This Could Have Been Me
After years of curiosity, 26-year-old Indian adoptee Shabana Deckinga travels to the country of her birth — bringing unexpected healing, and putting some long-held fears to rest.
I set out on the trip back to India 24 years after my adoption. I was 2 and a half years old when I was adopted and at 26, my family and I made the long, 8,500-mile journey back. As I told my mom during the trip, it did not feel like a vacation, but rather a pilgrimage to my birthplace. Although I had no memories of India or the orphanage, I had grown up with stories – my parents wanting me to be aware of my heritage. So I really had no idea what to expect going back, having only a romanticized view from books I had read. There was a lot of anxiety, unease and excitement leading up to the trip, and some old fears from childhood resurfaced.
I was not another tourist there and did not experience India with that mindset.
When my family landed in the airport, Mumbai hit me like a brick wall — the noise, heat, smell and crowds, all my senses on overdrive. I was equal parts fascinated and confused by India, everything being more visceral and difficult to take in. The entire country seemed to be an unending contradiction of wealth and poverty, progress and tradition, kindness and indifference, joy and despair, all side by side. While in India, my family stayed in nice hotels, enjoyed good meals and comforts, had drivers, and all I could think was that all of this would have been closed off to me, if not for my adoption.
There were several times throughout the trip — during long days of sightseeing — where I just wanted to go back home, everything emotionally taking its toll, and I would escape to the quiet calm of the hotel room. I was struck by the realization that I had the luxury of leaving where others did not. They were, in a way, trapped. I struggled with survivor’s guilt, feeling very undeserving of the privileged life I had led. I was acutely aware of the fate I had been spared that had fallen on many others and saw vividly the dichotomy of my life; the life I had lived right up against the life I easily could have had.
As my brother said many times, ‘It could have been us.’
Were the unknowns of my past always going to haunt me?
It is one thing to know that you were rescued. It’s quite another to see what it is you were saved from. It felt like a bullet too narrowly missed not to feel the divine hand intervening. I saw people in desperate situations and I saw what may have been my literal future. I was no more or less deserving than any other kids there, I just had good fortune. I couldn’t shake the feeling of being a stranger in a strange land, which should have been my home, but was now unfamiliar to me.
The day we visited my orphanage, I was initially dreading it, afraid of what I would see, find out, how I would feel, and the ever-present question of what happened to my birth family looming over me. Yet surprisingly, it was the best part of the trip. I met my social worker and the ayahs that took care of me, all of whom — I was shocked to find out — remembered me. I was incredibly touched to meet the people who cared for me as a baby, people who worked hard to ensure the flourishing of these abandoned children and I felt nothing but deep gratitude for all they had done for me and many others. My family had the chance to play with the kids and to my relief they did not feel like orphans. They were a community, a sort of family that seemed happy and well taken care of, with a future full of hope.
There was a moment when we were all dancing in a circle, holding hands, and this indescribable feeling of wholeness and resolution washed over me after years of curiosity and wondering. At my brother’s orphanage they performed the pujah for us — a welcome home ceremony which left us all in tears, feeling very honored and humbled. The whole experience, the physical act of being back, was profoundly and unexpectedly healing for me and the deep anxieties from my youth were put to rest.
The rest of my travels throughout India went smoothly. From Mumbai to Pune and Goa, all the way to New Delhi and Agra, it was all captivating, fast-paced and draining to see so much of the country in a short period of time. Seeing the Taj Mahal and standing on the banks of the Ganges River were just a few of the incredible sights I took in. There was something mysterious, almost romantic, about the place; seeing the beauty, kindness and remarkable resilience of the people was inspiring and it was tough to leave.
My mother said to me after the trip, ‘The Taj Mahal was like India — you can’t experience it from far off, but have to enter into all that it has to offer.’ So when my family arrived back in Indiana, exhausted yet content, I sat in my childhood room and a peace I had not known came over me, a sense that everything had come full circle. I felt clearly that a burden had been lifted, a struggle that was truly finished. I don’t think one can visit a place like India and remain unchanged. There was a clear before and after for me once I returned to the U.S., a sense that I was not, nor would be, the same. I experienced a culture vastly different from my own, a place where long sought-after truths had been revealed and discoveries had been made. I left India with healing, renewed peace and the certain hope of happiness that is promised to us all.
Shabana Deckinga | Indianapolis, Indiana