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June-July 2003

Bonding across boundaries

- by Abha Prakash

Three Aurovilian women share their experiences of inter-cultural parenting

Subhadre and MallikaMallika, an Aurovilian from French Guyana, recounts a strange but impressionable incident she encountered in Pondicherry in 1975. While making her way through the crowded marketplace, a Tamil woman in a cycle rickshaw stopped by her side and wordlessly offered her her baby. The tiny infant didn't look more than a month old. For all her love for children, Mallika hadn't thought of adoption in a serious way but, some years later, the desire intensified until she found a four-month-old Tamil baby boy with whom she instantly bonded. The child was sickly, susceptible to frequent attacks of pneumonia, but that didn't faze Mallika. Perhaps because of the care the baby needed, she became more and more involved in natural cures to the extent that she gave up language teaching to become a full-time healer. Today Subhadre (popularly known as Titu) is a bright-eyed and cheerful twenty-one year-old who has spent all his life in Auroville. Was raising Subhadre a different experience than rearing her own two children? "Completely," says Mallika. "You could say it was an adventure that came with its own rewards and challenges."

Is a child more special when he or she is your own? Is an adopted child less so? When it is a case of adoption, does the process of raising the child become easier if the child is from the same culture as you? Or does bonding of this type transcend the conventional boundaries of race, class, and ethnicity? Within the multi-hued, multi-cultural mosaic of the Auroville social experiment, such bondings have been happening for years. The children in these inter-cultural relationships are mostly of south Indian origin. With few exceptions, they are able to integrate their identity with the help of Auroville's pluralistic aesthetic. Besides Mallika, the small number of Western Aurovilians who have adopted an Indian child include Cecilia and Didier, a French couple, and Prema and André, an Argentinian-Algerian couple. Their stories are similar, and yet uniquely their own.

Baby Ludivine with Cecillia and DidierLudivine was adopted through a recognized orphanage in Bangalore in 2002. Before she came into their busy lives, however, Cecilia and Didier had not felt for many years the need for a child to fill the so-called "gap" that some childless couples feel of their lives. But when the desire to parent a child did come, it was somehow too late. "Adoption was not at all a last resort, but a first choice," says Cecilia. Living in Auroville since 1994, the couple wanted the opportunity to give a disadvantaged Indian baby a loving and comfortable home environment to grow in. But how has the little girl's arrival affected their lives? "Welcoming Ludivine into our heart seemed like a very natural thing. That Ludivine would be Indian did not surprise us at all either. We had the feeling since many years that it would happen one day so we were quite prepared. We already knew each other well by the time she arrived home in Auroville. Still to become a round-the-clock, full-fledged mother and father of a 6-month-old baby from one day to the next was quite something! I remember eating only left over baby food for the first week of her arrival, as we were totally overwhelmed. And Ludivine was so easy, so much at ease from the very onset. She is blossoming here!"

Like all new mothers, Cecilia's eyes light up when she is with her child. The two look completely unlike, the mother being blonde and blue-eyed. Cecilia's Indian friends wondered about the contrast in the beginning, but almost everyone, she says, felt touched. To people who say, "She is lucky to have found you," Cecilia and Didier respond with, "We are lucky we have found her" and to the question:

"Is she yours?" they always answer: "No, we are hers!"

On the cultural level, Ludivine has helped her parents anchor themselves in India. Their unit Sound Wizard takes them often to different cities in India but now, being parents of an Indian child, has made them feel more at home. So much at home that they are not so keen to return to France even for a brief holiday to visit their relatives. "We'd rather see our parents come over here to visit us and their grandchild in our own environment."

Although the whole legal process was somewhat tedious, Cecilia and Didier are happy that it was available for them. In the 1980s, for example, when Mallika was going through Titu's guardianship, a formal procedure for adoption by foreigners was not in place. Her initial experience of trying to adopt through orphanages in Pondicherry was difficult. "I was not Indian or Hindu, and was already a natural mother of two children. That made me suspect to some degree. Being single did not help either."

For quite a few years now, the Indian authorities have been encouraging Indian parents living in India and abroad to come forward to adopt. They feel a young child will develop into a better and more stable person if he/she lives in his/her country of origin or within a familiar cultural milieu. International adoptions have, however, become rare perhaps because of the stricter criteria the prospective parents have to fulfill. Cecilia and Didier feel the new procedure is in place to save the interest of these very vulnerable young children and counteract the abuses that may have happened in the past. In their case, the fact that they had been married for many years, had been regular visitors to India since 1989, and had lived in India on the same visa since 1994, was decisive in convincing the authorities of their good intentions. Also, almost everyone they had met after contacting the orphanage in Bangalore had heard about Auroville. They felt reassured, says Cecilia, "that a child entrusted to us foreigners here would grow up in tune with her country's culture and language, in a safe and loving surrounding beyond caste and colour prejudices as far as possible."
Pavitra with PremaPrema and André are legal guardians of Pavitra, a three-year-old Tamil girl from Kuilayapalayam, a village close to Auroville. It happened in 2000, through a close friend of Prema's who had adopted a Tamil boy. His sister, she discovered, needed a home as well. The little girl's biological mother was a widow who was too poor to support her, and the child was at an age when bonding with another person, so removed from her context, was understandably difficult. Language was a major barrier as Prema and André knew no Tamil. Also, being in their mid-fifties and busy with managing Auromode, a big garment unit, the couple were not too sure if the arrangement was going to work. But when they met, says Prema, the energies were so strong that within six hours Pavitra was living at their house.

One of the brightest children in her class, Pavitra studies at Deepanam school. Having adjusted to her new family with remarkable ease, she also spends one day in a month with her biological mother and siblings in Pondicherry. Linguistically versatile, Pavitra speaks Tamil, French, and English, and understands Spanish, her "Western mother tongue". For Prema, Pavitra is a "sweet, gentle, fantastic, intelligent" (the list of adjectives goes on) child who has brought much joy into her life. "The amount of love I receive from this child has led to my opening to the Divine", she confides. Like Cecilia and Didier, Prema also feels parenting an Indian child has deepened her contact with India, a country she has lived in for more than 23 years.

Interestingly enough, prior to their becoming adoptive parents, Mallika, Cecilia, and Prema somehow knew that a little being was coming into their life. In all three cases the women believe that coincidences, interventions, and the workings of grace have played a role in facilitating the entry of these special children into their lives. It was all meant to be, they emphasize, the adoption or guardianship process being merely an instrument. In their own way, they even question the suitability of using the term "adoption". While Mallika argues it is not so much a question of adoption but about "raising a child, helping him to grow and discover his inner self," Prema's response invites us to consider an interesting inversion: "I believe it is the child who has adopted us!"

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