Unravelling the Mystery

as a child
Sunitha’s earliest photo at the Orphanage

I was born in a rural area of southern India at the beginning of 1979. I passed through a Catholic orphanage before reaching my adoptive home in Belgium, April 1981.

My adoptive parents already had two biological sons, aged 6 and 8. I grew up with the knowledge that my adoptive parents wanted a daughter. I learned later in life that they felt responsible for the death of their first son, who passed away from leukaemia. They wanted to provide a safe haven for a disadvantaged child. India came as a second choice because it was too complicated to adopt a Belgian child.

They had prepared two names for me. The feminine of the son they lost – Patricia and Angelique – like angel. Eventually, they kept my Indian name saying they liked it and it fitted well in Belgium.

I grew up in a village in Belgium. Isolated from anything connected with India and adoption. I had to integrate as quick as possible as a regular Belgian. I grew up on lies my parents told me about my time at the orphanage, a life of extreme misery and violence. I believed these words blindly. Some of the lies I was told was that I had been bitten by rats and came to Belgium with scary wounds all over my body. It’s only now, when I see the photos of my arrival in Belgium and time at the orphanage that I notice there are no scars on my legs.

I never thought to question what my parents said. When my parents revealed the inexistence of Santa Claus, they should have added, “By the way, the rats at your orphanage didn’t exist either!” All these words I believed during my childhood made me reject my appearance and origins. Fortunately, during my childhood no one asked me about it. I took refuge in dreams, books, art, animals and nature. I unconsciously denied the pain within me but it was a survival mechanism. My attitude was to keep smiling, be adorable as people expected, and believe that I’d been rescued from that hell.

From secondary school age, I had to face the truth. This was because grown ups were asking me questions whereas kids accepted me as I was and took no notice of my differences. At university, I studied Asian history and language and this was the first step towards searching for my origins.

In my early 30s I reached a pure lucid moment. I realized that the unknown before my arrival to Belgium scared me as much as death. Origins and end – it was all the same mystery to me. This had certainly been the link with my fear of the dark. I realised I had to go back to India to find as much as I could about myself to fill this black hole.

I had no information about myself and had always been told it would be impossible to get any – even by the adoption organisation. I wanted to know basic information like how long I stayed at the orphanage before my adoption? Where I was born? It’s said on my Belgiun ID that the place of birth was Janncsy. But everyone I met from India had no knowledge about this place.

In a 10-day meditation class I met a 65 year old Indian woman. She was a link between the west and India. She had spent half her life in India and the rest in The Netherlands. She had met and married a man from The Netherlands while backpacking in Europe. She offered me an immersion in her family in India because she saw me as an isolated woman far away from her roots. This was the answer for my second wish – reclaiming my Indian culture because I often felt frustrated when I couldn’t answer people who asked me about India.

My orphanage today

In April 2011, I left for what looked like my first trip back but it was already my third. I had returned earlier in 1997 on a humanitarian camp and in 1999 as backpacker to learn yoga and sculpture. This time, in 2011, I didn’t recognize the country I had left twelve years earlier. The economy had risen fast and the level of living standards gotten so much higher. After three weeks with my friend’s family, I flew to my town’s orphanage where my partner joined me. How amazed I was to stand in front of a rich, neat building. Nothing to do with my parent’s description! Since 2004, it had turned into an international school that provides free education. In 2011, only three children living there were real orphans, the rest went back to their parents during holidays.

We received a warm welcome and everyone was interested in … my partner! They made us tour around to meet many people. I heard many stories about myself which made me feel confused because every one of them brought a new arrangement to the pieces of my puzzle. At the beginning of the afternoon and after six intensive hours, we got lucky to meet the main Sister. She had just arrived back from a few days away. Her English was perfect and she was the only one who understood me, my feelings and my request.

Sister with the precious booklet

She showed us a booklet in which the previous main Sister had recorded the little information they kept about the children who passed through their care between 1979 and 1989. A treasure! The name of my mother jumped out along with an address and a letter which stated I was her second daughter. I had spent eighteen months with her and only seven months at the orphanage. These basic facts about myself changed my life! Basically, I was on a quest for love! My unconscious fear of being rejected by my mother came to light and got released from having this piece of information. Knowing this brought me strength and determination to find her!

Knowing my mother was nearby wanting to meet me, made me feel more Indian and connected with the country then ever before! In the booklet, I found out my original name was Sheeja. My current name was given to me by the main Sister. What a choc! I had been so attached to the little I knew, such as my Indian name, thinking it was a gift from my mother. Sunitha means “good destiny“. The Sister made me notice that my month of birth had been mixed up with my place of birth at the Belgian administration. January had became Janncsy. No wonder no-one had known the whereabouts of Janncsy and I couldn’t find it! It existed only on my official adoption papers and was incorrect.

My partner and I went out of the tourist trail and received by chance the help of pastors to travel to my mother’s address. Finally, the village were I was born, Tiger Hill in English. It turned out the address was fake and my mother confirmed it later.

In the village, we experienced the same type of events as at the orphanage i.e., everyone milled around my partner and I was told different stories about my mother. This was emotionally exhausting because every piece of new information brought me a new reading of my story.

Before leaving Belgium, I had enquired to local people thanks to the internet site Couch Surfing. They told me that other adoptees who had similar situations to my case, had found their birth family by utilising the media. I hadn’t wanted to resort to these means but thought I should do everything I could to find her.

Our reunion

The journalists were very helpful and generous. They didn’t charge us a dollar. They built up a story about my life with the little info I had and they covered half a page of the state newspaper. I was poor, beaten and the lonely Indian in an orphanage in Belgium, when my partner met me, loved, cared and supported me to go back to India to find my mother. At noon, on the day the paper was released, I was in contact over the phone with my sister Jisha. Her name is the opposite of my name Sheeja. We had lived opposite lives. My sister is married and has two children. By the evening of that same day, we were all reunited. My mother lives with my sister.

Despite my mother’s good English, she didn’t want to answer my questions. She lied a lot. I could more or less complete the panorama of my early age thanks to different neighbours. There were a few reasons for my abandonment. I’m the second daughter, born from another father and I have a black complexion. In India, as in many countries in Asia and Africa, being dark is not considered as beautiful. The fairer, the better. Being a daughter is a curse for poor parents. They have to pay the wedding dowry and they don’t get anything from her because she leaves to be with her husband’s family.

On the one hand, it’s very easy to understand my mother and sister’s mentality as my Belgian parents have the same. The same shame for a woman to have two partners in her life, half siblings, divorced women, etc. I was probably born out of wedlock. Nevertheless, I learned a lot about Indian culture and rural life.

My mother, sister and nephew had a lot of expectations from my partner and I. These ranged from money, monthly pension, assisting my nephew to settle and find a job in Belgium, to the care of my mother in her old age. They lied about my sister’s health and nephew’s wedding costs to make us pay. I got to know afterward that this is common practice. We did help, supported my nephew for his study costs and bought him a computer to work on. But the expectations were endless and we had to make a decision to say no. Since then, I don’t receive much news from them. I keep sending them birthday wishes and messages and I feel much better having resolved the mystery of my origins.

Even if the truth is bitter, I’d rather this reality than to live a beautiful lie.

Today I am a social worker and thanks to my experience, I can help teenage adoptees and their parents.

The views of my birth region, Kerala

I don’t know how many Indians adoptees we are throughout the world but I’m amazed by the number I meet here in Belgium and through social media. I’d like to say that finding my roots by myself, with little to no information, in a country as chaotic as India, is possible. And I’m here for you!

I have overcome the unconscious obstacles within myself and the external ones, such as people who discouraged me from searching, which were very powerful and had prevented me from daring to search. Now I understand: never forget it’s our own story, feelings and our own choice! I’ve now accepted every part of my story – the Indian / the Belgian and I am at peace within myself and with my good destiny.

“Focused on his goal, he strives to forget his own story, to deny his fate. But it catches him, reminds him of an oversight, a mistake, and links him to an inheritance, to his body, to his remorse, to his duty.”

The Return of the Tragic by Jean Marie Romenach