There are two narratives that claim authorship over my origin story, or what remains of an origin story. The two narratives are not entirely mutually exclusive. The first one relies on written records and documentation provided by the orphanage where I stayed and issued by a South Indian court. The documentation has dates, official seals, witnesses, signatures and all the trappings of an unquestionably definitive narrative. Yet there are contradictions even within some of those seemingly ironclad records. The second narrative, if it can even be called that, is rumor at best. The second narrative is a few lines of a story that were told to my father 30 years ago and have been repeated to me, sparingly, over the decades since.
The first story is straightforward and simple. It’s neat and is backed up by esoterically, yet accurately, labeled official documentation from the Indian government, Indian courts and the agency that facilitated my adoption, Illien Adoptions International (now defunct). One such document demonstrates the aforementioned nomenclature aptly in its title, “Affidavit of Abandonment in Lieu of a Birth Certificate.” This document, chock-full of supposed truths, was issued officially by the Court of The District Judge of Tiruchirapalli two month prior to my adoption. The document is printed on what feels like hand-made paper with blotchy purple type-written letters. The paper feels as fragile as the information it contains.
The Affidavit’s date of creation, after my adoption had been initiated, is questionable, as are some of the details contained within. Regarding the date of creation, why didn’t the orphanage petition to have the document created once I was in their custody? Why wait 10 months until it was clear I would be adopted and would need formal paperwork creating me as a legal person in India? Little inconsistencies such as these undercut the official sounding narrative the documents attempt to provide and validate my level of skepticism in attempting to use these records for practical purposes, such as searching.
The document and its companions serve as the official paper trail of my relinquishment and adoption in India. It is either an attempt at erasing the true story of my past or a hasty attempt at minimally documenting what did occur. Whichever the case may be, one undeniable fact is that it severs the ties I had with biological relatives. The trail of crumbs left have led us astray once in 2019, and may continue to be a persuasive detour, despite our attempts to verify the validity of the information within the document.
It is also clear that the primary motivation for the creation of the affidavit, likely initiated by orphanage officials, was to make me available for adoption, more specifically intercountry adoption. This document, along with a dozen or so others, depict my “pre-orphanage” life as mundanely sad. The story goes that my biological mother, after becoming pregnant with me, fell ill with tuberculosis, and was unable to care for me. My father, unwilling to marry her, is largely left out of the narrative aside from his indifference to myself and her. My mother birthed me and cared for me, while ill, for 11 months before her uncle arranged/coerced/encouraged her to relinquish me. I then lived for 12 months at an orphanage until I was adopted and brought to the U.S. shortly before my second birthday. That’s the short of it.
The second “narrative” offers a completely different “pre-orphanage” story. In the spring of 1991, my father, Peter, traveled to India to meet me and take me back to the U.S. My parents had heard that adoption, particularly international adoption, was hard on children and one way to ease one of the many shocks the child would experience was to meet the child in their current home, a big contrast to Saroo Brierely’s experience in Lion, for example. My father spent a few days with me in Tiruchirappalli (Trichy) meeting me, visiting the orphanage and learning what steps were necessary to complete in order for me to be allowed to return with him. After our few days in Trichy, I traveled with him to Delhi where we stayed at a hospital that also had an orphanage. While we waited for my visa and passport to be issued, some staff at this hospital told my father that I shared the same name and birthday with a child they had cared for, who had been born in their hospital and sent to Southern India.
If true, this would mean a number of things. First of all, it would prove the invalidity of the details in the affidavit and call into question all the information included in those documents: my name and birthday and the scant details provided about my biological family. Secondly, it is illegal to transfer children in this way in India, across state lines. The likelihood that rules were bent, broken or, most likely, ignored, throughout my early life seems all but confirmed. This tip from the hospital workers, would mean that my trips to Southern India are likely in vain, in regards to searching. It also means all the records I do have are entirely fabricated and might as well be used as fire starter.
It feels like I’m in a situation where neither one of the options is ideal. I’m not sure I have one I’m wishing to be true or just wishing for it all to be over. In my initial return trip to India in 2019, to begin searching, we did not follow up on the Delhi story because the other documentation seemed robust enough to warrant our exclusive focus. Now that we have gone through one round of mistakenly identifying someone as my mother, who it turned out was not, we are back to square one. Square one, in this case, requires us to follow up on both narratives and create a travel itinerary that has us in both Northern and Southern India this time.
For this trip, I’ve laid out the part of my itinerary that is scheduled, which covers the first two weeks of the trip. The remaining five weeks will be spent on a mixture of visiting friends, traveling and hopefully connecting with Indian culture in a less superficial way than prior trips. This will be my fourth return trip to India (2004, 2018, 2019 and 2022) and the longest, by about 4 weeks. I’ve decided to travel alone in part due to prior challenges of traveling with companions unfamiliar with India and in part because I feel ready to do this alone.
I’m traveling with an Overseas Citizen of Indian (OCI) card which is essentially a long-term work, travel and occupancy visa for people of Indian origin or who have held citizenship at one point. The card is a diluted form of dual citizenship. For me it means I don’t have to worry about tourist visas and get to stand in a different line while passing through customs. Hooray!
Itinerary – India 2022
- March 27 – Depart Columbus, OH, connect at JFK. Direct flight from JFK to Delhi. Flight duration 15 hours 10 minutes.
- March 28 – Arrive in Delhi, check-in to the hotel.
- March 28-31 – Rendezvous with Against Child Trafficking (ACT) staff, stay in Delhi and investigate the leads from the hospital in Delhi.
- March 31 – Depart Delhi, connect in Chennai, arrive in Tiruchirappalli.
- March 31 – April 4 – Travel around Tiruchirappalli and neighboring villages to follow up on leads and interviews from 2019. Attempt to uncover new leads and connections.
- April 4-10 – ACT staff depart and I will remain in Southern Tamil Nadu either resting or visiting landmarks and cultural sites.
- April 10 – Depart Southern Tamil Nadu and arrive in Chennai.
- April 10-20 – Remain in Chennai visiting friends and exploring the city.
- April 20 – Depart Chennai and arrive in Mumbai.
- April 20 – May 6 – Participate in a tentative homestay in Mumbai.
- May 6-17 – TBD
- May 17 – Arrive in Delhi by noon, departing flight for JFK at 11:30pm local time.
- May 18 – Arrive back in JFK, connect to Columbus.
If our first stop in Delhi validates the first story we will likely have to throw out the above itinerary and start from scratch. T-minus one day until departure.
Cover Photo Credit: Max Shannon