Fake Paint, Fake Numbers, Fake Laws, and Fake Families

I was working on this post in the days before I was knocked over in the stampede.   In the past I’ve been somewhat reluctant write openly about life here out of some sort of “politically correct” rules of what a white American woman should say, or is “entitled” to say about life in India.  But there’s just something about getting knocked down in a school yard stampede that leaves me feeling freer to write about life here.  Maybe it’s the absurdity of it all.  

The AMRI Hospital fire consumed my attention for days.  For anyone who doesn’t know, AMRI is a noted upscale private hospital where 90 patients died because every fire safety had been flouted, where flammable liquids were stored in the basement that was supposed to be for cars, where the administration didn’t notify the police and fire department for two hours, and where ALL permits were in place, of course.  The fire department had signed off in spite of clear warnings and violations.   The smoke and fire alarms as well as the sprinkler system had been deactivated.   None of this is about poverty, only about greed.  The owners of the hospital also own South City Mall, where I took the girls yesterday for ice cream.  In other cities there might have been calls to boycott the mall, but not here. 

This is Kolkata, where nothing has to be real and almost anything can be bought. 

FAKE PAINT:  I decided to paint the office, which is also our reception area, meeting room, kids’ retreat room, a place to put things that no one wants to lose — clutter central.  The painter tried to use watered down primer for the ceiling and claimed it was paint; he also watered down the wall paint.  He’d tell me lies, which were overheard by others, and then deny what he had said.  He showed me a new can of paint but never put it on the wall.  So it was constant vigilance. I bought a quart of paint and painted a patch of wall to show him the difference.  The lies were what got to me, because he didn’t care when discovered. He wasn’t embarrassed.  He just said, “O.K.” and tried to fake it again.  I refused to pay him until it was done right.

FAKE NUMBERS:  The fake numbers, at the same time as the painting, gave me a two-day migraine, my weak point when stress gets really bad.  Our accountant filed a financial report online without showing it to me!  The report was full of serious errors.  It is a report I can’t sign, and one I now have to find a way to explain and replace in the government office where it was sent.  This has happened before, with other accountants.  Their attitude seems to be that no one ever looks at these documents so why do all the work?  When I was exploring how to start Shishur Sevay in 2006 I met with an accountant who told me to make a fake history of donations and expenditures for the past three years and he would do audits of the fake reports.  That would make it easier to get approvals.  (I didn’t do it.)  Then a government official told me to invent a foreign organization, and then write up minutes of a members’ meeting that never happened  of the organization that never existed, saying they would fund Shishur Sevay.  I refused.  So I guess I should be adding FAKE ORGANIZATIONS to my list, but everyone knows that already.  I said that the government was going to have to figure out how to give me a license without my making up stories.  I was gutsy, looking back.  But we got the license.

FAKE LAWS:  I’m writing about fake laws because of all the licenses that AMRI did have, while conditions allowed 90 people to die. mostly of smoke inhalation.  Shishur Sevay received a license to operate a home in January 2007 and then the girls came in February 2007.  In May 2007 the government tried to send more girls, non-orphans, and I refused.  So they added new rules and lied about a law that did not exist.  Shishur Sevay would have to own the house (no such law) and I would have to transfer ALL my personal funds to India, with some in a government controlled fund, in order to get renewal of the license.  If not they would close us down and take the girls.  They ignored Indian law that forbid me to transfer funds into Shishur Sevay.  When I tried to get to more influential people, I would be told by them, “nothing I can do.  It’s the law.”  They also threatened to investigate me for “discrimination against children with parents” because I would only take orphans.   I just kept refusing and eventually we got the renewal.    There were other ways we could have gotten our license.  I refused those ways, but I was happy to know it was possible.  The “law?”  Recently the government official confessed to me, “Well, I thought there was a law.”  This too was a lie.

FAKE FAMILIES:  This story is part of the backdrop of my being here in Kolkata. I have two daughters in the US.  The older one I gave birth to, the younger one I adopted as a two month old from Kolkata in 1984.  So, India is in my family blood.  This was the trail that brought me here to raise children rejected for adoption, to raise them in their own culture and heritage, to take their places in society here.  That was my idealism. 

Somewhere along the way when I brought my Indian born daughter to Kolkata to learn of her culture and heritage, we became victims of a terrible scam.  The orphanage of her infancy claimed that all her surrender records had been faked and that a woman connected with the orphanage was really her mother.  A reunion took place at the orphanage, with the American Director and the doctor orchestrating.  Pictures were taken to mark the event.  Suddenly my daughter had a first mother, a twin sister, two other siblings, a grandmother, and a great-aunt who sobbed and sobbed, “My baby came back!  My baby came back!” We bonded. We were vulnerable.  I was an idiot. 

It was all FAKE, a FAKE FAMILY that everyone else seemed to know about and had been forbidden to tell us.  They played us well, in a deception worthy of professional con artists.  As for her records, we will never know, because it is all fake, or maybe fake, or maybe the original records are correct and the lie is fake.  The purpose of the scam was to get me to take care of this family, which I did of course, and I even continued the medical care for the great-aunt until she died.   The orphanage lawyer explained it to me later, and said it was my fault for looking, which was another lie because we didn’t come looking for a first family.   He also told me that he could have told me the truth but I had never asked him when I left money for the family with him.  We came searching for homeland and culture.  This wasn’t the culture I wanted or expected. 

Many DNA tests later I began to think that I could not be the only one subject to such lies.  There had to be other parents as stupid, trusting, and vulnerable as I had been, and I started investigating adoption here in Kolkata.  Yes, there are lies upon lies upon lies.  No one in positions of power wanted to know.  I tried. 

But another question remained in my mind, the question I had since 1984, namely what happens to the children who are not adopted?   So I came and built Shishur Sevay.  I wanted a model of non-institutional care for orphans.  I also wanted a safe place where adoptees and their families could come and be comfortable.  I created the place I would have wished to visit with my daughter when she was 16 and we first came to Kolkata. This is also the place I would have wished for her had she not been adopted.

“Amader Barrie Shishur Sevay” means Our Home is Shishur Sevay”.  When the girls were little we would sometimes march to these words as we walked the road to their school.   This is the house that Mummy built for her many children.

7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Joyce Godwin Grubbs
    Dec 22, 2011 @ 15:40:19

    Extraordinary. The world is a strange and cunning place, and survival is learned in many ways, and plays out in even greater and varied ways. Americans should learn to count their blessings, but then that would mean they have to take their eyes of the “prize” and risk losing it. I continue to salute you my friend, and I know God put many special people on this earth, but you and Jerry are in a class all by yourselves.

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    • Arun Debnath
      Dec 22, 2011 @ 16:57:42

      Joyce, indeed you are absolutely right in your assertions. Right that only a few people [extra ordinary people] come to world this make a difference to the lives of so many. Right too, you Americans are blessed in many respects to be able to do many things you choose to do, and that’s I would call ‘freedom’. I’m an Indian from Kolkata and I know what Michelle has been going through in bringing up those wonderful children in the poisonous atmosphere of Kolkata. We [my wife, my mother-in-law and I] were fortunate enough to visit Shishur Sevay in the summer 2011 and I can only say what a wonder heaven Shishur Sevay is in the middle of the worst hell in the universe. To me Michelle is like Hindu Goddess Mother Durga who saved the world from the demons and preserved the humans. I only hope and pray the modern day Ma Durga does the same for the children at Shishur Sevay.

      Posted by Arun Debnath in sunny and cold London, England.

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  2. Dr. Michelle Harrison
    Dec 22, 2011 @ 15:54:38

    Thanks Joyce, can’t think of much to say except thanks and I’m glad Jerry connected us. So, Thanks Jerry. We are thinking about you.

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  3. Arun Debnath
    Dec 22, 2011 @ 16:30:50

    No, no, no. No, you’re not an “idiot”, you’re an innocent Ma Durga [Goddess Mother Durga of the girls at Shishur Sevay]. Unfortunately, even Ma Durga can’t escape the evils of India and in particular Kolkata. Nothing in your piece and your life experience in Kolkata surprises me. I’ve seen these all, experience these all and suffered from these all ! This is Kolkata, this is really “incredible………India” [as the tourism advert say]. And the root of all these is simply and purely unadulterated corruption.

    Yes, we do have corruptions everywhere in the world. But the sheer scale and the depth of corruption in our Indian society is unfathomable and it is destroying the normal life of the unfortunate mass. India’s economic growth along with its bumper corruption industry has created an extraordinarily poisonous atmosphere where ordinary folks are being swallowed slowly [like a cobra eating another snake] by the corrupt politicians, govt. officials, police and, of course, other opportunists, like the owners of AMRI hospital, the licensing authority or the painter at your house. The list goes on.

    So, what’s the future? Being a pessimist, I would say, shoot the bastards. But being slightly optimistic, I would love to start a revolution to “free” India, this time only free from corruption. I know, I’m talking non-sense. But anything is possible at a cost. Arab/Spring Revolution started in Tunisia by a street vendor [dousing himself with kerosene and fire]. Unfortunately, in India it is the intellectuals, the educated are the ones who are perpetuating the corruption poison. So what’s my hope of seeing India free from corruption before I’m gone? Possibly none, as I started an website to gather public support with predicted nil return. Unfortunately, India has many educated, intellectuals and politicians who will never let the country free from corruption. I will only look down from up there somewhere and feel pity for those educated, intellectuals and politicians.

    In the mean time, Durga [oka Michelle], feel the pain and keep giving love to those lovely children. Love you to all.

    Posted by Arun from this lovely, sunny and cold morning in London, England

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  4. Cici
    Dec 22, 2011 @ 20:32:46

    Well-written. Too much fake and too many problems there. You described it to the T.

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  5. Dr. Michelle Harrison
    Dec 23, 2011 @ 16:57:10

    This morning the accountant sent me the revision of the form. It was WORSE than before because now nothing matched, information didn’t match! So, it will take more time because I won’t sign until it is right. But if I ever get questioned by the government, I have this blog post I can produce.
    It is very sad.
    Today we started decorating the big room, and put up the tree. The only problem was that the teachers for the children with disabilities left them out entirely! It was as if they weren’t even there. I don’t get it! What was it I was paying them for today? In spite of all we are happy, cheerful, and looking forward to our minimalist Christmas, which is fine with the girls. Thanks for all your support. You make me smile.
    Happy Holidays of your choice, May ALL the spirits be with you.

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  6. Paddy
    Dec 23, 2011 @ 19:42:39

    Hi Michelle, missed your blog the last few weeks. Now i know why. You know already there is a movement of sorts afoot against corruption in India led by Anna Hazare et al. We are also seeing how his team’s proposals are being treated by the so-called lawmakers at the parliament. The public reaction and outcry in the wake of the AMRI affair and the subsequent bootleg liquor affair also suggest that the normally somnolent populace has finally woken up with a “enough is enough” scream. Let’s see where it’s headed. India’s history in this regard is egregious. The corrupt segment, although small, is far more resourceful and experienced to combat anything that threatens their ‘world’. Let’s hope this ‘Indian Spring’ gets moving, and soon. In the mean time, we bow to your courage Michelle. Let me remind ourselves of Swami Vivekananda’s one word that he used to exhort people: “Abhih!” — “Be fearless!”.

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