My temporary son
[ people - february 05 ]
Bhima came to our house in mid-June, the nineteenth to be precise. When I returned home from playing tennis there was no baby in the downstairs guest room that had been lovingly prepared for him. It had a bunk bed and Maureen had pushed another single bed against that, stacked it with pillows, to prevent him from rolling off. The guest room was also partly an office with my filing cabinets and a work table.
I went up to our bedroom. It is a very large room with a high ceiling furnished with a four-poster double bed, cupboards along the walls and a television set. Along with my sisters, brother and three aunts, I was born in this house and now sleep in the very room I was born in. This is a strange feeling, having lived away so long in apartments in New York, London and elsewhere, to return to one's exact birthplace. It's comforting in one way, there's some permanence in my life after years of wandering, yet unsettling as I feel at times I've never ever been away and all those years in exile are only an illusion.
Maureen was lying on the bed, proud as any new mother, with a sad-faced baby, thin and fragile as a mosquito, beside her. Bhima watched me warily, teetering on the brink of tears. His eyes were round, large and mesmeric. He looked more like a girl with his thick curly hair and delicate round face, and I could see why there had originally been doubt about his gender. No doubt he was worried, afraid and bewildered by this further change in his environment. Where were the iron-barred cots, the rows of babies crying in their pens, the orphanage women, familiar sounds? And here was yet another stranger staring at him.
"He'll be here a few days. That's if it's okay by you."
I was surprised that my permission was needed as, like other husbands, I didn't have such an authority of refusal in my home. Bhima was watching me strip off my sweaty tennis outfit.
"Sure," I said, and headed for the shower, his eyes following me around the room.
"When he's well, he'll go back to the orphanage," she added.
Then he began to weep, not with any anger or pain, just sadly for himself. A "Where am I? Who are you? What's happening to me?" weeping, I thought. Who could blame him for those tears? He was barely fourteen months old and in his brief, tragic life, had had five major moves.
I let Maureen comfort him while I went into shower. I returned in shorts to lie on the bed, and watch the football world cup on television. Bhima sat between us, sniffling, watching me, and then slowly, tentatively he stretched out his thin hand to touch my arm, and began to stroke it. I have hairy arms and we realised he had never ever touched a man before, that this feel of hair was a new sensation for him. I was a man, the same sex as him, within touching distance. Up to now, the only men in his life had been doctors who had held him at a clinical distance, never giving him an intimate moment. Women - the orphanage women, nurses, Maureen - had been his sole human contact. He looked to see if I would reject him as so many had before but, when I smiled, he grew a bit bolder. He shifted his hand to caress my hairy chest and tugged the hairs gently. Still, his face remained solemn and those large eyes were watchful and wary. When I put my hand out to him, he withdrew and sitting between us on our large bed, began to weep again. I wanted to hold him and tell him he need never be afraid again but I let Maureen do that as he was more used to her arms. Yet, strangely I felt he already trusted me, and that it had happened in the instant he had touched and stroked my arm.
From that first touch, I had become his father. But how does one behave as a father with no experience of it and so late in life? What was I supposed to do? How should I communicate? My friends, when their children were babies, used baby talk - "pinky-winky wants her milky-wilky", "lovesy bunsy wants to plays-waysey". I couldn't wrap my tongue around such a vocabulary for this watchful baby. He was expecting more intelligent communication. Uncertain, I kept an emotional distance from him, though he had no such inhibitions about me. After all, I thought, he would return to his orphanage very soon.
Maureen lifted up his cheap cotton blouse to show me the livid scar of Bhima's 9-hour operation for vesicale exstrophy. His whole abdominal area was an angry red but between his legs was a distinctive, tiny penis. The next few weeks were vital for his life as the bladder could still be infected by reflux - urine flowing back and not being released. He was on medication, both for strengthening the bladder and against infection. His medicine shelf also held baby-strength painkillers, baby-strength analgesic and the baby sedative pedicloryl. He needed to take his medications thrice daily and he always resisted at first before swallowing them. We would have to monitor him very closely as, even to my amateur eye, he looked a very sickly child. We knew he would have continence problems all his life and prayed that the bladder would strengthen over time for him to be able control his passing urine.
I was not used to babies or children, felt awkward around them as we had not had children. We had tried many years ago when we were living in New York. Maureen had become pregnant but unfortunately miscarried. We decided to consult a doctor about artificial methods and saw a doctor in London, Terry Solomon who was a specialist. He tested me and found I had a low sperm count but this could be overcome and suggested all the ways we could have a child. Maureen and I went into another huddle. Did we really want to subject ourselves to all these clinical ways and means? Admittedly, we were not desperate to become parents. If it happened it happened, if not not. Selfishly, we thought it would restrict our travelling and my work as a writer and film maker. I would have to get a job, do real work for a living as a reporter or an editor, to support a child. That did not appeal to me. I did not think of myself as old - one never does- even when looking into the mirror each morning, yet the scars of time lay on my face and my hair had receded. I was 60 years older than this baby watching me, Maureen only a few years younger than me. We were an elderly couple. Young men and pretty women called me sir and her ma'am.
Our "babies" were our dogs, Griffin and Apu, a mother and daughter. Do animals also have destinies? A watchman had found Griffin and brought her home, if only to keep him awake at nights. So her life was altered by this chance encounter, one dog out of the many who roamed our streets. It was her luck, her good luck, friends said, that she ended up in our house to sleep on soft chairs, eat two square meals a day, with Marie biscuits for a late night snack, to wear a collar, to be brushed and bathed and to sleep in an air-conditioned room. Griffin was a small tawny-haired Indian prairie dog, a contrast to her daughter, Apu's, blackness and size, and a very affectionate dog. Apu, like me, had been born in this ancestral home and we had lavished our love on her. She was to play a very important part in Bhima's life.
I'm not macho but as a writer I have always been a self-contained man. I am exasperatingly laconic in conversation. I am shy too. My emotions are channelled into my writings, as are my thoughts. As I am childless, people remark "his books are his children". They are in a way; writers are puppeteers, creating figures on paper, breathing their emotions - anger, lust, love, hate, fear- into them. I've certainly experienced many of those emotions: broken love affairs are the most agonising for everyone is helpless in the maelstrom and it takes months, even years, to emerge cleansed finally on the other side of the darkness. Because of my peripatetic life style, wandering for thirty years between Canada, Britain, the States, India and, as a writer, not making the kind of money to support a child, I had closed my mind to it. I tolerated friends' children but never became emotionally involved, even with my nieces and nephews. I visited, I chatted with them but I couldn't quite figure out children and how to behave with them. I was stiff and uneasy around them, and always relieved when they went away to play. I was nervous about picking up Bhima. I had never held a baby before. Partly, I was afraid I would drop it. Partly, I did not want him to shit, pee or vomit, which babies do, over my delicate sensibilities. His arms and legs were so skinny; I thought they would break if I handled him too roughly.
After his evening milk bottle, I picked Bhima up finally. He was light and so fragile. He came to me naturally, with not a moment's resistance or doubt, that he would be safe. He wrapped his legs as best he could around my waist, put one hand on my shoulder and with the other took a tight grip on my tee-shirt. I didn't know then that babies do this only when they feel secure with someone. I carried him around gingerly, afraid to drop him, but he held on securely.
Our house is not exactly baby-friendly. There are two steps to enter the house and different levels of flooring that even trip us up at times. And the stairs go up half a flight to a landing, before continuing up to the second floor. 'Devasolai' is a large, very old house with sixteen-foot ceilings and two-foot-thick walls. It had been begun in 1911 by my great grandfather and completed by my grandfather. I'm not sure whether they employed an architect or whether they just winged it, as it rambled all over the place.
We had nothing, apart from the bed, milk and medicines to offer our tiny house-guest. As Maureen was worried about his bed not being safe, we borrowed a wooden play- pen from Irene, whose children had out grown it. It had bars also in the base so I was sent to buy plywood to place over the bars and Maureen found a Dunlopillo mattress that fitted. She made up his bed carefully. But Bhima screamed his head off the moment he was lifted into it and drew up his legs so as not to touch the sheets. The pen was too much a reminder of the iron pen in which he had spent his entire life. He craved to escape bars, no doubt as desperately as a convict. It was to take many months before he entered it voluntarily through a gap, but only to snatch at whatever toy lay inside for him. It became a repository for his toys of which he accumulated many in no time at all.
Our evening routine, as an elderly couple set in our ways, if we are not going out, is to have drinks in the living room when we chat about the day or read or I make notes, more inspired after my second drink, about whatever I am working on. And there is always music on my stereo. We both like western classical music but we also have jazz and Indian music, classical as well pop, like AR Rehman CDs. Dil Se is a favourite as I used a couple of short tracks from it for my play, The Square Circle, that I directed at the Leicester Haymarket Theatre. Quite consciously, while Bhima was with us before he went to bed, he listened to the music. When we saw his interest in music we bought him musical toys. His favourites were one shaped like an old-fashioned juke box, a large tortoise with buttons which, when pressed, played different tunes, a learning computer and an electronic key board. They all played different tunes and he wore out the batteries regularly with constant music. However, when I played Dil Se once too often, Bhima quickly learned to crawl over to the system and hit the "off" button. When I played Bach or Ravi Shanker, he would sit and listen for a minute or two, savouring the music, before continuing with what he was doing. But Dil Se drove him nuts whenever I tried to play it.
We learnt that first night, and for the next six months of nights, why Bhima slept badly. His room was quiet, as we were some distance from the road, a fan cooled him, he had stacks of pillows to roll on and Uma lay beside him. We were asleep when our intercom rang at around one in the morning. We both ran down, hearing Bhima screaming. Uma had tried to put him back to sleep and called us in desperation. It was frightening watching this thin, undernourished baby reveal such lung power. More terrifying was trying to hold onto him. It was like trying to cling onto a frightened, squirming, struggling baby seal. He arched his back like a bow until I thought his spine would snap with the force and fought against us. Maureen tried to calm him, and then I did. We walked back and forward together, trying to soothe him, singing, whispering, embracing him. Nothing worked. He screamed and arched, and we could not pacify him. No doubt he had done this in the orphanages too - it must have somehow relieved the pain of his condition - but no one had held him and tried to comfort him. Now, after the surgery, there was new pain. The doctor had warned us he would remain in pain for a few weeks as his wound healed and the nerves slowly joined. The pain killers, baby strength, didn't work. He had slept for maybe an hour, when he awoke and began screaming. The pain would wear off as his body healed itself. But pain, we discovered, was only part of the reason.
The other part was his night terrors. What dreams haunted this poor baby, I wondered. What did he see in those dreams that terrified and woke him screaming in fright? There was more than enough; his past was littered with rejections, loneliness, pain. Possibly, more than any other orphan. We realised too that he wasn't really awake, that even as we walked and held onto him, he remained locked in his nightmares. It must have been an hour before he finally calmed down, exhausting his meagre energy. He took his milk bottle, drank his fill, and then dozed off. He never ever slept well or fully. Every midnight or around three or four when the soul is at its lowest ebb and vulnerable (to quote F Scott Fitzgerald), Bhima would awake screaming. Over those first six months, we became as haggard as any young parents nursing a new baby and wondered how much longer we would have the resilience. We even woke at his first whimpering cry, attuned to his pain.
Because he needed twentyfour-hour monitoring, we had two girls working shifts. Maureen had brought Uma from the orphanage as she knew his bottle habits and, as she had been with him around the clock, he was comfortable with her. Maureen had found an agency that provided home-care support in the form of young girls who had been given three months training in the hospital and were then sent out for hospice care. She had had to wait a few days as the agency said there was one good girl able to look after babies but she was busy with another job. Once released, she had gone bounding into the hospital to relieve to Uma. That same evening that Maureen brought Bhima home and agreed that Sarala would come to look after Bhima during the day, and Uma would do the night duty. Sarala was a pretty, somewhat buxom girl of twenty, poised at the age for an arranged marriage. She lived in Red Hills, a two-hour bus ride away from our house.
Maureen went about her normal life, at first. The ayahs were there to care for Bhima. She had Cheshire Homes to look after, attended meetings for Dakshnachitra (of which more later) and, as treasurer for the OWC, spent days accounting for every rupee spent on Bhima. It was on the second or third day, when Sarala didn't show up, that Maureen realised that she had committed herself to Bhima, and had to look after him. She knew nothing about babies and borrowed books on baby care from Irene and Aruna, and swotted up desperately. I only knew of Dr Spock, but he had fallen out of favour with mothers around the world.
In those first few days, I saw little of Bhima. He drank his milk, took his medicines and slept. I watched these ministrations with an emotional detachment. He went about his life of healing, while I went about mine of working. I had a non-fiction book contract about a murder in Mumbai and postponed the trip for a few weeks while Bhima was with us. There were also a film project and a novel doing the rounds. I was selfishly absorbed while he was constantly watching for me should I enter his line of sight. And then his calm would be broken and he would wail and hold out his arms to me. Already, he had a fierce grip and if his sitter was carrying him, he would catch my shirt as I passed near him, and hold on with all his strength. I would un-grip his hand, placating him with a "Later, Bhima, later" but of course for a baby only the immediate moment is important. There is no meaning to "later". He would give heart breaking cries until one of the girls carried him out of earshot. He had not yet begun to crawl and had to be carried everywhere. When we put him down on the carpet, he would roll over or sit and play with his soft toys. He drank three bottles of milk during the day and another three during the night when he woke in fright and we had to calm him. Was milk enough for a baby? We knew nothing of baby nutrition and Maureen rang all her friends to get their advice. Soft foods we were told, chicken broth, biscuits, rusks. We do not have instant baby food in India, so we had to make do with what Ethiraj, our cook, could conjure up for him in the kitchen, rice and mashed vegetables to start with, then later pieces of chicken or other meat.
During these early weeks, I flippantly referred to Bhima as "my house guest". He was the subject of my dinner party conversation. His life, like his body, was opened up like a book for friends and acquaintances to observe. They admired us for our act of charity and compassion for a discarded baby. I was always quick to point out that it was Maureen's compassion that had brought Bhima into our home. I was, at that time, merely the host for this small house guest. My continual use of the word "guest" emotionally, and mentally, kept him at a distance.
But to him, I wasn't his host. I was his father, the father he had never had, the man with whom he had first had tactile connection. I was blind to his heart and mind through this pretended detachment. Yet, subconsciously, and I didn't explore it further then, I was acutely attuned to him. I heard him if he cried in his distant room or in the garden, anywhere in the house, and immediately responded, stopping mid-sentence, cutting off a call so that I could be by his side to comfort him. Next door there was a baby, around his age, who had a similar "whaaaaa". But I knew the difference, without knowing how. I thought then, when I did give it thought, that I was just caring for this orphan. After all he would leave fairly soon.
All love affairs begin, and end, differently. Sometimes, it's a slow, sublime emotion that gradually builds between two people. Rarely, is love instant and those lovers are fortunate in that doubt never enters their minds or hearts. For me, it was instant, at that moment of touch, though I was not truly aware of it then. He was just a baby, I thought, just passing through my house for a few days before going back to his familiar iron railed cot and the casual affection of his minders.
Bhima was more in touch with his emotions than I was. For him love was instant. Being ignorant of children, especially of babies, I had no idea of this instant love. Of course, a baby has a shorter distance to travel to its heart; the journey is swift and instinctive. Our friend, Subbu, a grandfather now, told me later that babies and children were far superior to adults, intellectually and emotionally. Though Bhima's journey to my side had been torturous, his little heart wasn't cluttered with too many experiences. He knew more about his heart than I did of mine.
I, as an adult of sixty, had little true knowledge of how I felt at that moment. The road into my heart was confused with broken love affairs in the past, and by being the youngest in a dysfunctional family. I had married late; my meeting Maureen was also a quirk of destiny. I had been living in New York when I had to return to London to adapt my non-fiction book, The New Savages, into a script for the English film director, Hugh Hudson. I had arranged to stay with a friend. Maureen (coincidentally also a Hudson!), flying in from Australia, had also arranged to stay with the same confused friend, and I had ended up on the couch. Now I was safely content in my marriage, expecting no further emotional upheavals nor wanting them.
So I was protected. I was strong and Bhima was weak and tiny. Enough harm and befallen him already, and I wanted him to feel safe. Compassion and protectiveness were what I thought I felt for him; I had no idea how badly I had mistaken my own emotions.
July - the decision
After four days and four sleep-broken nights, Maureen and I found we could not just return Bhima to the orphanage to languish in his iron cot. He was healing, physically and emotionally, and a return would only harm him, we felt. He was still sickly, catching colds and wheezing. Orphanages are rife with diseases and, in his still-weakened state, he could die from an infection.
He was classified as a "special needs" child because of his condition. This meant he could be offered for adoption abroad, and that the Indian government would pass his adoption papers quickly, and without a problem. We expected this to happen in a few weeks.
Bhima fell in love again, this time with Apu.
Not only did he adore this wary black dog, but the very first word he spoke was "Apu". It was an easy word for him, and gradually it took on various meanings in his baby language. Apu did not reciprocate his love, she shied away, and he would crawl after her in pursuit. Sometimes I held her so that he could embrace her, though she was too big for his small arms, and he would smile beatifically, this embrace fulfilling his whole purpose to be alive. As he had been shut away in the orphanages all his short life, Apu was the first animal he had ever touched, or even seen. We had worried about Apu, and consulted dog-loving friends. While her mother was alive, she remained independent, preferring to sleep downstairs on her sofa most of the time. But with Griffin's death, she had become totally dependent, following us from room to room, sleeping in my study all day or else in our bedroom. I've always believed that every living creature has emotions, and that Apu was revealing her mourning to us during those months. Now, having been our baby for so long, she was displaced by this other, human, baby.
In fact, before Bhima came to us, we had asked friends whether we should acquire a pup to give Apu company. They had advised against it as she would feel displaced and, besides, she wouldn't have the energy to deal with a playful companion. At her age we should give her as much love and attention as we could. Now, she found herself dealing with an adoring baby as well as our emotional distraction. If I gave her too much of my attention, Bhima would crawl over as best he could to place himself between us. And if Bhima should get our attention, Apu would thrust herself between us.
As I had never known or observed a baby, I wasn't aware of their sense of awe. For a baby, everything is new, brand new, never witnessed before, never existing before. As adults, we have lost this sense of wonder at the ordinary. Even the extra-ordinary - space shuttles disintegrating, volcanoes exploding, bombs falling - might fill us with surprise, but not awe. Bhima's first delight in his expanding world was flowers; the colours, reds, purples, yellows, against the green, drew his eye and we had to pluck them for him daily. He would carry around a fistful. Sarala and the other girls would either tuck flowers behind their ears or pin them in their hair. Bhima, already observant, stuffed the flowers into his ears. We would laugh and pluck them out, then tuck them behind his ear.
Our house is fifty yards down a lane. One morning, I carried him up to the road, for a morning constitutional. This was the first time he had "set foot" outside our compound. At that moment, five buffaloes ambled past us on the road. Bhima's eyes grew large and his jaw dropped. If, as a writer, I had written those words - "Bhima's jaw dropped"- I would have deleted them with embarrassment. But his jaw did drop. I could not imagine an Indian child of sixteen months never having seen a buffalo or a cow. It was as if an American or European child of the same age had never seen a car or television. If he had remained in his village, buffaloes and cows would have been a daily sight. These common beasts, scarcely-noticed pedestrians on our Chennai roads, had inspired awe in this baby's life.
Another child his age would have experienced many things when his parents proudly carried him out into the world. But Bhima, imprisoned in his orphanage dormitories, had never seen the outside world at all. When he was transported from one orphanage to another and on his visits to hospitals and labs, he would have lain on someone's lap, and stared up at the interior roof of the vehicle. Bhima's awe made me look again at these slow, lumbering black beasts as Bhima commanded me - pointing and crying out excitedly "Apu...Apu..."- to follow them down the road.
Maureen told the Social Worker, Shaila, to put him up for adoption and, as she was the only one who knew Bhima intimately the details of his affliction, the many tests, the operation, and the problems he would face all his life- wrote up her report on behalf of Shaila. In her 'Child Study Report' Maureen detailed his background, his physical problem, the successful operation and his physical and emotional recuperation. She did not mention he was living with us. The report would be circulated eventually, along with his photograph, to adoption agencies in Europe. Maureen then "transferred" Bhima, on paper, from the Orphanage 1 to another orphanage over which she had some control.
At that time, our only thought was to find a good, secure home for this lost waif. Some where he could come to rest and enjoy childhood, puberty, become an adult and grow old surrounded and cosseted with love.
The report was signed by Shaila and sent Parallel Universe I, the Indian one, into motion.
Another social worker, a young woman, visited us from the Voluntary Co-ordinating Agency for Tamilnadu. She had Bhima's file and had come to inspect him before they moved the paperwork further. Maureen removed his nappy to show her the scars of the operation. It tallied with her medical reports. Then she checked her file photograph that Bhima was one and the same baby.
On the form she had filled in - "Indian Placement Not Possible" - words which condemned him to a possible life of exile. The reasons were not obvious but were entangled with Indian culture. Indian couples, who are increasingly turning to adopting orphaned babies, have the choice of perfectly healthy ones. They would not want "a special needs child" who would require medical attention and be a burden to them. Apart from that, Bhima might not be able to father a child. Indian parents want grandchildren, even if their child has been adopted. Indian history and society is littered with adoptions. Childless maharajahs and nawabs have adopted nephews, distant cousins and, in one case in Jodhpur, even a village boy who, according to legend, was one of several children to be invited to a meal hosted by the maharani. He observed how she ate and copied her. He became the next maharajah. Childless couples, from many economic and caste backgrounds, also adopt the children of relations who may have a child or two to spare.
"Special Needs Child"!! The magic words were Bhima's passport to leave India, the ambition of most Indians, admittedly. I had left India when I was eighteen like many others who leave for higher studies, and surprised everyone, including myself, when I decided to return. Every friend and relative of mine has a son or daughter, often more than one, living in the States, Australia, UK, Europe. It's as if a Pied Piper had piped us all away.
At this early stage of our relationship with Bhima, we saw only this rosy future for a baby, rejected by its parents and dumped in an orphanage, to soar away and be given this golden opportunity.
"Once we got this clearance certificate", Shaila told us about the procedures, "we have to wait 60 days, in case the birth parent should change their minds about the surrender. We couldn't even know whether the parent would have given his real name. How can we verify such a thing? I remember once searching in a small village for the parents of a child adopted abroad who wanted to meet them. No one knew anything but I am certain the mother was listening because when I returned to make further enquiries, I saw the same woman listening again. They will never admit to giving away a baby."
(Which was why when I later visited his probable village I didn't expect to meet his parents or for them to acknowledge that they had given away their baby)
Shaila is a wonderful, earth-mother kind of woman, both physically and emotionally, who did her Masters in Social Work in the States. She radiates warmth and humour. She has to have the patience of a Buddha, too, as she spends her days in pursuit of the countless documents from bureaucracies and the courts necessary for a child to be adopted. She has a fund of anecdotes about the fifteen years she has been doing her work, and has somehow retained not only a sense of humour but of compassion for these orphaned babies.
"Then after sixty days, we circulate the child's details within the state adoption agencies to see if anyone within the state will adopt it. We wait thirty days for a response, then, if there isn't one, we send the certificate and the details of the baby to the Central Adoption Resources Agency (CARA) in Delhi for clearance for the child to be adopted by a foreign couple.
So Bhima's file was sent to CARA in Delhi. Every piece of paper that had accumulated on him within the fifteen months of his life was in that file - three copies of every medical certificate, details of his operation, of his recuperation, Maureen's report, the Certificate for adoption, the clearance. Each piece had to be notarized, every piece had his baby photograph attached to it with the notaries' seal. No child can be sent abroad for adoption without the CARA clearance. This is theoretical, as illegal adoptions do take place. We were also told it would take a couple of weeks for CARA to give its clearance.
By chance, we had a friend in Madras who came from An European Country. He suggested that we put Bhima up for adoption in his country. Though admiring the country, we just felt that Bhima would grow into a too-precocious teenager. I had met quite a few teenage children from the States visiting relatives here, and though bright, there was grating American edge to them. We thought of Spain, as we both liked the country and the people. Denmark was also in the running.
I went into the web to find out more about my friend's suggestion. His country was wealthy, stable, democratic and, I thought, safe from the new plague of terrorism. It seemed to be an island of tranquillity in an increasingly dangerous world.
And so we made the decision for Bhima about his whole life and believed this European country would be his safest haven. Of course that depended on whether there was a couple who would want to adopt him.
Up to now, he had smiled seldom. There was a gravity in his persona, a quiet watchfulness, as if aware that his life could change any moment. It had taken us nearly two months to bring out the gift of a small chuckle, and now he was learning to laugh. Sometimes he would crane his head down and around to look at us and give us a stunning smile, knowingly captivating us and, more frequently as the weeks passed, bursting into laughter.
However, at night, our routine had not changed. He would awake screaming. Sarala would try to pacify him, and then hit the intercom button in desperation. And we would stumble down, haggard from so many nights of broken sleep. In desperation I suggested we should occasionally, not too often, give him Pedicloryl, the baby valium. Shaila, the mother of a bright ten-year-old boy, advised against it, especially for such a young baby, as sometimes it could cause fits. I could now understand the frustration and exhaustion of a sleep-deprived mother, coping alone, who could so easily lose her temper with a screaming baby.
At first Maureen thought it could be his teething trouble. She took him to Dr Thomas who examined Bhima's mouth. His teeth looked well formed and there was no infection. Dr Thomas told her that because Bhima had been incarcerated in his cot all the time, he had not picked up any infections through crawling on the floor and then putting his fingers in his mouth. This was what caused infection, and teething problems, in other babies, he said.
Having ruled that one out, I went onto the web, the lifeline of the desperate and the ignorant, to search for wise counsel from expert strangers. I came across scant advice. One site briefly explained the causes. "Night terrors are mysterious sleep disturbances that preschoolers and older children are occasionally subject to, always during the deepest part of non-dreaming sleep, usually within one to two hours of falling asleep. During a night terror - which can last anywhere from ten to forty minutes - your child may bolt out of bed, thrash around and scream, or run wildly through the house. While his eyes may be wide open, he is not awake and will not be aware of your presence. Unlike with a nightmare, he will fall right back to sleep after the episode and have no memory of the incident the next morning. About 5 per cent of all children will have an episode of night terrors." This wasn't our Bhima. He thrashed around in our arms and screamed but he had not yet learnt to run wildly. The site went on to suggest - "Don't try to intervene in the middle of a night terror. Let your child scream it out, and unless he is in danger of hurting himself, don't try to physically restrain him. If you attempt to hold your terrified child it could lead to wilder behaviour. Instead, speak calmly and place yourself between him and anything dangerous."
These remote advisors had no idea of Bhima's past. If we hadn't restrained him he would certainly have hurt himself badly. Being such belated and inexperienced "parents", we discussed his problem with each other, and with other parents too. Irene reassured us that night terrors were quite common and that her son had had them when he was eight.
The accidental mantra
His problem was not neurological but emotional. It was going to take time for him to come to terms with it. Americans spend a fortune on their shrinks but there is no absolute cure for our emotional ills, only a brief interlude from them. They are too deep seated, though quick to surface in a crisis.
One night, by chance, I did find the secret to lulling him back to sleep while he was screaming, twisting and arching his back. It was instant but needed to be repeated over and over again until the terror was vanquished. We knew he was still asleep, though his eyes were open, and somehow I had to break through to his terrors and reassure him that he was in a real, safe world. There were no demons or devils in pursuit of him, he wasn't falling into an endless dark abyss, he wasn't alone and abandoned, he wasn't... What was his great fear, I wondered, what did he see in his terror. Bhima had night terrors, according to the baby experts. I didn't know there was a difference in what frightens us, as children or as adults, when we sleep. Whatever, it awaits us all.
On this night, Maureen and Sarala were sitting slumped and exhausted. I was taking my turn with our screaming baby. As I walked Bhima up and down, struggling to keep a hold, I thought I'd try some imaginative psychology. He was not reassured by the human touch, which had been cursory, careless, indifferent, given and taken away impatiently while he was awake in his iron cot. Adults were his betrayers, not his saviours or safe havens. What was real to him, truly real, more real than a human touch or voice, that would penetrate his night terror? What would reassure him that it was solid and strong enough to draw him out of his terrors?
I spoke softly by his ear: "Apu's here. Apu will look after you. Apu will guard you. Apu loves you, Bhima. See Apu's standing here, Apu...Apu...Apu...Apu."
To our total surprise, "Apu" was the mantra that penetrated his dreaming mind and drew him out of his terrors. Bhima's screams lessened, they became sobs; he straightened, relaxed and took deep breaths. He fell asleep. The sleeping dog never knew what magic she had wrought on this baby. Big Apu was his secure present; she was the first animal he had ever touched and held and what he had felt was reassuring. Animals are a natural force, more earthbound than we humans, and Apu gave him her strength. "Apu" worked every time we used her name to calm him down.
I had led a selfish writer's life and now had to turn outwards - I am known as a recluse by most people- and embrace this house guest who demanded so much attention. Like all babies, he drank, slept, defecated, pee'd, woke, cried, needed comforting. I began to pay much more attention to him since he had bonded with me with that initial touch. And I still was not sure how I should respond. He would be leaving us soon but I could not reject his constant overtures without harming him. As he lived downstairs, with frequent visits upstairs to our bedroom throughout the day when we carried him up, I remained upstairs. He could not yet make that long flight of stairs by himself, so if I went down on an errand and he saw me, he would immediately reach out for me. Maureen was a natural mother. I wouldn't say it's instinctive in all women as I have seen friends' wives awkward and uncomfortable with their own children but she had infinite patience with Bhima's physical and emotional problems. He desperately needed nurturing and love and she gave it, unstintingly. It took me longer but not much. I enjoyed the fruits of Maureen's and Uma's work of cleaning and feeding him. Uma stayed for a month but she had to return to the orphanage. Sarala became his most constant baby sitter, alternating between days and nights with other young women who came and vanished back into the city. Some stayed a month, others a day or two, mostly defeated by this baby whose sleeping pattern kept them awake at night when they had thought it would be an easy job.
Our baby did have a temper, and showed it. If he didn't want to scream, he would pull Sarala's, or another girl's, hair. His tiny hand had a surprisingly strong grip, and she or I would have to gently prise open one finger at a time to release her hair. But as one finger opened, the others would close. He would look at us with those beautiful innocent eyes as if saying "Am I doing something wrong?", knowing he was. We soon discovered that he was also an angry baby. He was angry with the world, and we could not blame him. He had every right. But my surprise was how a baby could already feel such a rage at his unjust treatment. It hadn't been nurtured by us, in fact the opposite. So it had to be something in his nature woken by his experiences. We're born with every emotion - hate, love, anger, envy, greed, sloth - an instant broth in our genetic make up. Which one rises to the surface and commands his life's pattern depends on the nurturing of the baby. Pain and neglect were the fuel for Bhima's rage. He could suddenly throw a tantrum, quite uncontrollable, as if he remembered how bad his life had been and felt that we were to blame. We believed his anger was internalised against the wound in his body that had caused his pain. The battleground was his mind. He was divided between his past and what was occurring in his present with us. It took us months to leach this anger out of him.
My temporary son, Bhima
I began to e-mail friends outside India about our little house guest. Briony, a good friend in London we'd known for many, many years, replied and called him "your temporary son", correcting my casual reference to him. I had not thought of the word "son" until then. Was he the son we had not had?
So Bhima became my son. And I became his father, though not temporary for how can a baby not believe in permanence? It has no idea of time, apart from feeding needs, and time is infinite. In his eyes and feelings, being permanent meant I could not begrudge fulfilment of any of his emotional needs when he turned to me. A few days after Briony's letter, I was downstairs when he woke from his morning nap and came out of his room crying, wearing only a drooping nappy. A small, fragile human, vulnerable and alone. We were the room's length apart and when I knelt and put out my arms, he ran into them, stopped crying and sighed. No baby/child in its right mind had ever voluntarily come to my arms. They usually turned tail and bolted, screaming "mamaaa". His nappy was wet and I took him to his room and laid him down and he allowed me to change him. I was getting pretty good at this by now, especially as they had Velcro fasteners. I kissed him. He would placidly allow us this proof of our love for him. He returned my kisses only much later in our relationship.
Over the next few days, I probed my emotional defences as delicately as a dentist picking at an infected tooth. A large gap had opened up, and Bhima had slipped through. My defence against adopting Maria had been that being handicapped, she would lead a better life in the States. The question of emotion did not enter the equation then. She had spent only intermittent times with us. And now the adoption question rose again. But I was sixty years older than Bhima. This gap yawned wide as a gorge. I just didn't know how I could bridge such a chasm and remained stranded one side, Bhima on the other. When he was ten, I argued with myself, I would be seventy, and I saw him orphaned again when he was a teenager. My father and his sister had lived well into their eighties but I led the more sinful life style of smoking and drinking, admittedly countered by a daily regime of tennis and jogging. So when Bhima was twenty, I could be eighty. Maureen would no doubt outlive me. But for how many years? Bhima could be orphaned again by his early twenties. Or even earlier, at ten or twelve or fifteen.
I have had an intermittent interest in astrology, inherited from my father and from my culture. At my birth, the astrologer who cast my horoscope, predicted I would either die at the age of twelve or, if I did not, I would live a very healthy life. Sadly, he had not predicted my mother's early death, so it was left for my father to worry about this prediction. The astrologer had been fairly accurate. I had been a sickly child and at twelve came down with a complication of jaundice and influenza. I nearly did die; I remember the family gathered around my sick bed to bid me goodbye. I survived the dire prediction and since then have had a mild interest in astrology. At this time, I had not seen an astrologer for years but two of them had predicted I would die in my mid to late seventies. Seventy five, seventy six, seventy eight? This cut-off date played in my mind with Bhima's future.
What would be Bhima's future with us? I tried to place myself in Bhima's mind. How would he feel having such aged step-parents? I imagined us at the local PTA meetings, Bhima's friends' parents would be in their mid to late twenties or early thirties. Maureen and I were ancient measured against such youth and life styles. Parents I knew bonded, made friends, and socialised through their children. We would be out of place among them, they would be another generation. Not "another" but two generations younger. Bhima would be embarrassed, maybe even ashamed of us. I know from my own childhood that I was embarrassed and ashamed that my stepmother was white, while all my friends had brown mothers. I wanted to have one too, instead of this stranger who would appear, out of place, among all the brown faces at sports days and PTA meetings. I disliked her and wrote two novels about our family experience. The first one, Field of Honour, was set in Bangalore and although Graham Greene, a writer I admired tremendously, wrote to me that he was "very much impressed with Field of Honour" (he rarely quoted and gave me permission to use his comment), the English reviewers were not. They attacked my depiction of this horrid Englishwoman, as if I had slandered all Englishwomen. The second novel, Steps From Paradise, was more autobiographical, and set in Madras. The novel didn't fare any better with the English reviewers for the same reason. The lesson I learned from those two novels was that an Indian writer had better depict Englishmen and Englishwomen in India as heroic, upstanding, self-sacrificing and pure.
The memory of my stepmother was reinforced, thought not as extremely, by Elizabeth who was also adopted. "I loved my step-parents dearly," she told us, "but they were older than my school friends' parents. I remember being very embarrassed at seeing them drive up in this old car to attend our school functions." Would Bhima cringe at the sight of his, not even elderly but old, "parents' attending his school sports days and prize giving days?
These thoughts ran in my head continuously like a rat in a maze, unable to work out an escape route, unable to find the way to free myself from old age. I knew also that no court would allow a couple over sixty to adopt an eighteen month old baby. Forty was the upper age limit for adoption. The law was the same in the UK, and other countries. The age barrier then seemed insurmountable for us, not only legally but more importantly intellectually. Logic was locked into both our minds as if in a bank safe with an impossible combination which could never be opened. To some friends, age did not matter. "So what?" was my good friend, the Madras historian Muthu's comment, while Nicki Mackie emailed from London to tell me she had been adopted too, and her husband was sixty years older than their ten-year-old son. But then she was much younger than her husband. There wasn't that comforting cushion in the age gap between Maureen and me.
Bhima then had been with us three months and we were all still unaware we were in love with him. Looking back, I believe he had no doubt about his love for us. I remember thinking and telling friends, almost boastfully: "Just look how destiny has changed for this baby. He was born was a dreadful affliction, dumped in an orphanage, found, operated on and is now living in a large rambling house with us. And then his destiny will take him away to Europe and he'll grow up into a fine young man." I spoke so lightly, just cocktail and dinner party conversation, passing time. Who had set this destiny in motion? How does it work, what forces shape our lives? It seemed so arbitrary - a chance visit by a few foreign women and his whole life changed. Was that meant to happen? Was it fore-ordained that the time and place should bring his small hopeless life into collision with total strangers? I'm not a practising Hindu, but at times the feeling and sense of karma controlling our lives overwhelms me. We invent words - karma, destiny, ill-luck, bad luck, good luck, fate, inshallah - to try and rationalise the forces that distort our lives and cannot explain them either to ourselves or to others. The words are meaningless balms with no curative powers but just band-aids to cover the suppurating wounds. If we believe in the continual cycle of re-birth then we are getting the rewards and punishment for our deeds in a previous life. I have always believed it unfair that I should suffer for things done by someone or something before I was born. People think such belief is Indian fatalism; I don't think of it that way. Some things are fated over which we have no control. Also our lives are entangled with so many others. It was my karma and my mother's karma that she should die and my life became dislocated. Despite the shortcomings of the astrologer' art, I wanted Bhima's horoscope to be cast. I wanted a vague glimpse into his destiny. Unfortunately, not having his star or his precise moment of birth (the day was not enough), no astrologer would draw up the chart. Later on I tried a palm reader but she refused to read a baby's palm and I thought it wise of her. She said his life lines had yet to form. I would have to wait to see how and where his destiny took him.
On October nineteenth Maureen returned home depressed. She had been to the office and seen Shaila.
"A couple have committed to adopting Bhima" she told me. "They've started the processing of their documents."
"How long?" I managed finally, trying to absorb the news, now depressed too. I had no idea what documentation was required for the adoption.
"By Christmas he'll be gone."
"We can adopt..."
"You're over sixty," she reminded me gently. "No court..."
I was angry now about my age, something I had previously accepted gracefully. If only I could lose ten, twenty years, we could adopt Bhima. It seemed cruel to have a cut-off age at sixty when we both still had plenty of energy and, most importantly, a great of love for this baby.
How could we measure the quantity of energy required to raise Bhima to manhood, to see him off to Oxford/Cambridge/Yale/Princeton/Harvard university? In my family, like any other Indian family, education was paramount. From the richest to the poorest, we all wanted our children educated. In the slums, mothers scrubbed their children clean daily, washed their faded uniforms, and sent them to the free corporation schools. Drive into rural India, along the highways and byways, at an early hour and you will see streams of children, even there in uniforms, trudging off to schools in the nearest town.
The practicalities were a different drain on energy. I knew parents having to beg, bribe, grovel to get their children admitted to schools and colleges, because of the huge number of applicants for limited places. They ran with their children from one school to another, then another, until they got their child admitted. India's education system creaks and groans and buckles under the demands of an exploding population of children. Nearly 20 million children are born annually and, statistically, India needed to build a school a day to absorb them. Of course, India has not done that.
I saw myself spending the next dozen years chasing schools, then colleges to get Bhima admitted, driving him back and forth, and then because of the fierce competition for good grades, driving him to special tutors. My friends with school-age children spent their days shuttling around the city with them to tutors and waiting outside to take them home again. It sounded exhausting.
"Can you do all that?" Maureen asked, reading my mind.
"Why not?" But I was not sure I could. "Who are this couple wanting Bhima? Do they know he is a Special Needs child with problems?"
"They must know. It's all written down along with medical reports." She was concerned too and asked Shaila to check and double check that they understood Bhima's medical needs.
I remember Bhima interrupted our discussion as he came wobbling in to be scooped up, unaware that his future was being shifted around again like a chess piece on an inter-planetary board. Stars were being shunted around to accommodate a destiny that had been decided by us in one way, yet also by his unfortunate start in life.
"Why have they chosen Bhima?" I asked over his head.
"Shaila said they fell in love with his photograph."
I knew the photograph she meant - a thin solemn baby with large and an unruly curly mop of hair staring sadly into the camera, wearing an American football jersey with the number One on it. I looked down at Bhima. He had changed since then - his cheeks were plumper and he had grown taller by almost a head. He was no longer that solemn, sad baby of the photograph; he was a cheerful one most of the time. However, he did have mercurial moods, one moment laughing and playing, the next screaming his head off. "Whaaaaaaaaaaaaa". But now he was not screaming in pain but because we had denied him something.
Bhima lived with us a year and we were hopelessly in love with each other. His adoptive parents came and spent two weeks in our house to bond with him. Of course he didn't bond and we were in confusion and hurting. When we took them to the airport he kept calling for Maureen and me to "come" with him. Of course, we couldn't and for weeks we were numbed with pain and in mourning. Bhima had "died". We later heard from his parents that for a month he had cried out, calling for us. He stopped eventually and went on with his life.
One year later, Maureen was invited to be his godmother and for us to stay in their house. When Bhima first saw us, he frowned, trying to remember why he knew us. We spent four days with his family and the consolation was that he's loved deeply by his parents and is surrounded by grandparents, uncles, aunts and friends who adore him. He began to spend more time with us too and remembered bits and pieces of his past with us. But the time was all too short. We had thought this visit would have been a closure. But there never is a total closure, not until love dies or we die.