Planet Haolewood

A toolbox, a change of underwear, and a surfboard.

Friday, March 06, 2009


[Note that some names and other details have been changed]

Where were you on December 31st, 2008? I slept soundly in India. I was later told I slept through a lot of noise that night, but it had been a long and eventful day and I had completely forgotten about New Year’s Eve.

It was one of those days when the seemingly improbable suddenly became reality as if I had woken from a dream. The call to prayer rang out from a nearby mosque and the day began with my head stuffed up from a cold. I had slept terribly and the idea of piling into the car with my sister, brother-in-law, their two kids, driver and a social worker traveling with us for another long drive did not appeal. I thought about bowing out to rest and watch American movies at the hotel, but we had come so far it would have been a shame to miss out just when things might start to get interesting.

After all, this was the day I had come to India for, wasn’t it? Why HAD I come? What was I doing there? I was really just tagging along on my nephew’s quest to discover his roots, but he didn’t seem quite sure why he was there either. In fact, he seemed quite happier to play with his Nintendo GS and take pictures of any dogs we encountered than to search for the village where he was born. He’s seven. Fortunately, the leader of our group and the Don Quixote of this windmill mission was his adopted father and my brother-in-law, George. And he had enough certainty of purpose and enthusiasm for us all.

It was too early for breakfast at the hotel when we left so we accepted an invitation to have tea at the home of the social worker’s parents when we stopped to pick her up. My other nephew, 15-year-old Michael, had taken his anti-malarial medication on an empty stomach and was throwing up in the street outside. The social worker worked for the orphanage where Alice and George adopted my nephew and they had hired her to come with us to try and find the village where he was born. The orphanage does not approve of such projects and she could loose her job if her boss learned she was helping us. George clutched photocopied pages of information about the boy’s roots and drew the social worker aside frequently to discuss our plans.

We didn’t have much to go on. It started with documents they had obtained illegally when they adopted the Indian boy seven years ago. His name was (and is) Ishan, which has some spiritual meaning in the local language. No one knows who named him. The documents indicated that he was found in a field. They also provided the name of the village and of the owner of the field. Unfortunately the village was so small that it did not appear on any maps and there were several other villages of the same name. The man who found him was most likely dead.

Nonetheless, George had some pictures from google earth with the area where he believed the boy was born circled. It seemed like a long shot, but we had to at least try. So we had driven hundreds of miles across rural India’s spotty highways, with their cane-laden ox carts and relaxed approach to the rules of traffic safety. And that morning after a few more hours we rolled into the supposed village not knowing what to expect.

The villagers certainly must not have expected to see us. Since we had not been entirely sure where we were going and did not have any contacts, notifying anyone of our visit before hand was impossible. Instead, we simply showed up. The village was home to a few hundred people who farmed the nearby land and lived in dirt-floor houses made of sticks. We later learned that ten years had passed since a foreigner set foot in the village. No one there spoke English.

While the social worker went to find the village leader, which she enigmatically referred to as the “police patil,” we waited by the car. The villagers seemed afraid to look directly at us though they were clearly curious and when I said hello to one of them terror flashed in his eyes. We were invited to tea in one of the few concrete houses. In turned out to be the home of the son of the man who had found Ishan in the field and we waited while someone went to fetch him from the fields where he was working.

A small group of people gathered outside the house and starred curiously. They asked questions and the social worker translated. We told them who the boy was and why we were here. Fearful curiosity became great excitement and word got out to the rest of the village. The crowd outside quickly grew and people took turns standing near the doorway to catch a glimpse of us and especially of Ishan.

Our host told the social worker that we were in fact in the right village and that he remembered the baby they had found seven years ago. Actually, everyone in the village remembered. They knew who Ishan’s biological parents were. The mother lived there in the village. She had married another man and had a six month old child. The father did not live in the village.

The rapid turn of events went far beyond what we had expected to find. When Ishan was an infant medical tests revealed that he had been exposed to HIV. While he doesn’t have it, the test indicates that his mother probably did. Our assumption was that she would have died sometime in the past seven years. The possibility of learning her identity at all seemed remote. That we could discover who she was and that she was still alive was stunning. The chance of meeting her in person, and event we had not imagined possible now suddenly seemed close at hand.

The villagers took us the spot in the field near the village where Ishan was found. By now the crowd had swelled to over a hundred and they swarmed around us talking excitedly and snapping pictures with their cell phones. It was a celebratory mood and many photos were taken as we moved through the village and into the field.

Ishan’s biological mother did not come forward and the villagers did not tell us who she was. We can only imagine that she stood in the crowd and saw her son and his adopted American family. We stayed for a few hours and looked around the village but we were drawing a lot of attention and were worried that when word got outside the village others might come and our social worker wanted to keep a low profile. So we piled back into the car and headed back to our hotel. It had been an extraordinary day.

Ishan is shy around strangers and he didn’t really like all the attention, but he held up well during the visit. The experience did not seem to make much of an impression on him. The village was as far from his life as it is from any seven-year-old American’s life. Maybe when he’s older he’ll be more curious about that far away village where he might have lived had he not been adopted. Maybe he’ll remember this trip as he grows up and explores his identity. I’m just glad I didn’t stay in bed and nurse my cold.


At 3/07/2009, Anonymous Whitney van Nouhuys said...

I'm so glad you're documenting your trip!

At 3/14/2009, Anonymous Dirk said...

Well told!


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