' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Review: Indian-born writer reveals the dark side of international adoption

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Review: Indian-born writer reveals the dark side of international adoption

Award-winning author Indian-born writer Mridula Koshy's new book, Not Only the Things That Have Happened, reveals the dark side of international adoption.

However, the story, set in the author's native India, is frustrating to read--beautiful passages are set in a confusing story line. The story begins with Anna, a poor Indian woman, on her death bed still grieving over the son she lost to adoption 34 years earlier. The author then takes us back to Anna's childhood, telling the story through snippets of events, cursing back and forth through Anna's life and ancillary characters.

Anna is motherless because her mother killed herself after Anna is born. Her father remarries and has a second daughter, Tessie. He leaves the family for long periods of time, seeking work, and Anna's step-mother must beg to put food on the table, leaving Anna to care for her sister whom she dearly loves. When Anna becomes a teenager, her parents, fearing that Anna may become promiscuous, place her in a convent where she has an affair with a priest and gives birth to a son, Madhu; she loves and nurtures him for four years.  Because of Anna disgrace, Tessie is unable to find a husband. To help her, Anna gives up Madhu for adoption to a German couple. She grieves for him the rest of her life, referring to him as "The Lost Boy" and uses her imagination to reunite with him, giving the book its title:
"She [Anna] said imagining what is the most real important thing. She said what is real comes from our mind. She said, if it is real, then you will remember it. Then she said, remembering it will make it real.  She said after she lost her son, she still had her memory of him, so she put it into her memory that he would return. She said, if it is real, you can remember not only the things that have happened, but also remember the things that are going to happen." (Italics added)
The German couple leave with Madhu on a train. At the next stop, the husband takes the boy to a restroom at the train station and the boy is lost in the crowd. He survives as a street child, and at age seven, he is adopted by an American family and is re-named Asa. The German wife grieves for this lost boy the rest of her life.

The Americans assume, as many who adopt foreign children assume, that the boy had no family and they are rescuing him. His arrival brings discord to the family, and, one of their three daughters kills herself; the adoptive father blames her suicide on Asa. Asa leaves the family when he is sixteen and becomes a homeless wanderer, eventually developing a relationship with a woman who has a child by another man. In the end he accepts the role of father to this child.

I'm ambivalent about this novel, overwhelmed with its poignancy, frustrated in trying to follow the story. Some of the writing is beautiful; passages brought me tears: Here a priest is arguing with his superior that Anna should be allowed to have a funeral in the Catholic Church in spite of having a child out of wedlock.
"Yesterday afternoon, she whispered the greatest truth there is. She said she never stopped loving her lost son. She said this erased all distinctions of time. Hers was a life lived in the constant. A continuous tense and her future was her present. Don't you see, Father? Have we ever been called, Father, to anything else? To anything less than immutable love?
...We have rewritten the past. In our version, she should never have had the child, so the child disappears.
He was stolen, Father, and aid was given in this matter by our own church."
...She accepted the past. But it was never inevitable for her. She accepted the present, even the future, but never as inevitable....There is nothing inevitable in any moment we live, nothing that says we cannot love as she loved her son, even in his absence."
Koshy moves back and forth in time, hinting of events that don't emerge for several chapters. The book is written in the present tense rather than the past typically used for narratives. While this can be effective, I found it pretentious and irritating. Koshy introduces new characters with no introduction. On top of that, she uses Indian terms for relatives so it takes a while to figure out who she is referring to. She places events in cities unfamiliar to American readers so the significance of specific locations is lost. I had to stretch to try to figure out what was happening and still wasn't sure at the end.

The story is powerful  and important. I just wish it could be revised it for an American audience.
Mridula Koshy
I was curious how Koshy knew the emotions and tragedies that accompany adoption. I emailed her asking how she came to write the book and what was her connection to adoption. I also asked if conditions have changed for single mothers in Indian since 1970 when Anna gives up her son.  Here's her response:

"I am an adoptive mother. But the story in this book is not autobiographical. My personal experience with inter-country adoption and the many institutions involved in the adoption of my child--the American agency, the orphanage in India, the Indian government and the American government did leave me with a sense of unease. The large sums of money that changed hands was only one instance of my unease.
"...This disquiet led to a critical framework from which to explore what I saw as problematic in the institution of adoption - the unequal distribution of power in the adoption triad with much of it concentrated in the hands of the adoptive parents and little or none in the hands of biological parents and the adoptee. My reading and research opened my eyes to the countless instances of systemic corruption in the industry. I was disturbed to find my hitherto held idea of adoption as the answer to the orphan crisis turned on its head by a growing awareness that adoption can indeed create orphans where there are none.
"If there is anything autobiographical in this book, it is my experience of living without my parents...while they migrated to the United States. At one point I was in an institution in which I was the only paying boarder. ... I observed many little children living with an acute awareness of a similar powerlessness [as the characters in her book], which is to say they lived fearfully.
"Single motherhood today meets with censure that is not unlike what was meted out in the 70's. Once the single woman is cut off from her family there is little governmental help available to her, at least not the kind of help that would allow her to hold onto her child. In some parts of India the government sponsors cradles where children can be left anonymously.
"...When the extended family remains involved with a single mother it may be the case that the child is raised within the family without complete knowledge of who her biological mother is, ie  she ... identifies an aunt or cousin as her mother."
Conditions for the vast majority of Indian women are poor. It's only been of late that the government even bothered to respond when a woman was raped and murdered. The foreign adoption business takes or wants to take advantage of poor Indian women by seizing their children and selling them to naive Westerners for a handsome profit. Fortunately, adoptions of foreign children have declined in the U.S. as various countries have shut down their adoption mills--and the press has been publicizing the corruption inherent in the industry. As we wrote earlier, some members of Congress are trying to undo this progress through the CHIFF bill would would encourage adopting from other poor countries, the very ones where corruption is likely to erupt. We urge our readers to write to their Congresspeople and tell them that we need to help American children here and foreign children in their own countries. --Jane
Not Only the Things That Have Happened Order it by clicking on link or jacket above. 

Koshy's short story collection, If It Is Sweet, which won the Shakti Bhatt first book prize and was short listed for the 2009 Vodafone Crossword Book Award may be purchased from amazon as well.

From FMF
Senate bill encourages more international adoption  
Mamalita: An adoption book I can't love, a story that isn't for everyone 
'Re-Homing': Dumping unwanted adopted kids
Grief and doubt after an international adoptee's death: Max Shatto in Texas

Also see
Failed adoptions stir outrage; reforms are elusive


  1. I read and reviewed this book as well. While you wrote a much better review, I see we had the same mixed feelings. I definitely struggled with the cultural references and found myself lost until I reached the middle of the book.

    Here is my mini review if you are interested.

    Mridula Koshy Book

  2. Call It Trafficking.
    E. J. Graff January 3, 2013

    "Recently a source passed me an unclassified State Department cable, dated June 11 (I believe this to be 2012) explaining how unique the United States is in making distinction between trafficking in persons and “irregular” or fraudulent adoptions. I am absolutely confident in the reliability of this particular source, whom I will not name. The cable, here, http://www.brandeis.edu/investigate/adoption/docs/DOS-cable-Fraudulent-ICA-Does-Not-Constitute-Trafficking_Jun11.pdf
    titled "Fraudulent Intercountry Adoption Does Not Constitute Trafficking in Persons," explains that, under U.S. law, human trafficking involves “exploitation through force, fraud, or coercion.” The law in question is the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, the statute that authorizes and encourages American anti-trafficking efforts, here and abroad. In this definition, someone is trafficked when he or she is transformed into a slave, their labor and bodies used for someone else’s gain."

    Read the whole article here:

  3. We have such incredibly informed Anonymouses here, commenting frequently from Location:
    Saint Catharines, Ontario, Canada

    It would be more honest if you used your name, as you do at other blogs. I do mean that your comments are incredibly informed and do add to the discussion, but the Anonymous moniker diffuses their impact.

  4. Jane, thanks for alerting me to this book. Being Indian, I am especially eager to see how it reads. I am glad someone from the Indian subcontinent has written about loss to international adoption.

    Pardon me for asking as I am a recent visitor to this blog, but has FMF read/reviewed "The Light Between Oceans" by Margot Stedman? It is an in-depth novel that conveys, through a riveting story, the far-reaching impact of one couple's decision to raise someone else's child.

  5. Jay - Interesting you mention The Light Between Two Oceans. I downloaded it onto my iPad some time ago and much like the Koshy book I struggled with getting into it. I have probably gotten a third through. Maybe I will pick it up again.

  6. Jay,
    No FMF has not reviewed or read "The Light Between Oceans." Thanks for telling us about it. Sounds good. I've got a pile of reading material I'm trying to get through but I'll keep it in mind.

    Thanks Suz, I read your review, very good by the way, before I wrote mine. It was helpful to me by confirming that I was not the only one who had trouble getting into the Koshy's book.



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