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Guardians Of Foster Love

More than working your way through the legalities, adoption is about a shared discovery, and not a solitary eye-opener

Guardians Of Foster Love
Guardians Of Foster Love
Bringing home a three-month-old adopted baby girl was only half the challenge for Bangalore-based couple Dr Srinath and Saraswati Srinath. Now they have to find ingenious ways to deal with the questions of 10-year-old Vishaka. "When she is curious about her mother, I ask her to see herself in the mirror because that's what her mother looked like," says Saraswati, whose decade in radical parenting has helped her start Su-datta (from the Sanskrit 'good adoption'), an adoption support group.

In Delhi, filmmaker couple Krishnendu and Madhurima Bose, both 41 and adoptive parents twice over, are strong supporters of honest upbringing. They had decided to play it "strictly by the ear" till they were pleasantly surprised by their six-year-old adopted daughter Oona. "She just changed the subject when I started telling her about the other woman who'd kept her in her tummy," remembers Madhurima.

As for independent-minded and financially secure Indian couples, adoption is becoming less and less of an anathema. It's finding its way to their wish-lists. The formalities are still tiresome: it usually takes over six months of paperwork—including counselling, home studies and matching profiles. Then there are baffling legalities. The Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act of 1956—applicable to Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs—gives so-called birth rights to the first adoptive child and guardianship to subsequent adoptions. While the Guardian and Ward Act (1890), for Muslims, Christians, Parsis and Jews, is revocable and makes adoptive parents merely legal guardians.

But for determined adoptive parents, these are only minor challenges. The bigger ones are more about parenting and bringing up adopted children: some of them are known to have set out in search of their parents; others can end up suffering from learning disabilities or emotional stress. How do they face the fact that they have two sets of parents? Would they be more comfortable without parents than at foster homes? "At what age can he/she understand the concept of adoption or that there are orphans in the world," wonders Calicut University employee K.R. Devanand, 50, who has a four-year-old adopted son, Anagh. "He's so attached that he might not believe me if I tell him that we are his foster parents (see box)."

It's not easy bringing up an adopted child. Especially if parents are wary of telling the truth. Dr V. Rajendran, 45, and his wife Swarna, 40, from Acharapakkam, near Chennai, haven't even mentioned the A-word to their seven-year-old son Varun. "It's not easy, really," Rajendran confesses, "our biggest fear is how he will react". To tell or not to is a dilemma that, say parents who've 'told' their children, is best resolved early and resolved in truth rather than 'preventive' lies.

In the end, it's the comfort level with the child that counts. That's why a well-adjusted Aarti Nayak, 21, actually found her 'unnatural' birth status fun. "It was bindaas, fun to talk about with friends," says the Bangalore girl. "I never felt the need to see my biological parents, that's how secure I felt with my parents." The secret, says Aarti's mother Nina Nayak, was the honesty with which she brought up her two adopted children. "The shroud of secrecy some parents want to enforce is a big strain on relationships," says Nina, who as head of the Karnataka State Council for Child Welfare has facilitated several adoptions in the state.

Some cases, are however, more complex. Some children are not able to take the truth of having two sets of parents, the agony of not knowing whose womb they come from. And, in later life, not being sure of so many things biological children take for granted.Dr Shobha Srinath of the Bangalore-based National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS), who is heading a study on 60 adopted children to find possible relations between learning disabilities and adoptive parenting, says there is no red book to be followed here. "Parenting is a lifelong process. You cannot solve all the problems at one go."

For Delhi boy Viraj Nanda, 6, the process began the day he came home to a single father. "It took three months to make him what they call 'adoptable' and then I was finally a father, despite the fears and apprehensions of friends and family," says Arvind Nanda, 47, not unfairly proud of heading what he calls "a halfway family". Common sense would've probably preven-ted the forming of such a family, but Arvind's decision was based on sterner stuff.

Arvind is unfazed by the lack of precedent. He is possibly India's first unwed man to have legally adopted a child. "In my mind there is no doubt that he is my child," says the chartered accountant-turned-maker of architectural beams and ceilings. Interestingly, he's found some very young fans in Viraj's friends, who want to have a hassle-free family like Viraj's when they grow up.

Though existential queries do arise "at odd times, from different angles", Arvind says they have never snowballed into anything big so far. His is also a family that stands out at birthday parties and school functions. "At the birthday bashes I am usually the only male chaperone," says he, adding he sometimes feels more "full-time" than the mothers he meets at such places. Says he: "I think a lot of times they take their kids for granted."

Clearly, adoptive parenting for single parents demands much more care and sensitivity. "I've deliberately not seen Ahana's birth records, because I don't want to lie to her," says Poonam Bahl, single, 42 and entrepreneur of a successful furnishings business, of her adopted daughter. Because she wants Ahana's 'finding roots'—if and when it happens—to be a shared discovery, and not a solitary eye-opener. "I am very clear with Ahana about us being a family of two. I don't have a husband and she doesn't have a father, so we just have each other," she explains. As for six-year-old Ahana, all her mummy had to do to get her was praying to God. 'The Homecoming of Ahana' is a story both mother and daughter play-act frequently. It begins with Ahana, whose name means 'glory of the morning sun', being a huge hit with the apartment residents. "In ways it is uncanny too. Everyone tells me how much she resembles me, though I personally think she looks more like my mother. She's also somehow inherited our family's rhythm and music gene—something both my brother and I skipped." Poonam, a masters in psychology, is convinced that biology is eventually slave to destiny. Motherhood likewise. "It's been really amazing," says she.

That's possibly true with most adoptive parents who bond well with their children. The active six-year-old Oona also actually looks like her mother Madhurima and has a penchant for thrumming on tables and hollow surfaces, like her percussion-loving father. "I think very little of the temperament is genetic," says Madhurima.

Moral of the story: be frank and positive and bring up the child just as you would do in case of a biological child.

B.R. Srikanth in Bangalore and Dhiraj Singh
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