I was not comfortable.
It was five-thirty in the evening as Praveena (the better half) and I were trundling in a white Swift Dzire on a long road with too little traffic for my comfort.
We were midway on the road from Patna to a small town called Begusarai (so much character in that name!) in Bihar, India.
It was winter in India - the sun sets early. In Pune, where I live, sunset usually happens at around 6 pm, with another 15-20 minutes of twilight.
However, this wasn’t Pune - this was Bihar. It’s not just to the north of Pune, it’s also a good 1,200 km to the east.
Which means the sun sets earlier. Around 5 pm India time. And by 5.30 pm, the remaining slivers of twilight have also bid adieu.
Now, in the past, I’ve travelled in Uttar Pradesh (a neighbouring state) and I have one abiding memory - it is densely populated. You don’t realise where one village ends and the other begins. From the main road, it seems like one endless series of small shops, houses, schools, eateries et al.
But this is Bihar. And while I’d been to the state in the past, I’d not been to this part. Contrary to my expectations, this part did not look densely populated.
At one point in the journey, all we can see around us are darkened fields on both sides of the road. In fact, there are signboards (that normally tell you how far the next town is) which simply indicate with a side arrow “Agricultural Land”.
Thanks, I’d never have realized.
As the lonely road scythed through the fields, it appeared to do so in haste, as if it too was afraid of stepping into the darkness.
I remembered my good friend Ranveer (ex-colleague and expert on all things Bihar) warning me in the morning that day - “Oh, you are going to Begusarai? Avoid travelling after dark Ravi… Those are badlands…”.
On this darkening and lonely road, as Praveena was lost in a phone call, I was contemplating a whole lot of scary scenarios…
Our driver assured us - “Sir, woh gundagardi Lalu ke samay ka tha, ab Nitish ke time mein woh sab nahi raha” (Sir, the acts of violence used to happen during an earlier Chief Minister’s time. Under the current one, things are all safe).
Despite those reassuring words, the eerie emptiness of the fields was playing tricks with my mind.
But we put aside our fears and took hope (and reassurance) from our mission.
You see, we had come to get our daughter.
At the time of our first child’s birth (in 2012), Praveena and I had an agreement. If it’s a boy, she gets to name him, and if it’s a girl, I have dibs.
Her choice was Advait, and mine Swara.
On the second of March, 2012, Advait came into our world - almost kicking and screaming. (If left to him, he’d have loved to stay in his mother’s tummy a bit longer).
Over the next few years, we got the inevitable shocks of first parenthood - the late nights, the unexplainable crying, the hospital visits, the search for trustworthy paediatricians, the converting of Celsius to Fahrenheit on non-user-friendly thermometers at 2 am in the night…
We also thoroughly enjoyed the unexplained, unbridled laughter, the warmest and softest of hugs, the faltering first steps and words (which soon become a torrent) and many, many more such magical moments… And eventually, the three of us settled into a comfortable, joyful existence.
But something was missing. We wanted a daughter.
Both Praveena and I - for different reasons - were clear that the second one would not be a biological one. We wanted to adopt. For her, the Tamil movie ‘Kannathil Muthamittal’ was an inspiration. For me, it was my cousin sisters and a close friend who had also adopted.
Plus, I still had dibs on ‘Swara’.
The process - and the long wait
The adoption process is extremely streamlined, run by a central government body - named CARA. Any prospective adoptive parents need to register on the site and make four key choices for the baby they want to adopt:
- The gender
- The age (0-2 years, 2-4 years, so on)
- The category (normal or special needs)
- The location (either choose top three states or choose ‘All India’)
We chose: Female, 2-4 years, Normal and Three states (Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka).
Of these, the critical choices were age and location.
Age - if you choose 0-2 years, it’s almost like adopting a newborn. You will have to face almost all the physical challenges of managing an infant and then a toddler. But the emotional integration will be far smoother.
If you choose 2-4 years, however, you are past most of the physically challenging parts. But boy oh boy, are there likely to be some crazy emotional challenges…
We had extensive (some would say too extensive) conversations with my cousin sister and a friend (both of whom had adopted a girl from that age group).
It hadn’t been easy for them.
One of the challenges was that in the 2-4 age category, you might get a kid who is closer to the 4 years range. (In any case, the age of these kids is just a rough estimate, and they may be older than what the paper says). The older the kid, the more the possibility for emotional challenges.
Of course, both these parents we spoke to adored their kids. But they narrated several incidents that showed the mental and emotional turmoil that both - the parents and the child - would go through in the initial months and years.
Though their honest (and sometimes searing) accounts shook us a little, they did not dissuade us from the decision, and encouraged us to go ahead. Having said that, at least we went in with our eyes open.
So sometime in 2017, we put in our choices and registered on the CARA portal. There were, of course, forms to be filled, formalities to be completed and a home-audit to be conducted by a Pune-based agency. Mostly peaceful stuff.
Once you register, CARA gives you a waitlist number which it keeps updating on their portal. So, we waited. And waited.
A year passed.
The movement pace of the waitlist was glacial - and we were worried that our son might become too old before he gets his kid sister. A big reason for the adoption was for him to have a sibling. But the waitlist wasn’t exactly understanding that.
Once or twice Praveena suggested changing the location choice from ‘Three states’ to ‘All India’. But I was unsure. Our initial thinking was that it would be easier from a language point of view, if she was from either Maharashtra or Tamil Nadu (Karnataka was chosen since it had higher adoption numbers).
And then the pandemic happened.
Mandira Bedi, we owe you one
Pre-pandemic I had a daily ritual. While eating breakfast, I would read the Pune Mirror. I loved the comic strips (especially ‘Pearls before Swine’) and Bollywood news.
During the pandemic, I had almost given up on that habit given the absence of newspapers. If it all, I would do so intermittently.
Saturday, the 31st of October, 2020, was a busy day. I had a session with my e-Course cohort in the morning, and then an evening session with CRY.
Somehow, during breakfast - call it force of old-habits - I picked up the Pune Mirror.
While browsing through, my eyes caught an article by Mandira Bedi. Titled ‘Raising a Family’, it was about her story of adopting a daughter.
She had an older son. She had applied a few years back. Her application was moving at a glacial pace. She wanted it to move faster because her son was getting older.
I’m reading all of this and thinking “Same pinch!”
And then she goes on:
“So I … followed up with the authorities. We learnt that the delay was over the preference of three states that we had filled in at random. We didn’t know that it was such a determining factor and later, changed it to ‘anywhere in India’. And in the midst of this lockdown, we got to get our daughter home…”
Ah, is that so?
I immediately showed it to Praveena, who was onto the portal in a flash. She had always wanted to update that field, but didn’t want to do it without my ok. She asked me to decide.
I took some time to think and then agreed: Let’s do it.
It was on the afternoon of Saturday, 31st Oct that we updated our choice.
On Monday, the 2nd of November, at 11.02 am, we got a message. It was from CARA:
“Congratulations! Profile of child/children have been referred. Kindly reserve within 96 hours, using your User ID and Password on www.cara.nic.in.”
Parents, meet your daughter
Of all the things that excited us about little Lakshmi Kumari from Begusarai, Bihar, was that she was just two-and-a-half years old. We saw her profile, the medical reports got the go-ahead from our pediatrician and then, giddy with excitement, hit the trigger. We ‘reserved’ our daughter.
The three weeks post that was a blur of further medical reports, formalities to be completed, and several video calls with Lakshmi. Of course, she couldn’t talk yet, so most of the talking was done by the centre incharge, a friendly, smiling lady, whose 3-year-old daughter was Lakshmi’s best friend. But it was useful for us to at least ‘show our face’ to her.
Praveena also sent some videos of her and Advait reading stories to Lakshmi. She also shot a video showing the house - all with the vague hope that things may be less of a shock for her when the move happened (I think it really helped!).
As the D-Day arrived, we (mostly Praveena) were busy with getting the house (and more importantly the wardrobe) ready for our new toddler.
Finally, it was time. On the 25th of November, we took a flight from Mumbai to Patna (which had been booked just the night before, since our original tickets of Pune-Chennai-Patna had to be shelved fearing the impact of Cyclone Nivar, which decided to have its landfall on that very day. So much for a smooth start.)
And so, it was on the culmination of this multi-year journey that we found ourselves in a white Swift Dzire on a dark, lonely road from Patna to Begusarai that evening.
The real fear
I may have slightly over-emphasised the fear of the empty roads in Bihar. That was only a marginal issue in our minds. The real one? We were terrified of the prospect of uprooting a two-and-a-half-year-old toddler from a familiar environment and taking her to a strange foreign place with us.
Just imagine her situation. From being in a sheltered place with several kids and adults for company for almost a year, she would be summarily uprooted and undergo several staggeringly new experiences. All within a couple of days.
How would she deal with it?
How would she deal with her first four-hour car-ride? Her first visit to the airport? Her first airplane ride? Her new-found parents? All these strangers?
How would you?
It was a petrifying thought.
The first meeting
We reached Begusarai in the evening on the 25th - and due to the kindness of the Centre-Incharge, we were allowed to go and meet her for a short while. The two of us reached all excited and incredibly nervous.
The caretakers had made her put on a pretty dress and then got her out to meet us.
Our first reaction on seeing her: “Oh, she’s so tiny and adorable”!
Her first reaction on seeing us - she burst out crying loudly.
As the tears continued to stream down her heavily kohl-lined eyes… the ridiculous enormity of our task finally hit us. Oh, man, how are we going to manage this, we thought…
Fortunately for us, the Centre-Incharge did some quick thinking. She stepped out, got a toffee and secretly passed it into Praveena’s hand, telling Lakshmi - “See what Mama has got for you?”
Praveena immediately gave her the sweet. In between tears, she chewed on the éclair, not knowing whether to continue crying or explore what these funny looking guys were going to do next.
Perhaps taking a cue from that, we decide to go goofy. In a jiffy, Praveena and I are on the floor with Lakshmi and her best friend, P. We extend our hand out to Lakshmi to give a high-five. She obliges. Acting on instinct, I mock pain - as if her high-five was like a thunderbolt.
Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy. She laughs.
And she continues to squeal as we amp up the goofiness quotient. We play Ringa-Ringa roses, during which we fall with exaggerated motions. Praveena races with her and plays peekaboo. We play with a balloon. We carry her around as she ‘shows us’ around the place…
In those adorable 60 minutes, Lakshmi had, at least to some extent, warmed up to us.
We are a bit relieved as we made our way back to the hotel.
The next day of course was the big one. After completing the formalities, we would be taking her back to Patna.
November 26th 2020 - we arrive fresh and ready at the adoption centre at 10.30 am, and expect to spend a fair bit of time for the formalities to be completed. Some documents need to be submitted in court (by the adoption agency folks) and then a local Committee would come and speak to us, before giving the go-ahead.
The conversations with the Committee are easy, cordial and pass off smoothly. No worries there. However, we are worried about two factors.
One, driving back late at night. Two, more importantly, how will little Lakshmi/Swara cope with the strange set of experiences she would be going through… with two people she just saw a day before, and away from her friends and caretakers (all of whom she called ‘Mumma’).
The driving-late part is made more worrisome by news that there was a Bihar Bandh that day organized by the Communist parties. (Side note: It seems Begusarai is called ‘the Leningrad of Bihar’ and has a fairly active Communist party presence. Incidentally, Kanhaiya Kumar is from Begusarai district). So, if the roads are blocked, there’s not much movement that can happen. Great, I mutter to myself, they couldn’t have chosen a better day.
Thankfully, the ‘chakka-jam’ (road-block) clears by late afternoon, and we are ready to leave by around 4 pm.
Swara enters the car with us, as we all bid goodbyes to the friendly staff.
We are still worried about how she will cope with the experience. We remember a conversation that Praveena had had with another adoptive mother - whose 3-year old cried the entire five-hour car journey back home. We are mortified of such an eventuality but mentally steel ourselves for the worst that could happen…
Guess what - the ride passes off like a breeze! Swara is spectacular. For the most part, she sits, peacefully, nestled in Praveena’s arms, watching the towns and villages go by.
The only hitch - the poor girl has motion sickness. She throws up several times during the ride - but is careful enough to do so inside plastic bags that our driver manages to procure en route.
She manages to catch a nap on the way, but wakes up and pukes some more. Our hearts melt seeing her condition, but she’s absolutely not perturbed by it. Such a hero.
It was on reaching the hotel at Patna that the uncertainties plaguing her mind first came to the fore. She was just not comfortable getting into this strange looking building with glass walls, tall chandeliered ceilings and shiny surfaces.
Somehow, Praveena cajoled and comforted her and we got her into the room. From there on it was mostly smooth sailing. The hotel stay, dinner, the breakfast next day, the cab ride, the airport, the airplane ride - she was mostly stellar through all these different experiences.
I think at some level she had figured out in her mind - these two guys are new and dress funny… but I think I can trust them. If one of them is there, I’ll go along…
You cannot imagine how much of a relief that was to us. God has been too kind.
We reached Pune and began the long, slow process of settling in.
What’s been super-helpful is our little boy’s excitement and maturity! All of 8.5 years, he’s been extremely excited and understanding about the whole transition. From being the whole and sole of our attention, he has been relegated to the ‘elder-brother’ status with Swara demanding most of our attention. He has responded magnificently - playing with her, understanding her tantrums, and being ok with her occasional violent gestures of excitement!
I’ll be honest - there have been some supremely challenging moments with Swara. For instance, she has an extremely clear and specific opinion on what she will wear (and this is after 8.5 years of clothing a boy, who is absolutely ok with an old, faded pant with a torn seam) - and drives us nuts sometimes when we get her to eat, sleep, get clothed and take a bath…
But most of those are probably just because she’s, after all, a toddler. They don’t call ‘em the ‘Terrible Twos’ for no reason!
But, all in all, Swara’s an absolutely adorable li’l munchkin, who’s got all of us wrapped around her pinky finger.
We now have our daughter. We now have our Swara.
PS: We cannot thank Aruna, Suresh, Abhishek and Shalu enough for all their support. And a special mention to Smriti Gupta for her invaluable perspective and advice, especially to Praveena.
PPS: I was in two minds about writing this story. But I thought it needs to be told. Adoption numbers in India are not where they should be. You’ll be shocked to know that less than 4,000 kids get adopted through the CARA process every year. That’s appallingly low for a country of India’s size.
Of course, the low number is not due to shortage of adoptive parents. Having said that, if stories like these can help bump that number up in any way, I’ll be thrilled.