I don't know a word in Odia. He has never heard anyone speaking Hindi. Will I scare him? What if he doesn't like me?
In the 20 hours I spent on a train to Cuttack from Delhi, I could only think of the hundred ways this could go wrong. It was August 2009 and I had spent the last couple of years doing the rounds of adoption agencies across the country, only to be turned away over and over again.
I started at my home, Delhi.
Each time I called up an agency, "Hello, I'm a single man and I want to adopt...'." they'd hang up before I could finish my sentence. The ones which were a little more considerate, would politely ask me to give up hope or find a woman to marry, and apply again.
And a year later, here I was, on a train, to meet the three-year-old boy who could change my life forever.
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The odds were stacked against me right from the beginning.
I come from a conservative Marwari family in Delhi. No one had ever adopted in my family. So when sometime in 2007 I brought the idea up with my mother, she wouldn't have any of it. She just outright rejected the thought.
"Men in our family don't do such things. Get married and have a child," she insisted. I had married a decade before that and had been divorced three years later.
Back then, I was deeply disappointed by my mother, but on hindsight, I realise she was only a victim of the patriarchal conditioning she has lived all her life under. In her idea of masculinity, men don't bring up children single handedly, it's a woman's job. And they definitely don't adopt.
When I finally came to terms with the idea that I would be single for a while, but I wanted a child, I realised the toxic stereotypes that come in the way of men trying to adopt. The choice to not have a biological offspring is often tied to impotency and infertility. And if that were to be the case, instead of empathising, it would incite mockery and shame. So no wonder my mother threw a fit at the mention of me trying to adopt.
So then, I took the conversation outside home. I spoke to friends, some of who were very supportive. And then I spoke to my boss, the general manager of the government-owned telecom company I work in. My boss, surprisingly, told me that he thought I had all the qualities to be a parent and went ahead to write me recommendation letters. Some of my colleagues also did.
You'd think that would make the process easy?
What surprised me was that no one wanted to even meet me first. They could then proceed to do background checks, verifications and then take a decision on giving me a child. But no, I must have knocked on the doors of 20-25 adoption agencies across India -- in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, and Odisha. The first few times I called, my heart would sink the moment the person on the other side asked, if I was married. Then it became a routine, I'd call, they'd reject.
And on the other hand, my mother was adamant, no one had the courage to speak to her. Then one day in 2008 I think, I just had enough. I walked up to my mother and announced, I'm going to adopt, no matter what. While walking out of her room, I prayed that this actually comes true.
But the rejections didn't slow down and hope was waning, and fast. One agency in Pune actually had the nerve to ask me that I was a single man, and how did I plan to bring up a child because men weren't meant to do this things.
Then finally, I got a call from this agency in Odisha, and I was on a train to meet a child, I could possibly adopt.
When I landed in Kendrapara on August 24, I could barely think. I was exhausted, agonising over what could happen and how this could fall apart, how I could come this close and yet again, lose. And then I met this boy, holding an agency worker's hand and looking at me with wide, curious eyes. Everything seemed like a daze, people, words I didn't recognise floating around me, workers shuffling around with papers, some others asking for documents that I robotically produced.
What stayed with me was the child's smile -- a confused, yet kind, smile. Almost a decade later now, I play and replay the moment in my head and it gives me the strength to deal with anything that could be thrown my day.
I had prepared for this moment in my head for years -- what I'd say, what I'd do. But in that moment, it all that flew out of the window. Amitesh didn't speak anything but Odia, so I took my phone out and it had pictures of my pet dog. I gingerly sat down beside him and showed him the picture. He started giggling immediately. In three years, that was perhaps the only thing I had heard that made me immensely happy.
Later, the agency led him away and things started to go downhill from there.
The owner of the agency first said, he'll have to see if the boy wanted to have me as a parent. Then, when it turned out that Amitesh did indeed like me, the agency suddenly said they couldn't have me take him as he had an eye problem. I just couldn't fathom their reluctance. I had recommendations, papers, literally my whole life laid out in front of them, yet they were unwilling. It wasn't like someone else, or better placed as a parent, was in line to adopt him. I was 38, had a government job, a home and everything else one associates with stability. Only, I was single.
Then in desperation, I got in touch with an activist in Odisha called Prashant Kanungo. The year before I had been making random calls to every person who others said could help me with the process. Kanungo was one of them. He then helped me and even spoke to the ministry and then it was found that there was no logical basis to the agency's unwillingness. A month later, in September, mother in tow, I landed in Kendrapara again. This time, to take my son home.
On the way, I could barely understand what Amitesh was saying, but just hearing his voice made me giddy with happiness. My mother too, had come around, by then. I fact, she look one look at my boy and forgot all the issues she has had before.
It's been nine years since then. There have been challenges, yes, but nothing that we couldn't deal with. My son has been in two schools, and when I got him admitted to these schools, I specifically spoke to his teachers about me being a single father. I think, without me having to explain much, he has also found his way to battle the stereotypes of parenthood.
Once, he said, the kids in his school had asked, "Amitesh, how come I've never seen your mother, only your father comes for meetings." The first time he was asked that, he brusquely dismissed it saying, 'mind your business'. The second time someone asked him, he said, "Your mother's hair is grey. My father's hair is grey. They are both human beings, now how does it matter if it's your mother or its my father?"
When he was younger, I used read him the story of Krishna. And told him, 'Lord Krishna had two sets of parents, you too have two sets of parents. Doesn't matter who or how many they are, your parents love you, and that's what matters'.
For the past three years, I used to take him to the adoption agency every year to meet other children there, to know where he came from and have no discomfort about it. We would sit and chat with the kids, play with them and make a short trip to Puri and then return to Delhi.
The adoption procedure has since then been revised and I'm so thankful to Maneka Gandhi for it. I may even considering adopting again now.
The one thing having my son taught me is to not pay attention to what people say. He has given me the strength to ignore gossip mongers. Honestly, in the kind of society we live in it's very easy to feel burdened by what people are thinking or saying about you. Other parents who are looking to adopt should also keep this in mind -- not everyone will be kind, and almost no one will let you be. That shouldn't weigh you down and definitely not waver your commitment to your child. And if you don't think you are strong enough to stand up to society, maybe think hard before trying to adopt.
That said, it's a long, scary road and if you're single, you'll probably be alone in it. But, once you're at the end of it, at least for me, it felt like I had just been surviving for all those years. And then suddenly, after I got my son, I started living.
(As told to Piyasree Dasgupta)