This is Where I Belong: A woman's search for her birth mother

t’s a sunny afternoon in mid-December in a village of 200 families in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region. The men are out in the fields. Herds of children follow us around the narrow lanes. Women peep through half-open doors.

As we drive past semi-plastered houses, Anusja suddenly wants things to slow down. She rubs her arms with her palms; her legs start to tremble; she takes deep breaths to calm herself. Next thing she knows, she’s in the middle of a courtyard, sitting on a cot, next to her birth mother, the woman she has wanted to meet all her life. Twenty eight years, to be precise.

Anusja was 14 months old when a Belgian couple adopted her from the Holy Cross Home for Babies in Amravati, Maharashtra. Now, she is back here with her husband to trace her roots.

“The natural connection you should have with the person who brought you on this planet; the connection I missed all these years; I felt it,” she said. “Now I know how I will look when I start ageing”

Grieving in silence

In Belgium, Anusja has a home, a family and a world full of opportunities — the only thing missing is a sense of belonging.

She was adopted in 1989. Anusja’s adoptive parents were unable to conceive. In Vitro Fertilisation did not exist back then and they longed for children. First, they adopted a boy from an orphanage in Kerala and two years later they adopted Anusja.

They revisited the children’s home with Anusja twice — when she was 10 years old and again when she was 13 years old. “Both times I was so sick, because being there triggered many pictorial memories I had as a toddler,” Anusja recalled.

Anusja with her adoptive parents in Belgium. (Anusja/family photo)

That she was different was the first thing that struck her when she looked at herself in the mirror. Her brother was the closest to her in looks but they weren’t biologically related. It wasn’t that they resembled each other. Rather, they looked similar because everyone else looked so different. It was frustrating not to know who she was or even who she could be because, as she discovered, nobody in Schriek — a small village in the Belgian province of Antwerp — looked anything like her. Every time Anusja went to a new place with her family, they had to explain who she was. It was never like “Oh yes I can see she is your daughter, she looks like the younger version of you”.

Growing up, she told herself she should be grateful for the opportunities she had because she had been adopted.

But growing up in Belgium was difficult, she said, because she felt rootless. She was fascinated by how much her friends resembled their parents or siblings. Not only did she not look like her parents, she also didn’t share their interests. Her dad played the piano and mouth organ, and her mother, the guitar. But Anusja had no musical talents. She loved drawing and poetry.

She tried hard to fit in. She focused on the future instead of the past. “I tried to grow up as normal as I could, and I knew that was what my parents also wanted,” she said, “They wanted to be parents. I tried my best to be a good daughter to them”

As a child, she found a way to cope with it: by grieving in silence. When she was 13, she started writing letters to her birth mother but she never shared them with anyone.

After finishing high school, Anusja studied social work at the University of Leuven. She then did a Masters in Communication Sciences, and joined a Human Resources firm in Antwerp.

In August 2014, she married Yoni, an IT professional and her boyfriend of three years. They now live in Antwerp.

The same year, she started a wedding photography business. Observing families and their bond would leave her enriched; but also with a longing curiosity about her birth mother. After every assignment, she would come back home thinking about the mother she never knew. Who was she? How was she doing? Did she have a house? Did she have someone to take care of her? Was she still alive? What physical features did she inherit from her mother? The short legs, long fingers, wavy hair and weird nose.

With every passing day, the urge to see her birth mother grew but she wasn’t sure what to do about it.

So she found solace in moving on, remaining silent, even letting it go. When people asked her about her adoption and her Indian family, she would tell them she knew nothing about them. She banned everything Indian in her life. She couldn’t even eat Indian food. It would make her sick. “I saw there was no good in combining that world with the world I was growing up in,” she said. “The getting forward in life thing was a way of coping with the lack of knowing to whom I truly belonged.”

Not without my mother

In September 2014, Anusja’s brother became a father. To see him bonding with his child was a strange experience for her. “How they understood each other! How he knew what his son wanted just by looking at him. I realised I had never had that kind of connection with my parents,” she said.

People around Anusja would ask her when she was planning to have babies. She had no answer. She decided not to have children because she thought she wouldn’t be a good mother until she had found her roots. “I couldn’t do it, she said. “I felt I couldn’t start my own family until I found to whom I truly belonged”

In September 2015, Anusja’s brother tagged her in a picture on Facebook. In the picture, Anusja is holding her brother’s baby in her arms. The photograph reminded her of a picture her adoptive parents had shared with her once — of a girl in the orphanage in Amravati holding Anusja. The body language in both the pictures was the same.

The girl in the picture used to take care of Anusja and was very close to her. Anusja’ parents had told her that for a long time after returning to Belgium they wondered whether that girl was Anusja’s birth mother or elder sister (Anusja’s name at the time of adoption was Anuja, which means ‘younger sister’).

I felt I couldn’t start my own family until I found to whom I truly belonged

That was when Anusja began the search for her birth mother. “I had all the degrees I wanted, a job, I had started my own business, bought an apartment, got married, but there was a black hole. What was next? What now?” she said.

Anusja started posting the picture of the girl from the orphanage on various Facebook groups working on adoption-related issues and also sent it to some Amravati residents.

She collected the guardianship order prepared during her adoption from her parents. It had her name, details of the orphanage and her age when she was taken in by the orphanage (two weeks).

She explained her case to the Belgian government authorities who support adoptees in their search for their roots. They said they would send an email to the orphanage but advised her that it would be best if she approached the orphanage on her own. “They were able to facilitate my entry and stay in Belgium. But they were unable to help me in my journey back to my roots. They had nothing concrete to offer me in terms of information, guidance or strategy. I found it horrific,” she said.

Anusja started Googling as a last resort. That’s how she discovered ACT (Against Child Trafficking), a Netherlands-based organisation working to prevent child trafficking that happens under the guise of inter-country adoption. She read articles and blog posts on how ACT had helped more than 40 adoptees in their search for their roots.

In December 2015, Anusja met ACT founder Arun Dohle in Aachen, Germany, and he told her that he would accept her case. He shared Anusja’s details with Anjali Pawar, a consultant with ACT, based in Pune.

Anusja was resorting to “root search” via a third-party, which is not permitted by the guidelines of CARA (Central Adoption Resource Agency), the central government body which handles inter-country adoptions in India.

Dohle said in an email interview that the third-party clause was hindering adoptees from meeting their biological parents., “Our position is that adoptees should have the right to access their files along with qualified social workers in India. But agencies are not cooperative in most of the cases. They do not have the experience, capacity and funds to conduct root searches.”

Anusja shared all details related to her case with Pawar, and gave her the power-of-attorney. Which means Pawar could do the search on Anusja’s behalf.

In June 2016, Arun informed Anusja that they had found the woman who, according to the preliminary information they had, could be her birth mother. Dohle also emailed a picture of the woman to Anusja.

When Pawar met the woman, she reminded her of the baby she had given up 27 years ago.

“Yes, but what about it now,” she asked Pawar.

“She is looking for you,” Pawar said.

“She can see me, but make sure that people here, my family and people in the village, don’t get to know anything about it,” said the woman.

In September, a DNA test established parenthood.

After that, things were less blurred for Anusja. She could now put a name, a face and a story to the vacuum she had felt all her life: her birth mother was not the girl from the orphanage; she had had to give up Anusja because she had been in a vulnerable situation. She was now 70 years old, living in a village in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region with two sons who were cotton farmers. Both her daughters were married.

Anusja with her husband, Yoni, after their arrival in India. (Athar Rather/HT Photo)

Anusja was now processing all this new information. When she was alone, she would visualise her mother and note the resemblance between them. She wondered how she walked, how she sounded and what a day in her life was like?

Anusja stayed in touch with Dohle and Pawar to explore the possibility of visiting her birth mother in Vidarbha. But she realised that the chances of that meeting were grim due to her mother’s circumstances. But Anusja was even willing to make do with a glimpse from afar. Or perhaps she could meet her birth mother and not tell her who she really was? “To see her in the flesh would mean the world to me,” Anusja said in an email in September.

Her adoptive parents were glad to know that Anusja might meet her birth mother. It was something she needed to do to move on in life. “We were not allowed to know any information regarding Anusja as her adoptive parents,” said Karine, Anusja’s adoptive mother, in an email. “I hope because of her example, other adoptees will get a more easy journey in looking for answers.”

To see her in the flesh would mean the world to me

In the run-up to her visit to India, Anusja got a card designed with five blocks on it. One block had the picture of her birth mother; three had Anusja’s pictures wearing the same saree; and one carried the text, “I have so much of you in my heart.”

She gave these cards to her friends and family members before she left for India in the first week of December, hoping to see, if not meet, her birth mother.

Room full of cotton

As we drive to the village, Anusja is fascinated to see a family of four on a motorbike. “I so want to do this. This is fun. I will miss this in Belgium,” she said.

At the village Anusja tries to absorb it all. She touches the leaves on trees; she spreads both her arms and inhales fresh air; she plays with the village kids. She is happy, sad, relieved, anxious, and angry. All at the same time.

Anusja’s birth mother is in pain because she fell and fractured her hip recently. She is lying on a cot wearing a red and yellow sari; a thin green pillow beneath her head and a steel water tumbler next to her.

Anusja sits next to her, wishing she could say, “Aahh mother, I am so sorry to see you in pain.” She wishes she could go inside the house and bring her tea and cookies to make her more comfortable. But she doesn’t do any of that. She wipes away her birth mother’s tears, rubs her hands, kisses her elbow, helps her sit up, and consoles her as she bursts into tears and repeatedly asks, “Will I be able to walk again? I don’t like lying on this cot.”

Anusja slips one of her red bangles on her birth mother’s left wrist. The woman shrugs at her in surprise.

During the reunion, Anusja left one of her bangles on the hand of her birth mother. (Athar rather/ HT photo)

Anusja then feels her skin and tries to memorise it. There comes a moment when only Pawar, Anusja and the woman are in the courtyard. Pawar asks the woman if she remembers her or the interaction they had regarding her daughter who was living abroad.

“Yes, I do,” she replies.

“She is the one. And that white man is her husband,” Pawar tells her. The woman keeps staring at Anusja stoically.

They stop talking when a man from the village suddenly appears. Anusja then tours the house to discover a room full of cotton. She collects a bunch of cotton and a pebble, which she will get framed in Belgium.

“God bless you,” says the woman, ruffling Anusja’s hair as we leave.

As we drive back from the village, Anusja says she knew her birth mother recognised her. “From the moment we entered, she knew. She looked at me with the eyes of a mother,” said Anusja.

“Both of us held back our feelings. I didn’t want to upset her too much, making it more difficult for her than it already is. I did not let her see my pain too much.”

Anusja got all the answers she was looking for. All the blanks were filled. Everything made sense to her. Everything “looks integrated” in Anusja’s words. Now she knows where she gets her nose from — the same nose her friends in Belgium tease her about. And the long fingers, tiny wrists and swan-like neck — features, which made her stand out in another part of the world.

Seeing her birth mother’s grandchildren gave her a sense of belonging.

I am angry at the world

Looking back, Anusja said she was not upset with her birth mother for giving her up. But she was upset that her mother was forced to make that choice. “I was mad at the world,” she said, “I grew up in a country which offers so much support for vulnerable mothers. There was a system which assured that adoption was often the last resort.”

She felt let down by the support services organised by the government authorities in Belgium because they were of no help, she said.“Every adoptee has a voice, but it often gets silenced by the system and authorities.”

Anusja’s experience of root search left her wondering how other adoptees would need the same -- someone who could put the pieces of the puzzle together for them. She had learnt the hard way how messy the search could get simply because so much crucial information was unavailable. “(The) confusion can become unbearable,” she said.

“I am angry for the way children are expected to be happy about their adoption. As a child, dealing with the loss of your parents is not easy. Every adopted child’s heart aches. In adoption, there is no room for that ache,” she said.

And she hated the heartache.

“I am angry for the way children are expected to be happy about their adoption. As a child, dealing with the loss of your parents is not easy. Every adopted child’s heart aches. In adoption, there is no room for that ache,” she said.

“Having known where I come from, we can now plan my own family,” she said, looking at Yoni, her husband.

“Anusja had so many questions and we wanted to move on and we were thinking of our own family,” said Yoni. “But it wouldn’t have been possible without this trip.”

Web production by Anand Katakam