see myself in those children. As we walked down the muddy path towards the building it occurred to me that this was what I had been waiting for, the best chance, I figured, at a window into my origins. Second best to seeing a biological relative was seeing where I had lived.

Sister Karla leading the way we crossed the dirt path towards the yellow painted concrete walls broken up by yellow metal screens. Through the yellow fence I could make out a few nuns moving within, presumably tending to the children. How many children were there? How many children were there when I was there? Did I have friends? Who cared for me? 

We passed through the metal door and into a large open room. There was no furniture anywhere. It looked like more of an enclosed patio than a room. One wall was completely wire screen facing the new orphanage building. The floor was white tile, much like the new building. There were a handful of nuns some the age of my grandparents others looked a few years older than my sister. They brought out children from the interior of the orphanage where they must’ve slept. There were probably 10 or so children. Sister Karla introduced us to the women, none of whom spoke any English so our interactions were somewhat mediated by Sister Karla.They seemed pleased to hear that I had been in the orphanage as a child. I wished I could have spoken with them directly.

Unsure of what to with ourselves we stood. Noticing our awkwardness one of the nuns instructed that we sit on the floor with them in a semicircle. The children were placed in the middle on a blanket. The ones that were big enough were set on a sheet in the middle of our semi-circle and were allowed to explore and move about on their own. Some of them flailed on their bellies while others were able to sit up, point at things and made demanding noises. One boy, the oldest I later learned, was dressed in blue shorts and a blue sweater. He ran around a fair amount and seemed to be more or less in control of himself in this patio. I wondered if I was like him, the oldest in the orphanage.

One of the children, visibly the youngest, had been found on Christmas, alone and abandoned in an outhouse and brought to the orphanage. He was very small and skinny but judging by the pudgy-ness of the other kids I felt confident he would soon be able to show off his own baby rolls. We brought gifts for the children. We brought plastic toys for the kids and a nice green check for the orphanage. We took out the toys and distributed them amongst the children. The ones that took notice of them mostly put them in their mouths testing to see if they were edible. I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to touch or play with the kids so I just sat there and watched them clamber around eagerly tasting whatever they could get in their mouths.

Sister Karla encouraged us to play with the children. I hadn’t the faintest idea how to play with children. I had almost never been around people this young. I don’t know if I’d ever seen this many babies in one place together. I didn’t know how gentle I was supposed to be, how to hold them or what to do with them. Was I supposed to talk to them? I wondered as I thought about what I would do. Finally persuaded by my own sense of future regret I mustered enough courage, after scanning the room watching the nuns handle the children, to pick up one of the clambering children with a toy in his mouth.

I had been watching him in his orange shorts for a few minutes, he was quite cute. He seemed light-hearted and curious. I doubted he would protest if I picked him up so I reached for him, trying to conjure images I had seen of parents picking up their children, and settled on grabbing under each armpit and lifting him towards me so our heads would be level. As I brought him closer I felt self-conscious, immediately aware I was being watched and judged by all these nuns. Wide-eyed we both stared at each other as his feet dangled 20 inches from the tiled floor. After a few seconds I realized I was being watched, a few of the nuns were grinning and commenting, probably on my awkward holding technique of this little boy in the orange shorts. I looked back at the boy, we both looked at each other not sure what to make of the other, I grinned and set him down.

Back in 2019, although we weren’t in that same building or near any of those same children they came back to me. The older boy in the blue outfit, snot nosed, with scruffy hair and an already intense air of independence. The tiny infant born on Christmas, only 12 days old when we met. The boy in the orange shorts, white shirt and toy in his mouth who I shared a brief moment of eye contact, perhaps a connection beyond just a stop on our common journey. Once seated in Sister Josephine’s office and chai was ordered I couldn’t help but wonder what happened to those, and all the other children we had shared space with. Did they ever find their families? Did they live? Were they trafficked? What was their fate? Did any of them share in the same type of search I had begun? 

The meeting with Sister Josephine and our time at SOC SEAD passed quickly. It felt inessential, although it served to connect me back to moments, to my first trip back in a way that wouldn’t have necessarily happened otherwise. I tend to isolate experiences and think of them as purely sequential and chronological rather than as they truly exist as interweaving and complex in ways that bring the past emphatically into the present. Traveling “back” to a place I’d never been but adjacent to where I’d lived folded time in a way that allowed me relive my first trip to India. 

My feelings towards intercountry adoption, towards the organizations involved in facilitating my adoption have soured in the years since my first trip. I don’t like the idea that countries find it more appealing, or profitable, to send their children abroad rather than raise them within their native culture, language and borders. I find it sad that supporting existing families, regardless of structure, is socially and politically untenable. 

Our visit ended with a group picture, somewhat awkwardly taken, of Arun, Anjali, Sister Josephine and myself all sitting around the Sister’s desk. I was happy to leave the building, happy to no longer be paying lip-service to an organization that had lost its license to operate as an orphanage years before. In the short hour we spent inside the sun had climbed higher, burning off the morning fog and baking the dusty streets. 

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