The Ancestors and the Babies

Part I: Boys will be boys; girls will be mothers

A baby girl has been born to a young woman in India. She wants to keep her baby. She writes to me for help. The boyfriend will not marry her, a reversal of past promises. In India it is nearly impossible for a single mother to raise a child. She cannot rent a place to stay or get a job if her status is known. For the child it is impossible to come through childhood unscathed by the names, insults, bullying, and exclusion because no father is present. For now though the baby nurses peacefully, unaware of the forces suddenly focused on her existence. She has no idea how her birth has turned a corner of the universe into chaos.

The issue is SHAME, the loss of the girl’s family’s Houour, which includes the presumed anger and sadness of the ANCESTORS. I step back in wonder. “Is it really true that one young woman’s birth of a child has the power to undo generations of respect and standing in current times and even causing anguish for past generations no longer here? Can 2 kg. of human infant wreak such destruction on families and community? And is it true that if the baby’s father “mans up” and marries the mother the baby is no longer the source of family dishonor and the Ancestors can go back to doing whatever ancestors do?

Part II: The Voices in my head.

Mostly I hear adoptees talking in my head and mostly they are Indian adoptees. My daughter is an Indian adoptee which is how I came to be here in Kolkata to care for the girls rejected for adoption. She doesn’t say much, mostly because she has seen and experienced too much of the pain of women’s lives here. But others ask:

“Why couldn’t people help my mother keep me instead of adopting me?’ This is a frequent question I think of when faced with an unmarried mother who wants to keep her baby, The biggest barriers are not financial but social and now we are back to the family HONOUR and SHAME, and the wrath or sadness of the ANCESTORS — the ruination of generations by the arrival of a baby without proper papers! She will be banned from her mother’s home. Her friends will turn their backs. Others will simply be to afraid to help because then they too will be stained by protecting a baby who has no proper papers

The only way for a baby to have proper papers is to have a father who is married to its mother. In India, the choices for the baby are to be raised by a single mother which is almost impossible, and unlike the US she will not be able to find a place to live or a job, and will find that many schools will not accept her child. The child will be subjected to teasing, bullying and social exclusion. But the child will still have its mother.

The second option is adoption, domestic adoption in India where there are thousands of families on waiting lists for infants free for adoption. This may be successful in that the child is raised as a natural child of the family, or not. The child may be told, or maybe not told, or maybe have a sense of secrets about its origins or may be told by others. When the child discovers it is adopted it will also wonder why it was given up, why it was not loved, what it had done wrong. I hear these voices in my head because these are words told to me over and over by adoptees.

Am I against adoption, not at all. Sometimes it is the ONLY option, but the adoptive mother, including myself, is the child’s second mother. We may wish we were the first, just like the child may wish it bad been birthed by us. A solid identity must be built on truth, not half-truths or lies. We owe that to our children. And if it is difficult to us to manage emotionally then we are doubly obligated to sort it out and come to a comfortable place about our motherhood. Children read our emotions. They should not have to bear our pain.

I stand, holding the baby in my arms, wondering her future, feeling sad and impotent and torn apart but clearly not as much as this young college girl, now a mother, still hoping maybe the father will marry her, give her and the baby the papers, still hoping her family and community will accept her and her baby without the papers, and torn between what she is told will be a “better life” for her baby — but wondering how she herself will survive the pain of loss.

Part III: Why? Why? Why?

Whether one believes in evolution, or God, or Gods, or G_d, or a god force within all life, none seems to require that newborns come with passports or papers. We arrive naked, without accessories. Honor and Shame are about culture, about people making rules, about beliefs – because if papers or passports were required for new life, then why are babies born without them?

Why? Why? Why?

In Search of Security-UPDATE 19 November 2012

UPDATE:  Sometimes things DO work out.  The man did not want to lose our business.  In fact he seems to really want to protect us.  So, he is doing the night duty himself until he can find someone reliable.  This is a huge relief as he stays awake, walks around, and keeps an eye on what is going on.  Has he dozed off sitting in the chair?  Of course.  It’s really normal.  I don’t get upset about that.  This morning he brought in a new day guard to meet me.  The boss will continue at night for now.  He asked if we can start over.  New day begins. 


All security agencies provide deteriorating service over time.  It’s one of my “Harrison’s Rules of Life.”  It can take a year, or two weeks, which seems to be the latest case.  Each starts the same, whether they came recommended by someone, or from the internet…. They “LOVE’ this home and the work I am doing.  Usually they call me “Ma” but this one refers to me as Didi.  The line goes something like, “You are my Ma/Didi and I will take care of you.”  I think they learn this from watching satire.

I get scared when I realize our security is falling apart, as it is now.  We are alone here, women and children.  We are surrounded by criminals who would love to have access.  I just called the boss, the new boss, and he was “shocked” that the night guard didn’t show up, said the day guard would stay on.  I said I don’t do 24 hour shifts because they can’t stay awake!  Two nights ago at 2 am when I was up with a crying child, I saw that the guard had shut himself away and was fast asleep.  I called the boss in the morning but his phone was “lost” and the second number didn’t answer and he had already asked for “one more chance.”

Old stories for context…

First ever security agency was fake.  One of my board members, actually our Treasurer, arranged the service.  Then the local goondas discovered he was fake, fake company…..

Then there were the ones who were getting drunk from alcohol from the goondas next door.

Then there was the one I found, around 3 am, lying in our entrance way playing with myself.  It was really hard to make the phone calls to tell the company what the problem was.

Along the way I hired G4S.  They are the same company that didn’t do so well for the Olympics in London.  They are the best known, and guard the consulates here in Kolkata.  It was nice to have them because they responded to the complaints, so it was a feel good, but the guards slept and drank.

Early on the local goondas decided my guards were entitled to sleep.  These were 12 hour shifts.  The goondas demanded I provide blankets and pillows.  I refused, said I’d rather save the money and guard by myself (behind the locked grille).  When I finally demanded this guard be transferred he turned to the community and that was the cause of the first of our riots.  By riots I mean about 30 drunken men, and the women neighbors too screaming at me to leave, telling the girls they will kill me, and telling me not to call the police because they owned the police.  When I called the local political leader he said, “They don’t want to hurt you.  They just want your money.”  That was so reassuring.

One time when I got rid of a company, we cleaned out the locker and found a bag of condoms and empty alcohol bottles.

The cost has ranged from about Rs. 16,000 to Rs. 26,000 a month.  That’s a huge part of our budget.

This is really sickening, isn’t it!

We had a guard about a year ago we really liked.  All of us liked him.  Then we found out he was giving his mobile phone to the girls and trying to set them up with local boys.

Oh yes, and then there was the massi who was stealing money from me and passing it through the window to the guard…. and riding home with him on his bicycle.

Remember, these are only the stories I know……

Where do I go from here?  I guess I go the same place, the same route, because it is the only one here….  This is Kolkata.  Nothing works.  It’s not intended to work.  I’m angry.  I’m angry enough to tell him just to leave, to fire them now, to just live without a guard.  We would be safe for the night, but the criminals would come over the fence and steal everything that was not chained down.

Another guard story.  Saraswati Puja is celebrated in late Jan or early February.  Two years ago we bought a woven cane pandal to put up, and to decorate.  The statue of Saraswati was inside. (No, that wasn’t stolen.)   After the holiday I wanted to put it in the garden as a play house for as long as it survived the weather.  It was about 6’x6’x6′, perfect for the kids.  A couple of days after the Puja, I suddenly noticed it wasn’t there, in the front and it wasn’t in the garden.  It was GONE.  What is amazing is that neither of our guards had any idea where it had gone! Six by six by six had just absconded.  The next day I heard from someone, I can’t remember who, that a neighbor had it.  So I went to the neighbor with one of our teachers to translate.  We were a funny sight.  Only the woman was home in their tiny rented quarters.  “Yes, my husband brought it here.”  I didn’t see it though and she pointed to the ceiling as the panels had been taken apart and put up for insulation.  I smiled and thanked her and said no, there was no problem.  I just didn’t know where it was.  So then the guards who had no idea where it had gone said they thought I was throwing it out so they gave it away, and so on.

This is boring, to write, and to read, but it’s the stuff of what drains my time and my energy.   I feel incredibly alone with this.

The Pandal That Absconded 2011

She’s Going Home To Her Family

I’ve just gotten off the phone with the eldest sister of our oldest girl.  My office door has been closed, Seema Gupta, our girl, and I on the phone.  I  walk out to talk with the staff while our girl goes to talk to the other girls.  This is not really a surprise to them, but it is to the staff.

I tell them, “She is going home to her village.”

“She is doing WHAT?”

“She is going to live with her Didi (elder sister),” I explain to some of the staff.  They know her mother had died when she was born and that painful traumatic events had taken her to the government institution and then to us.  In the past year we have learned her name, her real age, and we have visited her relatives in the village.

Teachers, massis, all are incredulous. “But what about her studies?”

“Her sister will put her in the local Girl’s High School, and after school she will help with their sewing work that brings income.”  Her sister had been looking into this since our visit as she couldn’t get her youngest sibling out of her mind.  It was as if she was waiting for our call.  I think their first choice would have been for her to stay here where she has a “better” life — the rational view.  But it seems that now, after many years, emotionally they want her to come home, and they needed for her to want to come home.

My staff protest.  “She won’t be able to live there.  She won’t have such good food, or clothes!  She won’t be able to live that way!”

“No,” I explain.  “She doesn’t care about that.  It means nothing compared to being with her family.”  It’s what I’ve been saying about all of them.  They don’t care about “stuff” or even food.  They would give it all up in a second to be with family.

I know this is true.  I know it in my being.  I know it because the girls and I have talked about it many times.  When I put myself in their places, imagine myself there, I’m not sure what I would do, but my decisions wouldn’t be based on comfort or things.  Abuse would keep me from family.   Things, and food, would never count in the equation.  And maybe this is the crux of what is wrong in the usual adoption model, that the child is “better off” in the home with more comforts.  Kids who have lost their families often don’t care as much.  Maybe some of them sense of the transience of “stuff.”

Staff  ask me, even suggest, that I must be upset — after all I’ve done.  They don’t get it though.  My mission is to care for orphans, and to figure out what they need.  I started this home with the question “what do they need?”   Then we build on ways to meet those defined needs.  My job is to lead them to where they need to be.

Like her Didi, our girl has been unsettled since the visit, her mind constantly going back to her family.  Last week we called her Didi and it happened to be when the sister’s daughter was in labor with her second child.  So our girls got on the phone with her, talked and distracted her from the pains.  In the morning we learned that a boy had been born.  In the Indian system of naming relationships, our girl is now a grandmother.  She wants to be there to take care of the baby.

This reunion could not have happened previously, as there were some very serious family problems that had to be resolved first.  She could not have gone back then.  She knew it and said it then, but things and people and circumstances sometimes change.    And we really don’t know how it will work out.  She is almost 18, almost out of government care.  We will petition the government to allow her to go to her family and we expect them to agree.   We will ask the government to note her real name and age in their records.  So this will be the next chapter in her life, and in a way another chapter  in the life of Shishur Sevay.  On paper and in her heart, she will be theirs, but she will also be ours, if she wants.  But she won’t be an “orphan” any more and that may be the most important part of this for her.    Remember, it was when Donkey Sir, the teacher was insulting her, that she thought to herself, “I’m not an orphan.  I have a family.  I don’t have to put up with this.”

To be an orphan in this culture is to live in shame.

I don’t expect it all to go smoothly.  I’ve dealt with village expectations.  But I know our girl is strong.  I believe she may be a leader.  I know that she cares about the poor, writeS about the poor, and wants to help the poor when she grows up.  I suggested she keep a journal.  She gave the “the look.”  Oh well, I tried.  Maybe one day she will want to.

I have walked this path before.

The other girls, how are they?  It’s mixed.  Some are upset.   They think about their families, want to find them if they can.  One girl was remembering her house by the water and a factory along the water, and we knew the town from which the police report came so we went on Google Earth looking for a factory and water.  One day we will go there and start with the police station, the police report.  Does she want to go back?  I don’t think so.  But she wants to know if her grandmother is alive.  They are losing their Didi, who I often thought of as Wendy and the lost boys of Peter Pan.  Wendy has a home to go back to.

There is yet another pull among the girls.  They are survivors of family betrayal.  They protect themselves and at some level trust no one.  So they worry, and ask me, “Who will take care of us if you die?”  They panic if I have a headache.  They know I had cancer.  So, each girl here is also trying to figure out her Plan B, “What if Mummy dies and no one will take care of us?”  So I go through the list of people who care about them, the plans we have in place, but they still worry.   I worry too  It’s what mothers do.

I’m walking along the railway tracks with her Didi at the end of our visit.

Square Centimeters or Centimeters Squared

The same subjects keep coming up!  The girls are totally confused about the concepts of square centimeters and centimeters squared, and still mildly confused about length and area.  We cut 1 cm squares and made shapes.  This came up because I asked them to do a drawing 2 square centimeters.  Failing that we went back to 1 square centimeter.  You see, when I asked for 2 square cm, I got a square 2×2, which was really 4 sq. cm.  They were working on a principal or pattern of a square of 2 cm sides so you square  the 2, namely 2 squared, but that’s 4 square cm, and not two.  We made progress, I hope.  I like the creative design which was right as another way to get six square centimeters.  We also talked about tiles on the floor, how wide the table was, and then if we wanted to put all the books in a box we had to give it height, add another dimension.

the girls cut up pieces of graph paper in 1 cm squares and used them to create areas of different sizes and shapes/

Putting together square centimeters

We talked (I talk and hopefully they nod and when I asked what they thought they answered in centimeters).  I don’t know what stops them.  They are smart kids and I said I wouldn’t be spending these hours with them if I didn’t think they were able to get it.  They freeze, the deer in the headlights I wrote about last week.  Today the image was of children crouched in a burning house, afraid to come through the open door.  They are so afraid of getting it wrong they can’t think straight.  It’s not about language because they had the same problems when they were learning in Bengali.  But then last year when they were still learning in Bengali their math teacher was confused about length and area.

WAIT!!!!  I just Googled the title of this post, and guess what, it’s not just my girls who are confused!!!!   This is from a 2001 question in a math forum.

My wife is a teacher and we have had a disagreement over the 
definition of meters squared. She says that a rectangle 3 meters by 4 
meters equals 12 meters squared. I say it is 12 "square meters," and 
that 12 meters squared would be a square measuring 12 meters on each 
side (or a total of 144 square meters). Who is right? This is 
important because she doesn't want to incorrectly advise her students.

 The answers are confusing and there seem to have been some changes in the 50 years since I studied math.  There is some difference between the symbols used for squaring and the words.  HMMMMM as Ganga would say.  I'm really glad I decided to write about how confused the girls are, since I'm now confused.   But, the concept, the squares, the area, how you build area and then cubic space -- those are the fundamentals we need to keep working, and meanwhile I'll have to find some help on the symbols.  As I pointed out to the girls, if we are going to get tiles for the dining room floor it really matters whether we have  64 sq feet in our 8x8 room or 64x64 sq feet, which is 4096  sq. ft, and a bit out of our budget.  

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