In a quest for her roots

Mary Rhedin, an Indian adoptee from Sweden, in her book ‘Mitt Vita Liv’, which translates to My White Life, writes about her life with whites and the discrimination she had to face
In a quest for her roots

CHENNAI: Mary was one-year-old when she was adopted from India and taken to Gothenburg, Sweden, in 1973. The memories of her initial days in Sweden are hazy, but she remembers her parents telling her that she was a difficult child. Her white mother’s blonde hair and blue eyes never appealed to young Mary, and her immediate response to seeing her near her was fear, which grew as aversion. Mary says, “I was longing for my mother. I was screaming all the time, I was terrified. I would dream about my biological parents, especially my mother.” Tormented by estrangement at a very nascent phase of childhood and growing up in an unpleasant environment, aloof from her native, she had a very lonely life.

This adoptee in Sweden grew up hearing that her mother had died during child birth, her grandmother was unfit to take care of her, and thus she was adopted. A compelling truth as it sounds, and it became her reality. But as she grew older, her reality was upended when people started saying that she did not look like her white parents. She says, “People would ask me where I am from and say that I did not look like them.” Her adoptive mother’s thoughtless comments about her brown skin bespoke her ignorance and little knowledge on various skin colours, but were excruciating memories for her. They were reminders ingrained in the mind of the little girl that she did not belong in Sweden. They grew like monsters in her head.

Left hanging between two countries: with biological roots in India and her cultural baggage entrenched in Sweden, the now 52-year-old Mary Rhedin scrambled to lead a peaceful life in an adopted country, amid discreet racism.

Coping mechanism

Well, narratives of inequality, discrimination, and oppression have been an integral part of our discussions, in personal spaces, academia, and extensively in public spaces. Stories are ways of immortalising people, their experiences, and their memories. They are important, they need to be passed on and spread across, and they need to hold more space, after all, they are as powerful as mass protests, slogans, and revolutions. Traumatised and crushed by the weight of her life with the whites, she also sought respite in writing as she did not think there was a space she could have for an honest discussion. She set her sights on a journey: a search for her roots.

But her birthplace was an unfamiliar space with a crowd of strangers. She would think about how her life would be if she were destined to live in India. Maybe she wouldn’t have endured the subjugation she had to face in Sweden. Knowing no native language, she walked through the wide and narrow lanes of the city, trailing the memories of her first visit to Faith Home orphanage in Porur, with her adoptive parents. A black-and-white photograph, on the back side of it written Mary-72, preserved in the orphanage office was the only tangible shard of the remains she had in India. 

In hindsight, she questions the concept of adoption. Alluding to the adoption process in India a few decades ago, she says that adoptions happened through unauthorised agencies. It became an industry of children. She continues, “It was very complicated. Just because one is well off, they cannot decide that they will be able to take better care of the child.” She notes that this also reflects the incomprehensible disparities between the developing nations and the European countries.

She says, “Sweden claims that it is suitable for adoption. It did not have colonies. It did not have racism.” However, she counters with her experiences. Buried under the white consciousness, there was systematic discrimination. Her book, Mitt Vita Liv, which translates to ‘My White Life’, is an attempt the crumble the façade of inclusivity that white countries like Sweden have conveniently created. As she was growing up, she witnessed how racism also seeped into the vocabulary — words like negro ball, and ni**er, were loosely used by the people then.

In her book, Mary recounts what is it to be silenced and scarred, and how she couldn’t confide into anyone. She was 18 years old when the socio-political situation in Sweden was hardening. The increasing xenophobia and the growing violence against immigrants created a sense of fear — fear of an impending danger began to loom bigger and bigger.

Academics & adoption work

Academics, she thought would be a seedbed of ideas, perspectives — a forum for discussions, an expanse of intellectuals. There were discourses on the social structures, but her excitement of pursuing her Bachelor’s degree in Social Work withered away when the discussions eluded the subjects that turned critical against the country, as her views were shunned, as her experiences were invalidated, when the dialogues on immigrants and adoptees were effaced by the academicians.

She took up the issue of Sweden quite seriously in 1997 soon after her degree. She delved into research and investigatory works in adoption issues. Her extensive research and discussions with authorities of organisations that worked closely with adoption in prominent areas of Sweden, she inferred that these groups predominantly involved adoptive parents in their resource meetings and other consultations.

Disheartened by the one-sided approach at adoption and prevailing issues, she decided to create a platform for the adoptees. She says that many adoptees choose to be silent. She felt it was important to have more voices as she had been in the throes of self-loathing which was the result of identity crisis, isolation, and the discomfort of being in her skin. She laments, “The topics of race were almost erased from the vocabulary. It is still there, but we cannot talk about it. We don’t have a language to talk about it.” Her own experience as an adoptee helped her bond with other adopted children across the world.

She writes that during her sojourns in India, there is a place she never misses to visit. In a house perched in the verdant hills of Kotagiri, there live nine adoptees and their caretaker Susheela, with whom she shares a strong relation.

Finding evidences

During one of her visits to the orphanage in 2019, the authorities sidestepped and tried to convince her that the documents were lost during floods, she mentions in her book. However, it was a twist of fate that people who she met during the visit were determined to help her, and to her surprise, the process appeared easier than she thought.

With the help of a lawyer in Chennai, they were able to get hold of the document from the high court that contained her birth details. The 47-year-old document revealed that her father was Madhavan, her mother was Jaya Mary, and her grandmother was Magdelina. With these bits of information, followed another truth that her mother died three months after the birth of Mary. She has a half-brother named Ravi. But his traces are unknown. Mary speculates that he must be adopted too.

Carrying these remnants in her heart, she puts an end to the visit. While going back, she took her mother’s name ‘Mary’ along with her, and maybe that was way of keeping her mother’s memory alive. Christina Rhedin from then on became Mary Rhedin. With the hope of tracing her kith and kin, she continues the search. Mary feels privileged to have had access to good education and a well-off life in Sweden, but she grieves for the past that has been cut off and the pain of longing that could never relieved.

In her book, she mentions that it was only in 2005 that parental training programme for prospective adoptive parents was made compulsory, that allows them to understand the kids and their background better. For a very long time, the adoption process was messy, but there have been radical changes over the years.

The English version of the book is in the works. Mary urges people to reach out to her at rhedinmary@gmail.com or mittvitaliv@gmail.com if anyone comes across any details about her half-brother.

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