Hi everyone! My name is Prema Malhotra. However, I prefer to go by Prema Suma. I’m an Indian adoptee living in the USA. I was born in Mumbai in 1987. I was relinquished at 2 days of age and my mother was only 19 years old, engaged to be married and in love with my father, but for some reason he left without a trace. Unfortunately, my father was unaware my mother conceived a child, me. My mother couldn’t find him and she made the firm decision to relinquish me probably due to the shame and stigma of being an unwed pregnant mother.
I was also born with medical conditions so when I was relinquished, I was first sent to a children’s hospital. I know I most likely could have died when I was born – the cord was wrapped around my neck 2 times. I also had a 100 degree temperature and had a diagnosis of Septicemia. The fact I survived is my gift from the world. When I was discharged, I was placed into the care of Foster parents who looked after me until approx. 6.5 months of age.
My adoptive parents are also Indian and immigrated to the USA. They have two biological sons who are older than I. My parents always wanted to adopt a child and my dad – whose family is all boys, wanted a girl. It was not a secret in their extended family that I was being adopted. Some were against it at the beginning due to concern of Indian culture of the dowry system, but eventually they came to accept the idea. I have had a very positive experience of adoption. My parents have always honored my losses and respected my biological background and beginnings. My adoptive family are quite progressive in that they never pushed me to become the typical Indian daughter or to follow any specific path – they were happy to let me be who I wanted and probably this attitude of theirs helped the extended family come to accept me as much as any other child in the family.
I don’t recall being affected by adoption much until around 3rd grade where in school, we were required to do a family tree. My curiosity started then, asking questions about who my biological parents were. I didn’t want to admit it but I couldn’t help but wonder. For me it logically made sense but emotionally I struggled to piece the fact that I was an adoptee together. Recently events like going to the doctor has made me realize how much I lack in terms of medical information. I was born knowing about my conditions at birth, but I have no knowledge of the conditions my father or mother might have suffered.
Within my local friend groups, I’ve been surrounded by non-Indians friends. I have tried making friends with Indians peers but I’m conscious of being different – I feel like they see me as strange – I can speak Hindi but not as fluently, I don’t feel I can fit in with them. I did have one Indian best friend for a few years but we lost contact. It’s hard feeling so different.
A lot of people who are in adoption communities mistakenly make assumptions that I’ve had things better as an inter-country adoptee, because I’ve been adopted into an Indian family. They assume I have somehow not had the problems many inter-country adoptees have of “losing” their birth culture and heritage. The problem with that assumption is, my adoptive family moved here and wanted better opportunities, they embraced everything American, and left their Indian-ness in India. They don’t watch too many Indian movies or shows – when they do, I often require needing subtitles or things translated for me to fully understand, they don’t eat much Indian food – I really want to learn how to cook Indian though, they don’t celebrate many Indian holidays or festivals! They have no Indian expectations of me as a daughter and wanted me to be raised as an American. In fact, my adoptive family think I’m the most Indian in the family because I studied the Indian culture, I’ve memorized Indian mantras, I read Hindu Scripture, the Bhagavad Gita. I’ve embraced spirituality and believe in the power of prayer and self-healing. Being adopted into an Indian family hasn’t meant that I haven’t had the same loss of race and cultural issues to other inter-country adoptees. If anything, it has meant I haven’t had validation of these losses! My journey hasn’t been easier and in fact, having people in adoption communities seemingly discount my experience because of being adopted into a same race family, has in fact made things just as difficult. This in itself has been another area of my life where I feel I don’t “fit in”. Living surrounded by a family of people who “reflect” my race and color has not prevented me from feeling a sense of loss, of not belonging, of disconnect. I’m just like other inter-country adoptees who experience this.
When I first returned to India, I didn’t go to search for my birth family. It was my parents who encouraged me to go and absorb the experience of India and see where I was from. I can still remember the huge culture shock I felt. In hindsight, it was perhaps too much? An overload … I couldn’t process it all in terms of how hugely different India was to my safe comfortable haven in America! The biggest shock was realizing the lives and realities for Indian women on a day to day basis. I had no idea how Indian people think in India. What I also absorbed was that India had a “closed adoption” policy and it gave me the expectation that searching for my mother would be pointless because I would have no right to my mother’s information, given she’d chosen to relinquish me.
It was my mom who encouraged me to search for my mother and so I submitted a letter of request for information to the Adoption Agency who had facilitated my adoption. I was able to meet with my Foster parents and be reunited with them. The Adoption Agency told me they were not successful in finding my mother but gave me my adoption records that showed the history of my beginnings, showing how far she had travelled to relinquish me, and showing me my relinquishment document and details which clearly stated that according to the relinquishing social worker, my mother was firm in her decision to relinquish me. I assume from this my mother wanted to give me a fresh start in life and that she too, wanted to leave the past behind and have a new beginning. At this point in my life, I am at peace in my heart knowing this is what my mother wanted for me. I have no desire to search further for her as I don’t want to disrespect her decision she made all those years ago. I have enough understanding of Indian life for women to realize that if I turned up in her life now, it most likely may not be a positive thing for her. Having the connection with my Foster parents and my connections to my adoption agency is enough – I feel complete.
I’ve been loved by many people in the adoption agency, my Foster parents, and my adoptive parents. I feel my mother loves me and chose to give me an opportunity for a better life. She didn’t throw me on the streets and there have been so many willing people in my life who love and care for me. I chose to have an outlook that looks at my losses and gains in balance. I can’t change the fact my mother gave me up but I can only change my perspective on how I want to reframe my beginnings and make it work for me. I chose to take back my power by choosing how to present my journey and show how I view it. I believe we have so much more power inside of us to do what we want with our histories. Being adopted is not my sole identity – I am a daughter, sister, I love to write, among many other identities. I hope to inspire others to make sense of understanding themselves and feeling more complete. It can take time to get to a point of feeling complete. I choose to see that I inherited my mother’s strength – her determination to give me the opportunity for a good life is reflected in my determination to overcome my unexpected beginnings and face the obstacles life has thrown at me. It must have been incredibly hard for my mother to relinquish me – it must have been like giving up a part of one’s soul!
During my second time in India, I went to visit some of the children at different orphanages. I had mixed emotions – I felt sad and guilt being at these orphanages. Why were these beautiful kids here and no-one coming forth to give them an opportunity for a better life like me? I felt guilt of why me – like the survivor guilt. Some of the kids, not knowing I was an adoptee from there but knowing I was from the USA, turned around and asked why was I here when I could be in the USA? What could I possibly want here in India when I had everything? They saw me as so lucky. In one of the orphanages I visited, I spent time with a group of children aged between 5-9 yrs of age, already allocated/placed with their adoptive families – waiting for their departure date. A few of those children wanted nothing to do with me as I guess they were preparing themselves for leaving everything they’d known and being fearful of the change – but for me I felt like they were pushing me away emotionally. I couldn’t help but feel like I was being rejected and feeling like I didn’t belong, again! Similar to the feelings I have had with some adoptee groups where inevitably they end up “competing” over who has lost the most and discounting my experience because they don’t see me as having lost as much! I shouldn’t have to put on a face and have an identical experience to need validation or support – as an adoptee, it hurts when we don’t get the understanding we hope to find from those who should be able to hear it the most!
Since my return trips to India, I graduated with my undergraduate degree in Justice Studies (social and criminal justice) with a minor in social work. Currently, I am completing my certificate in Paralegal Studies.
My name Prema means LOVE and my name Suma, given to me at birth by the adoption agency, means FLOWER. I have had a life full of love and I have been surrounded by many people who have given me life – my mother for birthing me, my foster parents for nurturing me, and my adoptive parents for supporting and making me the person I am today. I am a flower that blooms with rays of love.
For those interested in my Research Article.